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1. The Avant-Garde


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Experimental Cinema in America
Part One: 1921–1941

Lewis Jacobs

Lewis Jacobs has contributed articles on the motion picture to two encyclopedias and to numerous magazines. His book The Rise of the American Film is now published in three languages. In Hollywood, aside from his own screen writing, he has taught screenplay technique to new contract writers at Columbia Studios and is now completing a book on the structure and art of the motion picture for Harcourt, Brace.

This article is the first half of an essay which is to appear in a forthcoming book, The Experimental Film, a collection of essays on the avant-garde cinema of America, Britain, France, Russia, and other countries, edited by Roger Manvell and published in England by the Grey Walls Press. Part Two: 1941–1947, will appear in the Spring, 1948, issue of the Hollywood Quarterly [pp. 28–50, this volume].

. ….


Experimental cinema in America has had little in common with the main stream of the motion picture industry.

Living a kind of private life of its own, its concern has been solely with motion pictures as a medium of artistic expression. This emphasis upon means rather than content not only endows experimental films with a value of their own but distinguishes them from all other commercial, documentary, educational, and amateur productions. Although its influence upon the current of film expression has been deeper than is generally realized, the movement has always been small, its members scattered, its productions sporadic and, for the most part, viewed by few.

In Europe the term for experimental efforts, "the avant-garde," has an intellectually creative connotation. But in America experimenters saw their work referred to as "amateur," an expression used not in a laudatory, but in a derogatory sense. Lack of regard became an active force, inhibiting and retarding productivity. In the effort to overcome outside disdain, experimental film makers in the United States tended to become cliquey and inbred, often ignorant of the work of others with similar aims. There was little interplay and exchange of ideas and sharing of discoveries. But


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with postwar developments in this field the old disparaging attitude has been supplanted by a new regard and the experimental film maker has begun to be looked upon with respect. Today the word "amateur" is no longer used; it has been dropped in favor of the word "experimenter."

The American experimental movement was born in a period of artistic ferment in the motion picture world. During the decade 1921–1931, sometimes called the "golden period of silent films," movies were attaining new heights in expression. Innovations in technique, content, and structural forms were being introduced in films from Germany, France, and Russia: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks, The Golem, Variety, The Last Laugh, Le Ballet mécanique, Entr'acte, The Fall of the House of Usher, Emak Bakia, The Italian Straw Hat, Thérèse Raquin, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Potemkin, The End of St. Petersburg, Ten Days That Shook the World, The Man with the Camera, Arsenal, Fragment of an Empire, Soil.

The "foreign invasion," as it came to be called, enlarged the aesthetic horizons of American movie makers, critics, and writers, and fostered native ambitions. Intellectuals hitherto indifferent or hostile now began to look upon the cinema as a new art form. Books, essays, articles, and even special film magazines appeared which extolled the medium's potentialities and predicted a brilliant future. Film guilds, film societies, film forums, and special art theaters devoted to showing "the unusual, the experimental, the artistic film" sprang up, so that by the end of the decade the film as a new art form was not only widely recognized but inspired wide enthusiasm for production. Young artists, photographers, poets, novelists, dancers, architects, eager to explore the rich terrain of movie expression, learned how to handle a camera and with the most meager resources attempted to produce pictures of their own. The expense proved so great that most of the efforts were abortive; in others, the technique was not equal to the imagination; and in still others, the ideas were not fully formed, but fragmentary and improvisational, depending upon the moment's inspiration. Consequently, while there was a great deal of activity and talk, hardly any experimental films were completed. It was not until the main current of foreign pictures had waned—around 1928—that experimental cinema in America really got under way.

Two films were finished in the early ‘twenties, however, which stand out as landmarks in American experiment: Mannahatta (1921) and Twentyfour Dollar Island (1925). Both showed an independence of approach and


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probed an aspect of film expression that had not been explored by the film makers from abroad.

Mannahatta was a collaborative effort of Charles Sheeler, the modern painter, and Paul Strand, photographer and disciple of Alfred Steiglitz. Their film, one reel in length, attempted to express New York through its essential characteristics—power and beauty, movement and excitement. The title was taken from a poem by Walt Whitman, and excerpts from the poem were used as subtitles.

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. Mannahatta revealed a discerning eye and a disciplined camera. Selected angle shots achieved quasi-abstract compositions: a Staten Island ferryboat makes its way into the South Ferry pier; crowds of commuters are suddenly released into the streets of lower Manhattan; an ocean liner is aided by tugboats at the docks; pencil-like office buildings stretch upward into limitless space; minute restless crowds of people throng deep, narrow, skyscraper canyons; silvery smoke and steam rise plumelike against filtered skies; massive shadows and sharp sunlight form geometric patterns. The picture's emphasis upon visual pattern within the real world was an innovation for the times and resulted in a striking new impression of New York.

Mannahatta was presented as a "short" on the program of several large theaters in New York City, but by and large it went unseen. In Paris, where it appeared as evidence of American modernism on a Dadaist program which included music by Erik Satie and poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, it received something of an ovation. In the late 1920's the film was shown around New York at private gatherings and in some of the first art theaters. Its influence, however, was felt more in still photography, then making an upsurge as an art form, than in the field of experimental films.

Twenty-four Dollar Island, employing the same approach as Mannahatta and having much in common with it, was Robert Flaherty's picture of New York City and its harbor. The director had already established a style of his own and a reputation with such pictures as Nanook of the North and Moana. In those films his major interest lay in documenting the lives and manners of primitive people. In Twenty-four Dollar Island, people were irrelevant. Flaherty conceived the film as "a camera poem, a


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sort of architectural lyric where people will be used only incidentally as part of the background."

Flaherty's camera, like that of Strand and Sheeler, sought the metropolitan spirit in silhouettes of buildings against the sky, deep narrow skyscraper canyons, sweeping spans of bridges, the flurry of pressing crowds, the reeling of subway lights. Flaherty also emphasized the semiabstract pictorial values of the city: foreshortened viewpoints, patterns of mass and line, the contrast of sunlight and shadow. The result, as the director himself said, was "not a film of human beings, but of skyscrapers which they had erected, completely dwarfing humanity itself."

What particularly appealed to Flaherty was the opportunity to use telephoto lenses. Fascinated by the longer-focus lens, he made shots from the top of nearly every skyscraper in Manhattan. "I shot New York buildings from the East River bridges, from the ferries and from the Jersey shore looking up to the peaks of Manhattan. The effects obtained with my long-focus lenses amazed me. I remember shooting from the roof of the Telephone Building across the Jersey shore with an eight-inch lens and, even at that distance, obtaining a stereoscopic effect that seemed magical. It was like drawing a veil from the beyond, revealing life scarcely visible to the naked eye."

Despite the uniqueness of the film and Flaherty's reputation, Twentyfour Dollar Island had a very restricted release. Its treatment by New York's largest theater, the Roxy, foreshadowed somewhat the later vandalism to be practiced by others upon Eisenstein's Romance sentimentale and Que viva México. After cutting down Twenty-four Dollar Island from two reels to one, the Roxy directors used the picture as a background projection for one of their lavishly staged dance routines called The Sidewalks of New York.

Apart from these two early efforts the main current of American experimental films began to appear in 1928. The first ones showed the in fiuence of the expressionistic style of the German film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Expressionism not only appealed to the ideological temper of the time, but suited the technical resources of the motion picture novitiates as well. Lack of money and experience had to be offset by ingenuity and fearlessness. "Effects" became a chief goal. The camera and its devices, the setting, and any object at hand that could be manipulated for an effect were exploited toward achieving a striking expression. Native experimenters emphasized technique above everything else. Content was secondary,


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or so neglected as to become the merest statement. One of the first serious motion picture critics, Gilbert Seldes, writing in the New Republic, March 6, 1929, pointed out that the experimental film makers "are opposed to naturalism; they have no stars; they are over-influenced by Caligari; they want to give their complete picture without the aid of any medium except the camera and projector."

The first experimental film in this country to show the influence of the expressionistic technique was the one-reel The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra. Made in the early part of 1928, this film cost less than a hundred dollars and aroused so much interest and discussion that Film Booking Office, a major distribution agency, contracted to distribute it through their exchanges, booking it into seven hundred theaters here and abroad.

A Hollywood Extra (the shortened title) was written and directed by Robert  Florey next hit, a former European film journalist and assistant director, and designed and photographed by Slavko Vorkapich, a painter with an intense desire to make poetic films. It was produced at night in Vorkapich's kitchen out of odds and ends—paper cubes, cigar boxes, tin cans, moving and reflected lights (from a single 400-watt bulb), an erector set, cardboard figures—and a great deal of ingenuity. Its style, broad and impressionistic, disclosed a remarkable selectivity and resourcefulness in the use of props, painting, camera, and editing.

In content, A Hollywood Extra was a simple satirical fantasy highlighting the dreams of glory of a Mr. Jones, a would-be star. A letter of recommendation gets Mr. Jones to a Hollywood casting director. There Mr. Jones is changed from an individual into a number, 9413, which is placed in bold ciphers upon his forehead. Thereafter he begins to talk the gibberish of Hollywood, consisting of slight variations of "bah-bahbahbah …"

Meanwhile, handsome Number 15, formerly Mr. Blank, is being screen-tested for a feature part. He pronounces "bah-bah-bah" facing front, profile left, profile right. The executives approve with enthusiastic "bah-bahs."

Subsequently, the preview of Number 15's picture is a great success. A star is painted on his forehead and his "bah-bahs" become assertive and haughty.

But Number 9413 is less fortunate. In his strenuous attempt to climb the stairway to success the only recognition he receives is "nbah-nbah-nbah"


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—no casting today. From visions of heavy bankrolls, night clubs, glamour, and fanfare his dreams shrink to: "Pork and Beans—15 cents."

Clutching the telephone out of which issue the repeated "nbahs" of the casting director, Number 9413 sinks to the floor and dies of starvation. But the picture ends on a happy note ("as all Hollywood pictures must end"). Number 9413 ascends to heaven. There an angel wipes the number off his forehead and he becomes human again.

Something of the film's quality can be seen in the description by Herman Weinberg (Movie Makers, January, 1929): "The hysteria and excitement centering around an opening-night performance … was quickly shown by photographing a skyscraper (cardboard miniatures) with an extremely mobile camera, swinging it up and down, and from side to side, past a battery of hissing arclights, over the theater façade and down to the arriving motor vehicles. To portray the mental anguish of the extra, Florey and Vorkapich cut grotesque strips of paper into the shape of gnarled, malignant-looking trees, silhouetted them against a background made up of moving shadows, and set them in motion with an electric fan."

Following A Hollywood Extra, previous hit Robert  Florey next hit made two other experimental fantasies: The Loves of Zero and Johann the Coffin Maker. Both films, also produced at a minimum cost, employed stylized backgrounds, costumes, and acting derived from Caligari.

The Loves of Zero was the better of the two, with a number of shots quite fanciful and inventive. Noteworthy were the split-screen closeups of Zero, showing his face split into two different-sized parts, and the multiple-exposure views of Machine Street, the upper portion of the screen full of revolving machinery dominating the lower portion, which showed the tiny figure of Zero walking home.

Despite their shortcomings and their fiagrant mirroring of German expressionism, these first experimental attempts were significant. Their low cost, their high inventive potential, their independence of studio crafts and staff, vividly brought home the fact that the medium was within anyone's reach. One did not have to spend a fortune or be a European or Hollywood "genius" to explore the artistic possibilities of movie making.

Appearing about the same time, but more ambitious in scope, was the six-reel experimental film The Last Moment. Produced in "sympathetic collaboration" by Paul Fejos, director, Leon Shamroy, cameraman, and Otto Matieson, the leading actor, this picture (also not studio-made) was


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Synchronization (1934), by Joseph Shillinger and Lewis Jacobs; drawings by Mary Ellen Bute


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Evening Star (1937), by Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth; score: Wagner's Evening Star, sung by Reinald Werrenrath


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H2O (1929), by Ralph Steiner


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Parabola (1938), by Rutherford Boyd, Mary Ellen Bute, and Ted Nemeth


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The Last Moment (1928), by Paul Fejos, with Leon Shamroy and Otto Matieson


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Lot in Sodom (1933–34), by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber


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A Hollywood Extra (1928), by previous hit Robert  Florey next hit and Slavko Vorkapich


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Dawn to Dawn (1934), by Joseph Berne; screenplay by Seymour Stern


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saturated with artifice and effects gleaned from a careful study of the décor, lighting, and camera treatment of such German pictures as Waxworks, Variety, and The Last Laugh. Made up of innumerable brief, kaleidoscopic scenes, it was a vigorous manifestation of the expressionistic style.

The story was a "study in subjectivity," based on the theory that at the critical moment before a person loses consciousness he may see a panorama of pictures summarizing the memories of a lifetime. The film opens with a shot of troubled water. A struggling figure is seen. A hand reaches up "as if in entreaty." A man is drowning. This scene is followed by a sequence of rapid shots: the head of a Pierrot, faces of women, flashing headlights, spinning wheels, a star shower, an explosion, climaxed by a shot of a child's picture book.

From the book the camera flashes back to summarize the drowning man's life: impressions of school days, a fond mother, an unsympathetic father, a birthday party, reading Shakespeare, a first visit to the theater, the boy scrawling love notes, an adolescent affair with a carnival dancer, quarreling at home, leaving for the city, stowing away on a ship, being manhandled by a drunken captain, stumbling into a tavern, acting to amuse a circle of revelers, reeling in drunken stupor and run over by a car, attended by a sympathetic nurse, winning a reputation as an actor, marrying, quarreling, divorcing, gambling, acting, attending his mother's funeral, enlisting in the army, the battlefront. No attempt wasmade to probe into these actions; they were given as a series of narrative impressions.

The concluding portions of the film were told in the same impressionistic manner. The soldier returns to civilian life and resumes his acting career, falls in love with his leading lady, marries her, is informed of her accidental death, becomes distraught, and is finally impelled to suicide. Wearing his Pierrot costume, the actor wades out into the lake at night.

Now the camera repeats the opening summary: the troubled waters, the faces, the lights, the wheels, the star shower, the explosion. The outstretched hand gradually sinks from view. A few bubbles rise to the surface. The film ends.

In many respects the story was superficial and melodramatic, with moments of bathos. But the faults were overcome by freshness of treatment, conception, and technique, making the film a singular and arresting experiment.


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This camera work of Leon Shamroy, then an unknown American photographer, was compared favorably with the best work of the European camera stylists. "The Last Moment is composed of a series of camera tricks, camera angles, and various motion picture devices which for completeness and novelty have never before been equaled upon the screen," wrote Tamar Lane in the Film Mercury, November 11, 1927. "Such remarkable camera work is achieved here as has never been surpassed—German films included," said Irene Thirer in the New York Daily News, March 12, 1928. But The Last Moment had more than superior camera craftsmanship.

For America it was a radical departure in structure, deliberately ignoring dramatic conventions of storytelling and striving for a cinematic form of narrative. Instead of subduing the camera for use solely as a recording device, the director boldly emphasized the camera's role and utilized all its narrative devices. The significant use of dissolves, multiple exposures, irises, mobility, and split screen created a style which, though indebted to the Germans, was better integrated in visual movement and rhythm and overshadowed the shallowness of the picture's content.

Exhibited in many theaters throughout the country, The Last Moment aroused more widespread critical attention than any other American picture of the year. Most of it was as favorable as that of John S. Cohen, Jr., in the New York Sun, March 3, 1928: "One of the most stimulating experiments in movie history … The Last Moment is a remarkable cinema projection of an arresting idea—and almost worthy of the misused designation of being a landmark in movie history."

More eclectic than previous American experiments was The Tell-tale Heart, directed by Charles Klein. It set out to capture the horror and insanity of Poe's story in a manner that was boldly imitative of Caligari. Like the German film, the foundation of the American's style lay in its décor. Angular flats, painted shadows, oblique windows and doors, and zigzag designs distorted perspective and increased the sense of space. But opposed to the expressionistic architecture were the early nineteenth-century costumes, the realistic acting, and the lighting, sometimes realistic, sometimes stylized.

Although poorly integrated and lacking the distinctive style of Caligari, The Tell-tale Heart had flavor. Even borrowed ideas and rhetorical effects were a refreshing experience, and the use of a Poe story was itself novel. Moreover, the general level of production was of so professional a standard


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that Clifford Howard in Close Up, August, 1928, wrote: "The Tell-tale Heart is perhaps the most finished production of its kind that has yet come out of Hollywood proper."

Soon after The Tell-tale Heart, a second film based on a story by Poe appeared, The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe's stories were to appeal more and more to the experimental and amateur film makers. Poe's stories not only were short and in the public domain, but depended more upon atmosphere and setting than upon characterization. What particularly kindled the imagination of the experimenter was the haunting, evocative atmosphere which brought to mind similar values in memorable German pictures which, like Caligari, had made a deep impression. Even to novitiates Poe's stories were so obviously visual that they seemed almost made to order for the imaginative cameraman and designer.

The Fall of the House of Usher was directed and photographed by James Sibley Watson, with continuity and setting by Melville Webber. Almost a year in the making although only two reels in length, the production strove to make the spectator feel whatever was "grotesque, strange, fearful and morbid in Poe's work."

Unlike the previous "Caligarized" Poe story, The Fall of the House of Usher displayed an original approach to its material and an imaginative and intense use of the means of expressionism which gave the picture a distinctive quality, setting it apart from the experimental films of the day. From the very opening—a horseman descending a plain obscured by white puffs of smoke—mystery and unreality are stressed. Images sinister and startling follow one upon the other. A dinner is served by disembodied hands in black rubber gloves. The cover of a dish is removed before one of the diners and on it is revealed the symbol of death. The visitor to the house of Usher loses his identity and becomes a hat, bouncing around rather miserably, "an intruder made uncomfortable by singular events that a hat might understand as well as a man."

The climax—the collapse of the house of Usher—is touched with grandeur and nightmarish terror. Lady Usher emerges from her incarceration with the dust of decay upon her, toiling up endless stairs from the tomb where she has been buried alive, and topples over the body of her demented brother. Then, in a kind of visual metaphor, the form of the sister covering the brother "crumbles and disintegrates like the stones of the house and mingles with its ashy particles in utter annihilation,"


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wrote Shelley Hamilton in the National Board of Review Magazine, January, 1929.

The distinctive style of the picture was achieved by a technique which showed the makers' assimilation of the values of Destiny, Nibelungen, and Waxworks. The various influences, however, were never literally followed, but were integrated with the film makers' own feeling and imagination so that a new form emerged. Watson and Webber's contribution consisted in the use of light on wall board instead of painted sets, optical distortion through prisms, and unique multiple exposures and dissolves to create atmospheric effects that were neither realistic nor stylized and yet were both. Characters were also transformed to seem shadowy, almost phantom-like, moving in a tenuous, spectral world. The entire film had a saturated, gelatinous quality that rendered the unreal and evocative mood of Poe's story with corresponding vivid unreality.

Unfortunately the picture was marred by amateurish acting and ineffective stylized make-up and gestures. Nevertheless it was an outstanding and important independent effort, acclaimed by Harry Alan Potamkin in Close Up, December, 1929, as an "excellent achievement in physical materials."

In sharp opposition to the expressionistic approach and treatment was the work of another group of experimenters who appeared at this time. They looked for inspiration to the French films of Clair, Feyder, Cavalcanti, Leger, and Deslaw. Their approach was direct, their treatment naturalistic.

Perhaps the foremost practitioner in this field because of his work in still photography was Ralph Steiner, the New York photographer. Almost ascetic in repudiation of everything thatmight be called a device or a stunt, his pictures were "devoid of multiple exposures, use of the negative, distortion, truncation by angle, etc.," for the reason, he stated, "that simple content of the cinema medium has been far from conclusively exploited."

Here was a working creed that deliberately avoided effects in order to concentrate on subject matter.H2O (1929), Surf and Seaweed (1930), and Mechanical Principles (1930) were produced with the straightforward vision and economy of means that characterized Steiner's still photography. Yet, curiously enough, these pictures in spite of their "straight photography" gave less evidence of concern for content than, say, The Fall of the House of Usher, which employed all the "tricks" of cinema. As a matter of fact the content in the Steiner films was hardly of any importance, certainly


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without social or human values, and was offered solely as a means of showing an ordinary object in a fresh way. Limited to this visual experience, the films' chief interest lay in honest and skilled photography and decorative appeal.

Steiner's first effort,H2O, was a study of reflections on water, and won the $500 Photoplay award for the best amateur film of 1929. "I was interested in seeing how much material could be gotten by trying to see water in a new way," Steiner said, "rather than by doing things to it with the camera." Yet to get the water reflections enlarged and the abstract patterns of shadows, Steiner shot much of the film with 6- and 12-inch lenses. Although it was true that nothing was done to the water with the camera, it was also true that if Steiner had not used large-focus lenses he would not have seen the water in a new way. (The point is a quibbling one, for devices, like words, are determined by their associations in a larger unity. A device that may be integral to one film may be an affectation in another.) H2O proved to be a series of smooth and lustrous abstract moving patterns of light and shade, "so amazingly effective" wrote Alexander Bakshy in The Nation, April 1, 1931, "that it made up for the lack of dynamic unity in the picture as a whole."

Surf and Seaweed captured the restless movement of surf, tides, and weeds with the same sharpness and precision of camerawork. Mechanical Principles portrayed the small demonstration models of gears, shafts, and eccentrics in action, at one point evoking a sort of whimsical humor by the comic antics of a shaft which kept "grasping a helpless bolt by the head."

Essentially, all three films were abstractions. Their concentrated, closeup style of photography made for an intensity and pictorial unity thatwere still novel. They represented somewhat refined, streamlined versions of Le Ballet mécanique (although without that historic film's percussive impact or dynamic treatment) and proved striking additions to the growing roster of American experimental works.

Another devotee of French films, Lewis Jacobs, together with Jo Gercon and Hershell Louis, all of Philadelphia, made a short experiment in 1930 called Mobile Composition. Although abstract in title, the film was realistic, the story of a developing love affair between a boy and girl who are thrust together for half an hour in a friend's studio.

The psychological treatment stemmed from the technique used by Feyder in Thérèse Raquin. Significant details, contrast lighting, double exposures, and large close-ups depicted the growing strain of disturbed emotions.


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In one of the scenes, in which the boy and girl were dancing together, the camera assumed a subjective viewpoint and showed the spinning walls and moving objects of the studio as seen by the boy, emphasizing a specific statuette to suggest the boy's inner disturbance.

Later, this scene cut to a dance rhythm stimulated Jo Gercon and Hershell Louis to do an entire film from a subjective viewpoint in an attempt at "intensiveness as against progression." The same story line was used, but instead of photographing the action of the boy and girl the camera showed who they were, where they went, what they saw and did, solely by objects. That film was called The Story of a Nobody (1930).

The film's structure was based on the sonata form in music, divided into three movements, the mutations of tempo in each movement— moderately quick, slow, very quick—captioned in analogy to music. It used freely such cinematic devices as the split screen, multiple exposures, masks, different camera speeds, mobile camera, reverse motion, etc. In one scene a telephone fills the center of the screen; on both sides of it, counterimages making up the subject of the telephone conversation alternate. The spectator knows what the boy and girl are talking about without ever seeing or hearing them. "Motion within the screen as differing from motion across the screen," pointed out Harry Alan Potamkin in Close Up, February, 1930, " … the most important American film I have seen since my return [from Europe]."

The spirit of the time changed, and as American experimenters grew more familiar with their medium they turned further away from the expressionism of the Germans and the naturalism of the French to the heightened realism of the Russians. The impact of Russian films and their artistic credo, summed up in the word "montage," was so shattering that they wiped out the aesthetic standards of their predecessors and ushered in new criteria. The principle of montage as presented in the films and writings of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and especially Vertov, became by 1931 the aesthetic guide for most experimental film makers in the United States.

Among the first films to show the influence of Soviet technique was a short made by Charles Vidor called The Spy (1931–1932), adapted from Ambrose Bierce's story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The Spy, like The Last Moment, revealed the thoughts of a doomed man. But unlike the earlier film, which used a flashback technique The Spy used afl ash forward. It depicted not the recollections of the events of a past life, but the


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thoughts of the immediate present, projected as if they were taking place in reality instead of in the mind of the doomed man.

The picture opens with the spy (Nicholas Bela) walking between the ranks of a firing squad. Everything seems quite casual, except for a slight tenseness in the face of the spy. We see the preparations for the hanging. A bayonet is driven into the masonry, the rope is fastened, the command is given, the drums begin to roll, the commanding officer orders the drummer boy to turn his face away from the scene, the noose is placed, the victim climbs to the bridge parapet. Now the drumbeats are intercut with the spy's beating chest. Suddenly there is a shot of a mother and child. At this point the unexpected occurs. The noose seems to break and the condemned man falls into the river. He quickly recovers and begins to swim away in an effort to escape. The soldiers go after him, shooting and missing, pursuing him through the woods until it appears that the spy has escaped. At the moment of his realization that he is free, the film cuts back to the bridge. The spy is suspended from the parapet where he has been hanged. He is dead.

The escape was only a flash forward of a dying man's last thoughts, a kind of wish fulfillment. The conclusion, true to Bierce's theme, offered a grim touch of irony.

In style The Spy was highly realistic. There were no camera tricks, no effects. The actors, who were nonprofessional, used no make-up. The sets were not painted flats nor studio backgrounds, but actual locations. The impact depended entirely upon straightforward cutting and mounting and showed that the director had a deep regard for Soviet technique.

Other experimental films in these years derived from the theories of Dziga Vertov and his Kino-Eye Productions. Vertov's advocation of pictures without professional actors, without stories, and without artificial scenery had great appeal to the numerous independent film makers who lacked experience with actors and story construction. These experimenters eagerly embraced the Russian's manifesto which said: "The news film is the foundation of film art." The camera must surprise life. Pictures should not be composed chronologically or dramatically, but thematically. They should be based on such themes as work, play, sports, rest, and other manifestations of daily life.

The pursuit of Vertov's dogmas led to a flock of "ciné poems" and "city symphonies." Notable efforts in this direction included John Hoffman's


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Prelude to Spring, Herman Weinberg's Autumn Fire and A City Symphony, Emlen Etting's Oramunde and Laureate, Irving Browning's City of Contrasts, Jay Leyda's A Bronx Morning, Leslie Thatcher's Another Day, Seymour Stern's Land of the Sun, Lyn Riggs' A Day in Santa Fe, Mike Seibert's Breakwater, Henwar Rodakiewicz's The Barge, Portrait of a Young Man, and Faces of New England, and Lewis Jacobs' Footnote to Fact.

These films were mainly factual—descriptive of persons, places, and activities, or emphasizing human interest and ideas. Some were commentaries. All strove for perfection of visual values. Photography was carefully composed and filtered. Images were cut for tempo and rhythm and arranged in thematic order.

Other films strove to compose sagacious pictorial comments in a more satirical vein on a number of current topics. Mr. Motorboat's Last Stand, by John Flory and Theodore Huff, which won the League award for 1933, was a comedy of the depression. In a mixed style of realism and fantasy it told a story of an unemployed Negro (Leonard Motorboat Stirrup) who lives in an automobile graveyard and sells apples on a near-by street corner. Being of an imaginative sort, Mr. Motorboat pretends that he rides to work in a vehicle which was once an elegant car but which now stands battered and wheelless and serves as his home. The fantasy proceeds with Mr. Motorboat making a sum of money that he then uses as bait (literally and figuratively) for fishing in Wall Street. Soon he becomes phenomenally rich, only to lose everything suddenly in the financial collapse. With the shattering of his prosperity he awakens from his fantasy to discover that his apple stand has been smashed by a competitor. Called the "best experimental film of the year" by Movie Makers, December, 1933, the picture was a neat achievement in photography, cutting, and social criticism.

Another commentary on contemporary conditions was Pie in the Sky by Elia Kazan, Molly Day Thatcher, Irving Lerner, and Ralph Steiner. Improvization was the motivating element in this experiment, which sought to point out that, although things may not be right in this world, they would be in the next.

The people responsible for Pie in the Sky— filmically and socially alert—chose a city dump as a source of inspiration. There they discovered the remains of a Christmas celebration: a mangy tree, several almost petri fied holly wreaths, broken whisky bottles, and some rather germy


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gadgets. The Group Theater–trained Elia Kazan began to improvise. The tree evoked memories of his early Greek Orthodox background. He began to perform a portion of the Greek Orthodox ceremonial. The other members of the group "caught on," extracting from the rubbish piles a seductive dressmaker's dummy, a collapsible baby-tub, some metal castings that served as haloes, the wrecked remains of a car, and a worn-out sign which read: "Welfare Dep't." With these objects they reacted to Kazan's improvisation and developed a situation on the theme that everything was going to be hunky-dory in the hereafter.

Pie in the Sky was not entirely successful. Its improvisational method accounted for both its weakness and its strength. Structurally and thematically it was shaky; yet its impact was fresh and at moments extraordinary. Its real value lay in the fact that it opened up a novel method of film making with wide possibilities, unfortunately not explored since.

Two other experiments sought to make amusing pointed statements by a use of montage. Commercial Medley by Lewis Jacobs poked fun at Hollywood's advertisements of "Coming Attractions" and its penchant for exaggeration by juxtaposing and mounting current advertising trailers. Even as You and I by Roger Barlow, LeRoy Robbins, and Harry Hay was an extravagant burlesque on surrealism.

Just when montage as a theory of film making was becoming firmly established, it was suddenly challenged by the invention of sound pictures. Experimental film makers, like all others, were thrown into confusion. Endless controversy raged around whether montage was finished, whether sound was a genuine contribution to film art, whether sound was merely a commercial expedient to bolster fallen box-office receipts, whether sound would soon disappear.

Strangely enough, most experimental film workers were against sound at first. They felt lost, let down. The core of their disapproval lay in fear and uncertainty about the changes the addition of the new element would make. Artistically, talking pictures seemed to upset whatever theories they had learned. Practically, the greatly increased cost of sound forced most experimenters to give up their cinematic activity.

There were some, however, who quickly displayed a sensitive adjustment to the introduction of sound. The first and probably the most distinguished experimental sound film of the period was Lot in Sodom (1933–1934), made by Watson and Webber, the producers of The Fall of


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the House of Usher. It told the Old Testament story of "that wicked city of the plain, upon which God sent destruction and the saving of God's man, Lot," almost completely in terms of homosexuality and the subconscious. The directors avoided literal statement and relied upon a rhythmical arrangement of symbols rather than chronological reconstruction of events. The picture proved a scintillating study, full of subtle imagery, of sensual pleasure and corruption. A specially composed score by Louis Siegel incorporated music closely and logically into the story's emotional values.

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—smoking plains, undulating curtains, waving candle flames, glistening flowers, voluptuous faces, sensual bodies, frenzied orgies—were so smoothly synthesized on the screen that the elements of each composition seemed to melt and flow into one another with extraordinary iridescence.

Outstanding for its splendor and intense poetry was the sequence of the daughter's pregnancy and giving birth. I quote from Herman Weinberg's review in Close Up, September, 1933: "I cannot impart how the sudden burst of buds to recall full bloom, disclosing the poignantly lyrical beauty of their stamens, as Lot's daughter lets drop her robe disclosing her naked loveliness, gets across so well the idea of reproduction. Her body floats in turbulent water during her travail, everything is immersed in rushing water until it calms down, the body rises above the gentle ripples, and now the water drops gently (in slow motion—three-quarters of the film seems to have been shot in slow motion) from the fingers. A child is born."

Suffused with majesty and serenity, this sequence can only be compared to the magnificent night passages in Dovzhenko's Soil. Like that Soviet film, the American was a luminous contribution to the realm of lyric cinema.

The second experimental sound film of note was Dawn to Dawn (1934), directed by Joseph Berne. The screenplay, written by Seymour Stern, was based on a story reminiscent of the work of Sherwood Anderson. A lonesome girl lives on an isolated farm, seeing no one but her father, who has


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been brutalized by poverty and illness. One day, into the house comes a wandering farm hand applying for a job. During the afternoon the girl and the farm hand fall in love and plan to leave together the next morning. That night the father, sensing what has happened and afraid to lose his daughter, drives the farm hand off the property. At dawn the father has a stroke and dies. The girl is left more alone than ever.

The subject differed from that of the usual experimental film, as from the sunshine-and-sugar romances of the commercial cinema. What it offered was sincerity instead of synthetic emotion. The actors wore no make-up. The girl (Julie Haydon, later to become a star) was a farm girl with neither artificial eyelashes, painted lips, glistening nails, nor picturesque smudges. All the drabness and pastoral beauty of farm life were photographed by actually going to a farm. There was an honesty of treatment, of detail and texture, far above the usual picture-postcard depictions. The musical score by Cameron McPherson, producer of the film, used Debussy-like passages to "corroborate both the pastoral and the erotic qualities" of the story.

The picture was weakest in dialogue. This was neither well written nor well spoken and seemed quite at odds with the photographic realism of the film. Nevertheless, Dawn to Dawn displayed such a real feeling for the subject and the medium that it moved Eric Knight, critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger (March 18, 1936) to write: "I am tempted to call Dawn to Dawn one of the most remarkable attempts in independent cinematography in America."

Other films continued to be made, but only two used sound. Broken Earth by Roman Freulich and Clarence Muse combined music and song in a glorification of the "spiritually minded Negro." Underground Printer, directed by Thomas Bouchard and photographed by Lewis Jacobs, presented a political satire in "monodance" drama featuring the dancer, John Bovingdon, utilizing speech, sound effects, and stylized movements.

Two other silent films were made at this time:Synchronization, by Joseph Schillinger and Lewis Jacobs, with drawings by Mary Ellen Bute, illustrated the principles of rhythm in motion; Olvera Street, by Mike Seibert, was a tense dramatization of the aftermath of a flirtation between two Spanish street vendors.

By 1935 the economic depression was so widespread that all efforts at artistic experiment seemed pointless. Interest centered now on social conditions. A new kind of film making took hold: the documentary. Under


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dire economic distress aesthetic rebellion gave way to social rebellion. Practically all the former experimental film makers were absorbed in the American documentary film movement, which rapidly became a potent force in motion picture progress.

One team continued to make pictures under the old credo but with the addition of sound—Mary Ellen Bute, designer, and Ted Nemeth, cameraman. These two welded light, color, movement, and music into abstract films which they called "visual symphonies." Their aim was to "bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with the thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music."

Their films, three in black and white—Anitra's Dance (1936), Evening Star (1937), Parabola (1938)—and three in color—Tocatta and Fugue (1940), Tarantella (1941), and Sport Spools (1941)—were all composed upon mathematical formulae, depicting in ever changing lights and shadows, growing lines and forms, deepening colors and tones, the tumbling, racing impressions evoked by the musical accompaniment. Their compositions were synchronized sound and image following a chromatic scale or in counterpoint.

At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger's method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals.

The difference in quality between the Bute-Nemeth pictures and Fischinger's came largely from a difference in technique. Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc. Both utilized a schematic process of composition. Fischinger worked out his own method. Bute and Nemeth used Schillinger's mathematical system of composition as the basis for the visual and aural continuities and their interrelationship.


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Along with their strangely beautiful pictorial effects and their surprising rhythmic patterns, the Bute-Nemeth "visual symphonies" often included effective theatrical patterns such as comedy, suspense, pathos, and drama in the action of the objects, which lifted the films above the usual abstract films and made them interesting experiments in a new experience.


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Experimental Cinema in America
Part Two: The Postwar Revival

Lewis Jacobs

When America Entered the war the experimental film went into limbo, but with the war's end there was a sharp and unexpected outburst of interest and activity in experimental movies in all parts of the United States. Behind this phenomenal postwar revival were two forces that had been set in motion during the war years. The first was the circulation of programs from the Film Library of the Museum of Modern Art, at a nominal cost, to nonprofit groups. The Museum's collection of pictures and its program notes on the history, art, and traditions of cinema went to hundreds of colleges, universities, museums, film-appreciation groups, and study groups. These widespread exhibitions, as well as the Museum of Modern Art's own showings in its theater in New York City, exerted a major influence in preparing the way for broader appreciation and production of experimental films.

The second force was the entirely new and heightened prestige that film acquired through its service to the war effort. New, vast audiences saw ideological, documentary, educational, and training subjects for the first time and developed a taste for experimental and noncommercial techniques. Moreover, thousands of film makers were developed in the various branches of service. Many of these, having learned to handle motion picture and sound apparatus, have begun to use their skills to seek out, through their own experiments, the artistic potentialities of the medium.

As the result of these two forces, groups fostering art in cinema have appeared in various parts of the country. One of the most active is headed by Frank Stauffacher and Richard Foster in San Francisco. With the assistance of the staff of the San Francisco Museum of Art they were actually the first in this country to assemble, document, and exhibit on a large scale a series of strictly avant-garde films. The spirited response to the series resulted in the publication of a symposium on the art of avant-garde films,


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together with program notes and references, called Art in Cinema. This book, a nonprofit publication, is a notable contribution to the growing body of serious film literature in this country.

Among others advancing the cause of experimental films are Paul Ballard, who organized innumerable avant-garde film showings throughout Southern California, and the Creative Film Associates and the People's Educational Center, both of Los Angeles and equally energetic on the behalf of creative cinema.

To Maya Deren goes the credit for being the first since the end of the war to inject a fresh note into experimental-film production. Her four pictures —all short, all silent, all in black and white—have been consistently individual and striking. Moreover, she has the organizational ability to assure that film groups, museums, schools, and little theaters see her efforts, and the writing skill to express her ideas and credos in magazine articles, books, and pamphlets which are well circulated. She is today, therefore, one of the better-known film experimenters.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Maya Deren's first picture, was made in collaboration with Alexander Hammid (co-director with Herbert Kline of the documentary films Crisis, Lights Out in Europe, and Forgotten Village). It attempted to show the way in which an apparently simple and casual occurrence develops subsconciously into a critical emotional experience. A girl (acted by Miss Deren herself) comes home one afternoon and falls asleep. In a dream she sees herself returning home, tortured by loneliness and frustration and impulsively committing suicide. The story has a double climax, in which it appears that the imagined—the dream— has become the real

The film utilizes nonactors—Miss Deren and Alexander Hammid— and the setting is their actual home. The photography is direct and objective, although the intent is to evoke a mood. In this respect the film is not completely successful. It skips from objectivity to subjectivity without transitions or preparation and is often confusing. But in the process of unreeling its own meshes, despite some symbols borrowed from Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, the picture attests a unique gift for the medium. Sensitivity and cinematic awareness are expressed in the cutting, the camera angles, and the feeling for pace and movement.

Her second film, At Land (1944), an independent effort, starts at a lonely beach upon which the waves, moving in reverse, deposit a sleeping


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girl (Miss Deren). She slowly awakens, climbs a dead tree trunk—her face innocent and expectant, as though she were seeing the world for the first time—and arrives at a banquet. There, completely ignored by the diners, she crawls along the length of the dining table to a chess game, snatches the queen, and sees it fall into a hole. She follows it down a precipitous slope to a rock formation where the queen is washed away to sea.

Writing about her intentions in this film, Miss Deren said, "It presents a relativistic universe … in which the problem of the individual, as the sole continuous element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century."

Fraught with complexities of ideas and symbols, the film's major cinematic value lay in its fresh contiguities of shots, achieved through the technique of beginning a movement in one place and concluding it in another. Thus real time and space were destroyed. In their place was created a cinematic time-space which enabled unrelated persons, places, and objects to be related and brought into a harmony of new meaning and form much in the same way as a poem might achieve its effects through diverse associations or allegory.

The cinematic conception underlying At Land was further exploited and more simply pointed in the short film that followed: A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945). This picture, featuring the dancer Talley Beatty, opens with a slow pan of a birch-tree forest. In the distance the figure of a dancer is discovered; while the camera continues its circular pan, the dancer is seen again and again, but each time closer to the camera and in successive stages of movement. Finally, the dancer is revealed in close-up. As he whirls away (still in the woods), there is a cut on his movement, which completes itself in the next shot as he lands in the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian Hall. There he begins a pirouette; another cut, and he completes the movement in an apartment. Another leap, another cut, and this time he continues the movement on a high cliff overlooking a river. The next leap is done in close-up with the movement of actual flight carried far beyond its natural duration by slow motion, thus gaining the effect of the dancer's soaring nonhumanly through space. The effect was not carried out quite fully, but it was an exciting and stimulating demonstration of what could be done in manipulating space and time and motion.

Dispensing with the limitations of form (in actual space and time)


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upon choreography for the stage, the film achieved a new choreography based upon the temporal and spatial resources of the camera and the cutting process. It was a new kind of film dance, indigenous to the medium and novel to the screen. John Martin, dance critic for the New York Times, called it "the beginnings of a virtually new art of ‘chorecinema’ in which the dance and the camera collaborate on the creation of a single new work of art."

Ritual in Trans figured Time (1946), Miss Deren's next effort, illustrated, in her words, "a critical metamorphosis, the changing of a widow into a bride. Its process, however, is not narrative or dramatic, but choreographic. The attempt here is to create a dance film, not only out of filmic time and space relations, but also out of nondance elements. Except for the two leading performers, Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook, none of the performers are dancers, and save for a final sequence the actual movements are not dance movements."

The dance quality is best expressed in the heart of the picture, a party scene. The party is treated as a choreographic pattern of movements. Conversational pauses and gestures are eliminated, leaving only a constantly moving group of smiling, socially anxious people striving to reach one another in a continuous ebb and flow of motion.

Miss Deren calls her picture a ritual. She bases the concept upon the fact that, "anthropologically speaking, a ritual is a form which depersonalizes by use of masks, voluminous garments, group movements, etc., and in so doing fuses all elements into a transcendant tribal power towards the achievement of some extraordinary grace … usually reserved for … some inversion towards life; the passage from sterile winter into fertile spring, mortality into immortality, the child-son into the man-father."

Such a change—"a critical metamorphosis"—takes place at the conclusion of the picture. After a dance duet which culminates the party, one of the dancers, whose role resembles that of a high priest, terrifies the widow when he changes from a man into a statue. As she flees, he becomes a man again, pursuing her. Now the widow, in the black clothes seen at the opening, becomes, by means of another cinematic device—using the negative—a bride in a white gown. Upon a close-up of her metamorphosis the film abruptly ends. In its intensity and complexity Ritual in Trans figured Time is an unusual accomplishment, as well as a further advance in power over Miss Deren's previous uncommon efforts.

Less concerned with cinematic form and more with human conflict are


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the pictures of Kenneth Anger. Escape Episode (1946) begins with a boy and girl parting at the edge of the sea. As the girl walks away she is watched by a woman from a plaster castle. The castle turns out to be a spiritualist's temple; the woman, a medium and the girl's aunt. Both dominate and twist the girl's life until she is in despair. Finally, in a gesture of deance, the girl invites the boy to the castle. The aunt, informed by spirits, becomes enraged and threatens divine retribution. The girl is frustrated, becomes bitter, and resolves to escape.

The quality of the film is unique and shows an extreme sensitivity to personal relationships. But because the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of the film maker are beyond his command of the medium, the effect is often fumbling and incomplete; the film's parts are superior to the whole.

Fireworks (1947), however, which deals with the neurosis of a homosexual, an "outcast" who dreams he is tracked down by some of his own group and brutally beaten, has none of the uncertainties of Anger's other film. Here, despite the difficulties of "forbidden" subject matter, the film's intensity of imagery, the strength and precision of its shots and continuity, produce an effect of imaginativeness and daring honesty which on the screen is startling. Ordinary objects—ornaments, a Roman candle, a Christmas tree—take on extraordinary vitality when Anger uses them suddenly, arbitrarily, with almost explosive force, as symbols of the neurosis which springs from an "ill-starred sense of the grandeur of catastrophe." The objectivity of the style captures the incipient violence and perversion vividly, and the film becomes a frank and deliberate expression of personality. Consequently the film has a rare individuality which no literal summary of its qualities can communicate. Closely related in spirit and technique to Anger's Fireworks is Curtis Harrington's Fragment of Seeking (1946–1947). This film has for its theme the torture of adolescent self-love. A young man (acted by the film maker himself), troubled by the nature of his narcissism, yet all the time curiously aware of the presence of girls, is seen returning home. The long corridors, the courtyard surrounded by walls, and the cell-like room suggest a prison. The boy, not quite understanding his agony, throws himself on his cot in despair. Suddenly he rouses himself, to discover that a girl has entered his room. In a violent gesture of defiance he responds to her invitation. But at the moment of embracing her he is struck by a revulsion of feeling. He pushes her away, only to discover that she is not a girl but


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a leering skeleton with blond tresses. He stares incredulously, then runs or rather whirls away in horror to another room, where, seeing himself, he is made to face the realization of his own nature. The film's structure has a singular simplicity. Unity and totality of effect make it comparable to some of the stories by Poe. Through overtones, suggestions, and relations between its images it expresses with complete clarity and forthrightness a critical personal experience, leaving the spectator moved by the revelation.

In the same vein but less concrete is The Potted Psalm (1947) by Sidney Peterson and James Broughton. This picture is the result of a dozen scripts, each discarded for another, written over a period of three months during the actual shooting of thousands of feet of film which eventually were cut down to less than three reels, of 148 parts.

The ambiguity of the film's production process is reflected on the screen. What might have been an intense experience for the spectator remains an unresolved experiment by the film makers in a "new method to resolve both myth and allegory." "The replacement of observation by intuition … of an analysis by synthesis and of reality by symbolism," to quote the film makers, unfortunately results in intellectualizing to the point of abstraction.

Pictorially, the film is striking and stirs the imagination. Structurally, it has little cinematic cohesion. Shot after shot is polished, arresting symbol, but there is insufficient interaction and hardly any progression that adds up to organic form. As a consequence, the ornamental imagery— the "fleld of dry grass to the city, to the grave marked ‘Mother’ and made specific by the accident of a crawling caterpillar, to the form of a spiral, thence to a tattered palm and a bust of a male on a tomb"—exciting as it is in itself, emerges in isolation as arabesque.

Like the films of Deren, Anger, and Harrington, The Potted Psalm does not attemptfiction, but expresses a self-revelation. Like the other films, its methods are still quite new to the medium.

In spite of minor technical faults, occasional lack of structural incisiveness, and an overabundance of sexual symbols, this group of film makers has moved boldly away from the electicism of the prewar experimental film. Their films show little or no influence from the European avantgarde. They are attempting to create symbolic images—feeling images—and to thus increase the efficacy of film language itself. Strictly a fresh


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contribution, it may be christened with a phrase taken from Maya Deren (New Directions No. 9, 1946): "The great art expressions will come later, as they always have; and they will be dedicated, again, to the agony and experience rather than the incident." The "agony-and-experience film" sums up succinctly the work of this group.

Fundamentally, the films, although executed under diverse circumstances, reveal many qualities in common. First, properly, there is a real concern for the integrity of the film as a whole. Then, there is a unanimity of approach: an objective style to portray a subjective conflict. There is no story or plot in the conventional sense; no interest in locality as such—backgrounds are placeless although manifestly the action of the films takes place at a beach, in a house, a room, the countryside, or the streets. For the most part the action is in the immediate present, the now, with a great proportion of the total action taking place in the mind of the chief character. The films exploit dream analysis, not unlike the works of some of the more advanced younger writers.

In the main, the "agony-and-experience" films constitute personal statements concerned exclusively with the doings and feelings of the film makers themselves. In none of the films does the film maker assume an omniscient attitude. The camera is nearly always upon the film maker himself—Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington—or upon his filmic representatives or symbols. Yet the central characters are not specific individuals, but abstract or generalized types. In becoming acquainted with the types the spectator apprehends areas of maladjustment.

The problem of adjustment is at the thematic core of all the films in this group. Sometimes it applies to sexual morality and the conflict of adolescent self-love and homosexuality; sometimes it applies to racial or other social tensions. In portraying psychological disturbances the film makers are striving for an extension of imaginative as well as objective reality that promises a rich, new, filmic development.

Another group of experimental film makers, since the war's end, are carrying on the nonobjective school of abstract film design. To this group the medium is not only an instrument, but an end in itself. They seek to employ abstract images, color, and rhythm, as experiences in themselves, apart from their power to express thoughts or ideas. They are exclusively concerned with so organizing shapes, forms, and colors in movement that out of their relationships comes an emotional experience. Their aim is to


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manipulate images not for meaning, but for plastic beauty. They have their roots in the Eggling-Richter-Ruttman European experiments of the early ‘twenties, the first attempts to create relationships between plastic forms in movement.

The most sophisticated and accomplished member of the nonobjective school is Oscar Fischinger, already referred to.[1] Formerly a disciple of Walter Ruttman, the outstanding pre-Hitler German experimenter, and a leader in the European avant-garde, Fischinger, in America for the past ten years, has been working steadily on the problems of design, movement, color, and sound. Believing that "the creative artist of the highest level always works at his best alone," his aim has been "to produce only for the highest ideals—not thinking in terms of money or sensations or to please the masses."

In addition to a color sequence for Disney based on Bach's Toccata and Fugue that was ultimately eliminated from the released version of Fantasia, Fischinger has made three other color pictures in this country: Allegretto, an abstraction based on jazz; Optical Poem, based on Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody, for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; and An American March, based on Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever.

Fischinger calls his pictures "absolute film studies." All represent the flood of feeling created through music in cinematic terms, by color and graphic design welded together in patterns of rhythmic movement. He manipulates the simplest kinds of shapes—the square, the circle, the triangle —along a curve of changing emotional patterns suggested by the music and based upon the laws of musical form. Thus he creates a unique structural form of his own in which can be sensed rocket flights, subtly molded curves, delicate gradations, as well as tight, pure, classical shapeliness. All are composed in complex movement with myriad minute variations and with superb technical control. One of the few original film makers, Fischinger represents the first rank of cinematic expression in the nonobjective school.

Like Fischinger, John and James Whitney are keenly interested in the problems of abstract color, movement, and sound. However, they feel that the image structure should dictate or inspire the sound structure, or both should be reached simultaneously and have a common creative origin.


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Therefore, instead of translating previously composed music into some visual equivalent, they have extended their work into the field of sound and of sound composition. A special technique has resulted after five years of constant experimentation.

Beginning with conventional methods of animation, the Whitney brothers evolved a process which permits unlimited control of images and a new kind of sound track. First, they compose a thematic design in a black-and-white sketch. Then, using an optical printer, pantograph, and color filters, they develop the sketch cinematically in movement and color. Multiple exposures, enlarging, reducing, and inverting enable them to achieve an in finite variety of compositions in time and space.

Their sound is entirely synthetic, a product of their own ingenuity. Twelve pendulums of various lengths are connected by means of steel wires to an optical wedge in a recording box. This wedge is caused to oscillate over a light slit by the movement of the swinging pendulums, which can be operated separately, together, or in selected combinations. The frequency of the pendulums can be "tuned" or adjusted to a full range of audio frequencies. Their motion, greatly reduced in size, is recorded on motion picture film as a pattern which, in the sound projector, generates tone. Both image and sound can easily be varied and controlled.

Thus far the Whitneys have produced five short films, which they call "exercises," conceived as "rehearsals for a species of audiovisual performances." All are nonrepresentational, made up of geometric shapes, flat and contrasting in color, poster-like in pattern, moving on the surface of the screen or in perspective by shifting, interlacing, interlocking and intersecting, fluent and alive in changing waves of color. The sound rises and falls, advancing and receding in beats and tones with the formally designed moving images.

Cold and formal in structure, the Whitneys' exercises are warm and diverting in effect. As distinctive experiments in an independent cinematic idiom they offer possibilities within the abstract film that have still to be explored. They suggest opportunities for more complex and plastic ensembles that can be endowed with power and richness.

A more intuitive approach to nonobjective expression is manifested in the fragmentary color films of Douglas Crockwell: Fantasmagoria, The Chase, and Glenn Falls Sequence. These pictures might be called "moving paintings." Shape, color, and action of changing abstract forms are deliberately


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improvised. Full of vagaries, they are worked into a situation and out of it by the feeling and imagination of the film maker at the moment of composition, motivated solely by the "play and hazard of raw material."

Crockwell's technique is an extension of the methods of animation. His first efforts, the Fantasmagoria series, were made with an overhead camera and the surface of a piece of glass upon which oil colors were spread in meaningless fashion. The colors were animated with stop motion. As the work progressed, colors were added, removed, and otherwise manipulated by razor blades, brushes or fingers, as whim dictated. In a later picture, The Chase, nondrying oils were mixed with the colors, other glass levels were added, and—which was most important—the painting surface was shifted to the underside of the glass. This last gave a finished appearance to the paint in all stages. In Glenn Falls Sequence, his most recent effort, air brush and pantograph were used, and motion was given to the various glass panels. Also, a new method of photography was introduced —shooting along the incident rays of the light source. This eliminated super fluous shadows in the lower glass levels.

The distinguishing trait of Crockwell's pictures is their spontaneity. Sensuous in color, fluid in composition, the abstractions occasionally move into action that is dramatic or humorous, the more so for its unexpectedness.

Markedly different in approach, technique, and style from the pictures of the other nonobjectivists is the film by Sara Arledge called Introspection. The original plan called for a dance film based on the theme of the "unfolding of a dance pattern in the conscious mind of the dancer." Technical difficulties and lack of funds made it necessary to present the work as a series of loosely connected technical and aesthetic experiments. In the words of Miss Arledge, "effective planning of a dance film has little in common with stage choreography ….The effective movements of a dancer in film are not necessarily those most satisfactory on the stage." No recognizable patterns of dance choreography are seen in this picture. There are none of the contiguities of shots indicated in the dance experiment by Maya Deren; nor are any of the various methods of animation used. Instead, disembodied parts of dancers are seen moving freely in black space. Dancers wear tights blacked out except for particular parts—the hand, arm, shoulder, torso, or the entire body—which are specially colored and form a moving and rhythmic three-dimensional design of


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House of Cards (1947), by Joseph Vogel


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Ritual in Trans figured Time (1946), by Maya Deren


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Introspection (1941), by Sara Arledge


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Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), by Hans Richter


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The Cage (1947), by Sidney Peterson; production by Workshop Twenty, California School of Fine Arts


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Forest Murmurs (1941), by Slavko Vorkapich


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semi-abstract shapes. The problem created by the screen's reducing the dancer to a two-dimensional figure was overcome by ingenious use of wide-angle lens, a convex reflecting surface, special lighting effects, slow motion, and multiple exposures.

The result is a kind of abstraction, a completely new visual experience especially heightened when two or three colored forms are juxtaposed in multiple exposure. The use of color is striking and unlike color in any other experiment thus far. Although episodic and incomplete, Introspection is original in style. Its departure in technique suggests new directions in unconventional and abstract cinema.

These experiments in nonobjective films reveal the rich possibilities for the most part still unexplored in this field. Their development will come about through a constantly increasing command over more varied forms and plastic means. As structural design becomes more and more paramount, color more sensuous and complex, movement and sound more firmly knit into the continuity, simple decoration will give way to deeper aspects of film form.

A third group of experimentalists at work today aim at the exact opposite of the nonobjective school. They attempt to deal not with subjective experiments, but with objective reality. Unlike the documentary film makers, they seek to make personal observations and comments on people, nature, or the world around them. Concern for aesthetic values is uppermost. While the subjects in themselves may be slight, they are given importance by the form and dramatic intensity of expression and the perception of the film maker.

The most widely known of the group, because of his "montages," is Slavko Vorkapich. Ever since he collaborated on A Hollywood Extra

back in 1928, Vorkapich has been interested in film as an artistic medium of expression. In his fifteen years of working in Hollywood studios he has tried repeatedly, but without success, to get persons in the industry to finance experiments.

Independently he has made two shorts—pictorial interpretations of Wagner's Forest Murmurs and Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave (in collaboration


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with John Hoffman). Forest Murmurs was bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but was withheld as "too artistic for general release." Both films express a poet's love for nature and a film maker's regard for cinematic expression. Extraordinary camerawork captures a multitude of intimate impressions of the forest and sea. Animals, birds, trees, water, mist, sky—the essence and flavor of natural phenomena is captured in striking visual sequences the structural form of which blends rhythmically with that of the symphonic music. In the rich interplay of the two forms to increase emotion and intensity of sensation Vorkapich's talent for agile cinematic expression and his poetic vision are revealed.

Somewhat similar in its feeling for nature and form is Storm Warning, photographed and directed by Paul Burnford. This picture is a dramatization of weather and the forecasting of a storm that sweeps across the United States. Made as a two-reeler, it was purchased by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and distributed, after reëditing, as two separate one-reel pictures.

The intact version of Storm Warning testifies to a discerning eye for significant detail, high skill in photography, and an individual sense of cinematic construction. From the opening sequence, which shows the inadequacy of primitive man to cope with weather, the picture comes alive. It proceeds with beautiful and expressive shots of people at work, of wind, of rain, snow, clouds, rivers, ships, streets—the tenderness and the turbulence of weather in its effects on modern man. The whole is made highly dramatic through selective camera angles and camera movements cut for continuous flow and varied rhythms.

The highlight of the picture is the approaching storm and its climax. This begins with a feeling of apprehension. We see leaves, paper, windmills, and trees blowing in the wind, each shot moving progressively faster, all movement in the same direction, creating a feeling of mounting intensity. Then, just before the storm breaks, a forecaster pencils in the storm line on a weather map. There is a huge close-up of the forecaster's black pencil approaching the lens. The black pencil quickly dissolves into a black storm cloud moving at the same relative speed in the same direction, out of which flashes a streak of lightning.

The climax of the storm is reached when a girl on a city street is caught in a blizzard. Her hair is violently blown. She covers her head to protect herself from the wind. This movement is an upward one. And from this


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point onward no more persons appear, but only nature in all its violence. The succeeding shots are of the sea crashing against a stone wall in upward movements, progressively quicker, and as each wave breaks it fills more and more of the screen until the last wave obliterates everything from view. When the last wave crashes into the camera, the upward movements which the spectator has come to expect are now suddenly abandoned, and the final three shots of the sequence—a burst of lightning, trees violently blowing, and furiously swirling water—move respectively downward, horizontally, and circularly. The sudden contrast to the upward movement intensifies the excitement. Furthermore, each of the shots becomes progressively darker, so that when the storm reaches its highest pitch there is almost a natural fade-out.

Immediately following is a fade-in on the quiet aftermath. In extreme contrast to the violent movement and darkness of the preceding shots, the screen now shows an ice-covered telegraph pole, sparkling with the sunlight's reflected rays like a star. This is followed by white, scintillating shots of ice-covered trees that sway with a gentle motion in the breeze. The scenes take on added beauty by the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts.

Throughout, the music accentuates the emotion. At the climax of the storm the music and the natural sound effects rage against each other, clashing, fighting for power. But in the storm's aftermath, all natural sounds cease and the music becomes only background, so soft that it is scarcely heard, as delicate and crystal-like as the ice-covered trees. The picture is forceful and moving. The spectator seems actually to participate in what is taking place on the screen and is swept along on a rising tide of emotion. The extraordinary facility and command of expression that permeate Storm Warning make it a notable contribution to experimental cinema.

Another film maker experimenting in this field of observation and comment is Lewis Jacobs. Tree Trunk to Head was a study of Chaim Gross, the modern sculptor, at work in his studio carving a head out of the trunk of a tree. The personality of the sculptor, his mannerisms, his characteristic method of work, and his technique are intimately disclosed—a sort of candid-camera study. Dramatic form and cinematic structure give the presentation excitement, humor, and interest. The basic structural element of the film is movement. The shots and the action within the shots are all treated as modifications of movement


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and aspects of movement. The introduction, which deals with inanimate objects— finished works of Gross' sculpture—is given movement by a series of pans and tilts. These camera movements are repeated in various directions to create a pattern of motion. The sizes and shapes of the sculpture in these shots are likewise arranged and edited in patterns of increasing and diminishing progression, to create a sense of motion.

The climax of this sequence presents a series of statues with highly polished waxed surfaces. Unlike those which precede them, they are given no camera movement, but achieve movement through a progression of diminishing scale and tempo. The first statue fills the entire screen frame; the second, four-fifths; the third, three-quarters; and so on down the scale until the final statue—a figurine about the size of a hand—stands at the very bottom of the screen. These shots are all cut progressively shorter, so that the effect is a speeding downward movement to the bottom of the screen. Suddenly the final shot of the sequence looms up, covering the entire screen frame. In contrast to the glistening statues we have just seen, this is a massive, dull tree trunk slowly revolving to reveal a bark of rough, corrugated texture and implying in effect that all those shiny smooth works of art originated from this crude, dead piece of wood.

From the tree trunk the camera pans slowly to the right to include the sculptor at work behind it on a preliminary drawing for a portrait. Posing for him is his model. This begins the body of the film, which, in contrast to the introduction, is made up of static shots treated as part of a design in movement by leaving the action within each shot uncompleted. Each shot is cut on a point of action and continued in the next shot. No shot is held beyond its single point in an effort to instill a lively internal tempo.

A subsidiary design of movement is made up from combinations of sizes and shapes of the subject matter. It is achieved through repetition, progression, or contrast of close-ups, medium shots, and long shots of the sculptor at work. A third design is based upon the direction of the action within the shots in terms of patterns of down, up, to the left or to the right. Sometimes these are contrasted or repeated, depending on the nature of the sculptor's activity. By strict regard for tempo in these intermediary designs the over-all structure maintains a fluid, rhythmic integration.

Sunday Beach, another film by Lewis Jacobs, tells the story of how people spend their Sunday on the beach—any public beach. The camera


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observes families, adolescents, children, and the lonely ones arriving in battered cars, in buses, and on foot, setting up their little islands of umbrellas and blankets, undressing and removing their outer garments, relaxing, bathing, reading, eating, gambling, playing, lovemaking, sleeping, quarreling, and returning home, to leave the beach empty again at the end of the day.

The picture was photographed without the subjects' being aware of the camera. By the use of long-focus lenses—four, six, and twelve inches—and other subterfuges of candid-camera photography it was possible to capture the fleeting honesty of unobserved activity. The effect of the unposed and realistic detail is revealing and often moving.

Since the subject matter could at no point be staged or controlled— had to be stolen, so to speak—a formal design as originally planned could not be executed without eliminating many happy accidents of natural behavior. The preliminary plan had to be adjusted to allow the material itself to dictate the structure. The aim then was so to cut the picture that the underlying structural design would be integrated with the spontaneity of the subject and the intervention of the film maker would not be apparent.

Like the nonobjective film makers, this group of what might be called "realists" are essentially formalists. But, unlike the former, they are striving for a convincing reality in which the means are not the end, but the process by which human values are projected. What is essential in that process is that it should have individuality and should express the film maker's perception of the world in which he lives.

Thomas Bouchard is a film maker who follows none of the tendencies yet defined. He has been working independently, with all the difficulties of restricted space and income, since about 1938. His first experiments in film (influenced by his work in still photography) dealt with the contemporary dance. His purpose was not to film the narration of the dance, but to catch those movements at which the dancer has lost awareness of routine and measure and the camera is able to seize the essential details of expression, movement, and gesture.

The subjects of Bouchard's four dance films are: The Shakers, based on the primitive American theme of religious ecstasy, by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman and their group; the Flamenco dancers, Rosario and Antonio; the "queen of gypsy dancers," Carmen Amaya; and Hanya Holm's Golden Fleece.


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A versatile and sensitive photographer, Bouchard shows a feeling for picturesque composition, expressive movement, and a preference for deep, acid colors. His films show none of the sense for "chorecinema" expressed in Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for the Dancer, nor the awareness of abstract distortion for the sake of design apparent in Sara Arledge's Introspection, but indicate rather a natural sensitiveness and a productive camera. Essentially, his pictures are reproductions of dance choreography, not filmic re-creations. His search is not for an individual filmic conception, but for a rendering of fleeting movement.

More recently, Bouchard has turned to painters and painting for subjects of his films. The New Realism of Fernand Léger and Jean Helion—One Artist at Work are his latest efforts. The Léger film has a commentary by the artist himself and music by Edgar Varese. The intention of this film is to give an account of the new painting that Léger did while in America and to show its place in the development of modern art. It is experimental in its personal approach. Léger is shown leisurely gathering materials and ideas for his canvases as he wanders in the streets of New York and the countryside of New Hampshire. Then he is shown at work, revealing his method of abstraction as he draws and paints his impressions of the motifs he has found.

The Helion film follows a similar approach, with the painter as his own narrator and a score by Stanley Bates. Like the Léger film, it is relaxed and intimate, done in the style of the photo story.

In these, as in the dance films, the medium serves mainly as a recording instrument. Bouchard's camera has a distinctive rhetoric, but it is the rhetoric of still photography.

Looming up significantly, and now in the final stages of editing or scoring, are pictures by Hans Richter,[3] Joseph Vogel, and Chester Kessler. These films might be classified as examples of a combined subjective-objective style. They deal with facets of both the outer and the inner life and rely upon the contents of the inward stream of consciousness—a source more and more used for the material of experimental film makers.

Themost ambitious production is the feature-length color film,Dreams That Money Can Buy, directed by Hans Richter, the famous European avant-garde film pioneer. In production for almost two years, the picture will be a "documentation of what modern artists feel." In addition to


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Richter, five artists—Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Alexander Calder—contributed five "scenarios" for five separate sequences. Richter supplied the framework which ties all the material together.

The picture tells the story of seven persons who come to a heavenly psychiatrist to escape the terrible struggle for survival. The psychiatrist looks into their eyes and sees the images of their dreams, then sends them back in "satisfying doubt" of whether the inner world is not just as real as the outer one, and more satisfying.

Each of the visions in the inner eye is a color sequence directed after suggestions, drawings, and objects of the five artists. Man Ray contributed an original script. Léger contributed a version of American folklore: the love story of two window manikins; it is accompanied by the lyrics of John Latouche. A drawing by Max Ernst inspired the story of the "passion and desire of a young man listening to the dreams of a young girl." Paul Bowles wrote the music, and Ernst supplied a stream-of-consciousness monologue. Marcel Duchamp contributed his color records and a "life animation" of his famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase. John Cage did the music. Man Ray's story is a satire on movies and movie audiences, in which the audience imitates the action on the screen. Darius Milhaud wrote the score. Alexander Calder's mobiles are treated as a "ballet in the universe." Music by Edgar Varese accompanies it. Richter's own sequence, the last in the film, tells a Narcissus story of a man who meets his alter ego, discovers that his real face is blue, and becomes an outcast from society.

The total budget for Dreams That Money Can Buy was less than fifteen thousand dollars, less than the cost of a Hollywood-produced black-and-white one-reel "short." Artist and movie maker, Richter feels that the lack of great sums of money is a challenge to the ingenuity of the film maker. "If you have no money," he says, "you have time—and there is nothing you cannot do with time and effort."

A second picture in the offing is House of Cards by Joseph Vogel, a modern painter. This film attempts to delineate the thin thread of reality that maintains the precarious balance of sanity in a modern, highpressure world. Vogel has called it "a reflection in the tarnished mirror held up by our daily press."

"I realized," Vogel said, "that the very nature of the story called for a departure from conventional approach. I felt that the picture must assume


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a style of its own, determined by its imagery, its stylized action and acting, and a kind of stream-of-consciousness autopsy performed on the brain of its principal character."

So deliberately free an approach afforded Vogel the opportunity of creating pictorial elements out of his experience as a painter and graphic artist. His own lithographs serve as settings for a number of backgrounds. Aided by John and James Whitney, the nonobjective film makers, he devised a masking technique in conjunction with the optical printer to integrate lithographs with live action into an architectural whole.

A third picture nearing completion is Chester Kessler's Plague Summer, an animated cartoon film adapted from Kenneth Patchen's novel,The Journal of Albion Moonlight. It is a record of a journey of six allegorical characters through landscapes brutalized by war and "the chronicle of an inner voyage through the mental climate of a sensitive artist in the war-torn summer of 1940."

The drawings for this film made by Kessler share nothing in common with the typical bam-wham cartoons. They are original illustrations drawn with extraordinary imagination. Sensitive to screen shape, space, tone, and design, Kessler makes the commonplace fantastic by juxtaposing its elements and relating them to unlikely locales, achieving a subjective transformation of its appearances.

In addition to these almost completed films there are others in various stages of productions. Except for Horror Dream by Sidney Peterson, with an original score by John Cage, they are nonobjective experiments: Absolute Films 2, 3, 4 by Harry Smith, Transmutation by Jordan Belson, Meta by Robert Howard, and Suite 12 by Harold McCormick and Albert Hoflich.

Perhaps the most encouraging signs that the experimental film has gained a new enhanced status are the financial aids granted to film makers by two major foundations in the fields of art and science. In 1946 the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded a grant (approximately $2,500) for further experimental film work to Maya Deren. The same year, the Whitney brothers received a grant from the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. In 1947, the Whitneys received a second grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

By its contributions and accomplishments the experimental film has had and will continue to have an effect on motion picture progress and on the appreciation of motion pictures as a medium of expression. Many


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of those who have begun as experimental film makers have gone on to make their contribution in other fields of film work. The horizon of Hollywood film makers has been broadened and they have often incorporated ideas gleaned from experimental efforts. But even more than this, some experimental films must be considered as works of art in their own right. Despite shortcomings and crudities, they have assumed more and not less importance with the passage of time. All over the country, in colleges, universities, and museums, experimental films, old and new, are being revived and exhibited over and over again. Such exhibitions create new audiences, stimulate criticism, and inspire productions.

Today, a new spirit of independence, originality, and experiment in film making has begun to assert itself. The old European avant-garde influence and technique can still be seen, but many have begun to reach out for more indigenous forms and styles. The films are compelling in terms of their own standards and aims and each beats the drum for the experimenter's right to self-expression. The future for experimental films ismore promising than ever before.


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The Avant-Garde Film
Seen from Within

Hans Richter

Hans Richter, painter and film producer, directs the Institute of Film Techniques of the City College of New York. In 1921, as a painter chiefiy interested in the musical interrelationship of forms, he produced the first abstract film, Rhythm 21. In addition to his subsequent experimental films, he has produced documentaries and features in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and the United States. His most recent film, the color feature Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), is to be followed by Minotaur, the Story of the Labyrinth, now in preparation.

. ….


TWENTY YEARS AGO most documentary films, like those made by Ivens, Vigo, Vertov, and Grierson, were shown as avant-garde films on avantgarde programs. Today the documentary film is a respected, well-defined category in the film industry alongside the fictional entertainment film.

It is time, I think, to introduce the experimental film as a third, legitimate if nonrespected, category, quite distinct from the other two. It has its own philosophy, its own audience, and, I feel, its necessary place in our twentieth-century society. These claims may be more difficult to prove than similar ones for the documentary or the fictional film, but even a partial failure would be a partial success in view of the current confusion about what the experimental film is and what its goals are.

It does not matter what name one chooses to give a thing so long as all agree on its meaning, but it seems that the new name for avant-garde[1]— experimental—signifies an attempt to make this movement "behave," to make it more "responsible," to give it a more "down-to-earth" reason for being. The freedom of the artist? Yes, but within limits! Experiments? Yes, but for a practical purpose!

What purpose? To invent new techniques, forms, gadgets, tricks, and


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methods that might become useful in furthering the film industry. What else could be the justification of an experimental film?

There are, however, considerations that make the wisdom of this too facile rationalization questionable. Certainly there are, among other things, techniques, forms, gadgets, tricks, and methods that have been found or developed by the avant-garde. But these concomitants are no more the essence of the avant-garde than the complex chemical processes in the growth of a plant are the essence of a flower. It is a misunderstanding to think that the technical means that the avant-garde used in order to grow reveal its meaning. It is rather the uninhibited use of creative energies, inherent in every human being, that gives the avant-garde meaning and justification: the freedom of the artist—an obvious contradiction to the necessities of the film industry with its social, financial, and other responsibilities.

The fact that Bonwit-Teller uses Dali's style or even Dali himself, and that Macy's uses Mondrianesque, Arpesque, or Picassoid patterns in their show windows proves nothing, neither for nor against Bonwit-Teller or Macy's, nor for or against Dali, Mondrian, Arp, or Picasso. The relationship between Macy's and Picasso is slightly more than accidental. It is, moreover, in my opinion, exactly the relationship between the film industry and the avant-garde. I cannot see, for instance, that anything was proved when Dali was invited to make a sequence in surrealist fashion for Spellbound except the considerable public-relations talent of the producer. The film industry fulfills an important social function by satisfying the desires of human beings who are unsatisfied in life, by offering significant if childish dreams. The avant-garde expresses the visions, the dreams, the playfulness, or the whims (it all depends on how you look at it) of the artist.

No eternal standards or rules for measuring the usefulness of art and the artist can ever be found. Respect for them, however, undoubtedly goes back to the time of the cavemen, when one of them decided to decorate the cave of his tribe. Since that time, art and the artist have been regarded with a certain awe in every society. Picasso, Mondrian, and Dali still profit from the reputation of that first whimsical caveman. They still draw upon his credit (to the horror of some members of the "tribes" of today who wish that the original caveman were back).

No one would try to judge art from the point of view of window dressing alone. One would still allow for the original "magic," one would still


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concede to the artist the right to rule freely in the realm of his vision. Why not reserve this right for the experimental film as well? To measure it with any other, more practical, standard of values is just as sensible as it is to measure the beauty of a woman with a tape measure.

The origin and development of avant-garde films make a special point of the freedom of the artist (and may suggest, also, why there are no swimming pools in it for their makers).

1. Orchestration of motion, the dynamic joy of movement, fascinated and inspired the futurist painters: in 1912, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, Picabia's Boxing. They discovered "dynamism" and "simultaneity." But movement on a canvas remains, by the nature of the canvas, more or less analytical. Viking Eggeling's scrolls, and my own (1919), contained step-by-step transformations of abstract forms which embodied a substantial continuity. They implied real movement. This implication was so forceful that it thrust us toward using film instead of canvas (1921: Diagonal Symphony and Rhythm 21).

The fascination with abstract movement has been sustained over a period of nearly thirty years: Ruttman, Duchamp, Fischinger, Brugière, Len Lye, McLaren, Grant, Crockwell, the Whitney brothers. Nowhere, except in some hundred feet of Disney's Fantasia, and earlier in some fifty feet of Lang's The Niebelungen (1929), has it found a place in the productions of the film industry.

2. "To create the rhythm of common objects in space and time, to present them in their plastic beauty, seems to me worth while" (Fernand Léger). Not the "plastic beauty" of Greta or Marlene but of details of ordinary kitchenware (Léger), a dancing collar (Man Ray), the nondimensional reflections of a crystal (Chomette-Beaumont). Delluc called it, in 1912, "photogenic" beauty. It penetrated the arts, literature, music, dance, but evaporated before the practical eyes of the film industry. As a technical achievement it was just not tangible enough; as a philosophy or an aesthetic of modern art it was too far removed from the patent-leather dream world which it should have served.

3. Another contribution that the avant-garde film offered was "distortion" or "dissection" of a movement or a form. The desire of the early cubists to dissect the object and to rebuild it in terms of painting instead of nature, was reflected on the screen (which is also a canvas). Did the artists who distorted and dissected familiar objects wish to give a kind of distance to our conventional perception of these objects and thus a new


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aspect to our surroundings in general? Man Ray shot through mottled glass; Cavalcanti printed through monk's cloth; Chomette-Beaumont used multiple exposure; Germaine Dulac used distorting lenses; I turned the camera sideways.

None of these poetic "denaturalizations" was copyrighted; nevertheless they were left untouched by the industry. Of course, in a regular feature they would have disturbed the "expectations" to which the industry has conditioned the general audience everywhere in the world. To develop these "expectations" the industry has spent hundreds of millions until they have become major sociological factors, giving the audience the easiest way to self-identification. And that's why people go to the movies: to forget themselves; don't they?

4. There is finally surrealism, a descendant of the more revolutionary dadaism, loaded with an appeal that reaches even practical minds: sex, as seen by Freud, and the subconscious. Its intention is not to "explain" subconscious phenomena but to project them in the virgin state of the original dream. It seeks to re-create the subconscious, using the original material of the subconscious and its own methods.

Man Ray's Emak Bakia (1926), my Film Study (1926), Germaine Dulac's Seashell and Clergyman (1928: forerunner of Maya Deren's films)—they all used the associative method to express the experience of dreams and subconscious happenings. Luis Bunuel found a new synthesis in An Andalusian Dog (1929), a violently emotional, strongly Freudian film, surpassed in violence only by his last surrealist feature film, The Golden Age (1930); Jean Cocteau's milder Blood of a Poet (1929) accepted as subject matter, in addition to sex, other experiences, for instance, the lifetime shock to a sensitive boy of being hit in the eye by an icy snowball; the "Narcissus" sequence in Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) follows Jung rather than Freud when Narcissus falls suddenly out of love with Narcissus and has to face his true self.

It is amistake to feel that these new filmic studies in the realm of the subconscious should have been welcome gifts to an industry that, for sociological and other reasons, cannot afford to take more than an occasional step away from love and sex. True, Hedy Lamarr and Ingrid Bergman were made up as psychoanalysts; in Lost Weekend and The Snakepit psychological themes were treated more sincerely, but without breaking away in the least from conventional storytelling, in which all respect goes to the


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rational, to logic and chronology, and none to the irrational. In the industry's "psychological" films the irrational is treated, at least by implication, as a kind of mental measles that healthy people, unlike drunkards and the insane, don't have. The unpredictable and irrational qualities of the surrealist films, of the experimental film as a whole, were unadaptable and unsuitable to the film industry. From the point of view of the industry the experimental film is a failure.

Social significance and the experimental film.—If the avant-garde film has not influenced the industry, if it is not really an "experimental laboratory," what can be its practical value? It is difficult to answer—because there is no right answer to a wrong question.

The greatest creative power of an individual has not always been found to have practical value for society as a whole, at least in the judgment of his contemporaries. Should we rule out creative expressions that cannot be traced for their collective worth? Potentates and dictators have periodically forbidden "modern art." But art, modern or otherwise, survives against all "rational" resistance.

Nobody really knows enough about the ways and channels through which new or even old experiences are integrated into our general behavior. There is more than an even chance that we learn as much through unchanneled and unexpected observations and experiences as through college curricula or, to talk in terms of the motion picture, through standard, obvious, and rationalistic storytelling. Also, nobody knows what will become valuable tomorrow. It is more than conceivable that in suppressing the "un-understandable" experiences of today we might rob ourselves of new experiences altogether. Who will predict, for instance, what the discovery of the atom or of the subconscious, to mention only two that are already in the public's mind, will mean in terms of emotional experiences? Would it not be wise to tolerate and even respect "experiment" in films, as an acknowledgment of our fallibility?

It might be not only wiser, but unavoidable. The "experimental" is part of life and no new generation goes along with the reasonable and useful alone. It seeks the unexplained, which cannot be "produced" but has to be "found," "created" by one or another individual. In any society in which the individual is respected, the counterplay of society and the individual and the tensions between them should be considered a healthy sign—even on the screen.


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The answer to the question, What is the function of the avant-garde film? must, in my opinion, be: the same as the function of all arts—to integrate new experiences emotionally, or to express visions which life has withheld from us, or however the analyst of the social function of art chooses to define it.

Experimental and industrial film production are not different steps toward the same goal. They are different processes to reach different goals. Whatever they do in the way of influencing each other is accidental. This, at least, is my personal opinion, hardened by the experience of twentyeight years with the experimental film.

On occasion, film production becomes destandardized, decentralized, deindustrialized; single groups may make single films loaded with the enthusiasm and the experiences of their makers. If one of these makers has the magic of an artist, a rather wide integration of experiments (individual experiences) into film production may take place, as it did, for instance, in Grierson's Night Mail. There are also the rare seconds in film history: at the beginning of great psychological or sociological crises, for example, the Russian film directly after the Russian Revolution and the Italian film now after the liberation from a tyrant. (Thus, a Potemkin and Paisan were created.) At such times, the desires and ideas of the individual may become practically identical with those of society; all the free creative energies will then flow together with the aims of the collective. But except at such rare occasions the needs of the individual and of society are just as much identical as they are different, whatever else we might wish for the sake of mankind.

As to experimental film, I think that the more sharply the contradictory features are designed and the less assimilation of them, the better. For the film industry it will mean a healthy thorn in the flesh; for the experimental film maker it will mean diving into himself instead of working for a tide pool to dive into; for the audience it will mean a chance to choose between remaining in delightful indolence or switching over to active, intelligent collaboration; and the critic might learn not to try so hard to find potatoes where flowers are offered.

In the end we may discover that the independent growth of an experimental film will be not only useful but essential to society, a healthy rebellion against a too complete domestication. I should not worry about who gets what out of experimental film, as long as it is made with love and conviction. Life will take care of that.


57

Cinema 16: A Showcase for
the Non fiction Film

Amos Vogel

New Yorkers No Longer have to be school children, "shut-ins," or club members in order to see documentary films. Cinema 16, at first an ambitious dream to create a permanent showcase for 16-mm. documentary and experimental films, has today become very much a reality. More than 3,000 persons crowded into New York's modern Central Needle Trades Auditorium to see one of Cinema 16's shows. Radio stations and magazines carried announcements, and the New York Times alone printed releases in three different sections of one Sunday issue.

Organized on a shoestring by people with more enthusiasm than experience, Cinema 16 has validated its original contentions: first, that there were scores of superior non fiction films gathering dust on film-library shelves; and second, that there were large potential audiences eager to see them.

Cinema 16 offers films that comment on the state of man, his world, and his crises, either by means of realistic documentation or through experimental techniques. It "glorifies" nonfiction. It finds excitement in the life of ants, Hindustan music, microbiology, aboriginal life. It hails a film that is a work of art, but will not hesitate to present a film that is important only because of its subject matter. Its avant-garde films comment on the tensions and psychological insecurity of modern existence or are significant expressions of modern art. Its social documentaries stimulate rather than stifie discussion and controversy.

Incorporated as an educational, nonprofit, membership society, it has, since its inception in October, 1947, presented more than eighty films. They include Julian Huxley's Monkey into Man, Grierson's Night Mail, Lamentation (a dance study of Martha Graham), Rotha's The World Is Rich, Eisenstein's Death Day, the Canadian Feeling of Rejection, Seeds of Destiny, Ferno's And So They Live, Boundary Lines (International Film


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Foundation), and such films as Crystallization, Lester's On Time and Light, Neurosis and Alcohol (PCR). The films Maillol and Henry Moore are examples of the art films shown.

Among the experimental films are Un Chien andalou, Peterson's The Potted Psalm, color abstractions by Francis Lee and Douglas Crockwell, Markopoulos' Psyche, the Whitney brothers' Abstract Film Exercises with synthetic sound, Fragment of Seeking (Harrington), and House of Cards (Joseph Vogel). Freed from customary censorship restrictions as a result of its status as a membership organization, Cinema 16 has shown Liam O'Flaherty's controversial The Puritan and Hackenschmied's Private Life of a Cat, both of which are barred from public showing.

Originally, Cinema 16 presented its films to the general public at the Provincetown Playhouse. Its first twenty performances were sold out; for four months, four performances a week were regularly presented. More than 14,000 people attended. Financial and censorship problems led to the incorporation of Cinema 16 as a film society. Starting with 150 members, the society now has more than 2,200 members and continues to grow. Each member sees one two-hour program a month, consisting of four or five films (usually a social documentary, a scientific, an animated, an experimental, and a "special interest" film). Members are also entitled to free guest tickets and discounts on film books and equipment. Yearly membership is $10, $17 for husband and wife, $8 for students or groups. Performances are held at the Barbizon Plaza Theatre, the Hunter College Playhouse, and the Central Needle Trades Auditorium.

The founders of Cinema 16 included Amos Vogel as executive secretary, Marcia Vogel in charge of organization and membership, Renee Avery, Robert Delson, and David E. Diener. The work of the organization is carried on by three full-time employees and the many volunteers without whom such a project can never succeed. In spite of its success, financial problems continue. Costs of promotion and advertising are almost prohibitive, suitable and reasonably priced auditoriums difficult to find. Patient recruiting activities, mailings, and publicity work consume a disproportionate amount of time and money.

The benefits of this full-scale, professionally conducted showcase for the 16-mm. industry have been both direct and immediate. Often for the first time, members of the general public are becoming aware of the very existence of films of this type. Program notes and Cinema 16's information


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service refer them to producers and distributors. Press releases, special previews for the press, and reviews further increase public awareness. Professional, rather than slipshod projection, with new arc equipment (in an auditorium seating 1,600!), gives evidence that 16-mm. projection can be as satisfactory as 35-mm. Representatives of social, labor, teacher, and parent organizations using films in their programs belong to Cinema 16 and thus see important new releases. Hundreds of letters ask for advice on film sources and programming. More and more, Cinema 16 is becoming a clearinghouse for information on documentary films now available in the United States.

Present plans call for a further expansion of membership and increases in membership privileges. Expansion to other metropolitan centers is indicated, and specialized screenings for clubs, unions, and children are being planned.

Increasingly, the nonfiction film is coming into its own in the United States. The work started by the British film societies, the comprehensive and important activities of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the screenings of San Francisco's Art in Cinema and other societies are now bearing fruit. As the only showcase devoted to the exclusive and regular presentation of such films, Cinema 16 has already made its own modest contribution to the future of the nonfiction film in the United States.


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