PRINT November 2005


avant-garde film on DVD

THAT 16 MM FILM is dying, at least as an exhibition format, has long been obvious to those of us who teach film. The 16 mm prints on which film studies has relied since its inception are gradually becoming so old and worn as to be unusable, and are not, for the most part, being replaced. The solution for many institutions is to project DVDs of films, often using low-end digital projectors, resulting in the paradox that, while more and more students are studying the art of film, fewer and fewer are actually watching films on film.

In addition to the significant loss of image and sound quality—which will only marginally improve with the introduction next year of high-definition discs—a major problem with DVDs is that their release is market driven; while DVDs of commercially successful films are readily available, art films are less so, and experimental films hardly at all—until the past few months, that is, which have witnessed the release of two major pre–World War II experimental-film collections. First came Kino’s Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, a two-disc set of twenty-four films from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, the Los Angeles–based programmer whose screenings in the ’50s at the Coronet Theatre were important to an emerging generation of experimental filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage. All the prints used for the DVD transfer are in good condition, and highlights include Jean Epstein’s La Glace á trois faces (The Three-Sided Mirror, 1927), surely one of the most brilliant experiments with time in the history of cinema, and Dimitri Kirsanov’s Ménilmontant (1926), an equally impressive experiment with space. The collection betrays Rohauer’s fondness for the films of Man Ray, and the four Ray films included will, one can only hope, result in long-overdue new scholarship on this important filmmaker. My one complaint is that Kino has not recovered any of the original musical accompaniments to these films, and the scores that have been composed for them are often completely out of character (especially in the case of the new-age music for Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema [1926]).

The same is, commendably, not true of several significant films included in the second experimental-cinema collection to appear on DVD recently, the monumental seven-disc, nineteen-hour, 155-film Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894–1941. Most notable is George Antheil’s extraordinary musical accompaniment to Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s 1924 Ballet mécanique, recorded in its original version (which calls for, among other things, sixteen synchronized player pianos and three different-size airplane propellers). Its inclusion is indicative of the unprecedented care taken in the production of this set, as is the use of restored and preserved archival prints (including the definitive Kiesler print of Ballet mécanique) of all the films used for the DVD transfer, and the introductory titles by leading scholars, curators, and archivists that provide crucial background information on each film.

It is impossible to do justice to the wealth of films in this collection in a short review. Indeed, when “Unseen Cinema” first premiered as a touring screening series in 2001, curator Bruce Posner’s definition of “avant-garde film” was criticized for being too inclusive. For instance, the second disc (“The Devil’s Plaything”), covering American Surrealism, includes some early fantasy films by Edwin S. Porter along with Joseph Cornell’s later found-footage films. While such early films may be described, at times, as surrealistic, they are hardly Surrealist. Posner has been praised by some for trying to expand the notion of the avant-garde, but the danger in applying the term to such a wide variety of films is that it becomes meaningless. This inclusivity in no way detracts, however, from the real accomplishment of the collection, which is to make available, often for the first time, experiments by filmmakers working in a number of different traditions in the United States prior to World War II. Most revelatory for me are the abstract films (still the most neglected and least understood type of avant-garde film) contained on disc three, “Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction,” by the likes of Mary Ellen Bute, Norman McLaren, and Douglass Crockwell, which in many ways surpass the earlier, better-known ones of Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Walter Ruttmann in their use of shape, color, and movement. But in general the collection bears witness to the remarkable inventiveness of filmmakers working in a variety of forms, from the amateur home movie and the city film to the Hollywood musical. It definitively puts to bed the myth that pre–World War II experimental filmmaking was a largely European affair (a debunking set in motion a few years ago by Christopher Jan-Horak’s seminal anthology Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919–1945 [University of Wisconsin Press, 1995]). And it single-handedly ensures that this still relatively unknown period of American experimental film will continue to be discovered and studied in the absence of 16 mm prints. One can only hope that at some point an equally exhaustive and well-produced postwar collection will be released.

Malcolm Turvey teaches film studies at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY.


Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s. Kino Video. 2-DVD set.

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894–1941. Image Entertainment/Anthology Film Archives. 7-DVD set