Learn more about the
Unseen Cinema
DVD box set

The Grand Experiment

by Bruce Posner

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941 premieres the first-ever, comprehensive film retrospective of the pre—Maya Deren inspired avant-garde cinema in America. Bursting with one hundred and sixty titles in newly restored or preserved 35mm and 16mm film prints, the survey details the hitherto unknown accomplishments of pioneer filmmakers working in the United States and abroad during the formative period of American film. The series postulates an innovative and at times controversial view of experimental cinema as a product of avant-garde artists, of Hollywood directors, and of amateur movie-makers working collectively and as individuals at all levels of film production during the last decade of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Many of these films have not been available since their creation over a century ago, some have never been previously screened in public, and almost all have been unavailable in pristine projection prints until now.

Beginning with the invention of film technologies at the Edison Laboratory in New Jersey in the 1890s, American filmmaking attracted successive waves of artists, writers, photographers, poets, choreographers, playwrights, designers, and numerous other creative types. Affectionately labeled as "lovers of cinema" by film enthusiast Herman G. Weinberg, the dreamers and schemers crafted a significant body of films that grasped the most essential elements "in the air" at the time. Until recently, scholarly accounts may have acknowledged alternative filmmaking before World War II but generally have regarded the influential work of Maya Deren as the true beginnings of avant-garde cinema in America. Nothing could be further from the truth. She was not the first American to explore experimental cinema. The quantity and quality of the films recovered from the first six decades of cinema’s genesis demonstrates a vital avant-garde film culture in America prior to Maya Deren. Furthermore, the early American film avant-garde repeatedly predated or simultaneously developed alongside many major movements of 20th century American art. Prominent examples abound within early avant-garde film aesthetics that correlate either to the style or substance of Modernism, Surrealism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, and later Minimalism, Structuralism, Beat, Pop, Punk, and Postmodernism. The eventual emergence of these art movements in painting, sculpture, performance art, theatre, literature, and music followed, sometimes years later, the ground-breaking efforts of the oft forgotten experimental filmmakers.

In general, all films were literally "unseen" soon after their creation–that is the life span of a film was limited to its novelty in the marketplace. Once a film exhausted its commercial potential, the film was retired from public exhibition. This constituted the standard practice for commercial film distribution more or less until the advent of television in the 1940s-50s. For all practical purposes, the process was accelerated for avant-garde films which had little if any commercial value. Even though a massive amateur film movement flourished from the late 1920s, most experimental filmmakers did in fact only screen their films at home for a select audience of family and friends. Several exceptions have been dutifully documented with the public exhibition of classic amateur productions, such as The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1927), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), H20 (1929), and Lot in Sodom (1930-32). Welcome additions to the standard commercial fare were provided by theatrical presentations of Mary Ellen Bute’s "seeing-sound" abstract music films at Radio City Music Hall in New York City during the thirties and forties and MGM’s wide release of Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem in 1938. Interpolated throughout Hollywood films of the 1930s, dance numbers by Busby Berkeley and montage effects by Slavko Vorkapich brightened the nation’s screens with dazzling innovations that were viewed by millions. At the same time, arty features such as Salomé (1922), The Salvation Hunters (1925), and The Last Moment (1928) were box office disappointments that quickly disappeared from view.

The currently held conception of early avant-garde cinema or the "first avant-garde," as indicated by Henri Langlois, is that it began in earnest during the mid-1920s in Europe as an outgrowth of the ciné-club movement. European avant-garde classics, including films such as Le Retour à la raison (1923), Ballet mécanique (1924), Anémic cinéma (1926), Wingbeat (1927), Hände (1928), Light Rhythms (1930), Nuit sur le Mont Chauve [Night on Bald Mountain] (1933), and Joie de vivre (1934), were considered exemplary role models within the new tradition of experimental cinema. As an ironic counterpoint to this Eurocentric context, these "foreign" works were actually authored or co-authored by expatriate Americans working and living abroad: Man Ray, Dudley Murphy, and Claire Parker in France; Stella Simon in Germany; and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Francis Bruguière, and Hector Hoppin in Great Britain. In a reciprocal movement, Europeans and Russians traversed the Atlantic in order to work in America, many to establish a beachhead in Hollywood. The energetic movements back and forth between Old and New Worlds and the sub-orbits between America’s filmmaking metropolises of New York and Los Angeles created a friction from which an original and profound type of cinematic art arose.

The early American films made from 1893 to approximately 1913 were experimental in their method of production, making use of new found techniques and styles and as such directly influencing later American work, mainstream and experimental. Thereafter, experimental cinema grew hand-in-hand with the supremacy of the Hollywood film as a social-economic institution. The industry provided to the average American an exposure to films and techniques, access to equipment and film stocks, and a potential for employment in Hollywood and ancillary businesses. Filmmaking flourished under these opportunistic conditions. Between 1925 and 1929, one can not only claim a "Golden Era" of Hollywood silent feature films but an equally vibrant period of avant-garde film activity throughout the country with significant films by Watson and Webber, Vorkapich, Florey, Steiner, and Flaherty leading the way. This momentum peaked during the early 1930s when industry professionals, amateurs, and other cinema enthusiasts produced an astonishing array of experimental short and feature films. In the thirties filmmakers worked in the newly blossomed experimental film tradition as polemicists advancing new approaches and rhetoric. Films such as A Bronx Morning (Jay Leyda, 1930), Portrait of a Young Man (Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1925-1931), Poem 8 (Emlen Etting, 1933), and the unfinished Qué Viva México! (Sergei Eisenstein, 1930-32), all masterpieces of cinematic construction, explored new directions for creative filmmaking but did not inspire any immediate further explorations. The Great Depression and the attendant politicization of artists and intellectuals ended the grand artistic experiment, and filmmakers shifted to matters of social concern and responsibility. From then on most experimental filmmakers worked in isolation and under anonymous conditions on films that expanded the boundaries of the genre and led to the experimental film renaissances of New York and San Francisco in 1940s. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, further machinations within the experimental film communities on the east and west coasts and abroad would fulfill many of the early gestures emanated by the maverick efforts of the early American pioneers.

As the retrospective clearly demonstrates, the recently recovered films present a unique history. One of the first things that a viewer will notice is that the sophistication of European models slips away in favor of a raw, direct quality that flaunts its own set of in-your-face, here-it-is, like-it-or-not American sensibilities. At first many of the American films may appear archaic and simple-minded with rough, unpolished edges, but a closer examination reveals a new cinematic presence. These films are separated from the European ones, not exclusively a commercial or Hollywood model but an iconoclastic pastiche made up of dramas, abstractions, home movies, parodies, animation, nature studies, experimentation, and poetry–strictly American in attitude–with a little taken from here and some from there, but very raw, fresh, and unsteady. The early American avant-garde film is as unpredictable as it is unmanageable, breaking taboos and conventions in the service of film as a lively art in the making. No two films are alike, but then again no two Americans would ever agree to be seen as alike either. The binding principle among these often disparate and seemingly at-odds types of films remains the creative furor behind their conception.

For many of the films under consideration, the raison d’être of their production reached beyond the aesthetic practice of the avant-garde to take an oppositional stance to social, political, or moral affairs. Alternative tactics included films that explore altered states of mind, point out social-political injustices or inequities, or offer overtly myopic views of realities. Much as they do today, these attributes defined a cinema based on personal dreamscapes and poetic fantasies aligned along the elusive parameters of a creative artist’s oeuvre. This desire to create has spurred artists since the beginning of time to make marks and to leave traces for others to discover. These marks illuminated an individual’s place in ways not possible via other forms of communication. Works of art, and make no mistake that these films are to be considered as artworks, bring together all kinds of incendiary personal desires. The new medium of film offered artists an innovative form with which to contemplate the myriad facets of life. The films also could incorporate a filmmaker’s involvement with the ever evolving technology. A new lens, film stocks, methods of lighting or sound recording, availability of post-production facilities, or advancements in camera design could permit startling cinematic discoveries. Gathered amongst these various influences, the spreading roots and branches of early American avant-garde cinema can be appreciated as virgin seedlings sprouting on a vast cinema frontier.

One of the more profound conflicts that will face the viewer of this retrospective is how to assess the numerous divergent approaches displayed by the various early cinemas. As stated in the opening paragraph, an innovative and at times controversial view has been encouraged in order to redefine the eclectic methods used by American filmmakers between 1893 and 1941. Strictly speaking home movies are not Hollywood features and neither of these could be confused as avant-garde experiments, etc. But it is amazing how similar in approach each of these types of film can seem when viewed together as they are in the retrospective. The disparate genres, experiments, and even original camera roll outtakes do share many of the same characteristics no matter how unintended or uninformed by their makers as "avant-garde cinema." The juxtapositions conjured by the retrospective’s mix of experimental, documentary, and narrative formats provides a new light under which to examine these early experimental efforts.

Two extremes of cinematic practice can be witnessed by the films of Archie Stewart (1902-1998), a car dealer of Newburgh, New York, and Dr. Walter G. Chase, a Boston area producer of medical films. Beginning in 1926, Stewart’s amateur films, shot over a lifetime, feature his family and their activities at home and on vacation. Many of his films benefit from early 16mm sound-on-film recordings that capture conversations between those being filmed and the filmmaker. The overall effect of Archie’s cinema is one of a warm and extended chat with family and friends. Walter G. Chase’s 1905 film documentaries of epileptic seizures are a polar opposite to Stewart’s innocent home movies. Shot near ground-level, from a straight-on frontal camera position, Chase filmed, with unflinching attention, adults and children in progressive stages of seizure. The resultant films were intended for study purposes, and many of these films have been in use at medical schools for nearly a century. The raw film documents are chilling in their effect, but exude a serene beauty and formal elegance in the depiction of an unfortunate but very real state of human physiology.

Taken together, these two types of cinema are free of radical intentions but are sufficiently advanced in content and form to establish new boundaries for early film aesthetics. Blissfully ignorant of the enormous breadth of his home movie project, Archie Stewart amassed an intimate recording of family life or at least the fiction of family life throughout most of the 20th century. While his constant refinement of cinematic techniques parallels the growth of his family, his cinematic engagement with the family transgresses conventional notions of privacy associated with the family structure during this time period. Without violating their shared trusts, Stewart presents on film, for the first time, an in-depth portrait of familial interactions that covers several generations of Stewarts. It would not be until the late 1950s before another filmmaker would begin to consider the cinematic opportunities inherent in the family setting, and this would be encapsulated by a monumental record of family life filmed by avant-gardist Stan Brakhage. But whereas Brakhage aestheticized the reflections of light bouncing off family members surrounding him, Stewart interacts with family and friends on camera and as an off-screen narrator to encourage participation in the enfolding cinematic encounter. In effect, Stewart’s cinema anticipates the "direct cinema" of Pennebaker, Leacock, and Drew and the avant-garde "home movies" of Brakhage, Mekas, Frank, and Noren, both of which sought cinematic fodder within family dynamics.

Walter G. Chase’s experimental records of the movements of epileptic seizure present cold, hard facts meant to be viewed by professional eyes. Much like the clinical photographs of Diane Arbus, Chase’s films offend while attracting the viewer’s gaze. His obsession for the gruesome steps beyond the French Théâtre du Grand-Guignol and into a perverse world sought by many avant-garde artists stretching from Salvador Dali’s and Luis Bunuel’s surrealism of Un chien Andalou (1926) to Peter Greenaway’s meticulously macabre universe of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). With the epileptic seizure films and many other medical procedure films such as [Man Having His Leg Amputated] (c. 1905) or The Feeble-Minded (c. 1930s), the shock of the filmed images is derived from seeing that which is normally hidden from view. The horror of witnessing the forbidden is ghoulish to say the least, but beyond the shock value, Chase’s films present an aesthetic experience somewhat related to the late 19th century nude photographic subjects of Eadweard Muybridge’s Human Figure in Motion. Whereas both share a quasi-scientific intent to the measure human movements on film, the images they produced transcend their formal academic uses and provide a revolutionary and artistic visualization of the human body.

The ironies abound in Chase’s seizure films in that the camera placement, as mentioned above, is face-to-face with the patients who, through no fault of their own, have collapsed on the ground and are absorbed in psychic-muscular spasms. The tension generated by viewing naked and clothed persons in seizure is broken by the nonchalant actions of the attending nurses, who in moments of ultimate professional callousness, move the patients back into the camera’s range when they shake away from view. And to deepen the irony, additional visual interest is created by the primitive method used to copy the original paper prints back to celluloid where as white dust specks float throughout the frame and serendipitously interacts with the seizure patients. One person appears to be grasping at the white molecules. All of these elements add up to a very rich visual experience, one that acts upon the viewer’s senses in an aggressive confrontation between an acceptance and a repulsion of the filmed occasion.

To conclude the introductory digression on the scope of early American avant-garde film apropos alternative tactics for filmmaking let us consider the film Manhatta (1921). Among Charles Sheeler’s collected works housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are a dozen or so four-by-five photographic enlargements made from the original 35mm motion picture negative of the city symphony film. The exquisitely-made photographic prints display a sharpness and clarity missing from circulating 16mm prints of the film and, perhaps, address the original intent of the photographers-turned-filmmakers, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, by dismissing any unintentional reading of the film as a conventional "scenic" of New York City. Manhatta lives and breathes in photographic definition, and the construction of the film mimes the construction of New York City skyscrapers as one highly compressed image follows another and another. The eye may seek a resting place in these compositions, but this modern amalgam of movement defeats the eye and constantly rearranges lights and darks, lines and points, and masses and forms with visual information previously not viewable in 16mm film prints. Although these still photographic enlargements or any number of excellent architectural photographs by Sheeler and Strand are available for viewing, the moving visual cacophony realized by the film Manhatta offers an intense visual experience–one likely to overwhelm the viewer.

The idea that a film–a movie–could overwhelm the senses of a film-goer is the central critical proposition of the Unseen Cinema retrospective. The term "overwhelm" is metaphorically employed to propose a perception of film as a visual medium. The implication is that film can primarily affect the viewer on a visual level above and beyond any thematic concerns. But most critiques of cinema do not account for the creativity that aligns film with painting, sculpture, or any of the other fine art practices. In fact, one of the absolute pleasures of viewing the new 35mm motion picture print of Manhatta included in the retrospective arises from being able to not only clearly see details but to discover that the images are symmetrically composed. An individual shot, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, is a stunning evocation of compositional perspective where space is delineated by the spread of wires radiating outward from a centrally located point in the picture. The symmetry resonates pure visual energy.

Many more discoveries await future audiences of the Unseen Cinema. Therefore, looking back over the six decade period of early American avant-garde film, one should not be surprised to see a plethora of new connections that have previously eluded scrutiny since many of these titles have not been available after their original release. The contemporary authors featured in the catalog address these contrasts, many times pointing out similar innovative and controversial views of avant-garde film that were initially espoused by the pioneer filmmakers over half a century ago. The most fervent practitioners of what may be called early avant-garde filmmaking in America found public soap-boxes in the film journals and critical magazines of their respective times. Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs, Herman G. Weinberg, Melville Webber, Mary Ellen Bute, Man Ray, Henwar Rodakiewicz, Douglass Crockwell, Seymour Stern, Theodore Huff, Archie Stewart, and Jay Leyda amongst others used special interest journals, such as Experimental Cinema, Movie Makers, Hound and Horn, and Close Up, to address film as a visual art. The self-promotion for their cinematic discoveries is important in that the films these artists created were seldom seen outside a small circle of friends and admirers and at a smattering of ciné salons and little theaters throughout the United States and Europe. Recall too the detailed accounts of loner filmmaking and their truly independent films comprehensively recorded in Lewis Jacobs’ 1947 essay, "Experimental Cinema in America." Remember William Moritz’s life-long devotion to Oskar Fischinger and numerous visual-music film artists, Cecile Starr’s reportage on American experimental animation pioneers, and the 1995 anthology of "the first American film avant-garde" edited by Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema. Realize that many more filmmakers and films have yet to be acknowledged simply because they lack a guardian angel to protect their legacy!

This retrospective hopes to rectify a small portion of the negligence shown early avant-garde films and filmmakers. For all of the curatorial scrounging that transpired in order to unearth the film prints included in the Unseen Cinema retrospective, many more films remain unrecovered as of this writing. My solace is that some of the "lost" films will someday benefit from enlightened individuals like Jacobs, Moritz, Starr, Horak, or some yet to be indoctrinated film nut(s) waiting to discover their calling as one of Weinberg’s beloved "lovers of cinema."

The altruistic goals of the Unseen Cinema retrospective are to reclaim early American avant-garde film and to establish its accomplishments in light of the individual filmmakers’ genuine and uncompromising approach to film as an art. Extending beyond previously defined arenas of avant-garde art and film, the series seeks to place the viewer in direct contact with the primal stuff of cinematic invention that at long last can be examined by modern audiences. Contemplation of the early American avant-garde film, collectively as a multi-decade aesthetic enterprise, or individually as isolated experiments involving style and technique, reveals a grand experiment in cinema that continues to reverberate through all genres of American filmmaking.

© 2003 Bruce Posner. All rights reserved.