Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two 1960s avant-garde shorts

Storm de Hirsch's Peyote Queen is as hallucinatory and strange as its title suggests, an experimental film in which de Hirsch is continually playing havoc with the frame, with the basic unit of film. De Hirsch was originally a poet, and surrounded by the inspiration of other 60s avant-garde filmmakers, she decided that she wanted to become a filmmaker as well. Her work is thus defiantly amateur in its origins, and her outsider's perspective on the medium is apparent in her non-conventional approach to the film strip and the frame. Like so many other avant-garde filmmakers of the era, coming to film from other media and other arts, she makes a virtue of her amateur status. She chops frantically away at the surface of the film, allowing jagged holes of white to cut through the featureless black sheets of an unexposed film strip. The film opens with white specks (actually holes punched directly into the film stock) flickering in time with the soundtrack's congo drums, like footprints appearing and disappearing in unstable sand. The ragged clusters of white splotches pulse to the beat of the drums, alternately matching the rhythms of the music and syncopating with the drumming.

Then de Hirsch introduces her rough animations into the film, a rapidly flickering collage of images that are here and then gone within the space of a single frame, a fraction of a second. These images flash across the frame, suggesting various shapes and forms without ever quite settling into any one definitive, stable state. Crude drawings of breasts mutate into blinking eyes and then back again, or the form loosens altogether so that the lines simply ebb and peak like waves. Fish and lips and flowers and boats also appear from out of the frenzied mash of images, which at other times is simply a scratchy abstract grid. The film's animation builds continuities between the female form and various other objects and geometric forms. In this way, de Hirsch abstracts the curves and shapes of anatomy into this fluid jumble of lines and designs, suggesting that the form of the body should be appreciated aesthetically just like any other artistic form.

This sensibility is carried over when, after the initial barrage of frenzied scratchings and scrapings, de Hirsch switches over to photographic imagery, a switch that's signaled by a ferocious burst of pure color, a few frames of layered rainbow hues seeming to scroll vertically down the screen. De Hirsch then divides and subdivides the frame with a kaleidoscope of colorful, constantly-in-motion images. The frame is segmented into four squares, each of them showing more or less the same thing, slightly out of sync so that the flashing lights and colors create dazzling effects as different corners of the frame shine or glisten with reflected light. This division creates tensions and frictions, balancing between stasis and motion; at times, one half of the image will be at rest while the other half frantically jiggers and swirls about. De Hirsch uses a simple handheld fragmented mirror, divided into trapezoidal segments with a circle at its center, and this filters and warps the image, at one point turning a woman's face into a circle of eyes, insectoid and clustered together. De Hirsch has a seemingly instinctive feel for such bizarre images, generated through disarmingly concrete and even prosaic means. She makes no attempt to obscure the fact that this nightmarish multi-eyed demon woman is actually just someone playing with a little knick-knack.

The film's visceral, disorienting style is matched by its soundtrack, which shifts between multiple modes to match its visual transitions. The circularly repetitive, tribalistic congo drum rhythms of the opening minutes eventually give way to a lo-fi, exuberant boogie-woogie, before returning to the drums, this time even more explicitly tribal with the addition of chanting. This ritualistic music lends a mood of near-spiritual catharsis to de Hirsch's images, which are simultaneously aggressive and introspective, representing subjective inner states with raw physicality.

Bruce Baillie is an experimental filmmaker and a founder of the San Francisco-based avant-garde distribution cooperative Canyon Cinema. The documentary Here I Am was made for Canyon's newsreel program, which documented the kinds of local issues and institutions not often covered by conventional news. Baillie's film is about the East Bay Activities Center, "a day program for emotionally disturbed children." It's a direct, low-key documentary, a simple, wordless chronicle of the school and some of its students. There is no narration, no commentary, no text, just images of these children as they play, interact and gather around their teacher for lessons that go unheard. The film's soundtrack is mostly composed of the children's laughter and cries, not synchronized with what's actually onscreen but recorded separately and then overdubbed, creating a generalized atmosphere of children in action. Baillie combines this sound with the droning, melancholy cello of Eda Borgfeldt, which occasionally drifts to the foreground or appears as a faint hint beneath the clamor of the classroom.

This is an utterly straightforward, un-ornamented documentary; its title, to some extent, is its whole point, and the images are merely an emphatic exclamation point to the message sent by those three words. It's Baillie's way of allowing these marginalized, oft-forgotten kids to say, I am here, I'm a person too, I deserve some attention too. That's what emerges, again and again, in Baillie's offhand images from the schoolyard and the classroom, where he captures these kids playing and enjoying themselves. The kids sometimes seem aware of the camera, curious about its presence, staring inquisitively into its lens, but at other times they simply go about their business, doing normal kid activities.

Baillie's cinematography is appealingly rough, lending an unassuming kind of poetry to these images of children with various unidentified mental and developmental disorders. The film opens with a series of tracking shots along foggy streets, thick with gray smoke, the sky darkened with clouds, as the cello's drone further adds to the oppressive atmosphere. From these moody, foggy opening credits, Bailie pans down from an overcast sky to a child playing on a swingset, her compact body propelling forward into the frame as the cello is replaced by the chirps of birdsong. Although the film is framed by images of fog and darkness, in between, the actual images of the children are bright and even cheery. The children sometimes seem upset or confused, and Baillie's camera captures these emotional interludes in tight closeups, but more often they seem carefree, simply running about and playing like any other kid would. It's this sense of normality that is at the heart of the documentary.

Baillie often films from unusual perspectives where something is jutting into the frame: some branches and flowers from a bush, the chain of a swingset, a metal bar, a rope, the corner of a building. Bailie often seems to be watching from an awkward position like this, close to these children but not really intimate with them, even when his closeups capture their unfathomable expressions. This gives the film an off-the-cuff quality, a casualness in its presentation that prevents it from ever seeming like a preachy "message" movie. Instead, it's simply a minor document of a place and time, of some children who need special care and special attention in order to find their place in the world.

This post is a contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, which is hosted by the great bloggers at Ferdy On Films and Self-Styled Siren. This is a fundraising blogathon for the Nation Film Preservation Foundation, who do the very important work of preserving the heritage and history of cinema by preventing older films from sliding into oblivion. Go donate to them now. Here's some information about the organization and this blogathon's purpose:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

The two films I've written about above were both preserved, like so many other avant-garde films, by Anthology Film Archives in New York, and both films appear on the Treasures IV set mentioned above. This essential set would virtually not have been possible without Anthology. This organization, founded by Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, and P. Adams Sitney in 1969, is one of the most important institutions for avant-garde cinema in the United States. It is a great theater — constantly screening a rotating repertory program of classics and obscure experimental films alike — but even more importantly it is dedicated to preserving avant-garde films that would otherwise be lost and forgotten forever. And it is especially difficult to preserve the legacy of avant-garde cinema, which is invisible to most people these days. These films were made outside of any established film industry, often by solitary artists working with extremely minimal means, and the resulting roughness and imperfection of the films themselves is intrinsic to their special qualities. It is thus a special challenge to preserve these films without extinguishing their unique fire. Organizations like Anthology, and like the NFPF, are dedicated to just that purpose. Please support the invaluable work they do.


Marilyn said...

Love it, love it, love it! The qualities of both films seem highly appealing to me, especially the fly-on-the-wall filming of the documentary. The nonpreachiness contrasts with the highly preachy feature film A Child Is Waiting and shows the benefits of the documentary, avant garde approach. Thanks for bringing these works to our attention.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Marilyn! That Treasures IV box set is a great one, and anyone who wins that prize will be very happy, I'd wager. I especially loved Peyote Queen, which really appeals to my love for Brakhagian light/color experiments. But Baillie's low-fi, modest doc also has its appeal, as an alternative to pushy preaching and slamming viewers over the head. It's the kind of film that doesn't force itself on you, and that's maybe easy to let it slip away afterwards, but as a newsreel-style moment of observation, it's quite good.

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for the interesting post. Both movies sound worth finding. I had not thought about Canyon Cinema for years till you mentioned it.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Joe. Glad I could jog your memories of Canyon Cinema.

Drew McIntosh said...

I love it when you post about these experimental shorts, Ed. I've been on a major experimental/avant-garde kick in the last few months myself, and exposure to promising stuff like this is one among many reasons I keep returning to your site. I was recently inspired to seek out some Menken stuff from your writeups, and I was absolutely thrilled. I will likewise seek these two out as well.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Drew, I appreciate it. I sometimes feel like I'm speaking into a vacuum when I write about films like this — most people haven't seen 'em, so what can they say? — so it's good to know someone's interested. I find writing about films like this a worthy challenge, and obviously I hope people will seek out some of these near-forgotten works whenever they surface on something like the Treasures IV box, or the Kino sets, or the sporadic releases dedicated to a single avant-garde great. I had never heard of Storm de Hirsch or this film before the Treasures set came out, and she blew me away. I love discoveries like that. I'm definitely going to keep doing these avant-garde round-ups every so often; I have a pretty big slate of them planned out for the coming months.

Free Film Posters said...

Thanks for this post! It is just awesome to discover such rare and amazingly beautiful flicks!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, glad you liked the post.

Doug Bonner said...

Thanks for writing about avant-garde shorts. It's one of my cinema passions and there just aren't enough illuminating writings on these works. A Great Read!!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Doug, I totally agree that there needs to be more writing about avant-garde films.