My first encounter with the American Avant-Garde occurred in the mid-70's, when the Museum of Modern Art sponsored a six-part retrospective at one of the local cultural venues. I remember the initial program included Kenneth Anger's "Fireworks" and--I believe--Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon." The hall was filled to capacity. With each successive showing, attendance declined by 50%. By the final showing six weeks later--which featured "nostalgia" by Hollis Frampton and George Landau's "Bardo Follies"--the audience had shrunk to no more than a dozen people, myself included. One of my friends wouldn't speak to me for months because I'd made him sit though a Paul Sharits flicker film.
Probably no other art form has alienated audiences in America like the experimental film. Casual viewers can at least accept non-objective art as decorative, casual listeners can handle some electronica and even the prepared piano music of John Cage as background music. But only a tiny minority of people can seem to put aside their Hollywood prejudices to meet experimental cinema halfway.
There are multiple sticking points. There is usually no "story," as such. Editing is employed to confound the viewer's expectations more often than to further the plot or to create a spurious identification with the characters. Non-diegetic music, which is used in most Hollywood films to "cue" the audience's emotions, is notably absent. There are no chase scenes, contrived coincidences, or shock endings. In other words, none of the conventions which television and Hollywood movie fans have come to expect.
In exchange, the willing viewer gets to experience something truly challenging and potentially life altering--a chance to explore film as a metaphor for consciousness itself. In my case, I could never forget certain things from those six weeks--the steadily advancing camera in Michael Snow's "Wavelength," the pulsating corridor in Ernie Gehr's "Serene Velocity," the death imagery in Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising," or the immolated photographs in Frampton's "nostalgia."
I've been waiting for over a year for this National Film Preservation Foundation issue, and it is tremendous and tremendously needed. There are a few omissions--in particular, "Serene Velocity" or one of Ernie Gehr's other process films from the same period. "The Riddle of Lumen" is a fine film, but personally I would have preferred Brakhage's magnificent "Anticipation of the Night" or one of his "Songs" from that series. And while he has steadfastly refused to sanction a DVD edition of "Wavelength," I hope that Michael Snow reconsiders someday. Even a comic-book version of a Vermeer is better than no Vermeer at all, and there's always a chance that with increased exposure will come increased demand for 16mm showings.
All the films included in this collection are worth watching, and there are two unqualified masterpieces: "The End" by Christopher Maclaine, and Frampton's "nostalgia." Both films play with time, space, and the filmic representation of reality in a way that invites repeated and obsessive re-viewings. It was great to see the early Harry Smith No. 3, one of the most complicated hand-painted films ever created. And I loved the Chick Strand documentary mostly composed of fragmented close-ups--a sui generis fusion of anthropological documentary and surrealist dream. I was also deeply moved by the Bruce Baillie film, which explores the daily lives of emotionally abused and dysfunctional children in a way that enlightens without ever seeking to explain.
Some of the films are clearly "of their time": the psychedelic effects of "Peyote Queen" and the Max Ernst-flavored animations of "Hamfat Asar" in particular. The shtick in "The Offhand Jape..." or Owen Land's "New Improved..." I found amusing, but many viewers may be turned off by what they perceive to be arch and "pretentious." And in a digital age, most will probably not be able to accept the crudity of these works. After all, it's not the same as viewing Melies or Griffith and marveling at the brilliance of what they were able to accomplish at that early stage of filmmaking. These films attack head-on the conventions of narrative cinema, and they often do it through grainy textures, visible sprocket holes and unfocused lenses.
But for those who dare, this is an exceptionally well-produced box with tons of accompanying information on the films and alternate soundtracks by the always reliable John Zorn. It would be one of the most important archival DVD issues of the year at any price--at around [...] bucks, it's a steal.