Silent Avant-Garde

by Glenn Erickson Apr 29, 2023

CineSavant dips into film school heaven with Bruce Posner’s new collection of experimental art pix spanning a hundred years of cinematic impishness. The Dadaists and Cubists are here — Léger, Man Ray, Duchamp — plus camera geniuses, cinematic theorists and others wishing to make a splash in museum showings. Featured are works by Orson Welles, Slavko Vorkapich, Jay Leyda, Joseph Cornell, Francis Thompson, Mary Ellen Bute, Robert Flaherty, Ralph Steiner and Robert Florey. All are digitally optimized, with curated soundtracks. Curated by Bruce Posner.


Silent Avant-Garde
Kino Lorber Kino Classics Kino Repertory
1920 – 2022 / B&W + Color / 1:37 Academy / 188 min. / Street Date February 21, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95 before discount
Directed by Paul Strand, Warren A. Newcombe, Gaston Velle, Charles Bryant, Bruce Posner, George Melford, Joseph Cornell, Francis Thompson, Theodore Nemeth, Mary Ellen Bute, Orson Welles, William Vance, Dudley Murphy, Fernand L&eacutelger, Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Sheeler, Man Ray, Stella Simon, Miklós Bándy, Robert Florey, Ralph Steiner, Jay Leyda, Slavko Vorkapich, Al Brick, Marcel Duchamp, Eduard Tisse, Grigori Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein
Curated, Selected, Produced, Notes by
Bruce Posner

At DVD Savant and now at CineSavant we always wanted to see collections of Avant-Garde pictures. Collections circulated in 16mm even in High School in the late 1960s, and back in film school we were shown copies of art short subjects said to be heavily influenced by (Parisian?) art movements — Dada, surrealism, even Lettrism.

Excellent DVD Collections are still around: Avant-Garde Experimental Cinema series  One,  Two and  Three ;  Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941, and a handsome Blu-ray collection Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, 1920-1970. Among those films are some real gems, even if the quality of surviving prints varies.

Kino Classics new Silent Avant-Garde gathers 21 shorts on one Blu-ray, billed as 21 Experiments with Silent Film and New Music. Another enticement is the digital restoration judiciously applied to some of the films. I don’t see any overdone enhancement — DVR applied to older film would remove grain and alter the films’ appearances. But much improved is image stability — most of the shows now stay rooted in the frame without jumping around, especially at splices. Some damage still shows through — occasional scratch marks, and marks on some frame lines.

The collection is produced by Bruce Posner, the curator of that earlier  Unseen Cinema DVD collection.  The films represent contributions from scores of archives, holding companies and restoration facilities — the back of the disc box is a forest of logos. I noticed that one rare item was restored by Alpha-Omega, the German firm that did the reconstruction of  Metropolis 13 years ago.  Music has been put to almost all of the shows, often accompaniment by specialist composers like Donald Sosin, but also curated tracks with a connection to the films’ original presentations.

Are these movies good?  They’re a good cross-section of entries: 1920s City Symphonies, abstract efforts to create ‘visual music,’ a couple of pictures by famous filmmakers and a couple of contemporary experiments. It’s Art School time, not funny clips from Facebook. We looked at them all (we’re obsessive that way) and made a few notes.

TWENTY-FOUR DOLLAR ISLAND 1925, 14 min. / Robert Flaherty

An early City Symphony, this privately funded film was shot by the famous Robert Flaherty in between his Hollywood work. Lyrical title cards dominate standard shots of Manhattan, prefaced with old maps showing its founding in the 1600s. The video restoration by Alpha-Omega smooths out the original’s frame rate. The music is by Donald Sosin.


EISENSTEIN MEXICAN FOOTAGE 1930, 5 min. / Sergei Eisentstein

We’ve seen partial rough cuts of Eisenstein’s abandoned  ¡Que viva México!;  this is not one of those assemblies, just a five-minute set of raw outtakes of character studies, with no audio.



ANÉMIC CINÉMA 1926, 7 min. / Marcel Duchamp

Now begin the mischievous film experiments — Duchamp was a champion of Cubism and Dada, and remembered in the company of Picasso and Matisse. The short doesn’t mind being a joke, starting with the pun of the title. Although composed of ‘spirals and silly poetry’ it has its own unique logic. Much of its charm is literary — the non-cinematic nonsense text is also spiralled. Get out your translating devices, because Duchamp’s mottos are not translated: “Let us dodge the bruises of Eskimos in exquisite worlds.”  Marcel Duchamp seems to have been a real joker. He cultivated a playful feminine alter ego known as  Rrose Sélavy.  The show has been remastered at 20 frames per second, and given an appropriate soundtrack of humming tones.


PAS DE DEUX 1924, 4 min. / Al Brick

Avant-Garde in no way has to be serious. This is not the much-later Norman McLaren dance film with multiple exposures, but an early experiment with a ‘doorknob’ lens. Obviously after studying the possibilities in the ultra-wide distortions, a couple of performers contort themselves in clever ways. It’s from a ‘Movietone News Series’ called Looney Lens Series.


VORKAPICH MONTAGE SEQUENCES 1928-1934, 5 min. / Slavko Vorkapich

Montage specialist and Cinema Theorist Slavko Vorkapich was a champion at UCLA, where we eagerly attended his special lectures. [ We got to talk about him on the audio commentary for the Sci-fi picture  FIVE ].  The first three feature montages seen here go by in a blur. ‘Skyline Dance’ from Manhattan Cocktail (1928) uses silhouetted showgirls, similar to the much later work of title designer Maurice Binder. ‘The Money Machine’ is a boom-to-bust Black Thursday montage for 1929’s  The Wolf of Wall Street.  ‘Prohibition’ from  Sins of the Fathers (1928)  dramatizes the chaos that came when liquor was made illegal.

The longer fourth montage is the famous ‘The Furies’ sequence from the 1934 feature film  Crime of Passion  starring Claude Rains. It’s really a prologue that starts right after the Paramount logo. The cut seen here is longer than what’s in the movie, with more and racier material: essentially, a trio of mythical demons are ‘born’ from drops of blood from the murdered. They fly through Manhattan and ‘look through every window’ to laugh at lustful, violent scenarios.

UCLA had Paramount’s original print but Crime of Passion has AWOL for 50 years, and is almost forgotten. We miss the feature’s original soundtrack, with the noise of gunshots, breaking glass, etc.


A BRONX MORNING 1931, 14 min. / Jay Leyda

Jay Leyda was the assistant to filmmaker Ralph Steiner, and reportedly was the assigned editor to Eisenstein’s abandoned Mexican project. Leo Hurwitz, later the director of Native Land, is mentioned as helping on this one as well. An artfully-constructed City Symphony, it presents the Bronx as experienced by its residents, through a series of views from elevated trains, and scenes of shop activity on the street, etc.


LOOK PARK 1973, 10 min. / Ralph Steiner

Ralph Steiner was one of the photographic geniuses attached to Pare Lorentz in public works films. He was most active in the 1930s but came back around 1970 to make what he called ‘Joy of Seeing’ films. Look Park begins with some ordinary color shots of swans in the park, but is soon fixated on close-ups of water reflections, which in themselves create unending abstract patterns. The music score is appropriately eccentric: musique concrète?


LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413 a Hollywood Extra 1927, 14 min. / Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

This is a famous ‘Hollywood underground movie’ that circulated in the studios and advanced the careers of both of its makers. A cross between a satire of Central Casting and Brave New World, much of it was filmed literally on a dining room table with paper cutouts. Wickedly clever, it even introduces a proto-version of the famous ‘happy face’ of the late 1970s.



HÄNDE 1927, 13 min. / Miklos Bandy, Stella F. Simon

A beautifully preserved transfer flatters this clever, effective ‘ballet’ with nothing but hands in abstract environments. From a groups of hands emerge two that fall in love, almost like Romeo and Juliet. All we see are hands and forearms. A ‘coquette’ hand puts the relationship in peril. Masculine hands behave differently than feminine hands, especially when it comes time to ‘repair the world’ — some broken pottery. The music is quite effective, as are the expressionist settings.


RETURN TO REASON 1923, 2 min. / Man Ray

Artist Man Ray stakes his claim to cinematic originality with just two minutes of screen time. The abstract images employ simple means, even cut-out paper. A number of ‘scenes’ are of powder and objects (like nails) lying directly on the film, made without a camera. The short & sweet film ends with only one concrete image, a nude torso turning under patterns of light and shadow, also seen in negative. True pioneering stuff. George Anthiel wrote the film’s synch piano music score.


MANHATTA 1921, 12 min. / Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand

The first film from the famous still photographer Paul Strand is one of the best ‘city symphonies.’ Beautiful images expand on a poem by Walt Whitman, read in intertitles. It was filmed at 16 frames per second; this encoding looks cleaned, stabilized and speed-adjusted. The music is by Donald Sosin. Paul Strand later helped Fred Zinnemann film Redes in Mexico, and co-directed the pro-union movie Native Land with Leo Hurwitz.



BALLET MÉCANIQUE 1924, 1931, 13 min. / Fernand Léger

A paper puppet of Charlie Chaplin opens and closes this celebration of motion. The film is its own Dadaist manifesto. A woman in a swing is the first item in a fast parade of arresting images, often enhanced with prisms, kaleidoscope fracturing, reverse motion, goofy animation, amusement park rides, vehicles, odd color shots — it’s constant stimulation. An introductory title states that George Antheil’s original music score was discovered in the 1930s on a pianola piano roll. It synchs up perfectly. The actual original title is Charlot présente le ballet mécanique.


HEARTS OF AGE 1934, 8 min. / Orson Welles

Yes, this is Orson’s awkwardly shot teenage home movie. It’s a backyard production and mostly an opportunity to see the great filmmaker play with a movie camera. He displays some theatrical makeups, and a few artsy shots convince us that he must have seen some French avant-garde films. He’s already obsessed with ‘old man’ themes.


ESCAPE (Synchromy No. 4) 1938, 4 min. / Mary Ellen Bute, Theodore J. Nemeth

Think Synchromy in place of Symphony. This abstract first color film by experimentalist Mary Ellen Bute is very easy to read — a reddish triangle is trapped in a maze, behind various kinds of grids, and would very much like to ‘escape.’ It has a techncial polish we don’t expect to see – complex optical transitions in very good color. Even the titles look like an industrial picture, naming it as part of an ‘expanding cinema’ series. Cameraman Ted Nemeth was married to Bute and a director in his own right. The music is Toccata in D Minor by J.S. Bach. The choice of music, details like a visible soundtrack seen during the titles, and the look of the film in general suggest that Walt Disney raided its ideas, as he did other filmmakers, for his Fantasia.



N.Y., N.Y. 1949-1958, 15 min. / Francis Thompson

This has always been marvelous — I think Turner Classic Movies helped restore it at one point. It’s a dazzling latter-day City Symphony that makes excellent expressionist use of Weegee-like visual effects — prisms, distorting mirrors — to make the Big Apple look like an alien planet, or another dimension. This is the movie in which dismembered parts of skyscrapers float in the air like balloons. It’s beautiful in color, really hypnotic. The great music score is by composer Gene Forrell — play it LOUD.


THE ECLIPSE 1936-1949, 21 min. / Joseph Cornell

Also known as simply Rose Hobart. This most famous ‘found cinema’ film is a near-random collage of shots from an earlier movie called East of Borneo. It was first privately shown in 1936 but first displayed in Cornell’s preferred manner in 1949, with a phonograph record repeat-playing in the background. Tinted dark blue (sometimes VERY dark blue), it was first shown at New York galleries attended by the art world elite. The soundtrack here combines a scratchy old record, plus projector noise.


TENGA FE 1906, 1922, 2022, 7 min. / Bruce Posner

This unusual collage — effects experiment gives the impression of as many as six overlapping projected films, an eclectic mix of images. Some are new and others are as old as a 1906 fantasy in which a man appears to fall from the moon and become impaled on a weather vane. Shots of the moon are first arrayed to create an Abel Gance tryptich effect. The same footage repeats with different overlap configurations. Bruce Posner is also the curator of this disc collection.



THE ENCHANTED CITY 1922, 12 min. / Warren A. Newcombe, Howard Estabrook

Before he moved into Hollywood visual effects, for Cecil B. DeMille and then a long career at MGM, Warren Newcombe made this strange animated show — definitely odd but not particularly avant-garde — as an illustrated ‘Love Phantasy’ about a barge trip on a strange river to a land of spooky revelations. It’s really a series of camera moves and visual effects on still artwork.

The Enchanted City may be Newcombe’s only directing credit. A second item called Sea of Dreams appears at the IMDB, but its description matches this almost 100%. Writer Howard Estabrook appears in the credits as well, and may be responsible for the lyrical intertitles. A bland hero is with his beloved, but in his dreams searches for truth and true love in an alternate world across the river. The imagery of vast landscapes and strange Grecian temples feels a bit like the painting Isle of the Dead; the crossing the river theme and a ‘falls of oblivion’ episode make us wonder if this is a death allegory. A moody passage through a tall, narrow corridor reminds of imagery from Fritz Lang’s Destiny and Disney’s Fantasia. The show eventually shapes up as an almost kitschy attempt at a ‘film poem.’ The elegant music is by Donald Sosin.


The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Silent Avant-Garde is a fine collection. All of the shorts look very good, except perhaps for the overly dark The Eclipse, which having read a little about the eccentric Joseph Cornell, was probably intentional. I didn’t see any digital clean-up disturb the films or their film-like texture.

The set is devoid of information, with no text either printed or on video pages. A few notes precede the films, and usually address something technical, or the music accompaniment. Each show is just a chapter in the one video stream, with the one menu that lists titles only. The inside disc cover has a little more information plus a lo-o-ong list of institutions behind the collection.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Silent Avant-Garde
Movies: Excellent
Video: Very Good – Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: .
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (some)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 24, 2023

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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