"Salome," (1922), starring Alla Nazimova and screening tonight at UCLA, "is an amazing film," says film historian Bruce Posner. File photo
It will come as a surprise to many film aficionados that the filmmakers
included in "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893-1941" include
Frank Capra, Busby Berkeley, D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and Orson
Curated by film historian Bruce Posner, the
traveling exhibition being presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
begins today at the university's Melnitz Hall and continues through Feb.
For decades the party line regarding avant-garde
filmmaking in America was that Maya Deren gave birth to the genre in 1943. But
that conception has changed over the past decade. "Unseen Cinema" illustrates
the various types of avant-garde films made prior to Deren's.
Between 1893 and 1913, filmmakers frequently
experimented with content and even methods of production. The years from 1926
to 1929 were golden for the avant-garde, which saw impressive experimental work
from such filmmakers as Slavko Vorkapich, Robert Florey, Ralph Steiner and
Robert Flaherty. During the Depression, amateur filmmakers flourished, and
professional directors explored social issues in ways that would seem almost
Jan-Christopher Horak, the curator of the
Hollywood Entertainment Museum and a professor of film at UCLA, has written
several books on avant-garde cinema including "Lovers of Cinema: The First
American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945." He says perceptions of avant-garde cinema
have changed among historians because more material has become accessible.
"Much of the material [in the exhibition] was not accessible 15 or 20 years
ago. It is really to Bruce's credit that he managed to get viewing prints [from
the major film archives] for this traveling show."
The majority of films in the exhibit had long
been forgotten, says Posner. "Like Edwin S. Porter's 'Jack and the Beanstalk.'
He went on to make 'The Great Train Robbery,' which almost everybody knows, but
they don't know he produced several hundred other films. These were trained
artists and craftspeople. But because time has buried them, we don't know this.
In the last 10 years or so, these films are finally starting to get out of the
museums and archives and collections. It changes the whole notion of what went
on back then, from one of primitive filmmaking to outstanding visual artists
who are just as strong as people from post-1941."
The only feature-length movie in the exhibit is
1922's "Salome," starring Nazimova. Directed by Charles Bryant, the film
featured the exotic sets and costumes of Natacha Rambovawho later
married Rudolph Valentinothat were based on Aubrey Beardsley's designs
for the 1905 opera based on Oscar Wilde's 1894 one-act play. The film is a
wallow in high camp and excess, but it is also gorgeous to behold.
"Salome" screens tonight in a program that
includes Frank Capra's first film, 1921's "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" and
Florey and Vorkapich's seminal 1927 short, "The Life and Death of 9413A
"'Salome' is an amazing film," says Posner. "It
was a huge, colossal flop. [Nazimova] sunk her money into it. It was truly an
independent production. She was one of the biggest stars. When she came to
Hollywood she made 19 films."
With "Salome," he said, "she went over the
Much of the criticism when "Salome" was released
focused on the fact that the 43-year-old actress was a bit too long in the
tooth to play a 14-year-old temptress. "But when you see it on the screen, her
eyesthe way they were photographedare startling," says Posner.
"It carries the film."
Seven years before he directed his 1941
masterwork, "Citizen Kane," a then-19-year-old Orson Welles and a high school
buddy William Vance made the eight-minute expressionist silent "The Hearts of
Age," which screens Feb. 24.
Vance and Welles had been students at a private
high school outside Chicago. "There was a man there named Roger Hill who ran
the theater program," says Posner. "He was encouraging people to make movies,
and he got them a camera. Welles graduated, and the next summer he came back
there was a theater festival for the weekendand they shot this
little spoof playing off of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' [the 1919 classic
German expressionistic thriller] that was really popular at the time and 'Blood
of the Poet' [Jean Cocteau's avant-garde 1930 French film].
"Welles did an interview [once] with Peter
Bogdanovich, and he said, 'It was just Sunday afternoon fun. It's just
nothing.' But the film is so complex and has everything Orson Welles [did in
subsequent movies]you have fast cutting, disorientation."
Horak will introduce the Feb. 23 program that
includes one of his favorite films, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's "Manhatta
(New York, the Magnificent; Fumee de New York)," from 1921.
"It is a wonderful film as far as I am
concerned," says Horak. "I think it is really in every sense of the term an
avant-garde film. It used to be talked about as this kind of simple
documentary, but if you look at it closely that in point of fact, it reproduces
not only images of New York City in 1920, but reproduces the point of view of
what modern art does. Once you are in the cityscape like that with very high
buildings, you no longer have this open view of things. Your view is always
fragmented, and that is what the Cubists were all about, the fragmenting of
vision. This film very clearly is in that aesthetic of showing how you can no
longer see the city as a whole; you can only see bits and pieces of it. You get
a real sense of nonstop movement of life in the city."
Screening Feb. 24 is Charles Klein's eerie,
expressionistic version of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" from 1928.
"I was the one who brought it to this country," says Horak. "I found it in
London at the British Film Institute in the archive. Nobody ever looked at it
before [in the archive]. I knew of it when I was doing the research on my early
American avant-garde book. I was looking for the film and then couldn't find it
anywhere in this country."
Horak believes "Tell-Tale Heart" is a perfect
illustration as to why avant-garde film from 1920s was ignored by critics and
filmmakers in the 1940s. The film, he says, "is very much using some of the
formal devices of German expressionist cinema. A lot of the critics and
avant-garde filmmakers of the 1940s were, of course, tooting their own horn.
They knew about some of this work, but they said those are simple kinds of
reproductions of German expressionist or European forms, and there is nothing
American about them. They were dismissed as basically not worth looking
He believes the exact opposite is true.
"While it may use some of the forms of German
expressionism, how much more American can you get than Poe?
"Second, there is an eclecticism in the way these
formal devices are used that is very American and really ties it into the
avant-garde of the '50s and '60sthe willingness to take forms that
seemingly don't fit together and mesh them in a post-modern pastiche."
* * *
"Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film,
1893-1941" screens today at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.; Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m.;
Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 24 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater
at Melnitz Hall on the northeast corner of the UCLA campus. Admission is $7
general; $5 for students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. For general
information, call (310) 206-FILM; for the program schedule, call 310-206-FILM
or go to http://www.cinema.ucla.edu.
The Los Angeles Film Forum will be presenting
another program from the "Unseen Cinema" series Sunday at 7 p.m. at the
Egyptian Theater, Hollywood. For information, go to