The previous installments from the National Film Preservation Foundation’s seminal Treasures from American Film Archives series haven’t exactly turned a blind eye to the works of the nation’s avant-garde pioneers. The arguable crown jewel of the first set was Joseph Cornell’s 1936 masterpiece Rose Hobart, which so enraged Salvador Dalí (who apparently accused Cornell of robbing his thoughts) that he kicked over the projector at a private screening. Additionally, the first pair of installments included poetic, edgy films from James Sibley Watson Jr., Melville Webber, Scott Bartlett, and Robert Florey. The emphasis in those earlier installments was predominately on the near lost and the underheralded. Now in its fourth installment, Treasures turns its attention exclusively to the American avant-garde tradition’s gods and monsters.
That said, it remains a collection devoted to the act of discovery, not confirmation of established canons. So while the NFPF did include films from Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar, Harry Smith, and Andy Warhol, you won’t find them represented by, respectively, The Art of Vision, Hold Me While I’m Naked, Film No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic, and Blow Job. At two discs and five hours, this is by a significant margin the most pared-down, streamlined collection in the series, but it still contains a heady breadth containing works by most of the titans of the fringe. Indeed, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce Conner are the most conspicuous omissions here, though Smith at least makes appearances in others’ works. (The absence of Anger, well represented on DVD, makes sense, but Conner’s exclusion is lamentable, even if it was likely a case of rights issues. I would’ve personally advocated for the inclusion of the hypnotic, crazy-in-love Breakaway, which comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen in filmmaking to representing the surging rush of a one-night infatuation before rewinding the entire event with nostalgia and just a hint of confusion.)
The set kicks off with the celluloid-as-canvas style of filmmaking most have come to associate with Brakhage and Len Lye (another regrettable omission here): Harry Smith’s Film No. 3: Interwoven. While Lye’s films often flowed elegantly, giving the impression that each individual frame is part of a more complex, more graceful DNA strand, and Brakhage’s work often emphasized the crispy tactility of the film medium, Smith’s early work here is rigid but functionally jazzy. According to the liner notes, he’d typically accompany his films with whatever his favorite record was at the moment, and here the DVD producers pair him up with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Guarachi Guaro.” The effect is architecturally contemporary, with the luminescence of Smith’s kaleidoscopic colors playing against the black background in a way that can only be described as urban. Gillespie’s hot licks, though officially extemporaneous from the film’s gestalt, are an appropriately uptown accompaniment.
If the magic of movies has long been attributed to Hollywood, the avant-garde has always been the sixth borough of New York City. The previous avant-garde entries in the Treasures set (e.g. A Bronx Morning, Battery Film, Skyscraper Symphony) confirmed that. Some of these films conceptually or at least behaviorally reflect their sense of civic identity—Warhol, obviously, but also Ken Jacobs’s pugnacious Little Stabs at Happiness, in which Jack Smith dresses up in a crumby loft apartment, paints his nose blue, and munches on the crotch of a little plastic dolly, and Ron Rice’s Chumlum, kid sister to Smith’s Flaming Creatures and featuring appearances by NY underground stalwarts Barbara Rubin, Beverly Grant (a dead ringer for Yvonne Marquis of Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment), and, again, Smith himself.
A few other films are a tad more explicit about their bridge-and-tunnel origins: respectively, Shirley Clarke’s industrial Bridges-Go-Round and Marie Menken’s calisthenic Go! Go! Go!, in which the bustle of the city is compressed into 11 wired minutes. The two, presented side-by-side on the DVD, form something of a dialectic; while Clarke’s New York stresses the nightmarish impositions of public transit in an overgrown metropolis, Menken’s speedy view of the city is that of a constant holiday, where garden weddings, shipyards, and mounted patrolmen are all just a block—or a split-second jump cut—away.
The notion of the 1960s as the heyday of the American avant-garde tradition is hardly refuted here. Sixteen of the set’s 26 films were either filmed during the ‘60s or within a year or so on either side of the decade. Like Rice’s Chumlum, Warhol’s Mario Banana (No. 1) revels in the era’s provisional fascination with redefined sex roles. In other words, a man (file under: Montaz, Mario) dressed as a famous diva (Montaz, Maria) puts to his/her lips a peeled banana and fellates the fruit with a wink and a yawn. The emphasis isn’t as much on pop iconography or forthright androgyny as it is the screen performer’s downright blasé execution of the Musa-erotic maneuver, an attitude symptomatic of an era in which the socio-sexual vanguard couldn’t barely keep up with their own progress.
On the snark side is Christopher Maclaine’s quintessentially beat-sick satire of creeping Cold War paranoia The End—from 1953, but years ahead of the curve. The film presents the violent or depressive premature deaths of a few sorry souls, but then turns their fates into blessings in disguise by suggesting they died just before the atomic bomb destroyed all life as we know it. They were rescued from witnessing mankind’s self-inflicted extinction in the nick of time. Stanley Kubrick was apparently influenced by the film, not only with Dr. Strangelove‘s apocalyptic sense of black humor, but also in A Clockwork Orange‘s ironic interpolation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Rejecting standard modes of narrative filmmaking and subverting audience’s notions of sympathetic identification, The End plays like the opening shot of a societal tidal wave that would crest some 15 years later, roughly when Standish Lawler filmed his epic death march Necrology, with its cast of doomed thousands including “Man Who Looks Very Tired,” “Yalie, Black,” “Luci Nugent’s Gynecologist,” and “Secretary, Menstruating.” As per Maclaine’s narration, the strangest suicide notes anyone had ever seen indeed.
Naturally, a few films defy description or even analysis (George Kuchar’s reliably touched-in-the-head I, An Actress; Bruce Baillie’s documentary portrait of a school for disturbed children Here I Am), while a few others could hardly be more direct (Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line, a pastoral Empire in haiku form). And contrary to what I suggested above, at least one is arguably a canonical fixture in American cinema: Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), a simple visual motif transmogrified by a single, insistent chronological grace note into a homily, where past and present coexist, where images are erased and then resuscitated, where personal history is intimately conveyed through the century’s prime mass medium. Frampton’s film may have the sort of reputation that leads to a reserved spot on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry (it was added to their list in 2003), but each and every one of the films included in the fourth volume of Treasures serve as an example of Frampton’s dialogue between the personal and the popular.
The transfers are understandably a mixed bag, but in each case you trust the best was done with what they had. A few have a slightly gauzy look that suggests intermediary alternate transfers (The End, for one), while many of the animated entries have clearly been poked and prodded-or, if you prefer, "crafted"- by human hands. In all, it's not a set that you're going to worry too much about whether or not it's reference quality, because you'll know it is. The sound is often marked with crackles and buzz, depending on the age of each film.
A few of the films feature alternate soundtracks, and the interactive liner notes feature hyperlinks on most of the filmmakers and players so you can put a face to some of the less familiar names. Those liner notes are also available in a comprehensive, 72-page booklet featuring an introduction by Martin Scorsese. The notes, typical of the NFPF's Treasures series, are well researched, relevant, and also contain complete information about the transfers and source materials. In the case of this edition, the notes may also help viewers figure out what the hell they're looking at.
The National Film Preservation Foundation serves up their most vital, confounding, surprising, confrontational collection of underappreciated American films yet.