Maya Deren | Kenneth Anger | Curtis Harrington | Jack Smith | Sergei Paradjanov | Robert Altman | Julie Dash | Jean Cocteau | Alain Resnais | Jacques Rivette | Kazuyoshi Okuyama | Stan Brakhage | Ron Rice | James Whitney | Jordan Belson | Paul J. Sharits | Robert Nelson | Michael Snow | Morgan Fisher | Walter Ruttman | Godfrey Reggio | Ron Fricke | Robert Wiene | Jacob Protazanov | F.W. Murnau | Recommended Reading

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Collected Films of Maya Deren - Volume I

This video collects six avant-garde film shorts made in the 1940's and 1950's by Maya Deren. Maya Deren was America's first great creator of experimental films, and the founder of the US underground film movement. The techniques pioneered here are the direct ancestors of the film techniques today seen on MTV, although there is no rock music.

The dream like images in these films represent the subconscious feelings and thoughts of the characters. Several of the leads were played by Deren herself. There are no plots, and the stories make no literal sense, instead jumping from evocative image to image.

A wide variety of camera techniques are used: double exposures, reverse printing, slow motion, camera movement and unusual angles. A filmic world is built up that would not be possible in any other medium. Great emphasis is placed on composition of the image, and some of the shots are extremely beautiful, like the opening scene of a hand reaching out and dropping a large flower on the ground.

Maya Deren and other experimental film makers worked largely on shoe string budgets (a few hundred dollars per film), usually financed with their own money. Their films were only shown at art galleries and film societies, and never had very wide distribution. Some critics and movie lovers have always loved their work, but the general public has rarely seen it or paid it much attention. This video package is the first I have ever seen any of their work available on home video.

Many critics used to suggest these films would never be accepted by mass audiences, that their techniques were too avant-garde. But in the 1970's British video makers started using them for rock videos, shown on British TV on such programs as the "Top of the Pops". All they had to do was use these film techniques as accompaniments to rock songs, and the public had no trouble enjoying this style of filmmaking. Eventually MTV was formed in America (1982) and began broadcasting an enormous backlog of British videos. I think most people curious about film technique would be fascinated by Deren's films.

Admirers of Maya Deren will be interested in Im Spiegel der Maya Deren / In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Martina Kudlacek, 2002). This is a serious, intelligent, documentary biographical film, about the great filmmaker Maya Deren. Strengths: Kudlacek has researched every scrap of information she can find about Deren. Alexander Hammid, who previously was just a name to me as Deren's collaborator on "Meshes of the Afternoon", shows up, talks about Deren, and shows some of the many photographic studies he made of Deren in the 1940s. Kudlacek, who is Czech like Hammid, previously made a film about him I have not seen. Kudlacek has tracked down many other friends and colleagues of Deren in the US and Haiti. She includes extensive voice recordings made by Deren lecturing about her films. These show Deren to be a wonderfully articulate and intelligent speaker. There is backstage footage, showing Deren making "The Very Eye of Night". The film's weakest point: it does not seem to contain any deep new insights into Deren's art. It is mainly a work of biography, rather than criticism. All in all, a worthwhile attempt to capture as much about Deren's life as still survives.

Kenneth Anger

Fireworks (1947) is as carefully designed in black and white as Anger's later films are in color. Most of the objects in it are actually white: the sailors' uniforms, the urinals, the milk, the hand statues. This film is really remarkable: the poetic imagery is very powerful. It has a stronger narrative flow that most of the later Anger films.

Puce Moment (1948) is perhaps Anger's earliest film in color. It anticipates Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in that it is concerned with colorful costumes, clothes and dressing up. The shaking curtains of fabrics that begin this short will reoccur in Inauguration as well. The film is a fragment from an uncompleted feature called Puce Women; subject: 1920's Hollywood and its leading ladies. Such a historical subject reminds us that Anger is the author of Hollywood Babylon. Later, Curtis Harrington will make a feature film set in 1930's Hollywood, What's the Matter with Helen? (1971).

Rabbit's Moon (1950) also seems like a dry run for The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Like the late film, it is shot on a set representing a fantasy world, and the characters represent mythological beings. Here however, they are the relatively bloodless members of the Commedia dell'Arte, such as Pierrot and Harlequin, and lack the punch of the religious figures of the later film. The acting is terrible here too, full of over emphatic hand gestures, seemingly based on Charlie Chaplin's early pantomime. In the later film, Anger would restrain his actors' gestures almost to the point of nonexistence. It sometimes seem a bit static, but it is far more effective than this overacting, and probably can be considered a lesson learned.

Eaux d'Artifice (1953) was shot in the wonderful Tivoli Gardens outside Rome. Anger uses an excellent photographic technique on the flowing water, one that breaks it up into hundreds of small shining droplets. These recall the similar shining beads of Inauguration, and the shimmering beadlets in the Scarlet Woman's headdress. This film is Anger's most quiet. Its court lady character gives it an aspect of escaping into an elegant world of the past. It is also the film of Anger's most purely concerned with abstract patterns, geometric designs in space.

The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). A stereotyped view of the Eisenhower era 1950's has built up, that certainly does not include films like this. This avant-garde work combines aspects of the occultist, psychedelic, underground, Sternberg, gay and camp sensibilities, all in one gaudy 38 minute package. It is a beautiful classic, especially notable for its rich use of color. It probably influenced such later films as Paradjanov's The Color of Pomegranates (1969) and Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997). The shots in Kundun, showing the small deliberate forward steps of the protagonist, recall those of the hero of Anger's film.

The film splits into two parts. The first two thirds introduces the main characters, gorgeously costumed people who seem to be playing the roles of pagan deities in some occult ritual. These scenes are in the Von Sternberg tradition. They offer elaborately clothed people in beautiful images, with unusual costumes, make-up, hair styles and jewelry. There are differences between Anger's and Sternberg's style, of course. One is that this film is in bright color. The intense colors and unusual color combinations are uniquely Anger's, and will reappear in such films as Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965). A second difference is that Anger's characters are not in a narrative, but simply standing around, performing various gestures and poses that vaguely evoke pagan religious rituals. This is in the mythopoeic tradition of underground film, that derives from Cocteau. The whole film is edited to Janacek's Glagolitic Mass (1926). Anger once more shows his skill at editing images to music.

Some of the scenes involve film magic and special effects, in the tradition of Cocteau and Maya Deren. A sphere is whirled in and out of the picture frame, getting bigger each time it reappears. A woman's large picture hat slowly flies up, and settles on her head. Curtis Harrington will have Sylvia Kristel wear a similar picture hat, 30 years later in Mata Hari (1985). Harrington acts in this picture, not as a pagan character, but as Cesare the Somnambulist from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), one of his favorite motion pictures. One of the characters' heads appears in a birdcage, perhaps in homage to similar imagery in Sidney Peterson's film, The Cage (1947).

Anger does not promote a uniform sense of space in the picture. Some scenes are acted against full sets, others against a black backdrop. A painted backdrop like something out of a 1900 stage play evokes the films of Méliès - perhaps a homage from the director, who once listed Méliès as one of his heroes.

The last third of the movie erupts into superimposed imagery - sometimes up to 5 multiply exposed images. These scenes show considerable creativity in the use of this technique. Following the rapid succession of double exposures is a fascinating experience. Reportedly, these multiple exposures were extended when Anger reedited the film in 1966. Anger's use of superimposition reminds one of the many creative dissolves in Curtis Harrington's feature films. The superimpositions begin briefly in the first half of the film, in a scene involving a mirror revered image superimposed on itself, rather like a very delicate and beautiful Rorschach ink blot. This reminds one of the finale of Albert Magnoli's video, When Doves Cry (1984).

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) One of Anger's most delicate and sensuous works. Very good camera movements.

Curtis Harrington

Harrington is one of the most creative and most personal of contemporary Hollywood filmmakers. Originally a member of the 1940's avant-garde, he entered the Hollywood system in the late 1950's. He has directed mainly thrillers, some with supernatural elements.

Night Tide (1960) This great film is Harrington's first commercial feature. It attempts to incorporate the methods of the 1940's avant-garde, of which Harrington was a leading member, into the realm of commercial filmmaking. It uses the spectacular scenery of Venice, California to great effect. The best sequence in the film: a dream like passage where the hero trails the sleepwalking, endangered heroine by following her wet footprints.

Games (1967) This film is notable for its complex decor. A well done scene with a triple mirror on a dressing table recalls a similar mirror in Anger's The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954); so does a scene where a sphere is being borne around the house by a woman.

How Awful About Allan (1970) Von Sternberg always wanted to make a film about a blind girl who got her vision, and who saw the world for the first time. Here is a Harrington film about a man who suffers from psychologically induced blurred vision. It shows Harrington's inventiveness with visual style. It also has the intimate, at home quality of Harrington's works, an evocation of personal feelings and daily life. Harrington does not see home life as bland or everyday, however: his films are rich in symbolism, emotion, and complex visual style.

What's The Matter With Helen? (1971) A remarkably evocative mystery thriller set in 1930's Hollywood. Much use of music, especially the tune "Goody, Goody".

Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) Victorian era retelling of Hansel and Gretel story. Rich use of color, especially purple. One of Harrington's most affecting films. Here what seems to be an old English folksong opens the film.

The Cat Creature (1973) Inventive film, scripted by Robert Bloch, about an ancient Egyptian creature... Shows Harrington's tremendous dash and visual style.

The Dead Don't Die (1975) Scripted by Robert Bloch, based on his 1953 novella. Best scene in this: one in which a corpse comes back to life. This film starts an interest in Harrington in more heroic men, one that stretches over the next decade; his earlier films looked at more sensitive young men, and their mothers.

The Vegas episode (1979). Here, the Robert Urich character is pursued by a madman from the past, someone with whom he clashed morally during the Vietnam war. We see the war in flashback, then over for just four years. Harrington's visualization of the war is like nothing else on film, quiet, and centered on a geometrically square battle formation. It is a grave spiritual image. I've seen this episode twice. It is visually striking throughout. The episode has something profound to say about the Vietnam war, subtly conveyed by Harrington's unusual artistry. Another memorable scene: before and after an explosion. The debris is arranged with great visual complexity. It also conveys a moment can involve complete transformation: an apocalyptic image.

The Dynasty episode. Harrington tried a experimental technique here. Whenever one of the characters is thinking, his head is surrounded in the frame by green vegetation, from a tree or plant. At the climax of the show, there is a happy, celebratory family dinner. It takes place in the dining room, and Harrington develops an extraordinary figure of style. The walls of the dining room are decorated with vine covered wallpaper. We are used, by this time in the film, to seeing green vegetation represent the soul of each character. But here the green clouds surrounding each character are linked together by vines, representing the mental and spiritual links between the souls of the family.

Mata Hari (1985) The first half of Mata Hari is much better than the second. It conveys a remarkably stylish look at the Europe of the World War I era. It is full of elaborate, little known buildings. Although the action takes place all over Europe, the film was actually entirely shot in and around Budapest, Hungary, with French looking buildings standing in for France, etc. Everything is photographed with a maximum of visual style by the director.

Gregory Markopoulos

Christmas, USA (1949) This is a strange, delightful film poem. I have no idea what these mysterious images mean. But they are beautiful all the same. The film is a mysterious, atmospheric object. The photography is excellent. Some of the imagery anticipates Curtis Harrington's Night Tide: the carnival sections look a bit like the pier fairground in the Harrington, and a shot of the hero leaving a narrow corridor at the top of a staircase, looks like the interiors of some of Harrington's films. There are also mirror shots of the hero and his image in a mirror, that also anticipate Night Tide.

Jack Smith

Flaming Creatures (1963) This is an avant-garde, feature length film, involving elaborately costumed characters arranged into visually beautiful compositions. This style ultimately derives from Von Sternberg, via the 1940's avant-garde of Anger, Harrington, etc., but it differs from the latter school in several ways. It is more exclusively just a visual experience. There is no story, and no mythological, religious, or psychological symbolism or allegory. It is also more comic in tone. Smith was also skillful still photographer, whose work shares the elaborate compositions of Flaming Creatures.

Sergei Paradjanov

Tsvet granata / The Color of Pomegranates (1969) This splendid film is a meditation on the Armenian poet Aruthin Sayadin (1712 - 1795), known as "Sayat Nova", which means "The King of Song". The film is made directly in the style of Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Both films are non narrative works, in a very experimental style. However, their similarities go far beyond this. Let's enumerate them: 1) Both films are mainly composed of a series of fairly short episodes. Each episode mainly features one character, filmed frontally, directly face on. 2) The characters are gorgeously costumed, in non-modern clothes 3) The characters are performing religious rituals, with elaborate hand gestures expressive of ritual, priestly observance. In Anger's film, these are perhaps pagan services invoking "Magick" or perhaps they are made up rituals of an imaginary but spectacular religion. The rituals in Paradjanov's film are deeply and reverently Christian in spirit. They are perhaps inspired by observances of the Christian Orthodox church. Or perhaps they are folk rituals, with an Armenian background. Paradjanov doesn't say. The rituals are held against the backdrop of Armenian monasteries, and with rich traditional Armenian art. This suggests that they are traditional Armenian services of some kind, but the film never actually makes that claim. It is possible that they are the invention of the director, intended to express by him the essence of religious spirituality; or perhaps they are tradition Armenian rituals of some kind. Their gestures and style often seem close to Anger's, viewed in purely formal terms. 4) The characters often have "haloing" effects around their heads, involving elaborate headdresses. Paradjanov also uses actual frames centering on the characters. 5) Both films include a scenes where a character moves a spherical ball around, with a circular motion. In Paradjanov, this comes late in the film, and two young girls each move a ball, guided by an adult. 6) The films include "jump cuts", showing several actions by the same character. The shots are from the same camera angle and point of view, but there is a lapse of time while a new action is started for the new shot. 7) Paradjanov includes many shot of water, juice and other fluids moving downwards and covering things. This recalls the flowing milk in Anger's Fireworks (1947), and the water fountains in Eaux d'Artifice (1953). 8) Occasionally there is stop motion magic, as when as sword appears in Pomegranates. 9) Both films are in brilliant, intense color. 10) Shots in Pomegranates that show Armenian rugs being draped remind one of the fabric shots from Anger's Puce Moment that were edited into Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

David Bordwell's On the History of Film Style (1997) links Paradjanov to the "flat style": a style of film staging in which the characters and props are lined up in a row against a flat background. This style of staging is used throughout The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Bordwell cites a series of ancestors for this style, mainly filmmakers in the late 1960's in the Soviet orbit. The style is also found to a degree in Anger's film, in the mid 1950's, although Anger's shots are by no means as directly frontal as are Paradjanov's.

If anybody doubts the similarity of the two films, Anger's and Paradjanov's, I urge them simply to do what I did, and rent the two movies and watch them. Both films are now available on video, and I just found them in the local video stores. You do not have to watch for midnight screenings in underground cinémathèques; or rely on ancient memories of film society screenings. Both films are always mentioned in film histories, but I have seen little sign that many people have actually watched the two movies. They deserve to be part of our living art of film!

Paradjanov's films also show the influence of Andrei Tarkowsky, a director he greatly admired. In Andrei Rublev (1966), Tarkowsky often stages elaborate scenes outdoors. They show a large group of people, all engaged in some complex activity, usually against a picturesque natural setting. These are often long shots at a slightly elevated angle, one that shows the whole landscape and all the figures in it. These activities can have ritualistic or religious qualities. They can also be scenes of entertainment, or political or military events. They tend to have a communal quality: the activity is participated in and affects everyone in the scene. Such outdoor scenes frequently appear in Paradjanov's work as well. In both filmmakers, such scenes are often only tenuously related to the rest of the picture. They can seem like stand alone entities, little mini-films in their own right. Both directors sometimes have the scenes be little burst of fantasy; other times, the scenes represent reality. Both directors' scenes can be fairly extensive, exploring all aspects and stages of the activity depicted before coming to an end. Behind both directors stands Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1955). This too is a religious film, with many communal outdoor tableaux, often with a religious aspect. Like Tarkowsky's film, this has many quotes from the Bible, and paints a diverse portrait of many kinds of people from the middle ages.

Paradjanov's work has been highly influential on later filmmakers. One can see his approach in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh (1996) and Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997). Scorsese's work, like Anger's and Paradjanov's, is concerned with religious rituals and spirituality.

Hagop Hovnatanian. This is a short film about the Armenian painter. It contains one of Paradjanov's most magical images, one showing a horse drawn carriage moving along a street. The wheels are painted red, and we watch their spokes go around. In the background, we see the unusual polygonal paving of the street. This paving gives a mathematically rich image. It recalls the hexagonal paving that shows up underneath the hero in Pomegranates. Other memorable scenes show aerial gondolas moving forward and backward; one of Paradjanov's jump cuts makes them behave with seeming magic. Paradjanov includes a nice visual pun. We see a painted cross with a additional X in it; later we see a similar cross on a church. Later, Paradjanov's camera finds a similar cross hidden in a power line tower. Its appearance suggests that spiritual imagery is everywhere!

Paradjanov shows many shots of close-ups of similar regions of Hagop's paintings. There is a series of hands, of eyes, of necklaces, of the upper uniforms of the military men he painted. These give us a very insightful look at Hagop's techniques of painting. It allows us to do that classic critical method, "compare and contrast". We see the typical kinds of lace and decoration Hagop put on the sleeves near the hands. How he painted necklaces. It gives one a very vivid insight into Hagop's style. Later in the film, we get a similar look at traditional Armenian architecture. One shows a series of ornamental grill work in different buildings. Others show eaves and roof beams. Other shots show buildings as a whole, allowing one to build up a cumulative picture of Armenian architecture. The user has to look at the details throughout the whole image to do this. The camera and the lighting do not direct their attention to one region or detail. So the viewer has to engage in "active viewing" to fully see all the details visible in the shots. Repeated viewings help here, something that is easy to do with video. Each watching of the film reveals more and more detail, and gives us a richer understanding of both the paintings, and Armenian building.

Ashik Kerib (1988). This "folk tale" is less purely an experimental film than Pomegranates, but it is quite similar in style. It is interspersed with short segments showing montages of traditional art. These are grouped into logical categories: one sequence might show horses, another camels, another loving human couples. This sort of grouped approach recalls that of Hagop Hovnatanian. In addition to the montages, many scenes open with still lifes, made up of traditional objects, designed to convey the character of the people we are about to meet in the scene. These are often the vessels for a meal. One recalls the piles of jewels and the dresser top in the opening shots of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. They also recall the elaborate still lifes introducing Erich von Stroheim in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937).

The acted sequences, like those of Pomegranates, concentrate on religious rituals. However, most of these in Ashik Kerib celebrate major life events such as betrothals, weddings, funerals and lamentations. In fact, there are so many weddings that at times the picture resembles a Georgian precursor of Four Weddings and a Funeral! There are also overhead shots at a slightly elevated angle, designed to show the geometric layout of a large area. These shots inevitably recall Mizoguchi. One of the film's most beautiful sequences, "The Wedding of the Blind", is shot in this way. Paradjanov continues his interest in flowing water and fluids. There are shots of pomegranate juice running down people's necks. There is also a truly spectacular waterfall. Paradjanov sometimes uses the zoom lens. Normally I dislike the zoom; it is an artificial looking effect that destroys visual interest and naturalness of sight. However, Paradjanov actually makes the zoom look beautiful, for example in the shot that zooms out from a vessel, then back into it. There is something gentle about his use. It suggests someone softly approaching an object to get a closer, more focused look.

Robert Altman

Three Women (1977) This feature film recreates in detail a long complex real life dream of the writer-director, Robert Altman. Films based on dreams are apparently rare. Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) shows eight dreams of the director, and Bruce Baillie's Quick Billy (1971) includes a shot based on his dreams, one in part 3, where shots of a woman walking in a field dissolve into an image of water. The dream sequence in Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997) is based on an actual dream of the Dalai Lama. A number of major works were inspired by dreams, including Coleridge's Kubla Khan, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, J.G. Ballard's "Report on an Unidentified Space Station". Altman's dream does not include supernatural, fantastic, or non naturalistic elements. But it does seem extraordinarily atmospheric, eerie and emotionally charged. Many of the scenes have the non sequitor aspect of dreams, combined with the feeling that some hard to grasp, hidden logic is at work. I think this is Altman's best work, and would like to see more public discussion of it.

Julie Dash

Daughters of the Dust (1992) This feature film deals with a family reunion in 1900. The film's strength is in its imagery, much of which is very beautiful. The family reunion is not told in a linear style: we get to know some of the characters, but the sequence of events never becomes clear. Much of the dialogue of the film in is Gullah, a variety of English spoken by escaped black slaves who set up an African influenced way of life in Carolina islands during the Nineteenth Century. The film is shot on one such island, and utilizes its spectacular scenery: trees, water, beaches.

The Early Avant-garde

Jean Cocteau

The Blood of a Poet (1930) This short feature by Cocteau begins to explore his personal mythology. It seems to represent in allegorical and symbolical terms, the sort of psychological experiences that people undergo that turns them into creative figures, or poets. I confess that I find Cocteau's psychology dubious. It did not "speak to me", on any emotionally convincing level, here. I was more impressed with Cocteau's imagination in coming up with symbolic correlates for his feelings. I had the same feeling here that I later had in Cocteau's two Orpheus films. Cocteau comes across as a likable, sympathetic person. His personal mythology never fully convinces, and the films that set it forth never really "work". They are not gripping enough to be hailed as classics, or as must see ventures. Yet if I didn't fully endorse them, I am glad I saw them, too. They represent a personal expression of a talented man. They also give one a glimpse into a kind of cinema that is very different from what one conventionally sees at theaters. They have been immensely influential, and stand directly behind the avant-garde films of Deren, Anger, Harrington, et al.

The kind of special effects in these films refers directly to properties of the film medium. There is film magic, based on stopping and restarting the camera, scenes where the film runs backward, and so on. Deren used these sorts of explorations of "filmic reality", too. This sort of special effect appeared in later French films that are not otherwise avant-garde, as well. For example, the magic scenes in Marcel Carné's medieval fantasy, Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), use these kinds of special effects.

Beauty and the Beast (1946) This is Cocteau's best film, a retelling of the Perrault fairy tale. It emphasizes an emotion that I can understand: that the Beast will die if he doesn't find love. It has some of Cocteau's most ingenious special effects. Simple by today's technological standards, they still convey a genuine sense of magic.

Orpheus (1950) It is a gloomy allegory. Although it is a regular feature film, with plot, dialogue, characters and actors, and more narrative oriented than its sequel or The Blood of a Poet, it has much less old fashioned entertainment value.

On a second viewing: The film is much more gripping than I remember. The film shows a consistently high level of visual imagination. For example, the scene with the railway crossing early on is superb, with the gradually withdrawing guard rails. It anticipates the opening of Bresson's A Man Escapes (1956), where the car is stopped by a crossing streetcar.

Cocteau's film is unusual in that it is concerned with metaphysical issues, but it is completely non-devotional. I am a Catholic and a Buddhist, and am used to thinking about religion in terms of devotion. There is nothing like that in Cocteau's film: there are no prayers, no worship, no ritual, no explicitly religious feelings or experiences. This makes it very unusual in terms of religious films. In fact, it is unclear if this film is "religious" in the conventional sense of the term. I hasten to add that it is by no means anti-religious or in any way irreverent. Rather that it is talking about metaphysical issues, man's place in the cosmos, his relationship to death, artistic creativity, time. These ideas are philosophical, metaphysical or mythological. They are consistent with many different religious beliefs, without endorsing or embracing any one particular religious faith.

Several scenes here seem influential on science fiction works by J.G. Ballard. The messages pouring out of the radio anticipate those coming from the stars in "The Voices of Time" (1960) and "You and Me and the Continuum" (1966). The mirror imagery will recur in Ballard's "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D" (1967). And the emphasis of communities of poets and the sources of creativity will re-emerge in Ballard's "Studio Five, The Stars" (1961).

Many aspects of Cocteau's style here recall that of Fritz Lang. Lang created some of the first special effects driven pictures, such as Der Müde Tod (1921), and he and his successor Murnau are the sources of Cocteau's vision of a filmic world that has no parallel in reality. Both Der Müde Tod and Lang's Liliom (1934) deal with the after life, also the subject of Orpheus. Lang's films are full of high tech communication devices, such as the radio messages used in Spione (1928), and these find their successor in Cocteau's radio messages from the underworld in Orpheus. Lang's films also show a deep fascination with mirror shots, just as in Orpheus. The room used for the trial and interrogation recalls similar scenes in Lang films, such as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Above all, Cocteau's cinema is as architectural as Lang's. Scene after scene uses rooms and buildings as the base for Cocteau's compositions, just as in Lang.

Cocteau uses more camera movement than Lang typically does, however. Several shots in Orpheus recall the staging in Jean Renoir's pre-war films, such as Grand Illusion (1937). Like Renoir, Cocteau's camera will move through his interiors, linking up various points of view as it goes. Cocteau also favors Renoir's staging in depth in some scenes, with a door revealing a sequence of rooms many levels deep, similar to the farm house at the end of Grand Illusion. The scenes at the outdoor pavilion are also especially well composed. They too use staging in depth. Cocteau's camera movements, while creditable by any standards, are not as virtuosic as Renoir's. How many film directors' are? Cocteau often favors panning shots. Like those of Renoir, it is hard to believe that the sets were not deliberately designed to enable these particular shots. The geometry lines up with extreme precision. It is delightful, and it is hard to believe that it is not all planned in advance.

Testament of Orpheus (1960) Cocteau's final film, it is a sequence of vignettes, each setting forth some sketch about Cocteau's life, ideas, or work. Fairly minor, but good natured and with some charming moments.

The New Wave

Alain Resnais

Hiroshima mon amour (1959) breaks into two halves. They are different in tone. The first half is more realistic, more astringent; the second half more sensitive, more mystical. The first half of the film was preferred by Buñuel; the second half by Dreyer. (Otto Preminger did not like the movie at all, and found it inferior to On The Beach.) This information is from Andrew Sarris' Interviews With Film Directors (1967). Few contemporary films have been seen and commented on by so many prominent directors. I agree with Dreyer, in preferring the second half of the film.

L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) Brilliantly directed classic, that shows Resnais' flair for camera movement and visual style. This film takes place in an hermetically sealed world, a chateau in which the characters thrash out their relationships. Although avant-garde in its mannerisms, it today evokes nothing so much as the glossy soap operas of the 1980's, which are also all shot on elaborate sets, and which are designed to create a totally enclosed world for their viewers. (This is not intended as a slam of the film - many of these soaps are of high quality.)

Whereas Resnais' earlier Hiroshima includes such Dziga Vertov inspired media as words and photographs, Marienbad includes such "older" looking media as prints, statuary and theater. These are all consistent with the traditional milieu of the castle. Later, Mon Oncle will include recited poetry and film clips. The opening, with circular ceilings and pillars, recalls the famous ceiling shot from Resnais' Tout la memoire du monde (1956).

Resnais' films are a remarkable stream of beautiful images. For anyone who is interested in visual style, watching them can be a thrilling experience.

Muriel (1963) This is the roughest sledding of Resnais' films, worthwhile, but difficult to absorb, expecially on one viewing. The best scene: the moving recollections of the events in Algeria. Also good is the final camera movement through the apartment, which does have the effect of beautifully climaxing what we have seen before. If this film is difficult to watch, it is a film I respect, too. There is clearly some substance here, just presented in a very difficult form.

The scene of Robert's death is set against a fascinating building. It is full of grid covered windows. They show a tremendous variety: which seems to be one of the main points of the shot. Each region is of a different rectangular shape. Each is covered by a different kind of grid. There are six regions. They are in three groups of two; each group contains an upper and a lower grid. In each group, the separation between the upper and lower grid is at a different height. None of the grids extends from the top to the bottom of the image, so the effect is very different from, say, Mondrian. Instead, it reminds one more of pop art influenced painters of the 60's, such as Jasper Johns, with regions with different texture collected as rectangles within the larger frame.

The final shot of the film involves a large triangle on the right side of the shot. This triangle is the accumulation of many different pieces of furniture along the right hand wall of the apartment. Many of the chairs have elaborate grilled backs. These grills furnish a rich mix of textures in the image. They recall the gridded windows in the shot of Robert's death. Once again, both the circular tables, the chair backs, and the picture on the wall are "regions within the region". These shapes do not run across the image as a whole.

La Guerre est finie (1966) Meditation on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, in which an aging resistance fighter living in France begins to get weary of the struggle. The films images seem mainly to evoke psychological depression, in the clinical sense of the term, and the political background seems little more than a pretext or red herring. I liked this a lot less than most reviewers did.

Je t'aime, Je t'aime (1968) Science fiction film, in which the central character is sent back to relive his life in a time machine. The experiment goes awry, and the hero relives his life one minute at a time, with random intervals being selected. The film shows Resnais' brilliant gift for composition. While the random, non sequitor nature of the film causes it to drag and have structural problems, Resnais' remarkable visual style generally carries the day. The technique is perhaps a bit ancestral to Thirty Three Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Stavisky (1974) The first third of this film is relatively linear; the remainder indulges in scrambled storytelling. The first third is brilliantly done, with elaborate mise-en-scène, beautiful sets and costumes. It climaxes with the shots of the pyramid.

Providence (1977) Resnais' masterpiece. The first two thirds show a novelist plotting a story, using his family members as characters; he tries to control the story line, but real life emotions keep breaking through. The last third shows the family in daily life. Fabulous complexity in the intricately plotted script by David Hare.

Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980) Powerful drama. The film perhaps shows influence from the imagery in Alan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979). Both films show giant mice running around, both have mice running mazes. The three characters in the film have allegorical roles: the rich man represents capitalism, the woman communism, and Depardieu both ordinary working people and the third world.

Jacques Rivette

Among the best of the short films in Lumière et Compagnie (1995) are those by avant-garde filmmakers Jacques Rivette and David Lynch. Rivette's shows a woman and a girl skating on a sidewalk. In the background are several circular tree planters. This strong circular imagery is typical of Rivette, and recalls the oval mirror in Céline et Julie vont en bateau. The motions of the skater are also circular, such circularity is a female symbol. The woman disrupts a man reading a newspaper, he is relatively motionless, and holding the newspaper erect in a straight line symbol. Her motion and femaleness is disrupting his reading, rationality, stillness and maleness. Rivette's piece is just a little street scene, but a great deal of symbolism seems to pour naturally out of it. It shows much visual imagination. The oval mirror in Céline et Julie is similar in shape to the one in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934).

Kazuyoshi Okuyama

Rampo (1994) This film is known as The Mystery of Rampo in the US. It is the first film directed by a successful Japanese producer and studio executive, who apparently had carte blanche to do anything he wanted. His colleagues were apparently stunned that he wanted to make an avant-garde feature, predicting financial failure. To everyone's surprise, the film was a box office smash in Japan. From reviews posted on the Internet, it appears that people either love this film, or are completely baffled by it. I am definitely in the former camp. The film is a fictitious story about a real life mystery writer, Edogawa Rampo, set in the 1920's. One of his mystery tales, censored by the militaristic Japanese Government of the era, begins to come to life. Eventually fiction and reality become completely intermixed. The film is closest in style to Resnais' films, such as Providence, and Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating, both of which also dealt with the borders of fiction and real life. The retitling as The Mystery of Rampo is unfortunate: the film concerns a mystery story, which we see reenacted on screen, but the film itself is not a mystery.


Film Poetry

Stan Brakhage

Brakhage has created every sort of film. Some early works can be considered part of the Deren avant-garde, and a film like The Text of Light is an abstract film (it consists of light patterns shot through a glass ashtray, somewhat resembling the photographs of Jim Davis). But the main body of Brakhage's work is a personal variation on the tradition of the symphonic documentary, the tradition of Ruttman, and above all, Dziga Vertov. Brakhage has usually eschewed music as accompaniments to his films, and the editing is less regularly rhythmic than in most documentarians of this tradition. Yet Brakhage adheres to their basic approach, of a stream of non fiction images bound together by their visual forms and rhythms.

Interim (1952) Early narrative film, with a simple "Boy meets Girl" story. Brakhage loved film noir. While Interim has no suspense elements, it shares imagery with Hollywood film noir. Many semi-documentaries had finales in large scale industrial or engineering constructions, such as the end of The Naked City on the Williamsburg Bridge. Interim takes place on and near an elevated highway (reportedly near Denver). Other film noir imagery as a giant staircase, and trains, are also prominent in the film; Brakhage shows especial skill with the staircase. The scenes with the boy and the girl in the shack anticipate Antonioni, with characters having languid trysts in industrial areas.

Desistfilm (1954) Great camera movements in this short film showing a party. Shows Brakhage's flair for exuberant imagery.

The Wonder Ring (1955) This short film was short on the elevated train in New York. It has a magical moment celebrating movement: first the train and the image are still, then with a lurch, the train sets off into movement, taking the camera with it. Next the film begins to shoot naturally superimposed imagery, showing reflections in the windows of the train. These become very complex. The whole film is very beautiful. Vertov included many train shots in The Man With a Movie Camera; he also made shots of reflections in windows. Such a technique perhaps influenced Brakhage.

Window Water Baby Moving (1959) Powerful film showing the birth of the Brakhages' first child. Dziga Vertov also included film of a childbirth in his The Man With a Movie Camera (1929).

Dog Star Man is divided into five sections, a Prelude, and Parts One to Four. Each is really a separate film, with different techniques and subject matter.

Dog Star Man: Prelude (1961) This film edits non fiction material in a non sequential, apparently non logical way. It is in the exact tradition of Symbolist poetry and literature, such as Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. Brakhage and many of his admirers consider this his highest achievement. I feel the results are more mixed. Most of my reservations have to do with Symbolism itself. I have never understood why scrambling the syntax of language was especially artistic, or necessary. Despite this, several Symbolist poets have considerable personal talent, and have managed to create some good works in the Symbolist mode: Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Melvin Tolson. Brakhage is a similar case. The scrambled imagery of the Prelude can be exhausting to watch, and I don't see any intellectual value added by this approach. Yet Brakhage is a talented filmmaker, and there are certainly things worth seeing in his film.

Dog Star Man Part One (1962) Part 1 shows a man walking up a hill. The setting is a mountainous forest hill in Colorado in the wintertime. The man is played by Brakhage himself, and he is accompanied by a dog. This is the whole story, and one can see that it is one the border between fiction (a staged scene showing some events) and documentary (a picture of something real, just a man and dog climbing a hill). What is astonishing about this film is its camera technique. It shows the man and dog from every possible point of view, and using every camera technique imaginable. It also includes scenes showing what the forest, snow and sky look like. These shots help convey the experience of what it is like to be out there, walking up the snow covered hill. The film is 30 minutes long, and extraordinarily gripping. It has to considered as a "montage" sequence, in the tradition of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Most of the shots are short. Some linger for a few seconds; these are often fairly clear shots showing the man and dog, the hill, the trees, and so on. Other shots are extremely brief. They convey a point of view, perhaps showing the trees or the man's feet. These shots can be taken with a rapidly moving camera. I wish I had statistics on how many shots this scene is composed, but there must be hundreds. It is far more detailed than most montage sequences. The shots are far more blurred, with far more camera movement, and in every way less conventional than those in traditional Soviet montage. They attempt to convey the most subtle aspects of "seeing": all the possibilities of human vision.

Brakhage is also a storyteller. The sequence of the shots shows a considerable inner logic. There is actually not only a storyteller in Brakahge, but a showman. Wonder Ring gets more and more complex as it goes along, and builds to greater and greater climaxes. Its format is one familiar from traditional arts such as classical music and popular theater and film: show the viewer more and more astonishing things, bring the story to a growing climax, show the viewers magic and marvels, leave them dazzled and excited at the end. We can see this approach in the symphonies of Beethoven and the film comedies of Buster Keaton. Dog Star Man Part One also has something of this feel. Its narrative, a man climbing a hill, is far removed from big budget films, but its story maintains the deep story telling interest of other Brakhage films as Desistfilm, Wonder Ring, and Deus Ex.

Dog Star Man Part One is both closer to and farther away from conventional films than the other parts of the feature. The Prelude and the later sections use much superimposition, and are often closer to pure abstraction. Part One instead is a film narrative, but one that uses radically different camera work from conventional films, one designed to open the viewers' eyes to new ways of seeing and looking. It has a dialectical relationship with conventional films: it is a film that offers an alternative to them. It seems like a radical, innovative extension of conventional film technique. By contrast, the other parts of Dog Star Man often seem to be completely different from conventional films: an Other that exists in a different genre or different world. They are good, and I really liked getting a chance to see them. But they have less to teach people who are oriented to conventional films about new approaches. This is hardly the only criterion of merit, of course.

Dog Star Man Part Two (1963) is a short film, that mainly looks at one of the Brakhages' babies. It seems there partly because the loving parents wanted it to be there! This is a personal film, after all. Part Three (1963) contains much footage of a woman, presumably Jane Brakhage, the artist's wife and collaborator. Part Four (1964) contains much abstraction. All of these films are complex visual experiences. I watched them twice, and each time they seemed completely different to me. On first viewing, I tend to see the rhythms of the film more clearly; one second viewing, the shots seem to separate out and group themselves together in my mind in terms of subject matter. I do not know the "correct" way to view a film like this. I have no idea if my experiences are what the director intended, or what other people are seeing. One feels like one is in a strange country for the first time, and looking at different things.

Deus Ex (1972) Brakhage's intimate look at a hospital. The film builds up to a real sense of wonder in its depiction of a doctor saving a man's life. Its evocation of feelings of awe and gratitude show Brakhage's ability to convey the most personal feelings through his work.

Ron Rice

The Flower Thief (1960) This is a long (75 minute) film poem, filled with exuberantly creative imagery. I especially like the shots of the carousel. Much of the action takes place outside. It is not close to the 1940's Deren-Anger-Harrington school at all; it is perhaps closest to the style of Brakhage. It also recalls the city symphonies of Dziga Vertov. The carousel shots have the exuberance of Vertov, and his complex visual style.

Chumlum (1964) This film was shot indoors, involving costumed characters and superimpositions, and was an attempt by Rice to make a film in the Jack Smith - Kenneth Anger style. Sadly, it does not seem very good to me. Although one would think Rice was born to shoot in color, this too falls flat.


Abstract Film

James Whitney

Lapis (1963-1966) is an abstract film, shot with optical techniques. It presents circular patterns of light. It is one of the most visually complex works ever put on film. It is edited to Indian ragas.

Jordan Belson

Allures (1961) Abstract film, which shows evolving geometric patterns of dots and lines on a diferently colored background. The effect is "digital" here, just as Belson's later films such as Samadhi (1967) seem "analog".

Samadhi (1967) Remarkable film showing a continuously changing sea of bright colors. One of the best abstract films, made up of pure light and color. Belson would go on to create similar works as special effects in Hollywood feature films: some of the celestial patterns of light in The Right Stuff (1983), for example.


Structural Film

Paul J. Sharits

S:tream:S S:ection S:ection:S S:ectioned (1968 - 1970) This is supposed to be a "structural" film. Actually, it consists of superimposed shots of running water. Animated bars gradually appear over the water, and these vertical bars are mimicked in the unusual title of the film, with its many "S:". The water photography is ecstatically beautiful, and not to be missed. Like Anger's Eaux d'Artifice (1953), it shows the overwhelming interest water has for people.

Robert Nelson

The Awful Backlash (1965-1966) No, this film is not about politics. It shows a literal backlash: a highly tangled piece of fishing string. The short film shows the untangling of the string in a single take. It is unexpectedly fascinating. The string makes complex patterns which are gradually resolved.

Bleu Shut (1970) Another "structural" film. This work is divided into a series of short films, each the same arbitrary length long, which are arranged into a fairly logical pattern. Unlike many structural works, it maintains quite a sense of humor, and winds up as entertaining viewing.

Michael Snow

Wavelength (1966-1967) Snow rose to fame with this film, which consists of a single, 45 zoom shot. The camera starts out showing a whole wall of an apartment, then very slowly and steadily zooms into a picture of the sea on the wall. Various things happen along the way, including a brief, unresolved murder mystery, but the main focus is on the visual effect of the zoom itself, and the different views of the apartment wall it gradually produces. The effect is to get the viewer to notice, and meditate on, what really happens visually during a zoom. The film was made a year after the deep tracking shot into the family photograph that ends Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). Later, the British avant-garde writer J.G. Ballard would publish "The 60 Minute Zoom" (1976), an unusual crime story which describes in imaginative detail a long zoom rather like the one in Snow's film.

8 X 10 (1969) Snow is as much a multimedia artist as he is a film maker. This work consists of 80 still photographs, arranged into an 8 by 10 rectangular grid upon the wall. The photographs all are of abstract geometric patterns, related but varied, and make one complex visual experience when all assembled. Most of the photos show a black bordered rectangle, photographed from various three dimensional angles. This sort of visual sequence comes of out a similar tradition as Jennifer Bartlett's large, similarly arranged series of abstract paintings, Rhapsody (1975 - 1976).

Untitled Slidelength (1969 - 1971) This work consists of 80 35mm color slides, arranged into a narrative sequence. Many of the slides show elaborate hand gestures, which are part of complex geometric patterns. Rectangular sheets of colored plastic are worked into the shots; they are tilted at angles, and recall the tilted black bordered rectangle of 8 X 10. Hand gestures are fascinating. They are important in Cambodian classical dance. They are also prominent in the geometric compositions of the comic book artist Steve Ditko. Snow's gestures do indeed resemble those of Ditko.

Morgan Fisher

Untitled (Late 1960's) This short film shows two cameras photographing each other. It is a delightful reducto ad absurdam of the structuralist school.


Symphonic Documentary

Walter Ruttman

Berlin, the Symphony of a Great City (1927) This is the pioneer work of the city documentary series. In them, a film maker shoots a great deal of unrelated footage about daily life in some city, the edits it all together, trying to find visual echoes and interesting visual patterns among the random footage he has shot. Ruttman deserves a great deal of credit for his originality here. However, the final results are a bit mixed. The film maintains interest throughout, but always has a strained feel. The images always show Ruttman trying to make the most appealing picture out of basically ordinary material. Similarly, the editing always has a feel of desperation, as if it were the best Ruttman could do. The connection between the images sometimes seems cute, and sometimes clever, but rarely compelling.

Godfrey Reggio

Koyaanisqatsi (1983) The film, like most of Reggio's works, is very closely edited to works by Philip Glass. Reggio's music editing technique seems to be in the tradition of Kenneth Anger's. Glass' minimalist style even sometimes recalls that of Leos Janacek, whose music was used by Anger for The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Powerful documentary on modern life, with much to think about. Spectacular fast motion imagery.

Anima Mundi (1991) Half hour film showing the animal world. It concentrates on extreme close ups of animals, showing us their facial expressions, and personal feelings far more than do many nature films. The kinds of facial expressions and movements of the animals are grouped into categories, starting from the quietest and most static, and building up into the most animated. Their are also many scenes of groups of animals all moving together, the schools and herds operating in unison in complex patterns. Anima Mundi means the spirit of the world, and the film tries to convey the spiritual side of animals. It shows both their individual souls, and has a pantheistic vision of a spirit sweeping through life as a whole. The inclusion of many different types of animals recall Tim Pope's excellent animal video for Talk-Talk's It's My Life (1983). The cross cutting between different kinds of animals brings out unexpected similarities between the various groups of animals. It also shows the incredible variety and diversity of life: the film was made to celebrate the genetic diversity of life, now terribly threatened by deforestation.

Ron Fricke

Baraka (1992) Fricke was Reggio's cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi (1983). Here he branches off on his own, to do a film anthology showing various kinds of world spirituality. Very uplifting, healing work, showing highlights of the great religions of the world.


Precursors of the Experimental Film

Robert Wiene

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) This film looks remarkable in stills published in books. The sets are elaborate, non naturalistic designs based on German expressionist painting. They are a real achievement. Unfortunately the screened film is another matter. Camera technique in the film is near zero. The director sets up a camera angle, the actors move around on the admittedly remarkable set, and that's it. The effect is primitive and crude. The acting reminds me of the pageants we used to put on in our cub scout troop. The film deserves considerable credit for introducing the concept of non realistic, art based set design to film. This has been very influential. However, the reality of the film as a whole is more mixed.

Jacob Protazanov

Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) Around one fifth of this film takes place on Mars, the rest in the early Soviet Union. The Russian scenes are a fairly realistic look at early revolutionary Russia, at least in visual appearance (they are choked with Red ideology). Russia looks desperately poor and depressed in these scenes. The Martian scenes have only a tenuous connection with the rest of the film, but they are the best part of the movie. The costumes worn by the Martian characters are Constructivist, and were designed by Alexandra Exter, among others. These Martian scenes are some of the fullest interpenetration of Constructivism into the movies. An abstract painting like Exter's Composition (1914) shows stars and wheel like constructions with spokes radiating out from a central hub; similarly, in Aelita, the Martian Queen's head piece is full of radiating lines. I can't say I was greatly enthused by Aelita as a whole, but I did like the spectacular Martian costumes. I also thought the Russian scenes had some value in visually documenting a part of history I had read about, but did not have any visual image of. The film needs more Mars and less Marxism.

The costumes for Aelita are among the most 3 dimensional of all Russian Constructivist work. Constructivism started with the reliefs of Tatlin, and both the reliefs and the paintings of Constructivism have a two dimensional feel. The Aelita costumes make heavy use of spheres, used as shoulder decorations, and many hats and helmets, which are of complex 3D shapes. The hats can have cylindrical rings coming asymmetrically off one side; both the solidity and thickness of the ring, and its off-center quality, add to the 3D effect.

Each body component of the performers is highlighted by large, wide stripes; the effect is to make the torso or limbs into cylindrical (or even more elaborate) constructs. People do not have flat circles on their chests, as they do in superhero comic books (see Jor-El, or Sunboy in the Legion of Superheroes); instead they have three dimensional washers on their chest, with a small but distinct thickness. Similarly, each square on a belt of squares worn by one character has a distinctly visible depth, also 3D in effect. The radiating spikes of the Queen's headdress and the maid's skirt are also wildly 3D. The spokes also have a visible thickness. They are not flat in outline.

F.W. Murnau

Sunrise (1927) If the pictorialism of Von Sternberg is the source of much avant-garde film, many other experimental film traditions root in the movies of F.W. Murnau. Sunrise is full of tricky camera devices of every sort. There are dissolves. Multiple superpositions. Scenes involving tricks of back projection. Special effects. Such devices are constantly used in the films of Cocteau and Maya Deren, as well as such special effects-laden mainstream French works of the 1940's as Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir. There is also an elaborate artificial world created within the studio, anticipating the films of Cocteau, Resnais, Anger, Harrington and Jack Smith. Between the camera tricks and the studio shooting, the effect is of a world created by film, a world entirely made by devices purely unique to the cinematic medium. The scene where Murnau's camera tracks the city woman's footprints in the mud perhaps inspired the wonderful one in Harrington's Night Tide which tracks the mermaid's wet footprints.

One can see other influences here as well. Murnau includes several point of view camera sequences; these recall those in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. These sequences include tracking forward, modeling the POV of a walking person; this is exactly Hitchcock's technique. The scenes of the lovers walking among the tall trees in the forest will return in Hitchcock's Vertigo and North By Northwest. Hitchcock's early films will also include the mental imagery found in Sunrise, where we see directly the thoughts inside people's heads.

Murnau's aesthetic also seems directly inspirational to the science fiction world of George Lucas. Star Wars has the same mix of studio sets and special effects as do Nosferatu, Faust, and Sunrise. Princess Leia's costume and hair design seem modeled directly on those of Janet Gaynor in Sunrise.

Recommended Reading

Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (1967).

Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal (1972).

P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (1974).