Lost in the Movies: Avant-Garde: THE LEGENDS

Avant-Garde: THE LEGENDS

In the middle of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, there was a very clear divide between the mainstream and the avant-garde in cinema. While the modernist obsession with abstraction and experimentation swept the other arts, making celebrities out of artists who defied or reinvented conventions, when it came to movies, you either told a story - with a budget and release schedule provided by the Hollywood system - or you disappeared into the margins. Yet talent thrived on those margins and the postwar era saw the growth of a vital underground cinema, fostered and facilitated by institutions like Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, an inexpensive film society in New York (Vogel and his views of cinema will be the subject of the next installment in this series, going up Sunday evening).

Three figures - Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage - probably had a bigger impact and wider reach than any others, and so here I will focus on three of their early works: Deren's At Land (1944), Anger's Scorpio Rising (1964), and Brakhage's Cat's Cradle (1959).

Maya Deren

Maya Deren's life highlights the avant garde's deep connection with other modern artistic and political movements - she was born in Kiev at the time of the Russian Revolution (her family moved to the U.S. when she was five), studied the French Symbolists, and ran with Trotskyists (one of whom she married). Before and during the time she made movies, she was a talented choreographer and dancer - and indeed her films choreograph the camera as much as the actors; few filmmakers were so conscious of the power in graceful movement. Later she would travel to Haiti and become a scholar (and practitioner) of voodoo, an interest presaged by the trancelike aura of her forties films. She never had any deep connections to the American film industry, conceiving herself outside of and even in opposition to Hollywood, calling it "a major obstacle to the definition and development of motion pictures as a creative fine-art form."

Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger had a more ambiguous relationship with the L.A. film business. While his transgressive movies would never have been greenlit by Hollywood studios, he himself was in some ways their product. He grew up in Hollywood after all, and even claims to have been a child actor in the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream, although Warner Brothers claims the part in question was, in fact, played by a girl. Anger's first major film (though he began shooting experimental films as a child, blurring the line between home movies and art) was Fireworks in 1947, shot as a teenager when his parents were out of town and he had the house to himself - the resultant homosexual opus led to a prosecution for obscenity. Like Deren, he cultivated relationships with major figures of the time, including sex researcher Alfred Kinsey who met him as a result of his trial. Anger's work was heavily influenced by (and would in turn influence) popular culture, his deep knowledge and practice of the occult brought him into contact with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, and he wrote a classic book on the scandals of Tinseltown, Hollywood Babylon; here is a figure who loved to draw out the subversive in the mainstream.

Stan Brakhage

Finally there's Stan Brakhage, the great loner of cinema history (although he had many artistic friends, including Deren whom he claims once set a near-fatal voodoo hex on him). Like Anger he was a talented child, and like Deren he drew from multiple talents - in his case, singing rather than dance as he was a boy soprano featured on the radio. An Ivy League dropout, he lived the bohemian urban life in the mid-fifties and then went a step further. Living in the wilderness, a romantic hearkening back to the time of Thoreau and Emerson, he crafted films literally by hand, shooting on a personal 16mm camera (switching to 8mm when the first camera was stolen), using friends and himself as actors, and later not using actors at all. He stitched the films together, sometimes cutting by eye without recourse to a Steenbeck, let alone more professional editing equipment. If Anger ambiguously toyed with Hollywood, and Deren scorned it, Brakhage ignored it altogether, making movies as if there had been no tradition, narrative or experimental, before he invented the form himself.

Below I will discuss a movie from each filmmaker. The films are linked only by the stature of their creators, although there are a few tangential or circumstantial links. And all three do include cats:

A gallery of pictures from the films follows the third entry. Videos or video clips are included for each film. If you haven't seen them before, I would actually recommend watching the films first, as my impressions and observations are my own, and one of the great things about these movies is how differently they can strike different viewers, especially those without preconceptions.

At Land (Maya Deren, 1944)

The waves roll in, building, releasing, re-forming, and they wash Maya (as I will refer to Maya Deren’s character) ashore. Or maybe they just discover her there – either way, when we meet our heroine, the whitewater is cascading over her, as she lies still in the wet sand. Only when the tide reels out (surrealistically conveyed by rewinding the film) does she stir, looking up at the birds in the sky and then turning, dragging herself up like the early life-forms making their first tentative slithers onto dry land early in the prehistoric era.

The title is quite ironic not only because it makes the norm sound like the exception (“at land” as if it’s something special, like being “at sea”) but because Deren made sure to move and photograph movement as if everything was taking place underwater. Hence the slow motion, and the general sense of delayed reaction, as if the air was providing a physical resistance normally reserved for liquid. More importantly, throughout the film, Maya is the archetypal fish out of water – everywhere she goes, she seems not to belong and, like a frizzy-haired Robert Frost, she’s always taking the road less traveled.

I was going to write that she’s a stranger in the world of men, but in fact everywhere she goes there are women as well – when her climb up a piece of driftwood leads her from the beach to the boardroom, the professional men and women alternate seats. Later, Maya comes across several women playing chess, but their hair and clothes are more chic than hers; she crawls and runs across the sand in a shapeless one-piece dress, her hair unkempt, no jewelry and bare feet rather than high heels carrying her on her way. No, Maya’s status as an outsider is not dependent so much on her gender as on her individual subjectivity, a unique sensibility the film itself shares.

Put another way, it's not her who's the stranger here, it's everyone else – from the smoking businessmen to her companions on the sandy path (including avant-garde composer John Cage) to the old man sick or dying in bed. Critiques of mainstream, or “bourgeois,” filmmaking sometimes accuse it of over-privileging the individual, but in fact the reverse may be true. Hollywood movies almost always depend on an interaction between individual characters and a social world – even the heroic adventurer usually has friends or a love interest, or at least villains whom he has to outwit.

The very device of a narrative demands constant interaction between different people, muting the potential for a single, strange subjectivity. On the other hand, many avant-garde pictures, particularly the American ones, posit a highly individual, essentially alienated consciousness – alienated not in the sense that it is necessarily repulsed by what it sees, but rather disconnected, adrift from the usual ways of seeing.

Even one of Deren’s most explicit dance films, Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which she foregrounds her experience as a dancer and choreographer, regards the interactions between people with a kind of awe, uncertain how these fleeting, elusive connections come about or what they mean. Deren’s most famous films, Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land, are explicitly individual, setting a full-fledged human being against a mysterious world of illusions and symbols, in which no other presence can be taken for granted.

These films are anchored by Maya's own screen presence as a kind of movie star of experimental cinema. She is riveting, beautiful but in an unconventional sense (at least for the time), earthy, with Slavic features, and highly intelligent, curious eyes, eyes that are not content to be regarded but want to do the regarding themselves. Appropriately, At Land is silent (Meshes has a very evocative score, added years later by Deren’s lover, a Japanese composer) – people talk at and around Maya, but she doesn’t hear them and neither do we.

In the end, she steals a chess piece (a pawn, notably, which she lost earlier) and flees from her new-found friends, her identity suddenly fragmenting as different versions of her stare out at the figure dashing along the shoreline. Throughout the film, the space around Maya has shifted and mutated, but she remained intact; now the space is more defined, while she herself is undergoing a transformation, or split. But she, or one incarnation of her anyway, keeps running, determined not to be locked into a single place or situation. This has been her approach throughout the movie: crawling across a table as if it were a jungle, ducking under a cabin instead of entering through the doorway - always curious as the cat that jumps out of her hands by the deathbed, quick on her feet, ears and eyes attuned to all opportunities, pouncing on the most unconventional.


Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1964)

Kenneth Anger swoops in from the other direction: hoping to evoke an altered state or heightened, off-kilter conscience (like Deren) he does not strip his vision down, leaving only a naturalistic flow of impressions. Instead he clutters up as many pop culture associations as he can, building and building off a totemistic attachment to toys, drugs, magazine clippings, hit songs, comic strips, movie stars, kitschy Biblical films, biker paraphernalia, and a frenzy of colors or symbols: skulls, swastikas, scorpions.

Scorpio Rising is one of the most influential and famous avant-garde films, so much so that it can foster false expectations. When I first saw it, I was disappointed; there’s a sort of loose association between the music and the images, but not the propulsive kinesis I expected; at times the montage can seem cacophonous and chaotic rather than maximized for explosive effect. But Scorpio Rising is one of those films, like Breathless, which is feted and celebrated for its impact and its novel touches and its reputation, all of which you need to put aside to really enjoy it. Pop music soundtracks are no more revolutionary today than jump cuts, yet the film retains its power if you just approach it for what it is, no expectations or associations dragged to the party. It’s a kicky home movie suffused both with longing and discipline.

The discipline is what stands out nearly fifty years later: Anger’s laid-back use of the music, which initially frustrated me and struck me as lazy, now seems extremely effective. Scorpio Rising captures that sense of excitement, the moment of “tuning-in” before a party or night out or any other big event, when the air is charged and restlessness gives way to anticipation. The film maintains this atmosphere by not blowing its load, an apt metaphor for a movie so fetishistic and homoerotic. The songs, a mixture of teen pop, slick soul, and chanting girl groups, carry incredible energy, albeit not of the yowling-release the British Invasion and subsequent pyschedelic and hard rock would convey – this is more the pent-up, leaking-out kind of energy.

Still, the score has definite, palpable excitement – and unlike jazz, the pop music is not coy or playful, just nakedly honest in its emotiveness. The footage, on the other hand, is very cool and restrained. The visuals echo the boldness of the music in their color palette: Anger is one of the great masters of color, his oranges, blues, and reds popping off the screen with lurid intensity. But this is offset by the deliberate slooowness of the camera movements and the actions of the characters (most humorously when one biker meticulously raises a methamphetamine-powdered finger to his nose as if he’s afraid by going too fast he’ll poke his eye out). Often the tempo of the music will be skittering all over the soundtrack, but the camera doesn’t dance with the music.

No, Scorpio Rising is like the stoned, too-cool-for-school badass walking in on the sock hop, surveying the scene, taking its time, knowing that, as the song itself relates, “Fools rush in.” Eventually, however, the party begins in earnest (cross-cut for part camp effect, part hip-to-be-square tribute with a dopey-looking “life of Jesus” film - serendipitously mis-delivered to Anger's doorstep while he was editing Scorpio, and thus included in the movie). Here Anger is willing to unleash the energy more, inserting subliminal clips, escalating the sense of violence, danger, and subversion by having one biker, dressed as a motorcycle cop, desecrate a sacristy, while Nazi banners and images of Hitler flash across the screen (the film is not much interested in the moralities of left or right – this is pure Crowleyian “do what thou wilt”).

Scorpio Rising concludes with Scorpio Crashing – a wipeout, concurrent with the famous song on the soundtrack (and a delightful non sequitur in which the kitschiest images of white-bread Jesus and a clean-cut adolescent appear in the eye sockets of a grinning skull smoking a cigarette, or joint – it’s hard to say in 1964 – labeled “youth.”) Sirens, carnage, a bloody face, a kind of homage to James Dean dying young it seems; as in a Godard film, the movie just ends with death, we assume, because it's consistent with the overall apocalyptic logic and, y'know, that's how these things are supposed to end (or so Pop always said).

Unfortunately, in this case, it was an unscripted finale as one of the bikers actually did break his neck before Anger's camera ("I'm sorry he crashed," Anger says defensively on the commentary track, "but it's not like I tripped him."). With this in mind, the onscreen violence seems a grim harbinger of Gimme Shelter six years later, when another group of bikers, with another pop soundtrack playing in the background, became involved in another death which would close the curtain on a dangerous, captivating epoch in youth culture.

Unfortunately, the whole film is not on You Tube, but you can watch a clip here:


Cat's Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Cat’s Cradle finds itself somewhere between At Land and Scorpio Rising thematically and, to a certain extent, aesthetically. It sets itself in a recognizable world, like the Anger film (if Scorpio Rising presents an avant-garde take on one aspect of the 50s culture, its teenage rebellion, than Cat’s Cradle could be seen as an experimental offering about the other half of the decade’s image, domesticity with a young married couple). But like the Deren, the perspective on its surroundings is cryptic, dreamlike, not immersed in the world around it but removed, regarding the familiar with the eyes of an alien – or an infant – or a cat. Meanwhile, Cat’s Cradle shares a chromatic penchant with Scorpio Rising – favoring gleaming orange and red over Scorpio’s cornucopia of color – while embracing At Land’s silence. Taken together, these three films can offer a kind of panorama of avant-garde tendencies at mid-century, but they each also offer a unique auteur’s vision.

Brakhage might be the most famous name associated with the American avant-garde, thanks to the late-life Criterion release as well as his very unique approach to filmmaking, often drawing on the film itself, sometimes attaching moth wings to individual frames or scratching the emulsion. Cat’s Cradle comes early in his career (“calling” might be a better word) and is more representative than the later work, but also far closer to abstraction than earlier projects like Desistfilm with their restless beatniks moving about the frame. Brakhage always moved fast, but Cat’s Cradle takes the speed to a new level, purposefully fragmenting the images (often repeating many of them) so that we can’t get a hold on any particular point of view and instead seem to be viewing reality through a kaleidoscope.

It’s a very beautiful movie, but not one that overpowers or lures you in like the graceful dances of Deren or the hot ritualistic pop of Anger. The movie is just there, and you watch it, and perhaps if you give in bit by bit, you will be hypnotized, but you also very well may be distanced by the mixture of rapid speed and dead silence. Yet even if you don’t fall under its spell (I don’t, for the most part) there’s something irresistibly alluring about it, which leads to reflection and a desire to revisit. Appropriately enough for someone who would paint on the film itself, Brakhage’s works are like paintings – or rather, each frame is like a painting, or a part of a painting, glimpsed ever-so-briefly. He engages in a kind of lyrical Cubism, leading the eye rather than letting it wander, yet somehow creating the impression that you have wandered, and that returning to the film you will notice new things, fall into different rhythms, feel its impressions wash over you in a new way.

A filmmaker so defiantly anti-narrative (at least apparently) might seem fairly immune to criticism, but his mountain-man image and the ambitious grandeur claimed by the films (as much through their titles and introductions as through their actual content) led to criticism from feminists, who frowned upon the mythos he built up. Indeed, fleeting as it is Cat’s Cradle gazes longingly, with a bit of remove, at the female half of the two couples (just as its glimpses of the husbands are romanticized and perhaps self-indulgent). The lovely Mrs. Brakhage sews or knits in the corner while Carolee Schneemann (an artist and filmmaker in her own right) chops up food in the kitchen, the domestic effect completed by the apron she wears (a touch Schneemann found distasteful, along with the entire experience - later noting her loss of presence and authenticity in male "celluloid dominance.") Meanwhile, Stan moodily smokes his cigarette, looking into the camera almost as if it’s a mirror, while the prowling cat leaps to and fro in the frame.

What makes these iconic images work so well is both their fleeting quality and the raw, unique youth of the two couples, particularly the Brakhages: as they play traditional roles, they seem at times almost like children playing “house,” bohemians squatting in a home only to discover it slowly becoming their own – these two gangly, gawky, good-looking yet awkward kids seem surprised to find themselves behaving outwardly like adults, when they don’t feel like it inside. Here the form echoes the content of the individual images (which fly rapidly by as if one is flipping pages in a photo album): there is a dazzled disorientation not only in the presentation but in those expressions, especially Stan’s (indeed we could surmise that the camera, enigmatically gazing at the wife, is trying to determine if she feels as confused as he does). Like Deren and Anger, Brakhage looks out at the world around him and finds it entirely strange and mysterious. Together they wonder, and lead us to wonder, like the romantic hooligans in Band of Outsiders, if the dream is becoming reality, or reality the dream.


Pictures from the films:

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

At Land, Cat's Cradle, and Scorpio Rising were featured in "Dreaming in Wartime", "The Wide View", and "Tuning In", respectively, three chapters in my video series "32 Days of Movies".

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