Room with a View

Ed Halter on “Views from the Avant-Garde” at the NYFF

Left: Jack Bond and Jane Arden, Vibration, 1974, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Right: Norman Mailer, untitled, 1947, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.

AVANT-GARDE CINEMA has become more historically minded in recent years, a phenomenon that can be chalked up to multiple factors: Archival preservation efforts, new scholarship, DVD releases, and programming have explored and expanded the history of experimental filmmaking far beyond the once-standard canons. Paralleling this trend, curators Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten have annually peppered the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar with older rarities. This year’s edition, the festival’s thirteenth, includes a number of noteworthy revivals, anchoring the three-day program’s slate of new film and videos by contemporary artists.

The most surprising is the world premiere of a nine-minute 16-mm film by Norman Mailer, made in 1947 when the writer was in his mid-twenties, a year prior to the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Mailer himself thought the untitled project had been long lost, but after his death in 2007, the majority of the footage was discovered amid a jumble of home movies; the rest was later found in the possession of its lead, Millicent Brower, who had borrowed the opening sequence decades ago for use in securing acting jobs. An amateur but nonetheless carefully constructed work, Mailer’s tyro cinematic effort is designed as a young woman’s dream-state, replete with visual symbols (a bubble of rising bread dough representing pregnancy) and—perhaps meaningfully—a red, white, and blue color scheme. Intriguingly, it shares its oneiric structure with Maya Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944); while it remains unknown whether Mailer had seen Deren’s work by this time, it’s more likely he encountered similar themes in European art films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930).

A more speculative restoration is offered in La Rabbia di Pasolini, a 2008 reconstruction by Giuseppe Bertolucci of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 feature La Rabbia (Rage). La Rabbia’s concept came from producer Gastone Ferranti, owner of the archives of Mondo Libero, a defunct 1950s newsreel. Inspired by the international success of the Italian exploitation documentary Mondo Cane (1962), he wanted Pasolini to craft a similar compilation film from the newsreel’s eight years of footage. After viewing the result—a poetic but stridently leftist critique of global postwar politics—Ferranti cut down Pasolini’s film and paired it with an ideological counterweight created by a notoriously conservative journalist. Bertolucci later simulated the excised portions using Pasolini’s original script. In the context of “Views,” La Rabbia reveals itself as an exemplary early instance of a European tradition of avant-garde essay films crafted from appropriated sources, stretching through the work of Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard, and Johan Grimonprez. Its most breathtaking sequence is a proto-Barthesian analysis of Marilyn Monroe, intercutting images of the doomed starlet with atomic-test footage, presaging similar combinations in the work of Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner.

Conner’s contemporary Chick Strand, who passed away earlier this year, is represented with two memorial programs, one at McElhatten’s three-day “Walking Picture Palace” series, which follows at Anthology Film Archives as an unofficial “Views” coda. Mixing deft observational documents, found-footage exercises, and feminist explorations, Strand’s work exhibits significant formal links to that of colleagues Conner and Bruce Baillie; together, the three filmmakers define a distinctly West Coast sensibility. Easily the most far-out artifact, however, is Vibration (1974), a psychedelic mind trip from the UK by Jack Bond and Jane Arden. Shot on Super 8 and then image-processed on analog video, Vibration explores what Arden called “hypnogogic techniques to release the constricted life pulse from our paralysing rationale,” incorporating Jung, Sufic philosophy, and the practice of creative visualization. Unabashedly visionary, Vibration serves as a reminder of the long-standing ambitions of experimental cinema—not simply aesthetic pleasure, but the expansion of consciousness.

The New York Film Festival’s thirteenth annual “Views from the Avant-Garde” runs October 2–4 at the Walter Reade Theater. For more details, click here. “The Walking Picture Palace,” curated by Mark McElhatten, shows October 5–7 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.