American Avant-Garde 1921-1944

With retrospective dealing with American avant-garde film, the emphasis is usually placed on the post-war period. This is hardly surprising, considering that earlier American films in this genre were overshadowed by the stormy developments in Europe. In Europe, in particular, we are left with an incomplete view of the evolution of the American avant-garde film. Whilst the German Expressionists, the French makers of ‘cinema-pur’, and the Russian constructivists obviously influenced their  American counterparts, there exist numerous films made in the period 1921-1944 which stand out on their own right and deserve greater recognition.

Programme 1 

Manhatta, Paul Strand (1921, 6 min., 16 mm.)  
‘Manhatta’ is considered to be the first American avant-garde film. For many film historians, it stands as the model for the ‘city films’ which were later produced in both America and Europe. The photographer Strand worked with the painter Charles Sheerer to make a film based on the Walt Whitman poem about New York. They used still shots to reveal the beauty of the buildings.

Danse Macabre, Dudley Murphy (1921, 5 min., 35 mm.) 
‘Danse Macabre’ is one of the longest-forgotten American avant-garde films. The film was a collaboration between photographer Francis Brugiere, film director Dudley Murphy, and the dancer August Blum. Murphy went to make ‘Ballet mechanique’ in Paris with Fernand Leger.

Lullaby, Boris Deutsch (1923, 9 min., 16 mm.)
Boris Deutsch was a painter living on the fringe of Hollywood, both geographically and spiritually. His film ‘Lullaby’ was strongly influenced by both Soviet-style montage and German expressionist set design. The film’s narrative is relatively simple and straightforward and is set in pre-revolutionary Russia.

The Life And Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra, Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich (1927, 11 min., 16 mm.)
One of the most important avant-garde filmmakers to come directly out of the Hollywood film studios was Robert Florey. The film is a satire on Hollywood and a fantasy about a would-be star who cannot rise above the role of an extra. It consists primarily of close-ups of faces and of miniature sets which were constructed in Vorkapich’s kitchen. The film is said to have cost no more than ninety dollars. Greg Toland, who later worked as a cameraman on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, was in charge of photography. It was originally synchronized to Gershwin’s Rapsody in Blue. Charlie Chaplin was so impressed that he ensured that the film received its premiere on Broadway and was distributed in theatres across America.

Tell-Tale Heart, Charles Klein (1928, 10 min., 35 mm.) 
An off-Hollywood production based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe and heavily influenced by German Expressionist cinema. The film features expressionistically deformed sets – straight out of ‘Caligari’ – as well as 19th-century Biedermeier costumes and highly stylized acting.

The Fall of The House of Usher, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber (1928, 15 min., 35 mm.) 
Because of their continued dedication to the experimental film, college professors Dr. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber were the first truly avant-garde American filmmakers. Their film ‘The Fall of The House of Usher’ is consistently more inventive and imaginative than Epstein’s French version of the same year. They reduced the story to its essentials, the impact being largely transmitted through the careful use of silhouette, multiple exposure and rhythm, which successfully evoked the disembodied atmosphere of the piece. Sets are suggested by light and by patterns made by folded paper, rather than by painted or three-dimensional props.

The Loves of Zero, Robert Florey (1928, 20 min., 35 mm.) 
After finishing ‘The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra’, Florey went to produce several experimental films while simultaneously continuing to work on Hollywood film productions. In 1928, he made ‘The Loves of Zero’ with a set designed by William Cameron Menzies who was later responsible for the art-direction on ‘The Thief of Baghdad’. Remarkable in the film are the use of split-screen close-ups of Zero, the protagonist and the multiple exposure views of Machine Street; the upper portion of the screen full of revolving machinery dominating the lower portion, which shows the tiny figure of Zero walking home.


Programme 2

Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand, John Florey and Theodore Huff (1933, 12 min., 16 mm.) 
Theodore Huff and John Florey’s silent depression comedy is an ironic comment on America’s inability to deal with the economic catastrophe of the 1930s. The film tells the story of an unemployed Afro-American who lives in a junkyard and uses the garbage dump as a metaphor for capitalism’s treatment of ordinary citizens. Living in an abandoned car which in fantasy is a limousine taking him to Wall Street, the hero suffers through the crash of 1929, and the Depression. ‘Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand’ is in fact a humorous allegory on America’s economic rise and fall, employing visual metaphor in the manner of medieval morality plays, e.g. a bursting bubble referring to the ‘exploding prosperity bubble’ of the 1920s.

Poem 8, Emlen Etting (1934, 12 min., 16 mm.)

Lot In Sodom, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber (1934, 30 min., 35 mm.)  
In the biblical epic of Lot, God sent an angel to save Lot from Sodom, the city of sin, before he destroys it. While ostensibly a narrative of the story of Lot, the film abandons linear story-telling and is much more concerned with non-narrative elements: the play of light and shadow, the ballet-like movements of bodies, the use of multiple exposures and optical tricks, and the poetic utilization of visual symbolism. The film’s imagery is also highly erotic, especially in the scenes where Lot offers his daughter to the angel, and homoerotic, particularly in its light-play on semi-nude bodies of numerous young men. Although this film, noteworthy for being the first avant-garde with sound, is not as explicit as later versions (Anger, Harrington, Markopoulous), it was deemed unsuitable for general distribution.

Rose Hobart, Joseph Cornell (1936-1939, 20 min., 16 mm.) 
Best known as painter/sculptor, Joseph Cornell produced his first film in 1936. ‘Rose Hobart’ is a re-edited and shorted version of ‘East of Borneo’, a second-rate Hollywood picture with Rose Hobart. With a few snippets from scientific instructional films thrown in, Cornell’s film is, like his famous collage boxes, essentially a creation made of ‘object trouves’ and one of the first found footage films. Completely eliminating any semblance of plot and dialogue, Cornell’s montage of the ostensible heroine, hero and villain has them moving in slow-motion through empty rooms, caressing curtains, reacting to unseen events, never meeting. Their looks lead nowhere, their erotic desires career into a void, and the audience is left with a mystery, and with the film’s purple-tinted eroticism masking unfulfilled desire.

Storm, Paul Burnford (1944, 12 min., 16 mm.) 
A dramatization of weather and the forecasting of a storm that sweeps across the United States. The film is made highly dramatic through selective camera angles and camera movements cut for continuous flow and varied rhythms.

This text is based on two essays by Jan Christopher Horak.

The silent films in the program were accompanied by Charles Visser, one of the permanent pianists of the Dutch Film Museum.

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