Archive Fever

The Treasures IV set and the shifting history of American avant-garde film
by Ed Halter  posted March 5, 2009
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Experimental film came late to home theaters. Only a few avant-garde filmmakers had their work distributed widely on VHS in the 1980s and '90s, mainly major figures like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Kenneth Anger. But watching low-resolution transfers never felt adequate for work as materially minded as Dog Star Man. Small-gauge distribution remained the only way to see most titles, relegating the experience of some of the 20th century's most important artworks to those lucky enough to live near a well-programmed cinematheque or museum. In the past few years, however, a surge in new avant-garde DVDs has provided unprecedented access to a wider audience.

The latest arrival is the National Film Preservation Foundation's Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986, a selection of 26 films preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center, and the Pacific Film Archive, five institutions in the U.S. that have significantly maintained the physical history of avant-garde cinema. Treasures IV tops off a slew of releases of otherwise hard-to-see work: two Kino collections of early American productions, the Unseen Cinema box set covering experiments in the U.S. from the 19th century to the 1930s, contemporary collections from micro-distributors Peripheral Produce and Other Cinema, and new single-artist compilations devoted to Brakhage, Deren, Anger, James Broughton, Jordan Belson, and Oskar Fischinger. For the multi-region set, releases by Lux and Sixpack's Index line showcase historic and recent films from Britain and Austria, respectively, while France's Re:Voir revives numerous continental and American works. Raro Video has made a number of Andy Warhol's early films available—albeit by taking advantage of Italy's lax copyright laws to skirt the artist's estate.

The avant-garde DVD boom allows for a rethinking of standard histories, still heavily informed by the boundaries set out in P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film, which despite several editions (the latest in 2000) remains predominantly devoted to a tight-knit cadre of filmmakers working from the 1940s to around 1970. The Kino releases and Unseen Cinema, for instance, brought attention to films made before World War II, a heretofore underappreciated period of American experimental filmmaking.

Treasures IV engages in its own revisionism. Of the most firmly canonical artists included, only three are represented with well-known titles: Hollis Frampton's structural investigation of memory (nostalgia) (1971), Harry Smith's intricately painted animation Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947-'49), and the reflexive logic-puzzler New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976) by Owen Land (the artist formerly known as George Landow).  Otherwise, we're given some surprisingly satisfying B sides. So Treasures IV offers Paul Sharits's Bad Burns (1982), a cunningly layered reprinting of melting film frames made late in his career, rather than his influential color-field flickers of the 1960s. Instead of Robert Nelson's notorious racial spoof Oh Dem Watermelons, we get his wittier The Off-Handed Jape...& How to Pull It Off (1967), made with William T. Wiley, a faux science film studying the mimetic abilities of two whiskered gentlemen, who are asked by off-screen researchers to act out situations like "the verge of remembering." George Kuchar's entry is the criminally obscure I, An Actress (1977), an auto-documentary in which the lovingly batty filmmaker directs a woman to perform his script with the appropriate camp histrionics, while Warhol's Mario Banana (No. 1) (1964) is a screen-test-style portrait of drag starlet Mario Montez fellating the titular fruit, offering a fey variation on the more-famous Blow Job, made the same year. A handful of renowned artists—Deren, Anger, the Whitneys, Stan Vanderbeek and Bruce Conner—aren't included at all, in some cases because their complete works appear elsewhere. (The prolific Brakhage, however, wasn't exhausted by his 2003 Criterion anthology: Treasures IV includes his understated light study The Riddle of Lumen [1972].)

The two-disc set also contains a few filmmakers who are revered among more hardcore aficionados of experimental cinema, but not as well known beyond. Storm De Hirsch's proto-psychedelic, hand-scratched Peyote Queen (1965) and Ron Rice's flouncy set-piece Chumlum (1964), made with Jack Smith and Angus MacLise, provide glimpses into undersung participants in the early New York underground, while Pat O'Neill's optically printed Rorschach vision 7362 (1967) gives a taste of the era's West Coast scene. Larry Gottheim's transcendent Fog Line (1970) goes for a more minimal experience; a silent unbroken 11-minute shot of fog lifting over a wooded glen, it's the otherwise missing link between '60s structuralism à la Michael Snow and the long-take environments of James Benning and Peter Hutton.

Jane Conger Belson Shimane's Odds & Ends (1959) is the one absolute obscurity in the collection. A San Francisco artist and the wife of expanded cinema pioneer Jordan Belson, Belson Shimane made only two films before ending the marriage, leaving little in the way of a paper trail for later historians. Odds & Ends parodies the North Beach scene through a string of visual non sequiturs set to a loony string of Beatnik clichés spoken by a male narrator over bongo beats. Though it's meant as a gag, its images still stand on their own charms, including animated paper-craft mandalas that suggest a low-tech version of her husband's legendary planetarium light shows.

With a booklet of short essays on each film along with brief bibliographies and sources for print rentals, the collection also serves as an introduction to the archival particularities involved in preserving such idiosyncratic artifacts. Joseph Cornell's enigmatic collage By Night With Torch and Spear (1940s?) may have been unknown to anybody but the artist himself before it was discovered, years after his death, within a cache of Cornell artifacts bequeathed to Anthology. Its true name unknown, it was given its title posthumously based on an appropriated intertitle card that flashes at its end.

Since some experimental filmmakers tinker with their works indefinitely, there may be no definitive version to preserve: thus Robert Breer's vibrant montage Eyewash (1959) is presented in two different variants, each composed of the same batch of images edited in different sequences. Wallace Berman's Aleph (1956-'66?) existed in an even greater state of flux. Berman's film was a clutter of densely edited 8mm footage covered in paint and rub-on Letraset letters, which he continued to shape for a decade until his death. Like Saul Levine's tenderly fragile Super-8 film Note to Pati (1969), the original elements of Aleph were bumped up to 16mm for archival preservation. Held together with seemingly tenuous tape-splices, fluttering along at 18 frames per second, Levine's sublime Note could represent the delicate ephemerality of the film medium itself, a visible argument for the necessity of this very project. 


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Courtesy National Film Preservation Foundation
By Night with Torch and Spear, directed by Joseph Cornell
Photo Gallery: Archive Fever


Ed Halter is an author, critic and curator whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rhizome, The Believer and many other publications. He is former director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a founder of Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.

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