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At the recent New York Film Festival, there were two sidebar events: a retrospective of "50 Years of Janus Films," a film series which comprised and complemented the recent Criterion Collection boxset, Essential Art House; and the tenth annual "Views from the Avant-Garde," which also was retrospective in nature, with at least half of the eight programs being specifically devoted to retrospective work (Kenneth Anger, Saul Levine, Paolo Gioli, and most of the Ernie Gehr program, as well as restored works by the late Stan Brakhage, the late Greg Sharits and the late Paul Sharits embedded among the programs). That the avant-garde has now devolved into an arena for nostalgia is a development displaying the instability of the inscription of the avant-garde within the general precepts of cinematic history (precepts exemplified by "50 Years of Janus Films"). Another acknowledgement of the avant-garde's status as nostalgic: in the short Liberte et Patrie (2002) by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mielville, there were references (clips and stills) from films by Dmitri Kirsanoff and Maya Deren. Concluding the program "The Great Divide," the inclusion of references to the "classical" French avant-garde and then to the doyenne of American experimentalists took the audience by surprise: to everyone's recollection, Godard and Mielville have never acknowledged the avant-garde cinema in any way, and this seemed a major concession.
The problem of distribution and exhibition has been central to the plight and blighted status of avant-garde cinema: where can you see these films? How can they be shown? In 2005, two major collections of avant-garde films were released on DVD: Kino's Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s (culled from the Raymond Rohauer Collection), and Anthology Film Archive's Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, distributed by Image. But with the introduction of the digital versatile disc, is there a possibility for the distribution of experimental cinema within that format? In the last decade, we know that DVD sales have impacted traditional film distribution, placing a good deal of the eventual revenue of a film on its home viewing possibilities. And with the development of new formats (video-on-demand, home computer formats, internet transmission, et al), it seems that the theatrical model is in further retreat.
For experimental films, most of which were done on formats (16mm, 8mm, super-8mm) which were not originally intended as theatrical but were designed for home viewing, there is a great potential to viewing these works at home. In addition to the two DVD collections already cited (Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s and Unseen Cinema), there is the major collection By Brakhage which was put out by the Criterion Collection in 2003. A number of other filmmakers have been making their work available on DVD; though by no means definitive, this is a survey of some of the work now available on DVD. The focus is on the American avant-garde cinema, and work which is available on region 1 DVD.
Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death is his ineffable, truly epic cinematic portrait of popular and ethnic culture, combined with an incisive depiction of New York City bohemia since the 1950s. At some four hours in running time, it's a work that pays to be seen in as many different ways as possible. It can be ordered directly from the filmmaker, at www.starspangledtodeath.com.
Another work of Ken Jacobs, Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise, is an "expanded cinema" collaboration with the composer John Zorn. An abstract "symphony" of light-pulse imagery (Jacobs's patented "nervous system" projection) combined with one of the more energetic of Zorn's scores, this work is available from Tzadik; it can be ordered from a number of e.tailers, including Amazon.com.
The mysterious and enchanting work of Joseph Cornell (some of which are available in the collections Treasures from American Film Archives and Unseen Cinema) can be found on the DVD The Magical Films of Joseph Cornell. This collection of his stunning collage films, including the masterwork Rose Hobart, is available through The Voyager Foundation, www.voyager-foundation.org.
Maya Deren, whose Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, made in collaboration with Alexander Hammid) really ignited the American avant-garde cinema, is represented by a collection under the title Maya Deren: Experimental Films, consisting of six films (Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence, and The Very Eye of Night) plus an excerpt from her Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti and a short film by Alexander Hammid, Private Life of a Cat. This is an essential DVD volume; it can be found from the distributor, Mystic Fire Video, at www.mysticfire.com and Amazon.com. Also available is Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti. Mystic Fire also has a DVD volume of the work of Hilary Harris, The Films of Hilary Harris: Four Visionary Short Films, consisting of his inventive and highly kinetic films, Organism (1975), Nine Variations (1966), Highway (1958) and Longhorn (1951). Organism, in particular, is a classic depiction of New York City through a variety of filters and lenses, to render the city into an abstract visual poem.
Craig Baldwin is the creator of some of the most pointed and astonishing compilation films of recent years; he has also decided to take the matter of the new distribution possibilities as a challenge, and has created The Other Cinema, to make "alternative" work available on DVD. So far, three of Badlwin's own works are available, Tribulation 99, Sonic Outlaws and Spectres of the Spectrum. Bill Morrison's lovely elegy on decaying celluloid, Decasia, is also available. There is also a wonderful compilation of "alternative" animation titled Anxious Animation, consisting of works by Lewis Klahr, Janie Geiser, and Jim Trainor. Mike Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids, one of the most outlandishly hysterical movies ever made, a movie which helped to define "underground" in the 1960s, is also available from The Other Cinema, as is Jenni Olson and Karl Knapper's Afro Promo, an extensive compilation of trailers from classic blaxploitation movies. These are just some of the films available from The Other Cinema; it's worth a look at their website, www.othercinemadvd.com.
Frameline has been the one of the leading distributors for lesbian and gay cinema for some three decades; at a time when the commercial possibilities for lesbian and gay cinema were nonexistent, Frameline was there. Now, Frameline has begun to test the waters of DVD distribution, with the release of three works on the DVD format: Milford Thomas's Claire, a silent-film-inspired fable about a male couple adopting a spirit-child whom they find in an ear of corn; Jenni Olson's The Joy of Life, an allusive meditation on desire and death in San Francisco; and William E. Jones's touching documentary Is It Really So Strange? about the phenomenon of Morrissey-inspired tribute bands among the Latino youth of southern California. Check out Frameline's website, www.frameline.org/distribution/hv.
A new company, Outcast Films, is starting out with a bang: a five-volume set of films by Su Friedrich. One of the most celebrated experimental filmmakers of the last quarter of a century, Friedrich's work exemplifies the committed strands of feminist, queer, and experimental narrative filmmaking. Her work can be purchased as a five-disc set, or as individual volumes. Volume 1 contains The Ties That Bind and The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too; Volume 2 contains Damned If You Don't, Rules of the Road and First Comes Love; Volume 3 contains Sink or Swim, Cool Hands Warm Hearts and Scar Tissue; Volume 4 contains Hide and Seek, Gently Down the Stream and But No One; Volume 5 contains The Odds of Recovery and The Head of a Pin. Another work available from Outcast Films is Barbara Hammer's Lover Other, her investigation into the life and work of the lesbian photographer Claude Cahan. Outcast Films has its own website: www.outcast-films.com, which is worth consulting for more information. Certainly, Friedrich and Hammer are filmmakers of surpassing interest, so this is a venture of genuine value.
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As mentioned, this isn't a comprehensive survey so much as it is a sampling of some of the experimental works now available on DVD, and which can be recommended (at least by me).
For more titles, there are at least five online resources to check out. Facets Video is one (www.facets.org), where there is a section devoted to experimental titles available on DVD in their catalogue (in addition, Facets is not just an e.tailer, but also a distributor; one title Facets is distributing is the multi-disc set The Films of James Broughton; this title has just been released, and, unfortunately, I haven't seen it yet, so I can't vouch for the quality, but the works included, such as Mother's Day, The Golden Positions and Testament, are among the central works in the development of the American avant-garde film). Re-Voir, which so far has only put out avant-garde film titles in VHS editions, but many of the titles (such as Stan Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night, Robert Breer's Recreation, a collection of eleven of his witty animated shorts, Jonas Mekas's Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches, Michael Snow's Rameau's Nephew, and Stan Vanderbeek's Visibles, an anthology of nine of his films) are among the acknowledged "classics" of the avant-garde cinema, produces sumptuous editions, often with artwork and book-length printed material on the film and filmmaker; it is hoped that Re-Voir will be reissuing its titles in DVD editions. Nevertheless, it's worth checking out their website (www.usa.re-voir.com). Both The Filmmakers Coop (www.film-makerscoop.com) and The Canyon Cinema Coop (www.canyoncinema.com) are the venerable centers of the American avant-garde cinema, both established in the 1960s and continuing to this day as the repository for the works of most experimental filmmakers. Looking through the online catalogues, you'll find an incredible gamut of filmmakers, from the widely celebrated to the obscure. Most titles are available in the original 16mm format, for rent; however, a few filmmakers (such as Gary Adlestein) have been enterprising in producing their own DVDs of their work, and making these DVDs available for sale. You have to go through the entire catalogue, since there is no special DVD sale section, but if you check out the title of a film you're interested in, you might be able to find that title available on some home video format (though some filmmakers have just started to make their work available on VHS, so who knows when they'll be able to get to DVD).
Finally, there is Electronic Arts Intermix. This is the nonprofit agency which had been the central resource for "video art" in that period when video and cinema were two distinct and separate technologies. EAI continues to champion the "classical" era of video art, as well as continuing works in new media. If you look through the online catalogue, you'll find many of the masters of video art, such as Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Mary Lucier, Gary Hill, Shigeko Kubota, Vito Acconci, Dara Birnbaum, Tony Oursler, Woody and Steina Vasulka. However, it should be noted that the model for EAI is institutional; the prices are geared for the museum, the gallery, the educational facility, the prices certainly aren't geared for home consumption. Still, EAI is an important resource, and it's always fun to go through the catalogue, rather like looking at Tiffany's or Henri Bendel's. EAI's website is www.eai.org.
One suggestion: many media artists are now embarking on the creation of their own webpages. So, whatever search engine is your favorite, just type in the name of whichever artist you're interested in, or you particularly enjoy, and see if there is a website. Jonas Mekas, for example, has a website which is done in conjunction with the Maya Stendhal Gallery (www.jonasmekas.com). Bruce Baillie, surely one of the finest of American filmmakers, is working on his website, and hopes to have DVDs of his work available soon (www.brucebaillie.net). But check out these and other independent filmmakers, and find out what is available online. (Some filmmakers with websites include Alan Berliner, Abigail Child, Barbara Hammer, William E. Jones, and Ken Jacobs.)
For further information, there are a number of books to be recommended. The online journal Senses of Cinema has a number of important experimental filmmakers profiled in their "Great Directors" series of articles (www.sensesofcinema.com). And there have been any number of books devoted to the American avant-garde cinema. The "classic" seems to be P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. Now out-of-print, but certainly worth tracking down, is the effervescent Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema 1959-1991 by the irreplaceable Jonas Mekas. Some other books of note include Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 by Paul Arthur; Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film by Jeffrey Skoller; The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography in Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles by David E. James; and (my personal favorites) the series of interview books by Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 1 through 5, and The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of the 1960s by Wheeler Winston Dixon, a greatly entertaining trip through the American avant-garde of the 1960s. Plus you can check online to find articles by Fred Camper, Tony Pipolo, Amy Taubin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Chuck Stephens, who have all contributed to the literature on the American avant-garde cinema over the years.
This is just a tip of the iceberg, but I hope it's provided some information that will get people started in investigating this fascinating and vital genre of filmmaking right in their own homes. Oh, yes: some of these distributors are making their DVDs available through Amazon.com, often at a discount, so hopefully that's another incentive to try some of these films. I'm sure I've left many things out, but this is just a start. On your mark, get set….