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Tuesday: The First Wave

American Avant-Garde of the 1940s and 1950s

To some degree, experimental or avant-garde films have always been part of the American cinema. Whether located on the fringes of the industry, within communities of established painters and performers expanding their work into a new medium, or among dedicated amateurs, the tradition of an American formal and political avant-garde is rich and remarkably varied. It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, that the work of these isolated artists began to coalesce into a movement, a true community of artists working in dialogue with each other as much as with the dominant Hollywood cinema.

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The most prominent early figure in this project to establish a new species of film language was Maya Deren, whose 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon (co-directed with her then-husband Alexander Hammid) effectively marks the beginning of a new genre of filmmaking that is personal and lyrical, and whose concerns are primarily formal and expressive rather than narrative. The impact of Meshes of the Afternoon and Deren’s subsequent films — not only on the avant-garde, but on all of cinema — cannot be overstated. In addition to her immeasurable influence as an artist, theorist and lecturer, Deren’s efforts to create screening opportunities for her films and her role as a general advocate for avant-garde films were a direct inspiration on several generations of filmmakers and programmers, whose film societies and cinemas created a distribution and exhibition network that brought non-industrial films to new audiences in New York and around the country.

The filmmakers who came to prominence around Deren and in the wake of the creation of film societies like the legendary Cinema 16 were a remarkably diverse group whose films shared little besides an emphasis on personal expression and the “poetic”, and the stylistic influence of filmmakers such as Deren, Jean Cocteau and Joseph Cornell. Stylistically, the underground of the period encompassed the dynamic visual music of Marie Menken, the surreal narratives of Sidney Peterson and James Broughton, the dance-inspired compositions of Deren and Shirley Clarke, innovative animation by Harry Smith and Robert Breer, the heated psychosexual explorations of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos as well as the Beat aesthetic of Christopher Maclaine and the intense visual expressions of a young Stan Brakhage. From the very beginning, this tradition embraced honest expression from women and sexual minorities, with the origins of both queer and feminist cinema traditions inextricably intertwined with this period of filmmaking. Filmmakers working in the underground in the 1940s and 1950s rejected the conventions of Hollywood to provide uncensored, unencumbered and sometimes unhinged depictions of the lives they knew and the art they wanted to make. Notable, of course, for their formal adventurousness, these films were also intensely personal: handmade, often autobiographical, bracingly raw and direct. The avant-garde was not just a style or a movement, but a way of making films, a redefinition of what cinema might be, how it can be made, and who can be permitted to make it.

This series seeks to explore the filmmakers who created the traditions in which later filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Hollis Frampton would work. Between Deren’s first films in the 1940s and the early 1960s when experimental film reached its highest level of productivity and most visible status, a new cinema was created by a loosely affiliated movement consisting of some of the greatest and most innovative artists to pick up a film camera. While the works of some of these filmmakers, Deren and Anger in particular, are (deservedly) taught in film courses and can be seen with some frequency at experimental film venues or can be found on video, the majority of these films, in spite of their remarkable achievements and influence, remain criminally underseen. The films of Gregory Markopoulos, who, like Anger, began making major cinema as a teenager, have been out of circulation for decades, and this screening provides an extremely rare opportunity to see a broad selection of his early films. Although Marie Menken’s influence was, paradoxically perhaps, as great on the kinetic formalist Brakhage as it was on the minimalist/conceptualist Warhol, her own films — astonishingly visceral, virtuosic explorations of light and color — remain little seen and underappreciated. Shirley Clarke is known today for her verité feature-length films of the sixties (Portrait of Jason and The Connection in particular), but it was her dance-inspired films such as A Moment in Love that established her as a major artist and a unique voice in film. Curtis Harrington, a beloved cult figure whose films (Night Tide, in particular) made on the fringes of the industry are treasured by genre enthusiasts, is also granted a rare screening of his gorgeous surrealist-inspired, dreamlike early short films.

This series can only be an introduction to the origins of the experimental and independent film movement in America. The purpose of these screenings is both to present a selection of masterful films that are simultaneously accessible, challenging and aesthetically exciting still today, as well as to provide an overview of the range and scope of an important, endlessly innovative period of filmmaking. AH


Tuesday, January 5 at 7:00 • 86m
Maya Deren 1943-1955
Maya Deren, 1943-1955 • The patron saint of the American avant-garde and one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, Maya Deren created work that sprang from a poetic engagement with dance and an infatuation with movement of the body. This program includes all of her completed films (as well as her unfinished The Witch's Cradle), beginning with surreal, psychoanalytically-inspired narratives such as Meshes of the Afternoon and following her increasingly prominent concerns with pure movement and visual beauty. "More than anything else, cinema consists of the eye for the magic." (Maya Deren) 16mm

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Meshes of the Afternoon (with Alexander Hammid, 1943, 14m)
At Land (1944, 14m)
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945, 3m)
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946, 15m)
Meditation on Violence (1948, 13m)
The Witch's Cradle (1943, 12m)
The Very Eye of Night (1952-55, 15m)

Tuesday, January 12 at 7:00 • 90m
Joseph Cornell 1937-1965
Joseph Cornell, 1937-1965 • Best known for his collages and his box constructions, Joseph Cornell also made gorgeous, magical films that introduced the collage style of his visual art to the cinematic vocabulary, prefiguring the found footage methods of later generations. Whether his images were taken from other films, filmed by collaborators or generated by Cornell himself, a sense of rapturous, exuberant sensuality pervades all of his film work. This program collects Cornell's collaborations with Jordan and Rudy Burckhardt, films that were made in the milieu of the avant-garde cinema and have been woefully underseen in the intervening years. 16mm

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Three by Cornell: Cotillion, The Midnight Party, Children's Party (with Lawrence Jordan, 1940s, 25m)
Three More by Cornell: Carrousel, Jack's Dream, Thimble Theatre (w/ Jordan, 1940s, 24m)
The Aviary/Nymphlight/A Fable for Fountains (with Rudolph Burckhardt, 1957, 19m)
Mulberry Street (w/ Burckhardt, 1965, 9m)
What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street (w/ Burckhardt, 1956, 6m)
Cornell, 1965 (Larry Jordan, 1978, 7m)

Tuesday, January 19 at 7:00 • 95m
Kenneth Anger 1947-1963
Kenneth Anger, 1947-1963 • The most important queer filmmaker of the avant-garde (and possibly of any type of independent cinema of the period), Kenneth Anger's powerful examinations of homosexual desire and intricate incarnations of occult ritual remain dazzling, compulsive viewing more than half a century after their making. Fireworks, first screened when he was only twenty years old, is rightly considered to be one of the most exciting debuts in the history of cinema. This program includes selections from his early career, up to 1963's Scorpio Rising, perhaps his greatest, best-known film. 16mm

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Fireworks (1947, 15m)
Eaux D'Artifice (1953, 13m)
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954, 38m)
Scorpio Rising (1963, 29m)

Tuesday, January 26 at 7:00 • 103m
Harrington & Peterson 1946-1956
Curtis Harrington & Sidney Peterson, 1946-1956 • Two of the great filmmakers of the "trance" style, Sidney Peterson and Curtis Harrington created intense, surreal explorations of the unconscious. Already in his forties when he began making films, Peterson had a loopy sense of humor that translated into experimental work with a wild, Dada-esque comic edge, most fully visible in his embrace of optical distortions. Harrington, best known for later cult-classic narrative features such as Night Tide, was just as important as Kenneth Anger to the establishment of a queer tradition in the American cinema, and helped to define the style of the avant-garde in the early 1950s. 16mm, not on DVD.

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The Lead Shoes (Peterson, 1949, 17m)
Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur (Peterson, 1949, 21m)
Petrified Dog (Peterson, 1948, 19m)
Picnic (Harrington, 1948, 22m)
Fragment of Seeking (Harrington, 1946, 14m)
The Wormwood Star (Harrington, 1956, 10m)

Tuesday, February 2 at 7:00 • 99m
Marie Menken 1940-1968
Marie Menken, 1940-1968 • A truly great and influential artist whose work has been woefully underseen in the decades since her death in 1971, Menken created masterpieces that left an enormous impact on American cinema. Kinetic displays of light and color, Menken's films were considered to be among the greatest of their time by a generation of artists, and then, until recently, overlooked. Jonas Mekas said of Menken that "She filmed with her entire body, her entire nervous system.... She took the film - the non-narrative film, the poetic film, the language of film - in a completely new direction, away from classic filmmaking and into a new adventure." 16mm, not on DVD.

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Notebook (1940-1962, 10m)
Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945, 4m)
Dwightiana (1957, 4m)
Glimpse of the Garden (1957, 5m)
Bagatelle for Willard Maas (1958-61, 5m)
Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61, 4m)
Drips in Strips (1961, 3m)
Eye Music in Red Major (1961, 6m)
Go Go Go (1962-64, 12m)
Hurry! Hurry! (1957, 3m)
Lights (1966, 7m)
Mood Mondrian (1965, 6m)
Moonplay (1964-66, 5m)
Sidewalks (1966, 7m)
Wrestling (1964, 8m)
Watts with Eggs (1967, 2m)
Excursion (c. 1968, 6m)

Tuesday, February 9 at 7:00 • 107m
Gregory Markopoulos 1947-1969
Gregory Markopoulos, 1947-1969 • A filmmaker from the age of twelve, Markopoulos was still a teenager when his first major film, Psyche, announced his arrival as an important and exciting new artist. P. Adams Sitney called him "one of the most radical narrative filmmakers in the world." Markopoulos created radical films that focused on color, rhythm and innovative conceptions of narrative temporality. This program focuses on his early short films, but also includes his 1969 film Sorrows in an attempt to present his progression as an artist, which includes both increasingly complex and stunning montages and ever more candid explorations of his own sexuality. Archival 16mm, not on DVD.

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Psyche (1947-48, 25m)
Lysis (1947-48, 30m)
Charmides (1947-48, 15m)
Flowers of Asphalt (1951, 7m)
Swain (1950, 24m)
Sorrows (1969, 6m)

Tuesday, February 16 at 7:00 • 115m
James Broughton 1948-1968
James Broughton, 1948-1968 • James Broughton's whimsical poetic sensibilities were employed in films that were often playful and sometimes erotic in their examinations of love and intimacy. Broughton consistently produced films until the early 1980s, when he began making films with his romantic partner Joel Singer. This program includes his award-winning early films as well as The Bed, a color film made in 1969 that indicates the continued vitality of his work throughout his life. 16mm, not on DVD.

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Mother's Day (1948, 22m)
Adventures of Jimmy (1950, 11m)
Four in the Afternoon (1951, 15m)
Loony Tom, The Happy Lover (1951, 10m)
The Pleasure Garden (1953, 38m)
The Bed (1968, 19m)

Tuesday, February 23 at 7:00 • 67m
Shirley Clarke 1954-1960
Shirley Clarke, 1954-1960 • Best-known for her 1960s verité films, documentaries and documentary-style features such as A Portrait of Jason and The Connection, Shirley Clarke began her film career making dance films. Like Deren and Menken, Clarke was concerned with movement on the screen, bridging the gap between Deren's explorations of bodies in motion and Menken's dances of pure light and color. A former choreographer, Clarke approached the cinema as a vehicle for both capturing and embodying dance, creating a stunning body of short films that are frequently overlooked in favor of the equally innovative work done by Clarke later. 16mm, not on DVD.

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Dance in the Sun (1954, 6m)
A Moment in Love (1957, 11m)
Bridges-Go-Round (1959, 7m)
In Paris Parks (1954, 13m)
Bullfight (1955, 9m)
The Skyscraper (1958, 21m)

Tuesday, March 2 at 7:00 • 61m
Christopher Maclaine 1953-1959
Christopher Maclaine, 1953-1959 • MacLaine was perhaps the essential Beat filmmaker. His masterpiece The End presents a sui generis vision of the apocalypse that would haunt the next several decades of filmmakers. "MacLaine tells stories based in social reality but in a manner so profoundly fragmented, so unnerving, as to give even viewers who've seen the works many times a series of perceptual shocks. These... fables of doom and redemption are also unlike any others I know. After perhaps 20 viewings of The End over the past 30 years, I feel as if I'm only beginning to understand its greatness." (Fred Camper) 16mm, not on DVD.
Introduced by local artist Fred Camper.

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The End (1953, 35m)
Beat (1958, 6m)
The Man Who Invented Gold (1957, 14m)
Scotch Hop (1959, 6m)

Tuesday, March 9 at 7:00 • 82m
Robert Breer 1954-1970
Robert Breer, 1954-1970 • Perhaps the most innovative animator of the avant-garde, Robert Breer's conception of animation wholly redefined and recontextualized the very process of animated filmmaking. Breer expanded animation to include any progression of images captured one frame at a time in a style that could sometimes achieve an almost stroboscopic rapid succession of unrelated images while at other times embracing the simple pleasures found in the smooth movement of cartoonish line drawings. Breer continues to be productive in recent years, having amassed a filmography covering remarkably rich and varied styles, effects and subjects. 16mm, not on DVD.

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A Miracle (1954, 1m)
Recreation (1956, 2m)
A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957, 2m)
"One Man Show" compilation: includes Jamestown Baloos, Blazes, Horse Over Tea Kettle, Pat's Birthday, Breathing, Fist Fight, 66 (1957-1966, 50 m)
Eyewash (1959, 3m)
Inner and Outer Space (1960, 4m)
Homage to Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York (1960, 10m)
69 (1969, 5m)
70 (1970, 5m)
Fuji (1973, 8.5m)

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