By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Abbas Kiarostami’s “Five Dedicated to Ozu,” Kino, 2003]
You can’t judge the state of 21st-century “avant-garde” or “underground” or “experimental” cinema (you pick the label, they’re all ill-fitting) by looking at Abbas Kiarostami’s “Five Dedicated to Ozu” the actual subterranean, non-mainstream filmmaking going on in this nation alone is such a chaotic culture, undergoing such massive sea changes (aesthetic and technological), that you’d have a better chance at nailing down a blob of mercury. But make no mistake, “Five” is out of the mainstream, far out and a radical departure for even the ever-reductive Kiarostami, turning out to be the first film of his in 12 years that didn’t get a stateside theatrical release. Still, it may be the only completely non-narrative experiment-on-film the average American cinephile might be likely to see now that it’s properly DVD’d and, thanks to Kiarostami’s celebrity, might be likely to rent.
Perhaps it’s best to define “Five” by its essential surface contradictions on one hand, it is the antithesis of everything we take movies to be: momentum, speed, energy, character, story, glamour, visual saturation. On the other, “Five” is so winnowed down, so pure in its affect, that it comes close to being distilled cinema the bare-bones relationship between celluloid images, your eyeballs, time and your cerebral cortex acting and reacting, observing the film and itself in the process. What it is in essence is five individual sequences each one long shot, or in one case an amalgamation of shorts devised to look like one digitally videoed on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Nothing much, in the absolutely conventional sense, happens: we see a piece of driftwood jockeyed by waves, we see boardwalk strollers, we watch a herd of ducks pass before the camera, we see a pack of wild dogs frolicking by the shoreline, we observe a pond reflecting the moon.
Potentially useful as a mediation video, “Five” is hardly just ultra-minimalism for its own sake. As always with Kiarostami, the film is a result of life-vs.-cinema interaction, and an integral factor in the “life” side of the equation is us; how we react, how our expectations are defied, how our minds may roam, in the viewing. But also, there’s Kiarostami’s life and the influence of reality around the film. This consideration is something we ordinarily avoid as spectators, which is why Kiarostami’s accompanying making-of doc, “Around Five,” is essential. We learn that whereas the ducks were orchestrated in a huge flock (though the way we see it, Kiarostami’s chief intention was to see what would happen if he brought several hundred ducks to the shores of the Caspian), the dogs appeared magically in front of the running camera after the filmmaker had gone to sleep. Will the wave break the driftwood, and when? Is the night pond a complete illusion? Kiarostami tells a fabulous tale about how an Indian royal proudly sent a Persian prince the newly invented game of chess, and the Persian in reply sent back the new game of backgammon a wiser game, it is said, because it accepts the role of fate and chance in life where chess purports to control its outcome through human will and logic alone. Which is more real? Which would make better (or more truthful) movies?
Watching “Five” is a lulling, sleepy experience even for those schooled in the derisive irony of Warhol and the structuralist minimalism of Michael Snow. But the aboriginal cinematic action of it the images, the passage of time, the questions about fact and invention, Kiarostami’s ultimate generosity are impossible to get out of your head.
Avant-gardes are not audience-friendly which is why you never hear anything about the scores of new experimental films released every year on DVD. This is true except in retrospect; the underground films of yesteryear are helplessly seductive, naive but lovely inspiring a ripe nostalgia for the life of the fringe aesthetes, who in the 20s through to the 50s always seemed to be having more fun than ordinary, job-holding people. Kino’s new “Avant-Garde 2” is their second DVD of multi-decade, multinational avant-garde classics reaped from the private collection of late L.A. programmer Raymond Rohauer, and can be thus attacked from a number of postures: as more hard-to-find landmark works by seminal artists, as an infinitely ponderable showcase of extinct cultural history (artists can’t afford sets, so real homes and neighborhoods are captured in amber), or as a time capsule of charming aesthetic innocence. You get no less than four out of Stan Brakhage’s first five shorts, complete with narratives, music and comedy (!); two early films by Sidney Peterson, an ignored giant in the American avant-garde; James Watson and Melville Webber’s must-have “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928), made the same year as Jean Epstein’s); Joseph Vogel’s conspicuously Derenesque “House of Cards” (1947), indulgent hooey from James Broughton and Marie Menken, and scads more.
Something like the collection’s centerpiece, Jean Isidore Isou’s “Venom and Eternity” (1951) finally emerges into the video-age daylight a notorious, feature-length anti-film made by the founder of the quasi-anarchic Lettrist International, a short-lived, postwar rebel art movement made famous in Greil Marcus’s “Lipstick Traces.” (It’s indicative of the movie’s rarity that Marcus apparently never saw it and even misreported its running time by over two hours.) Isou’s self-advertising, self-exploiting mess is primarily random footage of Isou’s coterie roaming around Paris, framed by a furiously egomaniacal narration (by Isou) that never stops telling us, while the movie unfurls, what grand act of defiance it is and how it will change the world. That’s when the soundtrack isn’t subsumed by fellow Lettrist poets reciting their poems, which consist of abstracted, rhythmic syllables and sounds rather than words. Try as they did, none of the original Dadaists managed to make an unwatchable, self-destructive film, but a few decades later Isou did, laying down a pre-punk gauntlet nine years before Godard’s first feature and a full year before Guy Debord finished his first juvenile short. Truly, it makes today’s indie rebels and anti-establishment garage banders look like market-obedient sheep by comparison. Part of the movie’s myth status is the unverifiable riot it supposedly caused at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. Even if that’s an urban legend, those were the days.
“Five Dedicated to Ozu” (Kino) and “Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema From 1928-1954” (Kino) will be available on DVD on July 24th.