PRINT May 2009


Treasures From American Film Archives IV

THE GRADUAL RELEASE of the American experimental film canon on DVD raises sobering questions about the continuity and legacy of small-gauge film (16 mm and Super 8) as a historic and artistic medium. These questions are given particular force by an exceptional new collection, Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947–1986, the fourth and latest installment of the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD box sets, which breaks from the series’ dominant interest in American silent cinema to focus instead on the remarkable generation of American experimental filmmakers who came of age during the 1960s. The twenty-six short films gathered here include seminal and hitherto unavailable works by such major figures as Bruce Baillie, Larry Gottheim, and Marie Menken as well as key films by less widely known artists—Standish Lawder, Saul Levine, and Christopher Maclaine among them. A much-needed, albeit eclectic, primer of the postwar avant-garde, the new Treasures collection celebrates one of the American cinema’s most inventive, influential, and still underappreciated movements while also offering a poignant reminder of celluloid cinema’s seemingly inevitable demise.

Conceived by the National Film Preservation Foundation as a showcase for the restoration work of various American film archives, the popular Treasures box sets are renowned for their high-quality digital transfers, innovative selection, and valuable supplemental materials. Treasures IV is no exception. Thoughtfully presented on region-free discs, the compilation features an informative seventy-two-page booklet with concise, insightful background notes and bibliographies that also conveniently reappear within the discs themselves. For the most part the transfers are superlative and do full justice to the original work—as with Ken Jacobs’s Little Stabs at Happiness (1959–63), rendered sparkling, deliciously bright, and scratch free by a New York Public Library preservation that restores the manic energy and wistful shadows of Jacobs’s early anarchic masterpiece.

The collection draws from major currents of the postwar avant-garde, offering key examples of the underground films of George Kuchar, Ron Rice, and Andy Warhol; the varied approaches to structuralist film explored by Hollis Frampton, Owen Land, and Lawder; the animation and collage of Robert Breer and Lawrence Jordan; and the iconic flicker films of Paul Sharits, to name a few. Treasures IV also explores lesser-known interests shared by experimental filmmakers, such as a powerful documentary impulse, represented here in marvelous films by Baillie and Chick Strand. One of the high points of Treasures IV, Baillie’s revelatory and long-unavailable “newsreel” short Here I Am (1962) is a masterfully understated, heartrending portrait of a Bay Area school for emotionally disturbed children, grounded in the filmmaker’s exquisite sense of composition and his intuitive understanding of the children’s condition as a unique point of view that the camera can approach but never fully inhabit. Equally impressive is Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory (1986), a beautifully minimal ethnographic study of the ritualized work and recreation of Mexican women who craft papier-mâché products for an American company. Featuring extended close-ups of the women’s nimble hands shaping and painting the fruit, and enriched by a sound track collaging Mexican pop music with the women’s free-form gossip and group conversation, Strand’s film describes the subtlest mode of feminist intervention by simultaneously revealing and humanizing the power structure at work. Together Baillie’s and Strand’s documentary works offer an excellent introduction to avant-garde cinema as a distinct mode of engagement and argument that derives a subtle yet powerful insight from the formal innovation and poetic spirit cultivated by so many of the postwar artists.

The inclusion of classic works such as Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970) and Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971) ensures that Treasures IV will remain an important tool for film study and research. And yet the digitization and new availability of these films will most certainly decrease rentals of the same titles on 16 mm, ultimately resulting in fewer students and scholars seeing the works in the form their makers intended (while further reducing the income stream of the already fragile distribution networks—Canyon Cinema and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, for example—that have long been the primary vehicle by which avant-garde films have reached their audience and through which the artists have reaped any remuneration for their efforts). Despite the impeccable quality of the preservation work contained in the collection, digitization seems especially and inherently problematic for certain films—Wallace Berman’s Aleph (1956–66), Levine’s Note to Pati (1969), Sharits’s Bad Burns (1982)—that underscore the pronounced materialist strain of the postwar avant-garde through overtly foregrounded splices, stains, and singed celluloid that engage film itself as a central subject. Also problematic are the specially commissioned John Zorn sound tracks, unnecessary and inappropriate “extras” that add music to works such as Aleph and Joseph Cornell’s By Night with Torch and Spear (ca. 1940s) that were originally screened principally as silents. That said, Treasures IV includes seminal films that simply must be seen, and DVD, at the present moment and in the face of 16 mm’s increasing obsolescence, undoubtedly offers the greatest accessibility. Although the new preservation prints created by the film archives will be seen in limited cinematheque screenings, these DVDs will be viewed and appreciated by thousands more. A certain irony lies, however, in the transfer of films from the imperiled medium of film to another medium whose staying power is increasingly being called into question. In the end, the suddenly uncertain future of DVD only underscores the urgency and lasting value of the preservation work so effectively showcased and explored in the new NFPF collection.

Haden Guest is director of the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts.