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Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970
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Commencing in 1920 with Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand s creative collaboration on Manhatta, successive generations of experimental filmmakers and artists have worked in collaboration or alone to create a cinema capable of expressing dynamic unspoken concepts in totally abstract visual terms.
Flicker Alley and the Blackhawk Films® Collection in cooperation with Filmmakers Showcase are proud to present this premiere collection of 37 films created by some of the most acclaimed names of American Avant-garde experimental filmmaking, including Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, Fernand Le ger, Dudley Murphy, Rrose Se lavy (Marcel Duchamp), Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, Ralph Steiner, Jay Leyda, James Sibley Watson, Jr., Melville Webber, Emlen Etting, Oskar Fischinger, Joseph Cornell, Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth, Rudy Burckhardt, Francis Lee, Maya Deren, Alexander Hackenschmied, Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Ian Hugo, Anai s Nin, Len Lye, Jim Davis, Hy Hirsh, Marie Menken, Francis Thompson, Hilary Harris, Bruce Baillie, George Landow, Jonas Mekas, Lawrence Jordan, Tom Palazzolo, Lawrence Janiak, Amy Greenfield, Phil Solomon, and Stan Brakhage.
To watch these films is to see the world anew through innovative cinematic interventions: fast cutting, expressive camerawork, abstract animation, surrealistic collage, distorted and superimposed imagery, and many more extraordinary techniques. Essentially the filmmakers ask us to open our eyes and see, to permit the reception of pure sensations uninhibited by any complex web of predetermined associations dominant in mainstream Hollywood film and television.
Collected from archives around the world, and beautifully restored in high definition, the majority of vintage silent films in Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 feature new musical scores and performances by innovative composers George Antheil, Louis Siegel, William O. Smith, Gene Forrell, Arthur Kleiner, Louis & Bebe Barron, Donald Sosin, Eric Beheim, Rodney Sauer, Gustavo Matamoros, Henry Wolfe, and Phil Carluzzo.
- 2K restoration of Manhatta (1920-21, dir. Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand) with 2008 Slovak Sinfonietta orchestral score by Donald Sosin and 2013 music score by Henry Wolfe and Phil Carluzzo
- 2K restoration of Ballet Mechanique (1924, dir. Fernand Le ger, Dudley Murphy) with additional footage and George Antheil s 1925 percussive score for 16 player pianos and mechanical noises
- Previously unavailable, unique versions of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, dir. Maya Deren, Alexandr Hackenschmied), In the Street (1948, 1952, dir. Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee), N.Y., N.Y. (1958, dir. Francis Thompson), Castro Street (1966, dir. Bruce Baillie), and Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter (1968, dir. Owen Land formerly George Landow)
- Sappho and Jerry, Parts 1-3 (1977-78, dir. Bruce Posner)
- Seasons... (2002, dir. Phil Solomon, Stan Brakhage)
- Ch an (1983, dir. Francis Lee) with music by Christopher Atwood
- 28-page booklet featuring an essay and extensive notes on restorations by curator, filmmaker, and film historian Bruce Posner
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I’m not a student of film history, so I can’t comment on the historical importance of these films, but the collection certainly gave me a good look at the way techniques and viewpoints changed over time. One of the things I found most interesting was seeing how different filmmakers at different times treated the same subject, such as life in a big city—it always seems to be New York—which appears over and over. Manhatta (1920) and Skyscraper Symphony (1929), for instance, focused on the city’s huge buildings, then new and exciting, with people as mere scurrying afterthoughts or (rather creepily) absent entirely. Later filmmakers concentrated more on the people, but with very different mindsets. The Pursuit of Happiness (1940), featuring endlessly hurrying legs, suggested that that pursuit was likely to be hopeless, whereas the poor but laughing children in In the Street gave a hint about where the happiness might have gone. Film techniques in many of the earlier films were relatively straightforward, but the 1950s’ N.Y., N.Y. drew on fly-eye multiple exposures, funhouse-mirror distortion, and other possibly new tools to create a playfully surreal vision.
As one is bound to do with any anthology, I found some examples that I loved, a few that I thought were a complete waste of time, and a lot that were simply curious or interesting. Other viewers’ choices for those categories no doubt would be different from mine, but I think almost anyone will discover among these little nuggets some new and fascinating ways of using the photography of motion to examine and play with the world.
As we all know, World War II had a powerful impact on Hollywood and society in general. Well it affected avant-garde cinema as well. During and after the war the tone of the shorts becomes darker and more abstract. Titles in the 1940s segment such as 1941, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON and MEDITATION ON VIOLENCE reflect this. By the 1950s it seemed as if anything and everything was possible. The selections ABSTRONICS, BELLS OF ATLANTIS (with Anais Nin), and GYROMORPHOSIS bear this out. The 1960s were the 1960s and there's some really wild stuff here including CASTRO STREET and the bizarrely titled FILM THAT RISES TO THE SURFACE OF CLARIFIED BUTTER. As a fan of 19th century illustrations & engravings, I especially enjoyed OUR LADY OF THE SPHERE. The 1970s segment leads off with LOVE IT / LEAVE IT which opens with a "Naked City" parade in Chicago that has to be seen to be believed. The abstract DL2 and Amy Greenfield's powerful TRANSPORT leave a strong impression. 36 films in all make up this collection. These shorts (as the title implies) are far removed from mainstream cinema but they are worth preserving and once again Film Preservation Associates & Flicker Alley have done an exceptional job.