Thursday, February 14, 2002

Revisiting the Dawn of Avant-Garde Films

By SUSAN KING, Times Staff Writer

"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 filmmakersincluded in "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893-1941" includeFrank Capra, Busby Berkeley, D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and OrsonWelles.
     Curated by film historian Bruce Posner, thetraveling exhibition being presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archivebegins today at the university's Melnitz Hall and continues through Feb.24.
     For decades the party line regarding avant-gardefilmmaking in America was that Maya Deren gave birth to the genre in 1943. Butthat conception has changed over the past decade. "Unseen Cinema" illustratesthe various types of avant-garde films made prior to Deren's.
     Between 1893 and 1913, filmmakers frequentlyexperimented with content and even methods of production. The years from 1926to 1929 were golden for the avant-garde, which saw impressive experimental workfrom such filmmakers as Slavko Vorkapich, Robert Florey, Ralph Steiner andRobert Flaherty. During the Depression, amateur filmmakers flourished, andprofessional directors explored social issues in ways that would seem almostunfathomable today.
     Jan-Christopher Horak, the curator of theHollywood Entertainment Museum and a professor of film at UCLA, has writtenseveral books on avant-garde cinema including "Lovers of Cinema: The FirstAmerican Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945." He says perceptions of avant-garde cinemahave changed among historians because more material has become accessible."Much of the material [in the exhibition] was not accessible 15 or 20 yearsago. It is really to Bruce's credit that he managed to get viewing prints [fromthe major film archives] for this traveling show."
     The majority of films in the exhibit had longbeen 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, butthey don't know he produced several hundred other films. These were trainedartists 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 themuseums and archives and collections. It changes the whole notion of what wenton back then, from one of primitive filmmaking to outstanding visual artistswho are just as strong as people from post-1941."
     The only feature-length movie in the exhibit is1922's "Salome," starring Nazimova. Directed by Charles Bryant, the filmfeatured the exotic sets and costumes of Natacha Rambova—who latermarried Rudolph Valentino—that were based on Aubrey Beardsley's designsfor the 1905 opera based on Oscar Wilde's 1894 one-act play. The film is awallow in high camp and excess, but it is also gorgeous to behold.
     "Salome" screens tonight in a program thatincludes Frank Capra's first film, 1921's "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" andFlorey and Vorkapich's seminal 1927 short, "The Life and Death of 9413—AHollywood Extra."
     "'Salome' is an amazing film," says Posner. "Itwas a huge, colossal flop. [Nazimova] sunk her money into it. It was truly anindependent production. She was one of the biggest stars. When she came toHollywood she made 19 films."
     With "Salome," he said, "she went over thetop."
     Much of the criticism when "Salome" was releasedfocused on the fact that the 43-year-old actress was a bit too long in thetooth to play a 14-year-old temptress. "But when you see it on the screen, hereyes—the way they were photographed—are startling," says Posner."It carries the film."
     Seven years before he directed his 1941masterwork, "Citizen Kane," a then-19-year-old Orson Welles and a high schoolbuddy William Vance made the eight-minute expressionist silent "The Hearts ofAge," which screens Feb. 24.
     Vance and Welles had been students at a privatehigh school outside Chicago. "There was a man there named Roger Hill who ranthe 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 weekend—and they shot thislittle spoof playing off of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' [the 1919 classicGerman expressionistic thriller] that was really popular at the time and 'Bloodof the Poet' [Jean Cocteau's avant-garde 1930 French film].
     "Welles did an interview [once] with PeterBogdanovich, and he said, 'It was just Sunday afternoon fun. It's justnothing.' But the film is so complex and has everything Orson Welles [did insubsequent movies]—you have fast cutting, disorientation."
     Horak will introduce the Feb. 23 program thatincludes 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 amconcerned," says Horak. "I think it is really in every sense of the term anavant-garde film. It used to be talked about as this kind of simpledocumentary, but if you look at it closely that in point of fact, it reproducesnot only images of New York City in 1920, but reproduces the point of view ofwhat modern art does. Once you are in the cityscape like that with very highbuildings, you no longer have this open view of things. Your view is alwaysfragmented, and that is what the Cubists were all about, the fragmenting ofvision. This film very clearly is in that aesthetic of showing how you can nolonger see the city as a whole; you can only see bits and pieces of it. You geta 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 inLondon at the British Film Institute in the archive. Nobody ever looked at itbefore [in the archive]. I knew of it when I was doing the research on my earlyAmerican avant-garde book. I was looking for the film and then couldn't find itanywhere in this country."
     Horak believes "Tell-Tale Heart" is a perfectillustration as to why avant-garde film from 1920s was ignored by critics andfilmmakers in the 1940s. The film, he says, "is very much using some of theformal devices of German expressionist cinema. A lot of the critics andavant-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 ofreproductions of German expressionist or European forms, and there is nothingAmerican about them. They were dismissed as basically not worth lookingat."
     He believes the exact opposite is true.
     "While it may use some of the forms of Germanexpressionism, how much more American can you get than Poe?
     "Second, there is an eclecticism in the way theseformal devices are used that is very American and really ties it into theavant-garde of the '50s and '60s—the willingness to take forms thatseemingly 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 Theaterat Melnitz Hall on the northeast corner of the UCLA campus. Admission is $7general; $5 for students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. For generalinformation, call (310) 206-FILM; for the program schedule, call 310-206-FILMor go to
     The Los Angeles Film Forum will be presentinganother program from the "Unseen Cinema" series Sunday at 7 p.m. at theEgyptian Theater, Hollywood. For information, go to