Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film (1920-1970)
“Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1970” is a dual format package—two Blu-ray discs and two standard-def DVDs, each containing the same content—that offers almost seven hours worth of short films. It's a near-dizzying supply of visual and sometimes aural bedazzlement while also providing an education on what the term “experimental film” meant over the decades, and how the avant-garde influenced the mainstream, that is, conventional narrative film. Slavo Vorkapich and Robert Florey, co-directors of the Caligari-In-Tinseltown “The Life And Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra” (1927) had productive careers in the studios, the former as a montage director, the latter as a feature director whose work would include the eerie horror picture “The Beast With Five Fingers.” Ian Hugo’s 1952 “Bells Of Atlantis” features an electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron, who’d go on to score the seminal ‘50s sci-fi hit “Forbidden Planet.” Francis Thompson, who directed the beautifully abstracted urban street scenes of 1958’s “N.Y., N.Y.,” became an early IMAX filmmaker. And so on.

But beyond the historical connections and firsts, the set is a really engaging survey of the different modes and moods of experimental filmmaking, from the almost quaint earnestness of “Poem 8,” by painter Emlen Etting (1933) to the sardonic juxtapositions of American phenomena (nudist contest and auto show) in Tom Pallazzolo’s “Love It, Leave It" (1973). And then there are all the myriad manifestations of visual beauty, as in Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem,” (1937) produced by MGM and almost certainly an inspiration for the “Toccata and Fugue” sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia"; other abstract animations include 1940’s “Tarantella” and 1970’s “Disintegration Lines 2." The set also includes more figurative animated works like Lawrence Jordan’s jaw-dropping “Our Lady Of The Sphere,” (1972) which is so staggering in its high-def Blu-ray version that it ought to be used to demo the format.

Many of the big names of so-called “underground” film are represented here: Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage. The Bruce Baille selection, “Castro Street” is particularly striking and beautiful. And of course that staple of undergrad avant-garde film courses, Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” is here. A substantial amount of the material here has been on disc before, but the Blu-ray boost really does make a difference, and the fact is there are gems here I’ve never seen before: Owen Land’s innovatively structured and still eerily spooky “Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter,” Amy Greenfield’s enigmatic “Transport,” Francis Lee’s striking Pearl Harbor abstraction “1941.” The liner notes are informative and concise, making the set both a resource and a real pleasure. This collection is an irresistible way for a curious movie lover to expand his or her horizons.

The two-disc collection features 37 vintage short films, some of which have been recently restored in 2K. Many of the films are silent but are presented with new music by acclaimed composers such as Donald Sosin, Gustavo Matamoros, Eric Beheim, and Rodney Sauer.

DISC ONE (1920s-1940s):

The main elements in the earliest films are form, rhythm, and balance. A number of the films attempt to capture the beauty of industrial buildings as well as the seemingly perfect harmony in which they exist. Some also appear fascinated with the seemingly chaotic movement of people and the manner in which they casually interact. One of the more abstract projects also pays tribute to German Expressionism, while another effectively blends fantasy and religion.

The main goal of each film is to evoke different sensations while manipulating different cinematic techniques. Obviously, with the earliest films (1920-30) the range of options is limited and some of these techniques -- for example quick close-ups and repetitive motion -- are rather basic, but the desire to explore gives the films a very unique vibe.

Colors are also used and manipulated, but initially they only enhance the relationships between form, rhythm, and balance. It is much later on, in the films from the 1960-70s, that their functions change and they redefine the manner in which the aforementioned sensations are evoked.

A few films focus on advertising and fashion. It is clear that both are perceived as integral parts of an active system -- New York is the city where the most interesting footage was shot -- that has the ability to create styles and trends and then reinvent them.


1. Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand (1920-21). 12 min/35mm.
2. Ballet Mechanique by Dernand Leger and Dudley Murphy (1923-24). 16 min/35mm.
3. Anemic cinema by Rose Selavy a.k.a. Marcel Duchamp (1924-26). 7 min/35mm.
4. The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra (1927). 13 min/35mm.
5. Skyscraper Symphony by Robert Florey (1929). 9 min/35mm.


1. Mechanical Principles by Ralph Steiner (1930). 10 min/35mm.
2. A Bronx Morning by Jay Leyda (1931). 14 min/35mm.
3. Lot in Sodom by J.S. Watson, Jr., Melville Webber, Alec Wilder, Remsen Wood, Bernard O'Brien. (1930-33). 26 min/35mm.
4. Poem 8 by Emlen Etting (1932-33). 20 min/16mm.
5. An Optical Poem by Oskar Fischinger (1937/MGM release 1938). 7 min/35mm.
6. Thimble Theater by Joseph Cornell (c. 1938-1968). 6 min/16mm.


1. Tarantella by Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth (1940). 4 min/35mm.
2. The Pursuit of Happiness by Rudy Burckhardt (1940). 8 min/16mm.
3. 1941 by Francis Lee (1941). 4 min/35mm.
4. Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied (1943). 14 min/16mm.
5. Meditation on Violence by Maya Deren (1948). 12 min/35mm.
6. In the Street by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee (1948/52). 17 min/16mm.

DISC TWO (1950s-1970s):

Here the majority of the films are much more fluid. Many also have distinctive surrealist qualities -- there are overlapping images, distorted images, forms and shapes with seemingly unusual relationships. Understanding their function -- or why they do not have one -- is what makes these films fascinating to behold.

There is another interesting shift as well. Many of the films now seem genuinely interested in the human body (in a number of the early films the directors would point their cameras at notable buildings). At the same time, there is a growing presence of various mechanical an industrial noises.

Some of the most unusual films are in the bonus section of this release. One of them offers an unusual visual interpretation of nature's forces that looks like a collage of modernist paintings. Light, rhythm, and color in particular are used in much more advanced ways.


1. Four in the Afternoon by James Broughton (1950-51). 14 min/16mm.
2. Abstronic by Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth (1952). 6 min/35mm.
3. Eaux d'artifice by Nenneth Anger (1953). 13 min/16mm.
4. Bells of Atlantis by Ian Hugo (1952-53). 9 min/16mm.
5. Evolution by Jim Davis (1954). 8 min/16mm.
6. Gyromorphosis by Hy Hirsh (1954-57). 7 min/16mm.
7. Hurry, Hurry! by Marie Menken (1957). 4 min/16mm.
8. N.Y, N.Y by Francis Thompson (1949-57). 15 min/ 35mm.


1. 9 Variations on a Dance Theme by Hilary Harris (1966/67). 14 min, 16mm.
2. Caastro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) by Bruce Baillie. (1966). 10 min/16mm.
3. Film That Rises of the Surface of Clarified Butter by Owen Land. (1968). 8 min/ 16mm.
4. Excerpt from Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches by Jonas Mekas (1969). 13 min/16mm.
5. Our Lady of the Sphere by Lawrence Jordan (1969). 9 min/35mm enlarged from 16mm.


1. Love It/Leave It by Tom Palazzolo (1970). 14 min/16mm.
2. DL2 (Disintegration Line #2) By Lawrence Janiak (1970). 12 min/16mm.
3. Transport by Amy Greenfield (1970). 6 min/16mm.

Bonus Films

1. Sappho and Jerry, Part 1-3 by Bruce Posner (1977-78). 6 minutes, 35mm scope, reformatted to 1080.
2. Ch'an by Francis Lee (1983). 6 minutes/16mm.
3. Seasons... by Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage (2002). 16 min/16mm.
4. Manhatta with new music composed and performed by Henri Wolfe and Phil Carluzzo (1920-21). 12 min/35mm.

2 x DVD9 | NTSC 16:9 | 418 minutes | 7.54 Gb + 7.58 Gb + 3% rec
Language: English
Subtitles: none

2 x BD50 | 1080p AVC | 418 minutes | 44.9 Gb + 44.1 Gb + 3% rec
Language: English
Subtitles: none

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