These notes accompany the California Dreaming: The American Avant-Garde, 1942–58 screening program on April 24, 25, and 26.
Although nothing quite comparable to the French Surrealist films of the 1920s came out of America, the occasional maverick production had appeared on the periphery of Hollywood over the years. One notable example was The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra, a 1928 collaboration between Robert Florey (a mostly journeyman director who assisted Charles Chaplin on Monsieur Verdoux), Gregg Toland (the great cinematographer of The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane), and Slavko Vorkapich. Vorky (1895–1976), as his disciples called him, emigrated from Yugoslavia after World War I, and was most noted for providing montage sequences for many of the classic films of George Cukor, Frank Borzage, and Frank Capra. He eventually became a leading educator and lecturer, heading the film department at USC and then moving back to Belgrade to teach there. In Moods of the Sea, Vorkapich poetically unites the rhythms of Mendelssohn with the movies. In some ways, the film seems to anticipate other works we have recently shown: Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire and Arne Sucksdorff’s Trut! (The Sea Hawk).The real American avant-garde or underground filmmaking scene, as it has developed, can be traced to Maya Deren (1917–1961), who emigrated here from Kiev as a little girl, and who would have turned 96 next Monday—appropriately, the day of our An Evening with Carolee Schneeman event. (The two women met for the first time in 1958). Deren is rightly considered the Mother of the American Avant-garde, and Meshes of the Afternoon is the first of the nine films she directed. After getting degrees from NYU and Smith, Deren moved to Los Angeles, where she met her second husband, Alexander Hammid (Hackenschmied), with whom she collaborated on Meshes. (Hammid had founded the Czech avant-garde film movement, and he went on to prominence as a documentarian in America.) Deren, a still photographer enamored of California, was obviously well versed in German expressionist films and in the work of directors like Josef von Sternberg. Her films seem to embody Orson Welles’s dictum that “cinema is a ribbon of dreams.” Deren went on to explore her obsessions with dance (she had been secretary to Katherine Dunham) and voodoo (her last project was a documentary on Haiti), but in the context of what P. Adams Sitney has dubbed “trance” films. Deren did not linger long in California and became a relentless critic of Hollywood. A New York exhibition of her films in 1946 (the year she won the first Guggenheim fellowship awarded to a filmmaker) inspired Amos Vogel to form his film society, Cinema 16. In the words of my colleague Sally Berger, “Deren was a pioneer…influencing future generations of filmmakers and artists and changing the direction of moving image mediums in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Sidney Peterson died 13 years ago this week, at age 94, but his working life in film lasted less than a decade. (He had been a painter and sculptor in Paris in his youth.) The Potted Psalm was his first film, made in collaboration with fellow novice James Broughton (1913—1999). The film, heavily influenced by the Surrealists (notably Buñuel and Dalí), led to the beginning of the filmmaking program at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). This film and Peterson’s work during the succeeding decade became part of what was known as the San Francisco Renaissance. The Potted Psalm was also influenced by Maya Deren, and carried with it a haunting quality and conscious criticism of Hollywood. There’s also more than a hint of perversity and kinkiness, embodied in (among other things) an out-of-focus nude drag queen and a scene in a cemetery. Peterson worked briefly at MoMA in the mid-1950s as the Director of Educational Television Production. He also had a stint in Hollywood working for Walt Disney on an abortive Fantasia II project. Broughton (later in today’s program) was to introduce a lighter side to his work with his Chaplin parody, Loony Tom, with an imitator of the Tramp frolicking and flirting in California. Broughton remained an active filmmaker until he was 75 and led the West Coast contingent of independent filmmakers. By happenstance, the Tribeca Film Festival is showing To Joy, a feature-length documentary on Broughton, this week.
It was left for Kenneth Anger, still going strong at 86, to come flaming out of the closet with Fireworks, an extraordinarily graphic film that anticipated Jean Genet’s Chant d’amour by three years. Anger had actually made five other films, starting at age 14 (some say nine or 10). His “dream of a dream” led to a celebrated California Supreme Court case that helped open the societal acceptance of film as an art form. Nothing so homoerotic had been shown before, but it’s hard to gauge its impact—and that of his later films, with their cross between Surrealism and S&M—on the future movement for gay rights.
Anger had become friends with Curtis Harrington (1926–2007), whose strange career began (like Anger) with making shorts at an early age, culminating in On the Edge, which follows the dreamlike California landscape chase pattern established by Deren and Peterson. Then, after his first feature, Night Tide, there was a 12-year hiatus. He actually became a more-or-less mainstream feature director with Games (1967) and other works cut, with some skill and style, from the underbelly of the horror film and attracting top-notch actors like Simone Signoret, Shelley Winters, and Ralph Richardson. (Harrington was an avid admirer of 1940s horror film maven Val Lewton.) He ultimately became a prolific television director for two decades, contributing to series as varied as Dynasty and The Twilight Zone.
Bruce Conner (1933–2008) was a man of many mediums. He was already a recognized artist for his painting and assemblages when his first movie, A MOVIE, appeared in 1958. Its concept, using found footage, paralleled his assemblages, and the bulk of his 50-year film career is built around collage. He was less than thrilled to be considered a progenitor of music videos and MTV. His films had, in his eyes, a spiritual quality and offered cogent commentary on politics and the media. I believe MoMA is planning a major retrospective of Conner’s work in the near future.
I would be remiss, in this context, not to mention the death a few weeks ago of Les Blank, a major California avant-garde and documentary figure. Les’s films were too eccentric and offbeat to qualify as pure documentaries. Or, as Bruce Weber’s obituary in The New York Times put it, they were too “sensuous and lyrical.” I have an enduring memory of a MoMA screening of 1980’s Garlic Is as Good as 10 Mothers, followed by a garlic party at then Chief Curator of Film Mary Lea Bandy’s loft. Sophie, Mary Lea and Gary’s Saint Bernard, became a huge Blank fan as a result of all the stray garlic, dropped by intoxicated partygoers, that she was able to lick off the floor.