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Avant-garde film gems in 'Treasures IV' collection

A Second Look

A Second Look

March 01, 2009|Dennis Lim

Few events in cinephile culture are more momentous than a new installment in the "Treasures" series from the National Film Preservation Foundation. Released in 2000, the first "Treasures From American Film Archives" contained more than 11 hours of restored early rarities and "orphan films": features, shorts, newsreels, advertisements, cartoons, home movies.

A reminder of the valuable work done by film archives across the country, it also seemed like a mere dip into an inexhaustible trove -- an impression confirmed by the follow-up volume, "More Treasures," which turned up another bonanza of seminal cinematic texts.

"Treasures III" introduced a thematic focus to the series, concentrating on social-issue films from 1900 to 1934. The latest edition, "Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986" ($44.99), out this week, also has an organizing principle, albeit a much broader one.

While the first three collections drew largely from the silent era, the point of this new set is to illuminate its shadow history -- "an entirely different set of possibilities, another world of images and sounds," as Martin Scorsese writes in his accompanying essay.

Needless to say, a two-disc set that restricts itself to one film per filmmaker is far from a definitive survey, especially given the vastness of the avant-garde rubric and the range that many of these artists have shown throughout their careers. In fact, considering the contents of "Treasures IV," one is struck by the difficulty of even defining avant-garde cinema, which over the years has also been referred to as experimental, independent, radical or underground film.

To generalize, avant-garde films are deeply personal, made on micro-budgets and in artisanal fashion, and they tend to eschew linear narratives in favor of visual abstraction and poetry. The 26 movies in "Treasures IV," all of them shorts (only two exceed half an hour), were never intended for mass consumption. But non-initiates who hold the stereotypical view that experimental work is necessarily difficult will likely be surprised by the qualities that emerge time and again throughout this eye-popping, mind-expanding set: beauty, wit, playfulness, even simplicity.

More than an archive, "Treasures IV" has the added benefit of introducing to a wider public a few giants of the movement who are still producing new work. The prolific and protean Ken Jacobs (whose recently completed, six-hour magnum opus, "Star Spangled to Death," is available via his website at www .starspangledtodeath.com) is represented here by "Little Stabs at Happiness" (1959-63), an episodic early work accompanied by the director's narration and scratched 78-rpm records.

Jonas Mekas, the 86-year-old former critic and lifelong champion of the avant-garde (who made and uploaded a short film to his website, jonasmekas.com, every day in 2007) is also featured -- with "Notes on the Circus" (1966), a jittery and hypnotic record of the Ringling Brothers show.

There are filmmakers here whose work is almost entirely unknown, even among cognoscenti, like Christopher Maclaine, whose disjunctive apocalyptic fable "The End" (1953) is some kind of masterpiece, a Beat-inflected vision of nuclear paranoia.

There are also films by artists who are not best known as filmmakers. Andy Warhol's "Mario Banana (No. 1)" (1964) features drag performer Mario Montez slowly and suggestively eating a banana. "Film No. 3: Interwoven" (1947-49) is a flickering, boldly colored animation by the ethnomusicologist and bohemian legend Harry Smith. And "By Night With Torch and Spear" is a found-footage enigma, apparently assembled in the 1940s by the Surrealist-inspired artist Joseph Cornell.

These are richly suggestive works, triggering meanings and associations beyond the frame. Marie Menken's time-lapse "Go! Go! Go!" (1962-64) and Shirley Clarke's Abstract-Expressionist "Bridges-Go-Round" (1958) are a wonderful pair of New York-set city poems, richer for being seen back-to-back.

Many of the films are preoccupied with the raw materials of the medium. In "The Riddle of Lumen" (1972), Stan Brakhage set out to make a film in which light itself is "the hero."

The "Treasures IV" set comes with a 72-page booklet containing notes on each film, as well as tips for further viewing. As with its predecessors, net proceeds support film preservation. Which is to say, the success of each "Treasures" box ensures more to come, making this a more than worthwhile investment.

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