Movieheads who like to consider themselves as alternative still often shrink from the demands and new thinking required of even the oldest and most conventional “avant-garde” film, a situation that the ubiquity of the DVD format hasn’t done very much to mitigate. So be it: the hardy envelope-pushers in the crowd have enjoyed unforeseen access to the quasi-genre’s history by now (the DVD menu format is a peerless mode of presentation for motley underground shorts, to be surpassed only, I suppose, once quality streaming-tube clips can be curated and thrown onto our mega TVs instead of our laptops). If you count Image’s “Unseen Cinema” mega omnibus and Facets’ “The Lawrence Jordan Album” among your prized media possessions as I do, then the good work of the National Film Preservation Foundation will already be on your radar: their robust, elaborately documented orphan-film collections (newsreels, shorts, home movies, etc.) have often featured avant-gardisms, notably Joseph Cornell’s otherwise tough-to-see landmark “Rose Hobart” (1936), Ed Emshwiller’s “George Dumpson’s Place” (1965) and so on.
The fourth edition of “Treasures” focuses exclusively on what’s been called “new American cinema,” but with a twist. Although many of the arena’s big guns are represented (Warhol, Jordan, Breer, Kuchar, Harry Smith, etc.), it’s not with their best-known films, but with semi-forgotten entries, representative of their artists’ aesthetic but hardly reputation-makers. The impulse may well have been supported by both the inclination to rescue the more desperately orphaned films, and also to, even within the confines of “avant-garde,” vary the menu as widely as possible.
Whatever: Ken Jacobs’ “Little Stabs at Happiness” (1959-63) certainly stands as a landmark (inspiring the chintz-dream mythmaking of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, as much of a cultural ignition switch as Cassavetes’ “Shadows”). Harry Smith’s “Film No. 3: Interwoven” (1947-49) is one of the hand-painted abstractions of his that forged the way for Stan Brakhage (represented here by the meditative montage “The Riddle of Lumen,” from 1972) and many others. The forked paths of the underground — non-figurative films that strive for painting-ness and/or poetry-ness, and the movie-movie mythopoeia that’s bewitched everyone from Kenneth Anger to the Kuchars to Guy Maddin — each have their pioneers represented. (Of the latter, it’s difficult not to swoon over Ron Rice’s diaphanous “Chumlum,” made in 1964, a year after “Flaming Creatures” and right before Rice died of pneumonia at 29.)
But the more conceptual films leap out at you — like Hollis Frampton’s stirring masterpiece “(nostalgia)” (1971), in which he narrates (actually spoken by fellow experimenter Michael Snow) over a series of art-scene photographs he’s taken over the years, as each in turn is immolated on an electric grill. But the emotionally reserved voice-over somewhere leaps ahead, describing photos we haven’t seen yet, as the bereft images of a past moment we’re looking at gets slowly, graphically reduced to ashes.
As structurally mysterious, Standish Lawder’s “Necrology” (1969-70) is a one-shot spectral happening, a black and white litany of average people, face-forward, passing upward through the frame, and it takes us awhile to realize that they’re going down an escalator and the film is running in reverse. (Individuals eye the camera, often scornfully, and then look away, enigmatically disinterested.) Then Lawder’s hilarious ending credits invent personas and names for each and every anonymous person filmed.
Chick Strand’s “Fake Fruit Factory” (1986) is a beatific documentary, shot in surreal close-ups, of a Mexican factory where underpaid but boisterous women rotely paint realistic papier-mâché bananas and apples. But perhaps I love the obscure Joseph Cornell fragment best, a simple assemblage of industrial footage turned upside down and nature clips gone radioactively negative, dated to sometime in the ’40s, retroactively labeled “By Night with Torch and Spear” after a stray intertitle, and recently scored by John Zorn. It’s close to being an epitome of what there is to love about watching the film image.