Masterworks of Avant-Garde Film: 1920’s and 1930’s

That Flicker Alley blu-ray set I threatened to buy at the beginning of the year, well I bought it. And besides being full of interesting avant-garde films beautifully preserved in high-def, it’s really well sequenced and presented. Gonna have to break this into a few screenings and posts since I’m taking so many screenshots.


Manhatta (1921 Sheeler & Strand)

City photography, mostly seaside and rooftop, floats by, with intertitles from a Whitman poem. Impossible to know how this looked in 1921 since by now I’ve seen hours and days of NYC photography. Buildings and ships still look like buildings and ships, so I was mostly interested in the few shots of people and traffic. Strand later photographed Redes and codirected Native Land.

Lewis Jacobs, writing in Film Quarterly in late 1947:

In technique the film was simple and direct, avoiding all the so-called “tricks” of photography and setting. In a sense it was the forerunner of the documentary school which rose in the United States in the middle 1930’s … The picture’s emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times.


Anemic Cinema (1926 Marcel Duchamp)

Alternates geometric spirals with word spirals (jokey French puns, I think). Peaceful. His buddy Man Ray helped out, and some prankster named Gustavo contributed a drone soundtrack.

In Visionary Film, Sitney calls it one of the “two fundamental works of the graphic cinema from the 1920s made without animation,” along with Ballet Mechanique.


Life and Death of 9413 (1927 Florey & Vorkapich)

Still one of my favorite shorts ever. I love that Florey & Vorkapich were already this cynical about Hollywood in the silent era – especially great is the “babababa” mouth-flapping in place of speech. Would be a good short to run before The Last Command.


Skyscraper Symphony (1929 Robert Florey)

New York buildings, photographed straight ahead and jutting out in all directions, making this an appropriate follow-up to the city documentary Manhatta and the expressionist angles of 9413. Donald Sosin contributes a very nice piano score. Florey directed a Marx Brothers movie the same year.


Mechanical Principles (1930 Ralph Steiner)

Pistons, meshing gears and other mechanics, beginning slow and simple and getting into crazier and faster gizmos. Really cool.


A Bronx Morning (1931 Jay Leyda)

More New York scenes, this one more social than the structural interests of the others. Leyda had documentary cinematography and editing pretty well figured out by age 20, worked with Steiner, later with Eisenstein and went on to write film histories.

How much does expert ladies hair bobbing cost to-day?


Lot in Sodom (1933 Watson & Webber)

Leagues beyond the previous films in visual poetry. Bodies collide in slow motion, mirrored and refracted. Eventually a plot takes shape when an angel appears to woolen-bearded Lot and tells him to get out of town before it’s destroyed by a rain of fire (there’s some other stuff I didn’t catch, not being familiar with the bible story). Like I wrote for the same directors’ Fall of the House of Usher, “I still don’t know exactly what happened, but boy was it awesome.”

Jacobs called it “the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period.”

Lot in Sodom used a technique similar to that of The Fall of the House of Usher, but far more skillfully and resourcefully. It drew upon all the means of camera, lenses, multiple exposure, distortions, dissolves, and editing to achieve a beauty of mobile images, of
dazzling light and shade, of melting rhythms, with an intensity of feeling that approached poetry. Its brilliant array of diaphanous shots and scenes … were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.


Poem 8 (1933 Emlen Etting)

Visual poetry with no narrative – the first time that had been done, according to Etting, who is wrong (Man Ray, Hans Richter, Ballet Mechanique). Rough on the technical side, but it works for me. Dig the first-person camera sipping a cocktail and making out with an undressing woman. I didn’t feel the new piano score by Rodney Sauer was appropriately poetic.


An Optical Poem (1938 Oskar Fischinger)

Floating shapes appear and move in sync with a Liszt song. Since it’s made with paper cutouts in stop-motion (which must have been aggravating) you can their shadows upon each other.


Thimble Theater (1938 Joseph Cornell)

Cornell and his posthumous editor Lawrence Jordan throw together a bunch of things and run circus music under them all. Too many kids in a paper flower… what looks like a Melies movie… a cartoon printed inverse and upside down… mountain goats… a man vs. kangaroo fight in slow-motion. Before Spike & Mike or Everything Is Terrible or Star Spangled to Death, Cornell was the original curator of clip shows of wonderous things.

Some 1920’s and 1930’s Shorts

Ballet Mecanique (1924, Léger & Murphy)

Every camera and editing trick known to man (at the time), in a rhythmic collage of pleasingly odd images. Plucky string music by Paul Mercer on this version.

The women (woman?) of Ballet Mecanique:


Combat de boxe (1927, Charles Dekeukeleire)

Someone allowed a filmmaker to shoot a sold-out boxing match, not knowing Dekeukeleire was a lunatic obsessed with film reversal and superimposition who would shoot anything but a standard angle on the action. Who did the great soundtrack, all pulsing sound effects and breathing? Dekeukeleire was a Belgian film pioneer, made two other influential avant-garde films in the late 1920’s according to wikipedia.

The boxer uses ghost mode:


Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell)

Cornell’s re-edit of East of Borneo, which appears to be a somnambulist jungle picture, highlighting the scenes of star Rose Hobart. Oh wait, he has slowed the film to silent speed, that’s why it looks so dreamy. The not-exactly-fitting-the-mood soundtrack is from a record called Holiday In Brazil.

Cornell’s first film, and his most famous. Reportedly during the premiere screening Salvador Dali attacked the film projector in a rage, claiming the film had been stolen from his dreams. I watched a whole program of Cornell shorts at Eyedrum in the pre-blog era, but hadn’t seen this one before.

Rose chats with a monkey:

B. Frye in Senses of Cinema:

Rose Hobart was only one of several mythologized actresses who populated Cornell’s hermetic world. Many of his boxes were homages to the actresses that formed his pantheon: Lauren Bacall, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, among others. In Rose Hobart, Cornell holds Hobart in a state of semi-suspension, turning the film itself into a sort of box. She moves her hands, shifts her gaze, gestures briefly, smiles enigmatically, perhaps steps slightly to the side, and little more. The world appears as a sort of strange theatre, staged for her alone.


Betty Boop for President (1932, Dave Fleischer)

Okay, what? That is a cynical view of government for the 1930’s. Betty does caricatures of I’m not sure who, and appears to be a communist. Her opponent is Mr. Nobody, who gets booed by his crowd. After she’s elected, her victory parade fades into a giant beer mug, implying the entire film has been a drunken fantasy.


Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933, Dave Fleischer)

Bimbo and Koko are incompetent, cat-tormenting mad scientists obsessed with their next door neighbor Betty. They accidentally create a Chemical Frankenstein who pursues her before being turned into a flower by her perfume. Insane and wonderful. Nice variation on the ol’ blackface Al Jolson gag.

Koko on fire:


Carmen (1933, Lotte Reiniger)

I don’t watch much opera, so don’t know the plot of Carmen. It seems she lures some fancy man to her sexy lair, then steals his clothes and sells them, buying herself a new outfit. But she fails to impress an even fancier man, the famous bullfighter, so she heads into the ring, dodging the first man who is now trying to murder her, and dances with the bull. Is that the general idea? Oh yeah, Wikipedia says that’s pretty much it, except the first man ends up killing her. The first of Reiniger’s silhouette films I’ve seen and it’s just wonderful.


Papageno (1935, Lotte Reiniger)

More opera… guess I never wrote up the Julie Taymor theater version of The Magic Flute we saw last year. It wasn’t a proper Taymor film like Midsummer but a live-televised version of her play. Anyway we both enjoyed. I wouldn’t have figured the carefree singing bird catcher Papageno for a spinoff film, but that’s what we’ve got here, set to the Mozart music. Papageno’s a real hero in this one, fighting off a giant snake that attacks his girlfriend Papagena by harnessing his bird-friends’ powers, like an avian Aquaman. She escapes on an ostrich, is gone for a half minute, which is too long for ‘geno, who attempts suicide, saved by a flock of parrots. Definitely best part is the ending, while the reunited lovers are singing to each other and the birds start rolling in eggs hatching baby Papageni.

Parrots!

There’s a lot of kissing and disrobing in these movies – guess you could get away with sexier stuff in silhouette animation than using actors in the 1930’s.

Making out in the trees:

About to catch an escape-ostrich outta here:

The Last Performance (1929, Pal Fejos)

Conrad Veidt, Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, again plays an intense guy with too much eye makeup, this time as stage magician Erik The Great. He can hardly wait until the young girl he stuffs into boxes and pretends to saw in half turns 18 so he can marry her, but the girl Julie (Mary Philbin, star of Phantom of the Opera, Merry-Go-Round, The Man Who Laughs) doesn’t seem anxious to marry the elder magician.

Dangerous Conrad:

Julie:

Assistant Buffo:

Film Quarterly: “In the course of his act, Eric demonstrates his hypnotic control of his assistant, Julie, and also his power over the audience, in a series of short cuts on his eyes and the faces of the audience, and then swirling images of the city, with Eric’s face looming in superimposition over it all.”

Erik hires a dude named Mark after catching him break into his apartment, as his assistant Buffo’s assistant – so now Erik, Buffo and Mark are all in love with Julie. Buffo (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy, later a director) gets caught mouthing off that Julie doesn’t love Erik, and Mark gets caught sitting on a bench with her (bench-sitting was 1927’s version of sex), and Erik dramatically overacts overreacts, announcing at a fancy dinner that Mark and Julie will marry, as the camera glides over a crowded dinner table in a way I didn’t know could be done back then. Then Erik frames Mark by having him murder Buffo on stage in a box full of swords.

Mark and Julie on the whoring bench, Conrad’s massive shadow over them:

Mark and Julie at trial:

Nothing’s as thrilling as a big courtroom ending, and so Erik and Julie demonstrate how the murder-box was supposed to work in front of a judge. It’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it. But out of nowhere, Erik confesses and kills himself with a knife, leaving Mark and Julie – a thief and an unemployed magician’s assistant – in each other’s arms. I’m being flippant, but it was a good movie, if not Lonesome-caliber. Also released as a part-talkie, but Criterion’s got the silent version. Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot The Jazz Singer the same year, later A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Master of the House (1925, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

No finches were hurt (but it was a close call).

Watched with Katy after episode 2 of The Story of Film (and after Chaplin’s The Circus, since I didn’t want to limit silent cinema viewing to the famous comedians). Pretty straightforward: husband (Johannes Meyer of Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book) has become a tyrant, mistreating his kids, disrespecting his nana (Mathilde Nielsen of The Parson’s Widow), and driving his wife (Astrid Holm, dying woman in The Phantom Carriage) away to her mother’s to recuperate. Now he has to run the house without his wife’s help, learning to appreciate all that she regularly does for the family.

Katy and I haven’t extensively studied the cinema of 1925 so we had little to say, style-wise, and I saw little in common with the later Dreyer films I’ve watched. Mostly it seemed a well-assembled showcase for great performances by the husband and nana. I’d have some nice screenshots of the close-ups if we hadn’t watched it on Hulu… oh wait, here are a couple stolen from the great DVD Beaver site:

Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton)

We managed to watch this despite obstacles (DVD gone missing, Amazon’s lies about runtime). Keaton’s second feature, a vast improvement over his first. Keaton takes a train to brutal, rural America to claim his family estate, which turns out to be a crumbling shack. So instead he focuses on the hot girl who rode the train out west with him (played by Keaton’s wife), but her dad (familiar heavy Joe Roberts) and two brothers are out to kill him because of a century-old family feud.

After a flashback open where Keaton’s dad and Joe Roberts’ brother kill each other, the first half of the movie is mostly the ride out west on a ridiculous wood-fired train said to be based on an actual vehicle. Second half is Keaton, having been invited over by the girl, unable to leave since the men won’t shoot him while he’s a guest in their home. He finally escapes dressed as a woman, then after a mountaintop chase culminating in one of the best stunts in movie history – Keaton swinging on a rope to catch the girl coming over a waterfall – they marry, ending the feud. Watched with Katy as history lesson after the first Story of Film episode, though we mostly forgot to analyze editing and obsess over the 180 degree rule.

Fall of the House of Usher (1928, Jean Epstein)

Everyone in a Poe adaptation is weak, white and willowy, and it’s expected that at least one of them will die of consumptive illness, as did Poe’s own wife, as we learned in the D.W. Griffith bio-pic. Here it’s Usher’s wife (played by Marguerite “wife of Abel” Gance), but not for a while. First, portrait-painting-obsessed Usher (Jean Debucourt, decades later the jeweler in Madame de…) has his “dear and only friend” over for the season, then mostly tends to his paintings (which move and blink) while his wife dies (shades of Dorian Gray).

I love how this silent film portrays music. Everything starts moving in slow-motion until Usher plays his guitar, then his playing is illustrated with quick cutaways to nature shots. Overall lots of camera movement for 1928, with crazy angles and ghostly superimpositions – a slow and moody film. Excellent looking except for the fake castle (in wide shots) and owl.

This is the third House of Usher movie on the blog after the Watson & Webber and the Ken Russell, but the first to tell the Poe story in a way I can follow. IMDB says assistant director Luis Bunuel quit over liberties taken with the adaptation. In the Poe story Madeline is his twin sister instead of his wife, but otherwise doesn’t seem too dissimilar. Epstein made this the year before his amazing Finis Terrae.

Ed Gonzalez in Slant:

The film’s tour-de-force is a hulking funeral procession of overlapping visual textures and animal-like camera movement, a startling vision of metaphysical passage and metamorphosis. With the castle’s dripping candles in ominous tow, the men proceed through land and water toward the netherworld of Usher’s catacombs, with Madeleine’s veil weighing them down like an arm digging into the ground; all the while, an owl keeps ominous watch and two toads get their groove on. Madeleine will not go gently into this sinister night, nor will Usher let her, insisting that her coffin remain unnailed, which, in effect, precipitates a supernatural spill between worlds.

Alloy Orchestra double-feature

I never got to see Alloy Orchestra very often in Atlanta, but apparently both Lincoln and Omaha are on their regular tour schedule. They played different movies (with very different scores) in each city, so I made us watch both. Roger Miller seems very approachable at the merch table, but I have all his records and am therefore afraid of him.

Son of the Sheik (1926, George Fitzmaurice)

Sequel to Valentino’s The Sheik from five years earlier, so the flashbacks to his father as a young man are scenes from that film. Son walks in his doppelganger-father’s footsteps by kidnapping and raping the woman he loves, the same way Sheik met his wife. Son’s girl (Vilma Bánky, also in Valentino’s The Eagle) dances for a nomadic group of entertainers/bandits who are trying to extort and/or murder the Son. Much unconvincing swordplay ensues!

Man with the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

Timely screening, less than two months after Sight & Sound declared this the best documentary of all time. It certainly has one of my favorite silent-movie scores, all driving percussion to fit the unrelenting pace of the film, and we sat right in front of the band for an awesome sensory experience (also because we arrived too late to get seats further away).

Always surprised that this “day in the life of a city” movie opens with the city waking up but ends abruptly without showing it go back to sleep. Probably a “sun never sets on Russia” sort of thing. I realized while looking up Vertov that he invented cinema-verite (his newsreel series Kino-Pravda translates as film-truth), took his moving camera into the streets to film everyday people, and made a film that contains its own behind-the-scenes elements – all forty years before Chronicle of a Summer did these same things.

Sept. 2015: Saw this AGAIN with the Alloy Orchestra, this time at The Ross, at a more reasonable distance from the live band, and with the beautiful new restored print. One of the greatest things ever.

Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline)

Based on a hit stage play. Rich, useless Alfred Butler goes on a ludicrously well-outfitted camping trip with his valet and meets a beautiful mountain girl. But he can’t marry her without impressing her father and brother, strong wilderness men. Fortunately Alfred shares a name with an up-and-coming lightweight boxer, so they pretend that he’s “Battling” Butler, and he marries the girl. He’s off to the boxer’s training camp to keep up the charade, and Keaton goes from fake-training to real-training when the other Butler swaps roles with him, leaving Keaton to face the Alabama Murderer for the championship. But the boxer returns, wins the fight then gets plastered by Keaton in the dressing room after being a huge asshole to everyone.

Happy ending:

Battling B with Keaton’s valet:

The Haunted House (1921)

Crooks have a foolproof plan to avoid capture: make their hideaway into a haunted house. But first: Keaton and Big Joe Roberts are bank clerks, and Joe’s men are planning a heist. Keaton foils the holdup through incompetence, having spilled glue on all the money. Mistaken for a criminal, the cops are after him, and an angry audience is after the cast of a nearby stage performance of Faust – all end up at the house, with Big Joe’s thieves donning ghost costumes and pulling levers to turn the stairs into a ramp (which would be frustrating but not exactly scary). Keaton again foils the robbers and gets the girl (I forgot to mention there was a girl). Also Keaton gets konked on the head and goes to heaven then hell. And it’s only a twenty minute movie.

And this happens:

with Virginia Fox of The Love Nest, The Playhouse, Neighbors, etc.

The Frozen North (1922)

Keaton falls asleep during a movie and imagines himself in the sort of town where Chaplin would lose and then get the girl in The Gold Rush. A weird short which makes little sense, with Keaton as the bad guy: opens with him holding up a casino before he shoots a neighbor couple to death as a gag. He loses another girl, shacks up in Big Joe’s igloo, goes snowshoeing and ice fishing (what else can you do in the frozen north?) then gets shot going after that girl again. Apparently a parody of western director William S. Hart’s films – Keaton was feuding with Hart over the Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

Keaton emotes:

And turns into Erich von Stroheim:

Janitor Eddie Cline:

Queen Kelly (1928, Erich von Stroheim)

Evil, decadent Queen Regina V (Seena Owen, doomed queen of Babylon in Intolerance) is engaged to wolfish Prince Wolfram, but he falls for convent orphan Gloria Swanson whose pants have fallen down. I am not making this up. They go on for twenty minutes about her pants falling down, which is a pretty big deal in an hour and forty minute movie. Anyway the queen decides to punish Wolfram by moving up their wedding to the next day. And Wolfram plays a hilarious prank, breaking into the convent, setting it on fire to flush out his beloved, then kidnapping her. This doesn’t end well for either of them when the queen finds out. Wolfram is imprisoned (I like that he receives visitors in “solitary confinement”) and Gloria jumps into the river, killing herself, the end.

Queen:

Kelly:

But that’s only the end because Stroheim was fired from what was meant to be a five-hour film, so producer Swanson wrapped it up quickly and shipped to theaters. The DVD contains a couple reels of what was shot next, after Gloria was supposed to be saved from drowning in the river: some crazy scenes in an African brothel where Gloria is forced to marry the brilliantly grotesque Tully Marshall (Intolerance‘s High Priest who deposes the queen). The movie pops to life here, turns from a stodgy old costume drama with a few exciting shots into a sleazy melodrama with only exciting shots.

Wolfram, receiving bad news:

Kelly hanging over the river, remembering everyone laughing at her (left) as the queen (right) chased her from the palace with a whip.

Silent movies can get tiresome when they have too many intertitles, each of which lasts too long. Definitely the case here. Produced by Swanson and Joe “JFK’s dad” Kennedy, and supposedly sunk by clash of personalities, increase in Hollywood censorship, and the advent of talkies. I didn’t feel like watching the thousand minutes of extra features today, so I read the Senses of Cinema article instead.

Tully/Jan:

M. Koller:

In the African sequences… the relationship between Regina and Wolfram is mirrored by Jan Vooyheid and Kitty’s loveless, contemptuous marriage. As with Regina’s introduction at the beginning of the film, Stroheim uses a series of vignettes to summarise Jan’s attributes. Jan (Kitty’s benefactor) can also be seen as the degenerate extrapolation of an unredeemed Wolfram; old, ugly, and crippled by syphilis, he is a violent, disrespectful, gambling, whoring drunk.