Lost in the Movies: Avant-Garde: FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART


Check out this list for the hundreds of films included in "Film as a Subversive Art."

Many years ago, while living in New York, I found myself reading Rousseau on a park bench, studying for a course on Political Theory. In this case homework led to something more long-lasting (however short the actual meeting) than an A on the test. An elderly man, about eighty, was sitting nearby with a female companion and, noticing my book, began talking to me. He had been educated by his parents according to the precepts of Rousseau's Emile, and this early education had given him a lifelong openness to all sorts of experiences, a fondness for the offbeat and unconventional, and a unique way of seeing the world. We talked for a while, and I discovered his life story was fascinating. He had fled Hitler's Austria, and in New York, just after the war, he had founded (with his wife) one of the first major film societies in the U.S., Cinema 16 - which would grow to become the most successful membership-based film society in American history.

Cinema 16 screened everything from political documentaries to foreign films to scientific movies to the occasional Hollywood picture (Hitchcock appeared at the theater to introduce The Man Who Knew Too Much). But its bread-and-butter was avant-garde cinema, a form (in all its different forms) that its administrator adored with the passion many reserve for their favorite genre or movie star. Frustrated by the inability of many friends and proteges to get onboard with experimental cinema, and eventually drawn into a rivalry with Jonas Mekas, whose Anthology Film Archives was founded in the early sixties in part as an alternative to Cinema 16's operation, this man eventually decided to write a book, exploring and celebrating not just the avant-garde, but all forms of subversive cinema from the political to the aesthetic to the topical to the completely personal. When Cinema 16 folded in the early seventies (never having received funds from government or corporation, it was reliant on the support of its members, which eventually dwindled), this book would remain as his enduring legacy.

The man was Amos Vogel, and the book was Film as a Subversive Art. At the end of our pleasant conversation, Vogel gave me his business card and I still have it - a playful sketch of an absent-minded bearded man trotting off with a reel of film unspooling from under his arm. He did not mention his book at the time and only years later would I purchase it, but it's become one of my cinematic treasures. While focusing on the offbeat and provocative, it is in fact a manifesto for a wide-ranging cinematic love with a keen eye for how subversion is ingrained in the very substance of the material itself - its ability to freeze, preserve, repeat and upend the physical world around us. Today I cover three films introduced to me by this book, and my entries include Vogel's capsule on the film in question and an embedded video of each movie.

But that's not all - such a brief sample could hardly convey the vast riches contained in this great book. I've tracked down several of the selected shorts on You Tube and so a dozen videos follow the post. Some of these selections are narrative, some purely abstract, some are animated, some live-action, some documentary while others are fiction, and still others defy any description. They demonstrate Vogel's broad taste, and his talent for spotting cinematic treasures in every corner. The avant-garde is, in many ways, not the far wing or the margin of cinema, but its very heart and soul, the - if you will - main stream of the medium. I would suggest watching all of these films when you get the chance, perhaps one each day after finishing the main entry. You won't be sorry; if some of these are new to you, as they were to me, then you'll be as thankful as I am for that warm spring day in New York.

Hallucinations (Peter Weiss, 1952)

Have you ever woken up from a dream - perhaps a nightmare - and felt that, somehow, your hands, or your feet or some other part of your body was not your own? Reeling in disorientation, size, perspective, and connection cease to have any meaning, and for once the universe actually feels as chaotic as it always is, without the false frame provided by our senses. In this case, there's an extra layer to the disassociation and dislocation - not only are the figures severed from their own bodies, arms, or legs (black, lightless pools swallowing up areas outside the head, torso, or assorted limbs), they are also vaguely and disturbingly linked to foreign appendages, eerily waving about with a sense of freedom, despite the fact that they seem to be connected.

For just one example, look at the first figure (the one snipped above). Start at his knees. There's something a bit bent and broken about their shape, yet they seem to blend in with the head and chest, however contorted their trajectory. But wait! There's a foot on this man's belly! Well, it looks as if the leg actually belongs to someone else, someone offscreen, draping their heel over his thigh - hold on a second! That's not his thigh - both of these legs are coming in from offscreen, neither one belongs to the man! These eyefucks would be clever and provocative enough as it were, but Weiss fills out the frame with creepy, oneiric details: the naked woman carefuly grooming her hair in a mirror, the apple (or ball, who knows?) held aloft while a hand reaches in and grasps it.

And these are moving tableaux, with constant, circular motions - these are not merely photographed surrealist paintings. The element of movement comes into play (along with the documentary connotations of a movie camera - what we see is expected to have some physical reality). Finally there's the score, shifting for each brief sequence: a drone, a cacophony of haunted-house piano keys interspersed with the bubbling beakers of a mad scientist's lab, vaguely oriental crashes and buzzes echoing across the soundtrack. It's a risky move - potentially pegging the film as merely pretentious, but if you give yourself over to the sonic assault it perfectly offsets the somber, drawn-out movements of the horrific imagery.

"The famed author of Marat-Sade, in one of his early avant-garde films, shows twelve erotic and subconscious tableaux envisioned in the twilight between waking and sleeping. The macabre action denotes sex, yet not quite; the angle of viewing seems 'wrong', the scowling intensity denoting orgasm - or anger." - Amos Vogel from the chapter "The Attack on Puritanism: Nudity"


Bells of Atlantis (Ian Hugo, 1952)

Here is another film to take its inspiration, and its form, from dreams. However these are not the half-wakeful dreams in which the mind desperately and dextrously tries to reorient itself in the physical world. No, these are deep dreams, visions of another world, an Atlantis of the imagination sunk beneath the waves of the waking world, yet resurrected by the mind's eye. To call this "pure" dreaming would be misleading, however, as the narrator's tone is memorial rather than immediate; she is recalling a fleeting experience rather than encountering it directly. The pictures onscreen are murky, probably murkier than was originally intended, but this only adds to the sense of swimming through a hallucination, trying to get closer to a world clouded not only by its own hazy nature, but the veils of memory and reality cast over it - given form by the watery ambiance that washes over the images. As Anais Nin says on the soundtrack, "I am of the race of men and women who see all things through a curtain of sea."

Just as the film conveys the experience of trying to remember and re-experience a dream, so the dream itself seems a cracked- (or perhaps shattered-)mirror reflection of the real world. These images are almost abstract, yet we can just barely make out figures moving across a deck, some kind of crucified form, and a hammock swinging back and forth. Often, these hints, these suggestions of a recognizable world, only make the whole experience stranger and dreamier - as if reality is being dragged to the level of a dream, rather than the dream to reality. The music is a heavy part of the experience; we could almost say, even more than the images or narration, that it leads us into the trancelike state Nin and Hugo hope to evoke. As with many experimental films, the score is continuous, a mixture of sharp abrasive strikes and a constant hum and flow, the discordant notes popping bubbles on a sea of magma (the film's lavalike texture, its magenta pulsation gives us the sensation of erupting in slow motion from a volcano).

Nin collaborated on this film with her husband Hugo, real name Hugh Parker Guiler, whom she later left to marry another man (although, bigamously, she never divorced him). According to the film itself, Bells of Atlantis is adapted from The House of Incest, Nin's first work of fiction which she likened to Rimbaud's prose poem A Season in Hell. The incest of the title was intended to be metaphorical (hinting at self-absorption) but in fact Nin claimed in her diaries to have been sleeping with her father at the time of writing. Apparently at the behest of a therapist who thought loving and leaving her father would be suitable revenge for her abandonment as a child (I wonder what the licensing process was like in those days...). With this subtext in mind, the hallucinatory, otherworldly images of Bells of Atlantis recall Jung's encounter with a schizophrenic patient, whose incestuous experience led her to imagine herself on Mars, assaulted by winged vampires, a mythical dreamworld which sublimated her traumatic, terribly unique experience - an appropriate complement to the dazzling, ethereal horror and beauty of Bells of Atlantis.

"A magical voyage into the subconscious in search of 'the lost continent' of first human memories. Based on Anais Nin's prose poem, the film provides a visual equivalent in subaqueous, drifting imagery taken from reality but entirely transformed into a new and sensuously poetic universe. Excellent electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron." - Amos Vogel from the chapter "Straining towards the Limits"


Aos (Yoji Kuri, 1964)

Though traditionally conceived as children's entertainment - at least in America - animation lends itself to subversion better than just about any cinematic form. Anything is possible. In Japan, animation has long been an adventurous form, more willing to push the envelope in terms of both content and form than its cousins in other countries. Yet, coming well before the advent of the anime style, Aos still shocks - this belongs to no rigorous or conventionalized form but streams forth from the artist's consciousness onto the screen and into our brains, whether we want it there or not. Aos may be the best film featured today; it's certainly the most grotesque.

Numerous little ogres (all plastered with the same fixed, maniacal grin) creep and crawl all over magical, mechanical boxes and figures, little perverts getting their rocks off through Rube Goldberg-like erotic contraptions. What's important here is as much the effort put in as the reward - indeed, the gratification often leads to obliteration, with bodies exploding, heads severed, figures melting into pools of liquid on the floor. What feels so sick about the sex here is not the sex itself (if it can even be called sex, elaborate and elusive as the interactions are) but the complicated edifice built up around it, the delay and separation between input and output, as the little men wind cranks, open boxes, and squeeze balloons instead of directly touching the desired objects (and objects they are; breasts aside, these creatures seem more like sex toys than interactive partners).

The lurid fascination, and the repulsive frustration, of the movie lies in the mystifying barriers it erects (no pun intended) between desire and satisfaction: socks covering some hideous appendage, a box lid covering a character's path as he pays his fare and enters inside, a wall obscuring what exactly one character is winding as he turns a crank (when we find out, we may be sorry we wondered). And then there's the fact that sex organs are supplanted by other bodily symbols - feet, fingers, eyes rather than genitalia. The soundtrack - no music this time, but a constant screeching and mumbling of what sounds like a female vocalist* trapped between anger, orgasm, and frustration - feeds into the overall sense of aggression and evasion. That quality - aggression meets evasion - provides a unique and alluring mixture, characteristic of postwar Japan, in which no domestic film showed a kiss until 1946, yet within a decade Japanese films were more sexually provocative than those of their American conquerors. The little figures of Aos, part scatological little children, part dirty old men, are icons of this whiplash confusion between the forbidden and the permissive - no wonder their heads explode when gratified.

"This extraordinary animation - already a classic - projects a universe of bizarre and frustrated lusts, in which monsters, voyeurs, and misshapen objects engage in nightmarish and often sado-masochistic outrages amongst Freudian symbols of anxiety. Max Ernst and Bosch come to mind, but the rage against repression is entirely Japanese and ideological: sexual anti-puritanism as a liberating device." - Amos Vogel from the chapter "Aesthetic Rebels"

*update 2019: as it turns out, the vocalist was in fact Yoko Ono

Here are 12 more films featured in "Film as a Subversive Art":

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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