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Unseen Cinema - Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941

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7-Disc Version

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Product Details

  • Actors: Herbert Stern, Hildegarde Watson, Melville Webber, Friedrich Haak, Dorthea House
  • Directors: Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, Charles Vidor, D.W. Griffith, Emlen Etting
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Black & White, Full Screen, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 7
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Image Entertainment/Filmmakers Showcase
  • DVD Release Date: January 1, 2013
  • Run Time: 1140 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,325 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Unseen Cinema - Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941" on IMDb

Special Features

  • New recordings of original music by George Antheil, Marc Blitzstein and others
  • New Film Scores by Eric Beheim, Neal Kurz, Paul Lehrman, Guy Livingston, Rodney Sauer, Donald Sosin and others
  • Film notes and filmmaker biographies by historians and scholars Kevin Brownlow, David Curtis, Robert A. Haller, Jan-Christopher-Horak, David James, Scott MacDonald, Bruce Posner, David Shepard, Paul Spehr, Cecile Starr and 32 others
  • Rare photos of the films and filmmakers
  • Essay by curator Bruce Posner

Editorial Reviews

Product Description

7 DVDs – 20 Hours - 155 Classics of Avant Garde Cinema! "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941" reveals hitherto unknown accomplishments of American filmmakers working in the United States and abroad from the invention of cinema until World War II, and offers an innovative and often controversial view of experimental film as a product of avant-garde artists, of professional directors, and of amateur movie-makers working collectively and as individuals at all levels of film production. Many of the films have not been available since their creation, some have never been screened in public, and almost all have been unavailable in copies as good as these until now. Sixty of the world's leading film archive collections cooperated with Anthology Film Archives to bring this long-neglected period of film history back to life for modern audiences.


Avant-garde cinema remains unseen for all sorts of reasons. Because it's rare. Because it's elusive. Because the mainstream distribution and exhibition apparatus is not designed to serve it (and, arguably, to a large extent is designed to suppress and deny it). Because people--that vast army of us proud to be unpretentious "regular moviegoers"--basically don't want to see it, fearing that it's esoteric and challenging and probably boring. These are excellent--which is to say, very real--reasons. Except that, as of autumn 2005, they're obsolete. All but the personal-resistance part, anyway. Now, thanks to Anthology Film Archives, curator Bruce Posner, and the cooperation of the world's foremost film museums, anybody with a DVD player can make the acquaintance of 20some hours of definitive avant-garde film experiences through this often dazzling seven-disc set. And whaddaya know: a lot of "unseen cinema" turns out to be fascinating, thrilling, spectrally beautiful, tantalizingly mysterious--in a word, eye-opening, to both the art of film and the world we all share.

Moreover, it's not all precious, artist(or would-be artist)-in-a-garret stuff. Some of it has glimmered on regular movie screens, from nickelodeon days through the golden age of Hollywood, doing its avant-garde thing (often without knowing it's avant-garde) as one- and two-reel narratives or astonishing sequences in commercial Hollywood pictures. A 1910 D.W. Griffith two-reeler that compresses several decades (including the Civil War) into 16 minutes. Prologue and transitional montages that goosed up pedestrian feature films with lunges into jagged surrealism and abstraction. The erotically crazed, visually dynamic, sometimes nightmarish phantasmagoria that are Busby Berkeley's "By a Waterfall" and "Lullaby of Broadway."

In Posner's own words: "American experimental film has existed since the technological inception of cinema ... The background against which the experimentalists toiled provides a fascinating review of Americana coupled with numerous cross-currents ... and an unfailing desire to create on film an image that can be viewed as an independent and provocative art.... The goal [of this set] is to present the broadest possible spectrum of experimental films produced between the 1890s and 1940s."

Each of the seven discs is organized around a central theme, and which one you first reach for will be determined by individual curiosity and susceptibility. The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism steps off with Edwin S. Porter's 1902 Jack and the Beanstalk, its visionary transformations of settings and now-you-see-'em, now-you-don't appearances and disappearances of cast members the more remarkable for having been entirely achieved in the shooting, without postproduction optical trickery. Griffith's cameraman-to-be Billy Bitzer sends time scurrying dreamily backwards in Impossible Convicts (1905), while such classic 1920s experiments as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Telltale Heart seek to meet Edgar Allan Poe halfway by portraying distorted/demented worlds via stylized lighting and decor. The ambitious Robert Florey, whose feature-directing career would be almost entirely confined to the B zone, collaborates with montage maestro Slavko Vorkapich on The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra and with premier production designer William Cameron Menzies on The Love of Zero.

Inverted Narratives: New Directions in Storytelling includes Suspense, a 1913 two-reeler by Lois Weber that emulates and occasionally tops her august contemporary, D.W. Griffith; the adventurous selection of camera angles and big, then still-bigger closeups continue to amaze. Charles Vidor's The Bridge, a 1929 rendering of the Ambrose Bierce story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is starker than but not inferior to the more poetic French version that won an Oscar in the 1960s. Josef Berne's Black Dawn, aka Dawn After Dawn, weaves a Gothic spell with its account of love and death on an isolated farm, including a startling passage of sunstruck eroticism. And twelve minutes of Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand's agitprop, allegorical docudrama of American corporate fascism Native Land, narrated by Paul Robeson, inspires an urgent wish to see the entire film.

Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction moves from surrealist milestones such as Man Ray's Le Retour à la raison, Fernand Léger's Ballet mécanique, and Rose Sélavy's Anémic cinéma (an anagram many times over) to never-seen full-length versions of montages created by Slavko Vorkapich for such films as Crime Without Passion and The Firefly. Vorkapich's mesmerizing nature poem Moods of the Sea, set to Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, is among the most relentlessly stunning passages on celluloid. An ecstatically extended bal sequence from Ernst Lubitsch's So This Is Paris inspires, again, a craving to see that unavailable 1926 feature film, while George L.K. Morris' Abstract Movies is an encyclopedic and hilarious amateur re-creation of fond cliches and tropes of generic filmmaking.

Still, if one had to pick a single DVD to luxuriate in (and one can: it's the only disc available separately), it would have to be Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled. The Blizzard, a Gotham panorama grabbed by an unknown cameraman standing outside the Mutoscope film company office one day in 1898, is one of the most enchanting moments you'll ever experience on film, with an urban crowd sharing the bemusement of a winter day slipping into evening, and the fairy-tale vastness of a nearby park softened by falling snow: an absentminded documentary record become sheer poetry. Bitzer's Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street, an unbroken take from the front of an onrushing train (with supplementary illumination supplied by lights mounted on another train on a parallel track!), was shot in 1905, though the itinerary looks exactly the same today; only the crowds have changed. (One comical, endearing touch: a mother and her children, caught in passing at Grand Central, stop in their bustling journey to stare at the camera.) The 1901 Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre uses time-lapse photography to chronicle the taking down, and then to imaginatively ordain the resurrection, of an urban show palace. And Robert Flaherty's 24 Dollar Island (c. 1926) is so razor-sharp and judiciously observed that it remains the definitive portrait of Manhattan on film--truly a portrait of the city itself as a living, dynamic space, with scarcely any intrusion of humankind to distract us from the place, its light and shapes and rhythms.

There's additional, virtually prehistoric contemplation of urban spaces--including the 1900 Paris Exposition and the Eiffel Tower--in The Mechanized Eye: Experiments in Technique and Form. The Amateur as Auteur: Discovering Paradise in Pictures celebrates the intentional and inadvertent sublimities of home movies. And Viva la Dance: The Beginnings of Ciné-Dance collects everything from the various Annabelle Dances of 1894-97 through Mexican footage shot for Sergei Eisenstein's Que viva México to one more bravura sequence by Busby Berkeley (from Wonder Bar) and the avowedly avant-garde Tarantella and Spook Sport by Mary Ellen Bute in 1940.

It cannot be overstated that much of this footage is beautifully preserved, whether transferred from paper prints or exhumed from still-luminous nitrate footage cached in a European archive. And the brief headnotes by such authoritative commentators as Jan-Christian Horak, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow, and Bruce Posner himself are marvels of lucidity and concision, supplying just the right context--in a mere 50 words or so--to enable the uninitiated viewer to appreciate the film he or she is about to witness. Unseen Cinema is not just (just!) an awesome collection of film landmarks--it's a landmark achievement in its own right. --Richard T. Jameson

Customer Reviews

So this is a great collection for anyone seriously interested in film history and it's language.
Thorkell Agust Ottarsson
The best of the early works are triumphs of the imagination over technical limits and creaky acting -- in quite a few, the wow factor remains potent.
Flipper Campbell
If you buy the collection there is also a catalog you can purchase about the films included in this collection.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

240 of 245 people found the following review helpful By Donald Rogers on November 2, 2005
The contents below are from unseen-cinema; they include the contents of a 160-page softcover Series Catalog, which is sold separately, but I think you would want. This is clearly a labor of love; though I can't imagine trying to watch all this in a month of Sundays, I could see dipping into it from time to time.


Experiments in Technique and Form

The dynamic qualities of motion pictures are explored by cameramen and filmmakers through novel experiments in technique and form. Early cinematographers James White, "Billy" Bitzer, and Frederick Armitage display experimental shooting styles that wowed audiences. Other independent companies further image manipulation through creative staging, editing, and printing, such as a stunning three-screen film that predates Gance's Napoleon. Experiments by photographer Walker Evans, painter Emlen Etting, musician Jerome Hill, and the film collectives Nykino and Artkino record the world in a continual process of flux. A most extreme approach is realized by Henwar Rodakiewicz with Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31), a monumental study of natural and abstract motions.

5 Paris Exposition Films (1900)-James White
Eiffel Tower from Trocadero Palace (1900)
Palace of Electricity (1900)
Champs de Mars (1900)
Panorama of Eiffel Tower (1900)
Scene from Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower (1900)
Captain Nissen Going through Whirpool Rapids, Niagra Falls (1901)-creators unknown
Down the Hudson (1903)-Frederick Armitage & A.E. Weed
The Ghost Train (1903)-creators unknown
Westinghouse Works, Panorama View Street Car Motor Room (1904)-G.W. "Billy" Bitzer
In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea (c.
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80 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Flipper Campbell VINE VOICE on November 21, 2005
Old weird Americana takes a bow in the sprawling and richly rewarding DVD set "Unseen Cinema." Running almost 20 hours, the collection provides ample evidence that bold experimental filmmaking thrived in the early days of moving pictures -- decades before the avant-garde torch-bearer "Un Chien Andalou" seared its way onto screens in 1929.

"Unseen" curator Bruce Posner says his goal was to "provide the broadest possible spectrum of experimental films produced between the 1890s and 1940s" -- roughly, the period from Thomas Edison to WWII. And so we have everything from home movies to lavish production numbers; wispy dance performances to strident union propaganda; gothic horror to languid studies of life on a farm. Many of these films have not been seen in decades and some were never screened for the public. Others, surprisingly, were products of the Hollywood studios.

The best of the early works are triumphs of the imagination over technical limits and creaky acting -- in quite a few, the wow factor remains potent. Watching the many bits of fantasy and cinematic sleights of hand, it's easy to draw a loopy line to the works of cinematic descendants such as Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton and George Lucas.

Plenty of big names are represented in "Unseen" -- Welles, Sergei Eisnenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Charles Vidor, Victor Fleming, Douglas Fairbanks, Busby Berkeley, Elia Kazan -- but the set shows that much of the heavy lifting in cinema's toddling years was done by inspired amateurs and free-thinking artists known for their work in other media.

The individual discs are arranged by theme, with titles such as "The Devil's Plaything" (surrealism and fantasy), "The Amateur as Auteur" (home movies) and "Inverted Narratives" (storytelling).
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Antonia G. Carey on January 18, 2007
As a Cinephile who travels literally thousands of miles a year in search of

amazing old films at classic film festivals & conventions, it is my opinion

this is the best box set of films I've ever seen. Whether you're a new film

fan or an old one looking for new kicks, this is the set for you. From the

surreal dream sequence in Douglas Fairbanks 1919 masterpiece "When the Clouds

Roll By" to Neil McGuire & William A. O'Connor's dreamy short "Moonland",

you'll see where Hollywood has gone to steal ideas for some of its best (and

most well-loved) sequences. I've personally paid more than the cost of this

set on a 16mm film print of just one of the short films it contains. If I could have

only one collection of these films on dvd, it would be this all-encompassing

box set. I've never written a review before but really wanted you true film

fans out there to know about this amazing set. It is my opinion that you

won't be sorry you bought it. Good Luck and Happy Filmwatching!
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Thorkell Agust Ottarsson on September 24, 2006
Unseen Cinema is a fascinating collection of films, that shows the development of (and the experiment with) the film language in America from its beginning there and half a century onward.

It's title is a little misleading. Many of the films are not really Avant Garde, unless sound testing and family films showing children opening Christmas gifts is Avant Garde. The goal of the collectors is to prove that there was an Avant Garde film making from the beginning of cinema in America (America meaning films made by Americans anywhere in the world and films made by foreigners in America). They say that this was a needle-in-a-haystack search and I have to admit that sometimes I felt that they mistook the hay for a needle. So if you want to get to know early Avant Garde film making (in general) then I rather recommend "Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s". It has many of the best bits from this collections plus others not found here.

But if you are interested in film history and it's language then this is your thing. There are many fantastic films here, some of them not available anywhere else (to the best of my knowledge), such as The Telltale Heart (Charles Klein: 1928), Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements (Henwar Rodakiewicz: 1931) and Footnote to Fact (1933: Lewis Jacobs). Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements (54 min) is one of the greatest cinema poems I have ever seen, a must see.

There are also some great classics, here, like:
Autumn Fire (1930-33)-Herman Weinberg (a 22 min. version!).
The Fall of the House of Usher (1926-27)-J.S. Watson, Jr.
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