Flicker Alley — the home video distributor that released one of my favorite home video releases of the year, 3-D Rarities (you can see my thoughts here) — continues to intrigue and impress with another monumental, eclectic omnibus release: Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920 – 1970. I’ve spent the last several weeks working my way slowly through — luxuriating in, I’m tempted to say — the 37 short films (clocking in at 418 minutes, or just a few minutes shy of seven hours!) contained in this set, all restored for high-definition. When I sat down with the set, while I had a feeling of excitement to dig into the unknown, I wasn’t sure that I’d find an access point, never having taken much time to familiarize myself with avant-garde cinema. I was taken in, however, by the creativity on display, by the techniques employed, all to probe not only the potential of the medium but also the invigorating and sometimes unsettling emotions that arise when exploring the world around us with new eyes.

American Avant Garde

It’s a strange thing to me: I think readers of the books often highlighted on this site are comfortable with non-narrative works of literature. From a young age, we learn — or, at least, there’s an attempt to learn — to read poetry. There isn’t the same tradition when it comes to film language, and so, for most of us, film is merely a way to tell a story. We are not educated to read the language of film unless we seek it ourselves, so avant-garde filmmaking remains generally unseen, even feared. As I said in my paragraph above, I was afraid I’d find this set alienating. I was thrilled to find it, on the whole, provocative, beautiful, and even moving, often in ways that I lack the skills to articulate in words and am thrilled someone found a way to articulate it through moving images.

The set begins with Manhatta, co-directed by the painter Charles Sheeler (who never did another film) and the photographer Paul Strand (who had a prolific career as a photographer but also as a filmmaker, for example shooting the 1936 film Redes). At first, the film feels like a relatively simple non-narrative portrait of New York City: the buildings, the streets, the moving people. In this aspect, it reminded me of an even earlier film, James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell’s three-minute 1901 film Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front, which is a beautiful portrait. However, as Manhatta continued, I found myself disoriented and small amidst the big buildings and hustling crowd, in large part due to the editing and overlays. It became less a portrait of a place and more a portrait of how one might feel — and definitely how I felt — in that place.

The set continues through the 1920s, and it gets more strange than the more familiar portrait of New York City. We get Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic cinéma, released in 1926, a series of spiraling optical discs, as if we’re watching an optical illusion, covered with French word play — or is it gibberish? From 1927, we get Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s comedic The Life and Death of 9413 — A Hollywood Extra, filmed on less than a shoe-string budge (the filmmakers reported $97), and now a film preserved by the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

As we get to the 1930s, things get perhaps even more strange, from the perspective of the conventional contemporary film-viewer. A few of these actually utilize the word “poem” in the title (Emlen Ettings 1932-33 Poem 8 and Oskar Fischinger’s 1937 An Optical Poem), calling to the surface their attempts to abstract and suggest to the senses rather than narrate and portray to the rational mind.

For me, personally, things get even better as we go to the 1940s and beyond, with seminal avant-garde films like Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren’s 1943 nightmare, Meshes of the Afternoon. From 1953 we get Kenneth Anger’s provocative, labyrinthine Eaux d’Artifice.

In the hands of these filmmakers, across the fifty years covered in this set, film becomes a poem, a painting, or an entrance to the subconscious that no other medium can achieve in quite the same way. Much appreciation to Flicker Alley for helping us at home extend our own understanding of the language of film.

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