Full Aperture and the early U.S. avant-garde

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 06/16/2016

We’re kicking off our first full season of Full Aperture, our ongoing program dedicated to experimental film, with three relatively well-known titles. While the series will dive into this world to great depth, we begin with these films because they’re true starting points, helping to mark our own journey into this area of cinema that’s underrepresented and often misunderstood.

Experimental film as a term, like the avant-garde, is a tough one to accept. Although it’s convenient as a tip-off to what a film may look like,experimental also misleads in the sense that many filmmakers aren’t actually experimenting. They’ve planned out exactly what they want to do know what the result will be. Likewise, the avant-garde is a historical movement that’s now diffuse. It defines a physical resemblance to earlier art – which in 2016 is decidedly not progressive – but also boxes out the movement’s confrontational spirit in new art that doesn’t resemble the old stuff. Both terms wind up feeling misleading.

Some programmers prefer terms like personal film or artist film, which convey a couple of the hallmarks of this kind of filmmaking. It tends to convey the vision of a single person, as opposed to a larger entity, and is not primarily concerned with commercial success or making money – it’s made for its own sake. Early avant-garde films were often made by artists, differing from standard filmmaking modes.

Today, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to see that these boundaries have blurred. Art is now more commonly made for commercial gain, and many now recognize the importance of personal vision to great commercially minded films (as in the auteur theory). At the same time, the experimental and avant-garde have become codified, recognizable “styles.” But the three American films that kick off our Full Aperture season are highly regarded in part because they predated this. With little reference point, they had to be seen on their own terms, and interest their small audiences on their own terms.

The European avant-garde arose after World War I, as artists of all types tried to grapple with the rapidly changing world, shaking up ideas of what art could do, what its relationship to society was, and what it actually consisted of. This time happened to correspond to the development of cinema, which many European artists tinkered with among many other disciplines. As many Europeans (artists and otherwise) immigrated to the United States between the World Wars, these ideas spread, with the U.S. avant-garde blossoming during the country’s own cultural upheaval in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Early avant-garde films on both sides of the pond tended to be fairly basic, playing with filmmaking conventions that the filmmaker was intuitively exploring. But the best of these are just really interesting. Many of them are also genuinely experimental, exploring style and process without knowing the result. The particular kinds of artists who made this work were informed by their own curiosity, which I believe resulted in part from their personal circumstances. These are personal and artist films, experimental in form and avant-garde in history.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) is primarily known as an artist, whose meticulously crafted collages and boxes – there’s a beautiful room full of them at the New Orleans Museum of Art, including this one – were made and gifted largely in private. Cornell was excruciatingly reluctant to show his art to other people, but like the Velvet Underground, many things he articulated in his 1936 film Rose Hobart turned out be what many artists wanted to articulate later on.

Rose Hobart was pretty much Cornell’s only film for some time, and although screenings of it were and are very rare, it remains an influential film that encapsulates quite a few cultural preoccupations – surreal illogic, the disorientation of editing, collage, conceptualist art, and obsession with Hollywood and female celebrity. The film unspools from a simple action: Cornell found a print of East of Borneo, starring Ms. Hobart, one of his favorite Hollywood actresses, and began cutting out shots that she wasn’t in. It was screened once and allegedly inspired the ire of Salvador Dali, who was in the audience and claimed Cornell had stolen his idea. The film wasn’t screened again for decades.

Maya Deren (1917-1961) almost seems like Cornell’s polar opposite – she was a lively and influential artist in many areas. In her seminal 1946 filmMeshes of the Afternoon, she collaborated with her then-husband Alexander Hammid. The loose plot involves Deren falling asleep in her bungalow and dreaming of pursuing of a Grim Reaper-like figure with a mirrored face, distortions of space and time, and her own death. Meshes was acclaimed by those who saw it upon its release, and I think this is because its experimentation is thrillingly intuitive and accessible, even darkly fun. Deren lurches back and forth on the stairs: the camera is being rotated back and forth. She pursues the Reaper in vain, but the Reaper only seems to be further ahead: the editing between them conveys this growing distance. And yet the illusions are effective, striking, and serve the experience. Deren’s film is preoccupied with deeply personal ideas, and conveys an uncertainty about thoughts and events that I think is familiar to many viewers even if the details are not.

In 1959, Pull My Daisy, photographer Robert Frank (b. 1924) and New York artist Alfred Leslie (b. 1927) gathered a cast of now-legendary figures – the main core consisting of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky – to stage a picaresque Bohemian fever-dream, narrated by Jack Kerouac. The trio of poets goof off in the Bowery apartment of their friend Milo, who has a straight job on the railroad and mostly tolerates their mystical patter, to the consternation of his wife. The home is visited by a priest and some musicians, and the night zooms along semi-documentary-style in a flush of drunken inquisition (“Is baseball holy?”). The bratty misogyny of the Beat coterie is on full display, as the many nameless female characters are portrayed either as wife-maids or authority figures to be rebelled against. But the film’s style dovetails neatly with the starry-eyed mania of the Beat aesthetic, with Kerouac’s loose-lipped narration gamely keeping score. Frank’s deliberate formal casualness, which was controversial in his influential book The Americans, transfers to his filmmaking, with inconsistent editing rhythms and expressionistic, even “bad” framing throughout. The most elemental aspects of filmmaking, like shots being in focus, were being broken down, and were being rebuilt into something more recognizable by the 1960s.

Although the Beats now come across almost as a gang, they were also individuals searching for new experience, linking up with Frank, the Swiss Jew who had already logged thousands of his own miles documenting America. Deren and Hammid were both born outside the U.S., and Cornell was a reclusive man who spent most of his life in his mother’s house in Queens, caring for his brother. An outsider has to recognize herself and honor her subjective experience. There is an insistent subjectivity in all three of these classic films that reflects the artist in pursuit of a singular vision, to experiment and to further open the aperture of experience.

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