Treasure Trove

Bruce Baillie, Here I Am, 1962, stills from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, preserved by Anthology Film Archives, 10 minutes.

THE LATEST ADDITION to the meager array of DVDs devoted to American avant-garde film is as pleasurable as it is necessary. Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986 is part of an initiative by the National Film Preservation Foundation. In a rare instance of cultural perspicacity, the US Congress, in 1996, created the NFPF to facilitate the preservation of our national film heritage—silent and sound, documentary and fiction, and the glorious moving-image work designated, for lack of a better term, “avant-garde.”

Chosen by the NFPF in consultation with five media organizations (AMPAS’s Academy Film Archives, Anthology Film Archives, MoMA, the Donnell Media Center of the New York Public Library, and Pacific Film Archive), the films in the two-DVD set represent just about every genre of avant-garde film and every trend and countertrend that emerged over a fertile forty-year period. Attention is paid to both East and West Coast filmmakers (hopefully laying to rest a bitter rivalry). There are one or two films that it might have been better to ignore, but the vast majority are eye-openers, literally and metaphorically.

Fabulous and formidable cross-gender performances are a staple of avant-garde film. Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (No. 1) (1964), a lushly colored, four-minute, fixed-camera, slo-mo’d portrait of the drag-queen superstar Mario Montez, waxing orally expressive with a banana, marks the transition between the artist’s early silent, black-and-white screen tests and the color talkies to come. It is one of the truly transcendent films in the package, as is George Kuchar’s I, an Actress (1977) in which the filmmaker, frustrated by the Method acting of his female star, delivers a lesson in screen deportment by channeling a perfect Bette Davis—every gesture impeccably timed, every line reading precisely inflected. Anyone aware of the outrage that greeted Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) when it was screened in a special session of the US Senate in 1968 will particularly enjoy the inclusion in the federally sponsored Treasures IV of two films in which Smith stars, Ken Jacobs’s ephemeral Little Stabs at Happiness (1959) and Ron Rice’s jewel-toned psychedelic reverie, Chumlum (1964). Smith is arresting in both films, although he presents himself more chastely than in Flaming Creatures, keeping his penis, limp or otherwise, hidden inside his pants or beneath his caftan. Flaming Creatures is not included on Treasures IV, nor are any of Smith’s other films, a significant omission due to the fact that at the time the package was put together, Smith’s work was once again at the center of a legal dispute, involving not its status as art or pornography, but its skyrocketing value on the market nearly two decades after its creator died in abject poverty.

Speed has been one of the most aggressive tactics of avant-garde filmmaking. Among the eye-popping works—just as potent on DVD as they are projected on the big screen—are Robert Breer’s exhilarating Eyewash (1959), Marie Menken’s dazzling New York City ode Go! Go! Go! (1962–64), Harry Smith’s Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947–49), with a Dizzy Gillespie score that makes it a prototypical music video, and Stan Brakhage’s Riddle of Lumen (1972), which depending on my mood I see as either a very fine Brakhage film or an overblown trailer for his biggest hits. A different mode of aggression, specifically verbal punning and riddling, drives Owen Land’s anxiously reflexive New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976), the title itself as big a mouthful as Mario’s banana.

The diaristic, personal documentary is a flexible enough genre to cover half the avant-garde films ever made, including the aforementioned Brakhage and Menken works. The variations here also range from Jonas Mekas’s lyric Notes on the Circus (1966) to Saul Levine’s 8-mm missive from the artist wing of the New Left, Note to Pati (1969), to Bruce Baillie’s Here I Am (1962), a wistful, intimate portrait of a group of emotionally disturbed children, to nostalgia (1971), Hollis Frampton’s wry structuralist meditation on anticipation, memory, sound, and, most interestingly in the context of this DVD, how a work of art is transformed in the transfer from one medium to another. Larry Gottheim’s exquisite Fog Line (1970) is another meditation on the properties of still and moving photographic media. Its image of a landscape slowly disclosed as the morning fog dissolves evokes the seemingly magic process of developing photographic images.

The most haunting of the found-footage collages is Joseph Cornell’s enigmatic, profoundly surrealist By Night with Torch and Spear (ca. 1940s). Cornell employed the simple strategy of printing his images from filmstrips that were not only on the verge of disintegrating but also incorrectly wound, so that they appear on the screen upside down and backward. Incorrect wind was also employed by the all-but-forgotten Standish Lawder in his rapturous Necrology (1969–70), which for me is the greatest of these avant-garde treasures.

Anthology Film Archives in New York will screen sixteen of the twenty-six 16-mm restored prints featured in “Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986” from March 18–19. For more details, click here.