This is the second part of a two-part retrospective, click here to read part one.
Scorpio Rising (1963)
Our next movie brings us into the world of Kenneth Anger, another larger than life character who’s career included both experimental cinema and other cultural endeavors. Anger (who is still alive today at age 93) is possibly just as famous as a film historian, of sorts, as he is for the short films he made. He’s the author of a rather infamous book called “Hollywood Babylon” which was filled with salacious (and frequently fabricated) gossip about early movie stars. That writing project is probably the most mainstream thing he’s been involved with but his true legacy lies in these provocative short films that usually combine queer themes, pop culture iconography, and occult imagery. Anger was openly gay and also an accolade of the pagan mystic Aleister Crowley and his Thelema teachings, which permeate his films and he was also boldly open about being a gay man in a time when that could have gotten him thrown into prison and willing to include overtly homoerotic imagery in his films. His breakthrough film Fireworks, which he made in the late forties, is also a legit classic of the form and was prosecuted for obscenity leading to a California Supreme Court ruling that homosexuality was a valid subject for artistic expression.
The film at question here, Scorpio Rising, was made almost twenty years later but was also subject to an obscenity trial which seems ridiculous because compared to Flaming Creatures its really tame and also generally a more professionally made and accessible work. The film focuses on motorcycle guys modeled after James Dean and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” who are out causing ruckus that is constantly intercut with religious imagery as well as occult and Nazi symbolism. There’s no dialogue in the film and it is instead constantly sound tracked by a series of 1950s pop songs and it generally was way ahead of its time in its interest in re-litigating the iconography of that decade a good ten years before American Grafiti, Grease, and “Happy Days.” It also doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s kind of a thin (if non-existent) line between the image of the tough hyper-masculine biker gang member and the gay object of desire leather man and the subjects of this movie are almost certainly sexualized. There is quite a mix of symbolism to be found here however. The film’s exact point about biker iconography isn’t entirely clear, perhaps it’s questioning why we view these biker rebels as being so appealing given that they’re kind of violent thugs or is there something sincere to the way he equates what they’re doing to the Jesus imagery? It’s open to interpretation, but either way the film is a much more fun watch than a lot of these avant-garde movies and it’s easy to see its influence permeate culture.
Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
One of the biggest names in experimental filmmaking outside of the silent era was almost certainly Stan Brakhage, an American filmmaker who made dozens of films almost entirely by himself over the course of a fifty year career, many of them organized into specific “cycles.” Criterion has released his work on two multidisc boxed sets with something like eleven hours of footage between the two. His most famous work is almost certainly his “Dog Star Man” cycle that was made over the course of the early sixties. It’s spread over five ostensibly separate shorts (one prelude and four “parts”) and in total runs about an hour and fifteen minutes. The most famous part is probably the “prelude,” which runs about twenty six minutes and establishes the film’s rather wild aesthetic which involves a whole lot of really fast cuts, images layered on top of each other, and weird little distortions on the film. It’s an intensely analog piece of work and you can tell it was put together through some really painstaking work done to celluloid at some kind of editing bay. Elements of the film’s aesthetic have actually been coopted a lot by straight-up horror movies and can be seen in things like the opening credits of Se7en or the video from The Ring or sections of Natural Born Killers but the subject matter here is different than that and while there are moments that are supposed to be unsettling this is not trying to be a work of disturbing horror.
Instead that prelude almost seems to invoke the big bang and the dawn of time while Part One (which is about a half hour) focuses in on the simple sight of a haggard man played by Brakhage himself trying to climb up a hill. The remaining three parts only take up about twenty minutes and act as a sort of freakout with oblique images of an infant and a nude woman and some have interpreted the film as being about Brakhage’s estrangement from his wife and child at the time, which seems plausible but it would also be fair to say this movie is very open for interpretation as its aggressively non-narrative to the point where it rarely holds on a shot longer than a couple of seconds. There’s no dialogue in the film, and for that matter there’s no sound… at all… not even any background music. This is apparently true of a lot of Brakhage’s films as he didn’t want his films to feel like they were accompaniments to music rather than the reverse, and while I kind of get that I kind of wish he didn’t. I’m one of those people like the protagonist of Baby Driver who kind of goes a little crazy if I’m not hearing some kind of noise for any period of time so watching this 100% silent movie was almost more of a distraction than any score would have been. This is very much the kind of movie that will test a lot of people’s patience, and if it was being made by a film student today it probably wouldn’t be very impressive, but as one of the first movies made to look like… that, it does feel like more of an accomplishment even if it does get a touch repetitive at times.
Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)
Of all the movies I’ve looked at for this series George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked is probably the one I have the most difficult time seeing the appeal of. Even when Jack Smith was waving a dick in my face in his film I could at least conceptualize its importance as a piece of transgressive queer cinema, but what’s the point of this? Well, let’s take a step back and look at the context. George Kuchar was a New York (and later San Francisco) based underground filmmaker who had something like 200 short films to his name of which this appears to be the most high profile. Kuchar’s story is kind of interesting as he and his brother began their careers making slightly over-ambitious films with a consumer grade cameras as teenagers that were parodies of Hollywood movies and then eventually found themselves making films for the underground scenes. Hold Me While I’m Naked was made without Kuchar’s brother and was his first film in 16mm, but its amateur nature is pretty apparent given that the actors are plainly amateurs and the film’s technical aspects are “nice try” levels at best. The story concerns a young filmmaker who tries shooting an actress in an erotic scene but has her leave and then he goes home and imagines her getting fucked by some other guy while he jerks off in the shower. The film is not, however, terribly erotic or graphic about any of this and the film has more of a dopey comedic tone, almost like a precursor to the bad Animal House ripoffs we’d get decades later and that might be tinging my opinion of it in a way that might not have been apparent when it was made. Perhaps making a movie based on a slightly dirty joke like this would have been novel at one point but people seem to take this thing very seriously. The Village Voice once voted it the 52nd best film of the twentieth century and 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die called it a “melodramatic tour de force of underground invention.” Maybe I’m missing something.
At about thirteen minutes Bruce Conner’s Report is the shortest of the ten movies I’m looking at for my Avant-Garde marathon and yet oddly the hardest one to find. It’s not on Youtube, Vimeo, or even Archive.org and you can scroll through page after page of google video results without finding anything useful. I eventually ended up finding it on, of all places, a weird Chinese video sharing site called “Bilibili” which I’m guessing dumped all kinds of spyware on my computer… thus is my dedication to cinema. I’m not exactly sure why the film is so scarce and can only assume it’s because Bruce Conner, despite passing away in 2008, is still a reasonably important figure in the modern art whose films and visual art still gets exhibited in museums so presumably the trust is a bit more vigorous in their copyright enforcement, which is ironic because Report is a movie that consists almost entirely of footage that Conner himself did not shoot including a lot of footage that is almost certainly being used in a “fair use” fashion.
The subject here is the Kennedy assassination. The film opens up with stock footage of Kennedy’s motorcade driving forward on that fateful day right before the shots rang out and then the screen goes white and starts to flicker almost like a strobe-light (not recommended viewing for the photosensitive) while audio of the radio chatter on the ground is heard. This part reminded me a bit of a short film that Alejandro González Iñárritu would later make about 9/11 for the omnibus film 11’09″01 September 11 and there was a similar thing at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. From there we see one of those pre-film countdown things and then the picture comes back and starts to turn into a sort of collage of imagery intercutting footage like the funeral with a variety of other images from the news and pop culture like images of nuclear explosions, and the “it’s alive” scene from Frankenstein, and a variety of commercials. It’s edited together with the kind of fast intensity that we saw in Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and there is a rather visceral feel to how its put together but what exactly is Conner trying to say? Well on a basic level he seems to be capturing that the assassination was this very somber fact that then sparked an explosion of commentary, conspiracy theories, and just general noise. Also he’s perhaps making a statement about the media in general with a belief that they had exploited his death, which… look, if he thought that event was “exploited” he must have really been disgusted by what was to come.
In my journey through the avant-garde shorts of the 60s I’ve seen weirder movies than Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and I’ve seen movies that are more baffling, and I’ve seen movies that require more background knowledge but out of all of them this is probably the one where there’s the greatest gap between how much a movie fascinates me and how much I actually enjoyed watching it because this thing is almost intentionally tedious despite having an interesting form. The film is set in one room and starts out almost looking like it was filmed on a security camera shooting down at a room. There are subliminal cuts in the film but it is meant to look like it’s a single shot that is slowly zooming in on the wall on the other side of the room over the course of forty-five minutes. Now there are hints that there’s actually a story going on in this room, some characters walk into frame early on, later we hear what sounds like a gunshot off screen and see a person (a cameo by Hollis Frampton, a celebrated experimental filmmaker in his own right) just barely stumble into frame and die on the floor, and then later we briefly see someone else enter the frame to call the police about the dead body. I think the idea is to make a statement of sorts about how it’s doing the opposite of what most movies do by having the camera essentially ignore the action around it and instead remain focused on a single point, though I’m not sure how the occasional color filters that show up play into that.
Now, I’m watching this as a youtube video on my TV which has certain effects on my viewing. For one thing, blowing up the picture like that is not ideal and it made some of the details in the room kind of difficult to see, but the bigger effect is that I wasn’t trapped in a theater and while I probably shouldn’t have I was able to kind of sort of glance at my laptop while watching it instead of remaining entirely focused on the slow static zooming shot on the TV in front of me. I do suspect that if I wasn’t doing that I might have lost patience with it a little bit faster. Still the very basic idea did intrigue me and to some extent I was interested that someone had the cojones to actually make something like this and the basic technique of the slow zoom would one day be reused to great effect by Steve McQueen (himself a filmmaker who emerged from the world of art installations) in his 2008 film Hunger. However, what kind of tipped me not being so willing to be open minded about the whole experience is the film’s score which consists largely of these sharp shapeless tones that were almost painful to listen to. Don’t watch this movie if you have a dog in the room and maybe don’t watch it if you aren’t doing a marathon of experimental films, because of all of them this is probably the one I’d have the hardest time trying to explain the appeal of to a skeptic.
So what have a I learned from watching all these avant-garde shorts? Mostly that my interest in them is limited and that they’re probably made less for dedicated cinephilles than they are for aficionados of modern art and counterculture. That having been said, I did find some interesting things to take away from almost all of them and could also recognize certain techniques from most of them that “real” filmmakers would end up using in their work, so on some level you can view the experimental film world as a sort of farm league where people find interesting ideas through… experimenting. Out of all the movies I watched I’d say I was most interested in Dog Star Man and Scorpio Rising and could most easily see myself further exploring the works of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. The movies I responded to the least were the movies that were most consciously trying to appear lo-fi and amateurish like the Jack Smith films and the George Kuchar film.