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The Joy of American Avant-Garde

The Joy of American Avant-Garde (photo)

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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.)

04072009_framptonnostalgia.jpgBut 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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