April 30, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Non-California Dreaming: The American Avant-Garde, 1948–60

These notes accompany the Non-California Dreaming: The American Avant-Garde, Program 2 (1948–60) screening program on May 1, 2, and 3.

After Maya Deren (with husband Alexander Hammid) directed Meshes of the Afternoon and moved back east, and Amos Vogel founded Cinema 16, California ceased to be the exclusive center of the independent film movement, and New York became a rival. Painter Mary Ellen Bute had been making short abstract films (some of which played in venues like the newly built Radio City Music Hall) since the mid-1930s, and magazine illustrator Douglas Crockwell (who worked in the 1940s) was included in our independent animation program in December. Jim Davis (1901–1974) was a painter whose own mobiles appear in the experimental Light Reflections. I’m not sure how well MoMA’s role is documented in the development of these and other filmmakers of the period, but their access to New York and Iris Barry’s propensity for collecting and showing experimental films could not be without influence. Davis spoke at the Museum in 1957 (after Barry had retired) and propounded an optimistic and comprehensive theory on “Prospects for the film”: “New inventions which utilize light are revolutionizing the visual arts. Today many of the most powerful stimuli for visual experiences are provided by new tools which depend upon light as the principal means of producing forms of color. The camera—the film—television—electric signs and artificial illumination of all kinds now influence everyone, everywhere.”

Ian Hugo (1898–1985), born Hugh Parker Guiler, was a successful banker and engraver who was encouraged to take up film by Hammid. Bells of Atlantis, the second film Hugo was to make over a 30-year period, was written by and stars Hugo’s wife, the poet Anaïs Nin, and was based on her novella House of Incest. The combination of Nin’s poetic language and Hugo’s lyrical imagery prompted the great French director Abel Gance (La Roue, Napoleon) to call it the first cinematic poem and compare it to Rimbaud. Stan Brakhage, whom we will come to shortly, expressed his appreciation for Hugo’s influence on him. One point that needs to made, I think, is that the members of what came to be known as the “New American Cinema” knew each other and interacted, but each developed his or her own style and vision.

Shirley Clarke (1919–1997) studied dance with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, but she was an unsuccessful choreographer who turned to cinema. Dance in the Sun was her first film, but she returned to dance for Bullfight and A Moment in Love, each of which offers revolutionary technique in “cinedance.” Clarke was a tried-and-true New Yorker, and much of her output was devoted to the city she loved. (She lived at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street, which has plaques on its facade commemorating her residency and that of other luminaries.) Both Skyscraper and Bridges-Go-Round are early shorts that pay homage to the City, and her later features like The Cool World and Portrait of Jason expose some of its underbelly. Together with Deren and the French director Agnès Varda (and later the animator Faith Hubley), Clarke provided something of a feminist role model in addition to her independence. She actually won an Oscar for her 1963 documentary Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World.

In 1950, a Lithuanian refugee still in his twenties, Jonas Mekas, arrived in New York and soon became the hub of the avant-garde film scene. He began Film Culture in 1954 and started writing his “Movie Journal” in 1958 in The Village Voice. (Jonas was instrumental in bringing Andrew Sarris to the Voice two years later.) After many years of gypsying around the city (including being busted for a Jack Smith/Jean Genet double bill), Mekas finally found a permanent venue at the Anthology Film Archives in 1970. He has remained a tireless champion and godfather for independent filmmakers, none of whom owed him more, I think, than Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage (1933–2003) was probably the most prolific filmmaker since Allan Dwan, some of whose films will be shown next month. The Internet Movie Database lists 373 titles for Brakhage as a director, of which The Wonder Ring is the eighth. Its vision, indeed its title, reflects Brakhage’s sense of his art as magic. The film was financed by the artist Joseph Cornell in an effort to preserve the memory of New York’s Third Avenue El, which was about to be torn down. Cornell was disappointed in Brakhage’s film, leading to his Rednow Gnir, which spells the title backward and shows the original film upside-down. The Dead was made five years and 14 films later, and its meditation on Paris reflects Brakhage’s growing sophistication and ambition. There was definitely a sense that Brakhage was a child of the independent movement (he briefly lived in Maya Deren’s apartment), and over the course of a half-century he opened all kinds of possibilities for future filmmakers to explore, while documenting his own unique vision of the world. The Museum has over 300 Brakhage titles in its collection, putting him in third place behind only D. W. Griffith and Andy Warhol.

Francis Thompson (1908–2003) made only a few films. N.Y., N.Y., which has been called a “distorted documentary,” captures New York with surreal images made through special kaleidoscopic lenses. The film won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Thompson’s next film, To Be Alive!, which is projected on three screens, anticipated IMAX and won an Oscar. Thompson’s films are genuinely experimental, and they highlight the fact that mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere would often incorporate the concepts of independents into their work.