If you’ve ever looked in the film reference section of a Barnes and Noble or equivalent bookstore you’ve probably encountered copies of a book called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” which is a thick (and regularly updated) tome that (as the title implies) lists a thousand and one movies that are essential viewing and gives a little caption about each one. I’ve owned a copy of the second edition of the book (which lists movies through 2004) for what must be fifteen years now and have been crossing films off the list as I see them and I’m down to about 200 movies that I still have to see. One thing I’ve noticed while periodically leafing through the book is that there are actually a bunch of films from the 1960s that are actually short (or relatively short) experimental films, often made in what could be called the “avant garde” style, which are not really the kind of films I would normally encounter through my usual channels and viewing habits. However, I noticed that because of their brevity a lot of these movies are right there for the finding on Youtube and Vimeo. As such I’ve decided to try and watch my way through as many of these movies as I can in one unified “crash course” project and document what I learn along the way. A lot of these are going to need a good bit of historical context and interpretation, so I will try to look up as much as I can but I do also plan to look at these critically. “Avant Garde” filmmaking could well be a recipe for pretentious nonsense or stuff that just plain doesn’t interest me so I do hope to be as honest as possible in my reactions.
La Jetée (1960)
The first movie I’ll be looking at for this marathon is a film that is probably more associated with the French New Wave (specifically the Left Bank) than the avant garde per se, but it’s certainly an experimental short and worth looking at in comparison. The film was made by a guy named Chris Marker (real name Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), who was a friend and occasional collaborator with major French filmmakers of the era like Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda and while he never really made much of a career making feature length fictional films like they did he did manage to make a couple of narrative experiments that assured him his legacy. The thirty minute film La Jetée is probably his most famous work, in no small part because Terry Gilliam would one day adapt it into a feature length Hollywood movie called Twelve Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. I always quite liked that movie but there is something almost perverse about making a big budget science fiction film out of such a weird little experimental project as this. Unlike most of the other films here, La Jetée is has dialogue and also has a clear and prominent narrative to it, what it doesn’t have is moving pictures. The film consists entirely of a series of still pictures edited together into a narrative which is explained largely by voice-over. The story isn’t nearly as lengthy and elaborate as Twelve Monkeys’ is and it doesn’t even have an equivalent to the Brad Pitt character but it does have a similar structure and concept on a basic level even if it’s a bit more metaphysical in its goals. As I said before, I like Twelve Monkeys a lot and this probably won’t be replacing that as my personal favorite take on this story, but this is definitely a unique and interesting work that poses some interesting questions about what a “movie” even is.
Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)
Heaven and Earth Magic is the work of a guy named Harry Everett Smith who was quite the polymath talent. Wikipedia describes him as a “visual artist, experimental filmmaker, record collector, bohemian, mystic, and largely self-taught student of anthropology.” He was a figure of interest in the 50s beatnik scene and had a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg. In the music field is probably best known for assembling the six album “Anthology of Folk” set using his own record collection, which had a massive influence on the 1960s folk revival. And most pertinently he made a series of avant-garde films by employing an animation style called cutout animation, in which paper cutouts are manipulated to replicate motion. Smith didn’t invent this style, in fact it goes back to the dawn of cinema, but he did do it on a more elaborate and extensive scale than it was done before and while I couldn’t find any quotes to that effect I’m pretty sure that his work was a big influence on Terry Gilliam’s animated bumpers in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
For Heaven and Earth Magic he specifically used images that he cut out of Victorian era catalogs and magazines to create these elaborate scenarios in which these little figures do… stuff. Smith claims that there is a narrative here in which “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Even on its face a story like that would be… elaborate, but I must say any narrative in this was pretty lost on me, it mostly just felt like a montage of interesting looking visuals that were strung together to showcase this animation style and on some level I was okay with that. Like a lot of these experimental films this exists in a lot of versions, some of them very long, but the version most people seem to take as canon is only about 66 minutes, which will still test some people’s patience but seemed like about the right length for what it is.
Méditerranée is the work of a guy named Jean-Daniel Pollet, who was probably best known for making films that added visuals to what are essentially poetic monologues. This was his most famous film and it was co-directed by the German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, produced by Barbet Schroeder and was based around a poetic script by Philippe Sollers and uses the whole Mediterranean region as its theme. The film cuts between vignettes from various different countries along the sea: a bullfight in Spain, images of mummies in Egypt, a Greek temple, a girl on an operating table in what is presumably France. There was clearly a lot of care put into the film’s editing and at times it almost feels a bit like a precursor to films like Koyaanisqatsi, but it’s less bombastic in its execution and more subtle in its messaging… maybe a little too subtle. You occasionally get some sense that the movie is trying to tie antiquity to modernity and tell a story about what unites the cultures around this body of water but that’s something you kind of need to read into it more than something that it give the viewer clearly and over the course of it’s forty five minute runtime (which is in some ways actually kind of long for what it is) there’s quite a bit of repetition. It keeps on coming back to some of these things like the bullfight and the girl on the stretcher, but these “stories” don’t really progress much and you do kind of start to lose patience with the whole thing. It also doesn’t help that this Phillipe Sollers script is completely abstract verse that as far as I can tell only occasionally seems to have much of anything to do with what’s onscreen. Maybe it sounds better in French. The film would go on to be a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and likely influenced some of his more collage-like films, which are not really the Godard films I tend to like. I saw glimmers of why this film would be of interest here but I wouldn’t say it is a movie I got a ton out of.
Blonde Cobra (1963)
A lot of these avant-garde movies, weird as they may be, are nothing if not meticulously constructed. Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra is the opposite in that it revels in its low-fi underground nature and DIY aesthetic in a sort of punk rock kind of way. The film essentially has the feel of a home movie complete with a dude haphazardly holding up cardboard cards to show the opening credits. The subject of the film is a guy named Jack Smith, who was an experimental filmmaker in his own right (I’ll be looking at one of his films shortly) but has perhaps a larger legacy in performance art and for his role as a “queer muse” to the underground art scene of the time. This film is something of a testament to Smith’s general flamboyance. Much of it consists of shaky footage of Smith messing around in an apartment with the screen occasionally going entirely black as if someone left the lens cap on while he tells “shocking” stories about necrophilia, lesbian nuns, and his childhood sexual awakenings. The guy has a speech style that is kind of a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Bill Paxton in Aliens and later on in the film he starts walking around in rather unconvincing drag in a way that I’m pretty sure was more transgressive in 1963 than it is today. It’s… not for everybody. And without context about who these people are or when this was made it would really seem rather worthless, and I don’t really even know that it did much for me with the background information. More of a movie for aficionados of counter-culture figures than for film fans, but I can’t completely dismiss it given that it’s a movie that is very much aware of what it’s going for.
Flaming Creatures (1963)
Blonde Cobra was a film featuring Jack Smith, but Flaming Creatures is a film made by Jack Smith… and it’s somehow even cruder and more unformed than the former movies. The film is about forty five minutes long and largely seems to exist as a medium for Smith to film various drag performers, trans people, and intersex people. A lot of the film consists of fuzzy images of these people dancing interspersed with close-ups of breasts (belonging to androgynous people) and penises, then there’s a gang rape/orgy, then there’s an earthquake and a vampire that looks like Marylyn Monroe… and then fifteen more minutes of drag performers dancing. It’s decidedly not for everyone. Let’s be clear, this is a movie that comes from a time of extreme heteronormativity and when any kind of sexual expression outside of the “norm” was highly taboo and an underground film like this was likely a product of an intense need for representation. I would also say that I can see why this would be an important film to know about if you’re deep into the history of LBGT cinema or drag performance. That having been said, I found this to be quite the chore to sit through despite its relatively short runtime. While making the film Smith deliberately used out of date film stock when making it, which makes the picture quality really hazy and hard to make out and the camera placement is completely haphazard and unclear. This was probably partly to dilute some of the film’s graphic imagery, which nonetheless got the film in trouble with the law and exhibitors of the film were even subject to obscenity trials in some cases, which gave the film some notoriety as a cause célèbre. Honestly I feel like that forbidden fruit aspect of the film has helped its reputation a lot because as hard as I try to be open minded about it the movie I’m seeing seems a lot different from the one that critics of the time hyped up as “beautiful art.”