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Avant-Garde Film

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T he evolution of avant-garde film, as articulated in the canonical texts of film historiography, has been teleologically structured as a chronological progression toward ever more sophisticated forms of film art. Divided essentially into three periods, each avant-garde has been connected to its predecessor by aesthetic and personnel continuities, constructing over significant gaps in time and space a discourse on the evolution of personal expression in the film medium. While appropriate for polemical argument and aesthetic legitimation, such a view of avant-garde film history has eliminated the gaps and fissures, discontinuities and dead ends, which necessarily mark a film form based on individual and essentially isolated modes of production.

The American film avant-garde established itself in the 1920s and 1930s, contrary to the standard histories, which date its beginnings to 1943 with Maya Deren. 1 While the 1930s were characterized by diminishing possibilities for the production of avant-garde film, because of the breakdown of infrastructures established in the latter half of the 1920s, numerous avant-garde filmmakers began or continued their careers. The list includes Roger Barlow, Josef Berne, Thomas Bouchard, Irving Browning, Rudy Burkhardt, Mary Ellen Bute, Joseph Cornell, Douglas Crockwell, Emlen Etting, John Florey, Roman Freulich, Jo Gerson, Jerome Hill, Theodore Huff, Lewis Jacobs, Jay Leyda, Hershell Louis, Ted Nemeth, Lynn Riggs, LeRoy Robbins, Henwar Rodakiewicz, Joseph Schil-linger, Mike Siebert, Ralph Steiner, Seymour Stern, Paul Strand, William Vance, Charles Vidor, Slavko Vorkapich, James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber, Herman Weinberg, and Orson Welles. Supporting these filmmakers, at least in the early 1930s, was a network of exhibition outlets, including art theaters, galleries, and amateur film clubs, as well as film publications, all of which constituted an avant-garde movement.

The historical reception of the first American avant-garde is usually characterized by the judgment that it was essentially European in outlook and derivative of 1920s European models, aping expressionism, following the style of the constructivist documentaries, and filming American versions of European avant-garde ideas. 2 In fact, it was the reception of German expressionist films, like THE CABINET OF DR . CALIGARI , and Soviet revolutionary narratives, like BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN , in the mid 1920s that spurred American filmmakers to attempt the production of experimental films. In these American films, as well as in the   European avant-garde films trickling over to the United States, film lovers perceived a clear alternative to the generic conventions of Hollywood.

A crucial difference to understanding the dynamics of the 1920s and 1930s avant-garde in relation to its post-World War II American experimental film successors involves the self-images and material conditions of the two generations. Both defined themselves in opposition to commercial, narrative cinema, privileging the personal over the pecuniary. However, while the 1950s avantgardists proclaimed themselves to be artists of cinema, actively engaged in the production of “art,” those of the earlier generation viewed themselves as cineastes, as lovers of cinema, as amateurs willing to work in any arena furthering the cause of film art, even if it involved commercial productions.

In contrast, the second American film avant-garde’s aesthetics, defined exclusively as means of personal expression, forced this generation to reject any collaboration with Hollywood or other commercial interests. Its aesthetics expanded into a political position opposing any utilitarian usage of the medium, be it commercial, instructional, or ideological. Ironically, such self-conscious declarations about the avant-gardist’s role as film artist led to a professionalization of the avant-garde project. Of his own generation, Jonas Mekas noted, “To former generations film art was something still new and exotic, but for this generation it is part of our lives, like bread, music, trees, or steel bridges.”

This professionalization of avant-garde filmmaking was, of course, only possible because the institutions providing material support for the avant-garde had expanded to include university film courses (offering filmmakers a place to earn money while making their films) and nontheatrical film exhibition within the institutional framework of museums, archives, and media centers (offering filmmakers a place to show their work).

Earlier filmmakers, in contrast, thought of themselves much more as film amateurs rather than as professionals. Avant-garde filmmakers in the 1920s defined themselves in opposition to the professional, who was an employee of Hollywood, for hire to produce a profit benefiting the corporate hierarchy rather than the cause of film art. Given this self-image, the agenda of the first American film avant-garde was much broader: to improve the quality of all films, whether personal or professional. These cineastes moved freely between avant-garde film and other endeavors—documentary, industrials, Hollywood narrative, film criticism, film exhibition, painting, and photography.

Lewis Jacobs, for example, then a member of a Philadelphia amateur film club, noted of his group, “Our club is composed of painters, dancers, and illustrators …. It is our aim to emphasize a direction that will result in cinematic form.” 4 As a paradigmatic example of the contemporary 1920s cineaste, one might fruitfully look at the career of Herman G. Weinberg. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he worked as a manager for a “little theater” in Baltimore, wrote film criticism for various magazines, and made avant-garde shorts. 5 His plethora of activity in different cinematic endeavors was also economically determined, since no single effort offered a livelihood.

As a result of such factors, it is extremely difficult, for example, to separate avant-garde film production from the production of documentary films in the 1930s. Numerous filmmakers, including Roger Barlow, Paul Strand, Willard Van Dyke, LeRoy Robbins, Henwar Rodakiewicz, and Ralph Steiner, not only earned their livelihood during the Great Depression through organizational, governmental, and private documentary film production but actually perceived such activity as a continuation of their experimentation with cinematic form.

Ironically, the desire to improve the status of the film medium on many different fronts was characteristic of both the 1920s European avant-garde—a fact that has been often suppressed by later historians 6 —and the first American avant-garde. Both European and American avant-gardists entered film as amateurs, because economics dictated it. At the same time, amateurs turned professionals, like Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, and René Clair, among others, thought of their contract and personal work as of a piece. Whether “city films” by Joris Ivens or Wilfried Basse or scientific views of sea life by Jan Mol, these documentaries were considered to constitute avant-garde cinema. Thus, both Europeans and Americans shared a broader, inclusionist, rather than exclusionist, view of good cinema.

While the first avant-garde pioneered alternative forms that survived on the fringes of institutional power, it was unable to support itself economically, because the avant-garde itself had not been embraced by institutions that could have created the material conditions for its continued survival. A history of early American avant-garde, then, cannot help but broaden its definition to include other noncommercial film forms, such as amateur film and documentary, as well as unrealized film projects, film criticism, and film reception.

Early American avant-garde film indeed identified itself with amateurism. As C. Adolph Glassgold wrote programmatically in The Arts , “The artistic future of the motion picture in America rests in the hands of the amateur.” 7 The cause of both avant-garde and amateur film were advanced by the introduction in 1924 of 16-mm film by Eastman Kodak Company and the easy-to-use Cine-Kodak 16-mm camera, much as most World War II experimental film movements were technologically grounded in the less expensive 16-mm format. The new technology was not only cheaper and safer than 35-mm nitrate film but also in many ways more versatile, allowing for hand-held cameras, location shooting, and filming under ambient light conditions. The Cine-Kodak allowed every man and woman potentially to become a film artist.

For Herman Weinberg, the avant-garde constituted itself everywhere beyond the realm of Hollywood narrative. The amateur film enthusiast was seen as the most ardent supporter of an avant-garde. Even professionals could become amateurs, as Weinberg explained in the case of Robert Florey: “It was only when he was working on his own, after studio hours, with borrowed equipment, scanty film, a volunteer cast and the most elemental of props, that, released from the tenets of the film factories, he was able to truly express himself in cinematic terms.” 8 Professionalism was thus equated with commercialism, while amateur ism connoted artistic integrity. Such a discourse clearly identified personal expression with formal experimentation, a dualism repeated continuously in aesthetic manifestos and reviews. The emphasis on formalism is echoed by Frederick Kiesler: “In the film, as in every other art, everything depends on how its mediums (means) are utilized and not on what is employed.” 9 Finally, according to contemporary observers around 1930, the total dominance of the professional and commercial sphere by sound technology meant that formal experimentation would necessarily migrate into the amateur realm: “If all the   professional money goes into sound, the semi-professional and the amateur, with little money to spend, will carry on and exploit the purely cinematic qualities of the movie.”

The cause of the avant-garde and amateurs was given a concrete organizational form with the founding of the Amateur Cinema League in 1926, led in its early years by the inventor Hiram Percy Maxim. By June 1927, there were an estimated thirty thousand amateur filmmakers in the United States alone. 11 In 1928 there were more than 103 amateur cinema clubs organized in the United States and abroad, with more than twenty-three hundred members in the Amateur Cinema League, all of whom were producing amateur films.

In any discussion of the role of the amateur in the growth of the first avant-garde, the role of the Amateur Cinema League (ACL) cannot be overstated. 13 Undoubtedly, it was the most audience-rich center for the exhibition of avant-garde films. The league had begun to organize a lending library as early as 1927. Arthur Gale wrote of the library’s purpose, “This will provide an adequate distribution of amateur photoplays, secure a dependable event for club programs and, as well, encourage new groups to undertake amateur productions.” 14 The Amateur Cinema League became a major outlet for the exhibition of avant-garde films, since local clubs in countless American cities had an insatiable demand for films that could be screened at their monthly gatherings. The Amateur Cinema League’s lending library included THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 1928), THE TELL-TALE HEART (Charles Klein, 1928), H 2 O (Ralph Steiner, 1929), PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN (Henwar Rodakiewicz, 1932), LOT IN SODOM (Watson and Webber, 1932), MR . MOTORBOAT’S LAST STAND (Theodore Huff and John Florey, 1933), and ANOTHER DAY (Molly Day Thatcher, 1934), all of which were screened extensively throughout the United States. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER , one of the most popular, experienced literally hundreds of screenings in ACL clubs. 10 While the Amateur Cinema League’s interests turned in the 1930s increasingly to travelogues and other forms of home movies, these avant-garde films were still available through the league in the early 1950s.

The Amateur Cinema League’s yearly film contest was won by such avantgarde films as PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN , LOT IN SODOM , and MR . MOTOR-BOAT’S LAST STAND . Photoplay and Liberty magazines and other organizations also staged amateur film contests, which offered public exposure to independent filmmakers. For example, in 1937 Liberty announced an amateur contest, sponsored by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Pete Smith Specialties series, which led to the production of EVEN AS YOU AND I (1937) by LeRoy Robbins, Roger Barlow, and Harry Hay.

Just as avant-garde film production created an alternative discourse on filmmaking, so, too, did the “little-cinema movement” provide both an exhibition outlet for avant-garde and European art films and an alternative to the commercial cinema chains, dominated by the major Hollywood studios. The establishment of art cinemas was apparently first suggested in March 1922 by the National Board of Review magazine Exceptional Photoplays. 17 In that article, the founding of a little cinema movement was specifically tied to the growth of avant-garde cinema: “The showing of experimental pictures in a special theatre or series of theatres, and the building up of an audience, would naturally be followed by the actual making of experimental pictures. Directors and actors, stimulated by what they had seen in this theatre and encouraged by the reception of new work, would feel impelled to try their hand.”

Three years later, the little-cinema movement took off with the foundation of the Screen Guild in New York and a series of Sunday films at the Central Theater in New York, organized by Symon Gould. Within a few years little cinemas sprang up all over the United States. In spring 1927 the Little Theatre of the Motion Picture Guild, under the management of John Mulligan, was opened in Washington, D.C., the first little cinema outside New York City. This was followed by the Little Theatre of the Movies in Cleveland in late 1927, followed almost immediately by one in Chicago. A. W. Newman, director of the Cleveland cinema, specifically referred to the exhibition of short films, which “represent important experimentation,” as a part of its mandate.

In Hollywood the Filmarte was founded in 1928 by Regge Doran; 20 other little theaters were located in Boston (Fine Arts Theatre), Rochester (Little Theatre), New York (Carnegie Playhouse), Buffalo (Motion Picture Guild), Baltimore (Little Theatre), Philadelphia (Motion Picture Guild), Brooklyn (St. George’s Page 392  Playhouse/Brooklyn Film Guild), and East Orange, N.J. (Oxford Theatre). 21 The Motion Picture Guild, under the direction of Robert F. Bogatin, operated the theaters in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Rochester.

Not surprisingly, art cinema programs often paired American avant-garde films with European, especially German and Russian features. This mixture was specifically commented on by Theodore Dreiser in the new Film Guild’s inaugural program in February 1929: “The little cinema theatres, which should, and I hope will, act as havens for artistic American as well as European productions and such experimental efforts of ‘amateurs’ here as many have the real interests of the screen as art truly at heart.”

Likewise, Robert Florey’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413—A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1928) played at the Philadelphia Motion Picture Guild with the German-Indian production, DIE LEUCHTE A SIENS (1926), while Florey’s second film, THE LOVES OF ZERO (1929), was billed at the Los Angeles Filmarte Theater with Gösta Ekman’s KLOVEN (1927). STORY OF A NOBODY (JO Gerson and Louis Hirshman, 1930) was exhibited with Paul Fejos’s arty Universal feature THE LAST PERFORMANCE (1929), 23 while Charles Vidor’s THE SPY /THE BRIDGE (1931) premiered at the Hollywood Filmarte Theatre with another European feature.

Ironically, obituaries for the little-cinema movement appeared as early as 1929, when the movement was far from spent. John Hutchens’s article in the September 1929 Theatre Arts noted, “That their bright day is done and they are for the dark, within only four years of their inception, is the unhappy comment on an art movement that from the first was characterized not so much by art as by a truly astonishing lack of foresight, and later by merely bad business methods.” 25 Given the fact that Hutchens wrongly proclaimed the demise of at least two cinemas, it seems clear that another agenda was at work. In fact, the author found many of the foreign films distasteful, “static and inferior” (a consistent criticism of European “art” films from American film industry allies), noting that the little cinemas had “little or nothing to offer” and accusing Gould’s Film Guild, for example, of showing too many Russian films. Indeed, it was not inferior foreign films, but rather the worsening economic climate that contributed to the demise of little cinemas. But that would take a few more years.

Art galleries were another potential site for avant-garde exhibitions. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s MANHATTA (1921) had of course been shown at Marius DeZayas’s New York gallery. Jay Leyda’s A BRONX MORNING (1931) was premiered at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, as were Lynn Riggs’s A DAY IN SANTA FE (1931), Henwar Rodakiewicz’s PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN (1932), and Joseph Cornell’s ROSE HOBART (1936). Presenting European avant-garde films as well, Julien Levy in fact built up a substantial collection of avant-garde films, which he hoped “to display on request.” Rodakiewicz’s and Leyda’s films were also shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place, another occasional showcase for American avant-garde films.

Other kinds of distribution were haphazard at best, usually dependent on the filmmaker himself renting the film to individual exhibition outlets. Symon Gould, the founder of the Cinema Guild, did apparently set up some kind of distribution network, renting films to both the little cinemas and commercial theaters. However, any profits realized never made their way back to the filmmakers. Strand and Sheeler, for example, complained that their film MANHATTA disappeared after Gould got the print. Robert Florey was even more specific about promises made to him: “Early in 1928, Mr. Symon Gould, then manager of the 8th Street Cinema Playhouse in New York, offered to give World Wide exploitation to my experimental shorts … and to that effect I gave him all the negatives and prints that I had. I regret to say that I have not heard from Mr. Gould since 1929, and I have never received an account of the rentals or sales of my pictures.” 28 When in 1950 Frank Stauffacher, programmer for the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1946-1951), asked Gould about the existence of certain avant-garde prints, Gould answered (on Film Guild letterhead) that he would be glad to undertake a search, for a $25 fee.

Even by the late 1940s, the field of avant-garde film distribution had not changed substantially. Thus, both Stauffacher and Amos Vogel at Cinema 16 in New York could not fall back on established distribution outlets for avant-garde film, but were dependent on personal contacts to find films and filmmakers, usually borrowing films directly from the makers for about $10 per film.

Meanwhile, film magazines, including Close Up , published in Switzerland in English, and Experimental Film , edited by Seymour Stern and Lewis Jacobs, functioned as critical voices in the discourse around both European and American art film. Close Up , in particular through its American contributors, Harry A. Potamkin and Herman G. Weinberg, documented the achievements of the American avant-garde from 1927 to 1934. Experimental Film , which published between 1931 and 1934, concerned itself more with leftist filmmaking, but also wrote about avant-garde efforts. Amateur Movie Makers , the official organ of the Amateur Cinema League, also reported on the avant-garde, but became aesthetically more conservative in the mid 1930s.

The charge that early American avant-garde efforts emulated their European colleagues was not totally without merit, given the intense reception of European modernist films in America. 30 However, it is also true that American avant-garde films demonstrated a certain wild eclecticism, innovativeness, and at times naïveté, which made them qualitatively different from European films. Further-more, the American avant-garde evidences antimodernist and romantic currents, which not only separate it from European models but also connect it directly to the later American experimentalists, like Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger.

While the American avant-garde film of the 1920s seemed to focus more on abstract and formalist experimentation, moving from the modernist vision of Strand and Sheeler’s MANHATTA to the new realist abstraction of Steiner’s H2O, and from Warren Newcombe’s animated dreamscapes in THE ENCHANTED CITY (1922) to Robert Florey’s expressionist THE LOVES OF ZERO (1929), the 1930s avant-garde seemed, in general, to gravitate toward metaphor and parody, possibly a sign of the increasingly difficult times. Those filmmakers who eschewed the symbolic created documentary portraits or fiction shorts infused with lyrical realism, the latter often leading directly to a Hollywood career.

As a paradigmatic case of the amateur avant-gardist working in different genres, one can look Dr. James Sibley Watson. Born in 1894 to a prominent Rochester family, Watson was a medical doctor by profession. In 1928 he collaborated with Melville Webber on THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER , which was shot in his garage with a homemade optical printer. 31 His TOMATOES’ ANOTHER DAY (1930) is a unique example of dadaist aesthetics in early sound cinema: a minimalist, virtually expressionless acting style on a claustrophobic set characterizes the melodramatic love triangle, with the actors verbalizing their every action, ironically commenting on the oververbalization of early sound films. After attempting to start a local newsreel—three issues were completed—Watson produced two industrial films that made heavy use of avant-garde techniques, THE EYES OF SCIENCE (1931, for Bausch & Lomb) and HIGHLIGHTS AND SHADOWS (1935, for Eastman Kodak). The EYES OF SCIENCE was in fact shown at amateur cinema clubs as an example of avant-garde filmmaking in the educational field.

Watson collaborated again with Melville Webber on LOT IN SODOM , which premiered at the Little Carnegie Theatre on 25 December 1933 along with Josef Berne’s DAWN TO DAWN . It continued to play in gay theaters throughout the 1930s and 1940s, becoming in the process probably the most commercially successful avant-garde film of the era. Herman Weinberg wrote ecstatically about the film: “I have never seen light manipulated so eloquently as in these expressive lights and shadows which sometimes form men or fragments of a body.” 32 While ostensibly a narrative of the biblical tale of Lot and his wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt while fleeing Sodom, the film is much more concerned with nonnarrative elements: the play of light and shadow, the balletic movement of bodies, the use of multiple exposures and optical tricks, and the poetic utilization of visual symbolism. The film’s imagery is also highly erotic, especially in the scenes in which Lot offers his daughter to the angel, and homoerotic, especially in its light play on seminude bodies of numerous young men. Working without dialogue and with sparse titles superimposed in English and Latin, the film features atonal music by Louis Siegel that underscores the film’s modernist construction.

Another important avant-garde filmmaker to emerge in the early 1930s was Lewis Jacobs, whose 1947 article on avant-garde filmmaking in America remains a seminal piece. 33 Jacobs helped found an amateur cinema club in Philadelphia in the late 1920s, with Jo Gerson and Louis Hirshman. Together they produced MOBILE COMPOSITION (1930), a film that apparently has not survived. Jacobs described the film as a story about a love affair in which “significant details, contrast lighting, double exposures, and large close-ups depicted the growing strain of disturbed emotions.”

Jacobs went on to work as a documentary filmmaker and as the founding editor of Experimental Cinema. While shooting footage for the Film and Photo League and working as a cutter for advertising films, Jacobs began a project, As I W ALK , which remained unfinished, except for a fragment, later called FOOTNOTE TO FACT (1934). It is a portrait of a young woman expressed in images ostensibly flashing through her mind, with documentary shots of street life in New York. Jacob’s intercutting between shots of the woman and her subjective views of reality accelerates until the film comes to a climax.

In the mid 1930s Lewis Jacobs collaborated with the photographer Thomas Bouchard and the dancer John Bovington to produce a dance film, UNDERGROUND PRINTER (1934). Bouchard, who was best known for his photographic portraits of well-known theater personalities, probably brought Jacobs and Bovington together. According to an ancient rental catalog, Bovington appeared in a solo dance in the film that could be interpreted as “an artistic attack on the type of machine-made thinking which produced the Nazi menace in Europe.” 36 However, Bovington, who apparently financed the film, had a falling-out with the two filmmakers, because it was taken out of their hands and reedited by Bovington.

Meanwhile, Gerson and Hirshman, who were both trained as painters, decided to remake MOBILE COMPOSITION without actors, calling it STORY OF A NOBODY (1930). They attempted to recreate the subjective views of the two lovers, defining them metaphorically through objects rather than actions. Utilizing a symphonic structure, the film consisted of numerous close-ups edited together through dissolves, laps, and quick cutting, depending on the rhythm of the scene. The film was hailed as a revelation by critic Harry A. Potemkin and the National Board of Review.

Best known as a painter and sculptor, Joseph Cornell produced his first film in 1936, ROSE HOBART. A nineteen-minute (at silent speed) reediting of Universal Pictures’ EAST OF BORNEO (1931), a jungle adventure thriller that starred Rose Hobart and Charles Bickford, with a few snippets from scientific instructional films thrown in, Cornell’s film is, like his famous collage boxes, essentially a creation out of objets trouvés. Completely eliminating any semblence of plot and dialogue, Cornell’s montage of the ostensible heroine, hero, and villain has them moving in slow motion through empty rooms, caressing curtains, reacting to unseen events, never meeting. Their looks lead nowhere, their erotic desires careen into a void, while the audience is left with a mystery, with the film’s purple-tinted eroticism masking an unfulfilled desire. Cornell thereby subverted not only the standard conventions of Hollywood filmmaking but also the viewer’s expectations of finding meaning. True to the surrealist creed, ROSE HOBART is ambiguously meaningful without meaning.

Jerome Hill, later known for his film animation, began his career in the 1930s. 40 Born into a wealthy Minneapolis family, Hill moved to Europe in 1927, where he was inspired by French surrealist films. In 1932 he purchased a 16-mm Kodak Special and shot THE FORTUNE TELLER in Cassis, a fishing village the South of France. 41 True to the title, the film has mystical overtones, its narrative constructed from seemingly unconnected images: a young woman hanging wash, a walk along the surf, a consultation with a gypsy fortune teller, a man rising up out of the sea. Apart from their pictorial beauty, the film’s images seem to hold some primordial meaning connected to fertility rites, to mystical love and romantic fate, yet they remain ambiguous, like the old gypsy’s fortune, as visualized in the cards. The film’s overall romantic text thus seems to conflict with the modernist impulse of the film’s construction.

In contrast to the earnest metaphors of Watson and Webber and others, parody was the preferred genre of Theodore Huff, another prominent Amateur Cinema League member. Later known as a film historian and Chaplin biographer, Huff directed 16-mm spoofs of Hollywood genre films in the early 1930s. His first two productions, HEARTS OF THE WEST (1931) and LITTLE GEEZER (1932), starred children, burlesquing the conventions of Westerns and gangster films, respectively. (He shot them under the pseudonym of D. W. DeReel.) Both films imitated the conventions of silent film, its stereotypical characters and naive plots, the sentimentality of D. W. Griffith, and the innocence of the era. About his use of child actors, Huff wrote, “We have found children under twelve best suited as actors for these pictures. The contrast in size with the original adult actors brings out, more sharply, the incongruity necessary to satire.” 42 Using children emphasized that the cinema was indeed in its infancy, but it also gave the films an ambiguous sexuality, implicating the subject in the director’s slightly perverse gaze.

MR. MOTORBOAT’S LAST STAND (1933), Theodore Huff and John Florey’s 16-mm silent Depression comedy, is a much less self-conscious work, an ironic comment on America’s inability to deal with the economic catastrophe of the 1930s. The story of an unemployed black who lives in a junkyard, the film uses a garbage dump as a metaphor for capitalism’s treatment of ordinary citizens. Living in an abandoned car that in fantasy is a limousine taking him to Wall Street, where his business is located (an apple stand), the hero suffers through the crash of 1929 and the Depression. MR. MOTORBOAT is, in fact, a humorous allegory on America’s economic rise and fall, employing visual metaphor in the manner of medieval morality plays, where images communicate their meaning quite literally, such as a bursting bubble becoming the “exploding prosperity bubble” of the 1920s. After working as a film curator, Huff returned to filmmaking in the late 1940s.

The photographer Ralph Steiner, who had been making abstract avant-garde films in the late 1920s, contributed his own parody of American economic life with PANTHER WOMAN OF THE NEEDLE TRADES, OR THE LOVELY LIFE OF LITTLE LISA (1931). The film, which opens with Jehovah (Morris Carnovsky) creating the world out of a test tube, proceeds to present a short history of the universe before the birth of Elizabeth Hawes (1903), the heroine of the film’s title. It then follows her career from childhood seamstress to Parisian designer of haute couture via a college education at Vassar. Reminiscent of Robert Florey’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413—A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1928) in terms of its art direction and elliptical narrative style, PANTHER WOMAN is a parody of the all-American success story, a young woman’s fantasy of a glamorous career in an age of diminishing possibilities.

Ralph Steiner also collaborated on PIE IN THE SKY (1934) with Elia Kazan, Irving Lerner, and Molly Day Thatcher. Produced by a left-wing collective around the Group Theater, PIE IN THE SKY is a parody of organized religion’s efforts to convince the working classes that their day will come in heaven, rather than on earth, making any struggle for social improvement futile. In the film, two working-class heroes embark on a quest through society, again represented as a garbage dump, to find something to fill their empty stomachs, but are only served slogans by various authority figures, such as a socialite charity person, a priest, and a welfare bureaucrat. The “piece of the pie” remains elusive; the heroes die of starvation and go to heaven, where they encourage the audience to participate in a sing-along (a favorite Depression-era activity in movie theaters). Using polemical statements like just so many   advertising campaign slogans, the film indicts the church, the state, and public figures, such as Father Charles Coughlin, as apologists for ruling-class neglect of poverty.

While most avant-garde films discussed here were parodies of mainstream commercial cinema, two films made in the 1930s were parodies of the avant-garde itself. The first was William Vance’s THE HEARTS OF AGE (1934) with a nineteen-year-old Orson Welles (who also co-directed and wrote the script) playing a number of male characters. According to Welles, the film was a parody of Jean Cocteau’s THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930) and the whole surrealist school. 43 Vance shot the film on 16-mm reversal, his second after completing a parody of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE in 1932. The film opens with a positive and negative image of a bell ringing in a bell tower. There follow a series of visual nonsequiturs: an old woman ringing a bell, an angel carrying a globe, death stalking corridors, a Keystone-like cop, a man hanging, a hand beckoning from the grave. Like earlier avant-garde films, THE HEARTS OF AGE favors obtuse camera angles, expressionist lighting, and narrative ellipses, utilizing these avant-garde techniques both seriously and with tongue in cheek.

Near the end of the 1930s, Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins produced their own parody of the avant-garde, EVEN AS YOU AND I (1937). The film was shot in 16-mm, for the most part in the home of LeRoy Robbins, a photographer on a WPA Project in California that included Edward, Brett, and Chan Weston; Roger Barlow; and Hy Hirsh. 45 The three filmmakers began the project after Liberty magazine announced a short-film contest sponsored by MGM’s Pete Smith Specialties series. The contest in fact became the frame for the film’s narrative. EVEN AS YOU AND I, however, failed to win any prizes, although it was shown at the Los Angeles Carpenter’s Local Hall, along with Paul Strand’s REDES/THE WAVE (1936), and screened by Fred Zinnemann for MGM executives.

Playfully ironic, almost dadaist in construction, the film narrates the attempts of three unemployed young men to make a film for an amateur film contest. After rejecting numerous boy-meets-girl script ideas, the three discover an article on surrealism and proceed randomly to construct a script out of paper scraps. The film within a film is an anarchistic montage of images, which acknowledges its debt to surrealism, Eugène Atget, Donald Duck, Buñuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU , Hans Richter’s GHOSTS BEFORE BREAKFAST , Eisenstein’s POTEMKIN , René Clair’s ENTR’ACTE , and Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL . It ends with the three would-be film artists realizing they have missed the deadline for the contest and then attempting to invent a useful gadget for another competition.

Almost postmodern in its use of quotation, EVEN AS YOU AND I also comments on the pressure toward originality when a canon of avant-garde works has already been established. Furthermore, the film refers to the difficulty of becoming a filmmaker and the need to survive economically in a Depression economy. Barlow and Robbins went on to become documentary filmmakers.

One of the preferred genres of both amateur and avant-garde filmmakers was the so-called scenic, which included both city films and more-abstract meditations on nature. Ralph Steiner’s SURF AND SEAWEED (1930) fits into the latter category and was possibly a sequel to Steiner’s H2O (1929). A montage of close-up images of the ocean, low-angle shots of waves crashing against the rocks, and extreme close-ups of the swirling patterns of seaweed, the film’s rhythm matches the endless to-and-fro of the surf, its images edited together abstractly, like music. In the 1960s this kind of film would be called structural, but in the 1930s they were considered attempts to find abstract patterns in nature, a tradition that had already established itself in Europe.

In the documentary field, Jay Leyda’s A BRONX MORNING (1931) is a tribute to one of his favorite photographers, Eugène Atget, a lyrical look at his Bronx neighborhood in the early morning hours before traffic and pedestrians crowd the street. The film opens with moving-camera shots, taken from the elevated train, images that hark back to Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN , SYMPHONY OF A BIG CITY (1927). The following images of storefronts, mannequins, signs, and other objects in the still-deserted streets are the most direct quotations of Atget’s surrealistic photographs of Paris. Interestingly, the latter half of the film, beginning with a shot of a mother navigating a pram through the streets, switches to what is essentially a feminine perspective, a world of children, pets, and cleaning. Indeed, there are no images of men working, unlike earlier city portraits, which usually incorporate scenes of labor. Leyda’s editing is strongly influenced by the formal and rhythmic patterns of the city films.

Another important city portrait from the early 1930s was Irving Browning’s CITY OF CONTRASTS (1931). Released commercially by Sol Lesser with a completely superficial “comic” narration to improve its box-office potential, the film nevertheless merits recognition in terms of its cinematography and sophisticated montage. Browning, a photographer by trade, visually juxtaposes images both formally, contrasting light, shade, and form, and semantically, contrasting various ethnic neighborhoods, skyscrapers, and city parks, the wealthy on Riverside Drive and the shantytown at Hooverville on the Hudson. Its editing is thus much more ambitious than its sound track, yet ultimately the film fails to make any articulate statement.

The critic, film historian, and cinema manager of a little theater in Baltimore, Herman G. Weinberg produced at least two avant-garde films, although apparently the first, CITY SYMPHONY (1930), was cut up to provide footage for the second, AUTUMN FIRE (1931). 48 According to Weinberg, the latter film was a romance sentimentale, made as a means of courting a woman he then married, not for public exhibition. 49 The film subjectively portrays two lovers who suffer through their separation until they are reunited at the end. Utilizing a Russian montage style, Weinberg intercuts continually between the two, juxtaposing their environments, identifying the young woman symbolically with nature and the man with the city (New York). Their reunion in the train station is accompanied by an orgy of flowing-water images, an obvious reference to Freud. Thus, the film mixes elements of the city film with a portrait of nature.

Surprisingly, then, most American city films seem to lack the unequivocal celebration of modernism and urbanism found in European city films. In films such as RIEN QUE LES HEURES (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), BERLIN , SYMPHONY OF A BIG CITY (Walter Ruttmann, 1927), and MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (Dziga Vertov, 1929), to name a few of the most well known feature films in this subgenre, the urban environment is celebrated for its excitement, speed, and modernity, with few references to nature, beyond its role in leisure-time activities for Sunday picnickers.

This ambivalent attitude toward urban spaces is nowhere as evident as in Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner’s government-sponsored documentary THE CITY (1939), possibly the last of the real city films. In that film, the metropolis is seen as overcrowded, noisy, polluted, and unhealthy; images of smokestacks, traffic jams, and substandard industrial housing predominate. Ironically, the film’s montage replicates the aesthetics of the earlier city films. However, the film advocates a form of city planning where living spaces and work spaces are strictly divided, offering residents of newly constructed, clean, green suburbs the nature they supposedly crave but are denied in an urban environment.

Like AUTUMN FIRE , Henwar Rodakiewicz’s PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN (1932) is an intensely romantic film, communicating a desire for man’s union with nature. The young man of the title in fact never appears in the film; instead, the film presents an abstract montage of mostly close-ups of the sea, clouds, smoke, trees, and man-made machinery. According to Rodakiewicz, the meaning of the whole arises from the sum of its parts: “In creating a film of nature that represents the cameraman’s individuality, the importance of selection cannot be overestimated.” 50 Divided into three movements, the film owes a debt to Steiner’s H2O, but is indeed more romantic than analytic, its construction based less on formal than emotional values. Rodakiewicz, like Paul Strand and Steiner, went on to become a prominent member of the documentary movement in the 1930s.

Toward the end of the decade, Rudy Burkhardt, a Swiss-born photographer who would become an important figure in the 1950s and 1960s, made his first films with a 16-mm camera. In 1936, Burkhardt shot a little silent comedy about a domestic quarrel with some of his artist friends as actors, 145 WEST 21. That was followed by SEEING THE WORLD —PARTM ONE : A VISIT TO NEW YORK (1937), a spoof of travelogues. 51 His next film, HAITI (1938), was a travelogue of his ten-month visit to Port-au-Prince, but much more poetic. Using as music Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, the film featured leisurely takes of street scenes, sweeping 180-degree pan shots of the town, and close-ups of architectural details and house furnishings. Burkhardt’s camera eye is fascinated by the haphazard moment, by the calm surfaces of life in the tropical heat, by the unknowable facts of people caught unaware.

The 1930s also witnessed the emergence of Mary Ellen Bute, an abstract animator whose work has been unfairly neglected, possibly because it was screened commercially. Like Oskar Fischinger, Bute was interested in visualizing music, in creating abstract animated forms to accompany musical pieces. Born in Texas to a wealthy family, Bute began experimenting with animated abstract designs in 1934 when she collaborated with the composer Joseph Schillinger and Lewis Jacobs on an unfinished film. 52 Her second project, RHYTHMS IN LIGHT (1934), made in collaboration with Ted Nemeth (her husband) and Melville Webber, accompanied Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” and was a hit at the Radio City Music Hall. Through high-contrast lighting and multiple exposures of abstract objects, Bute produced an effective method of creating animation in the third dimension, the length of the individual shots and their internal movement worked out with mathematical precision to give visual form to music.

After producing a number of other films in this mode, including SYNCHRONICITY No. 2 (1935) and ESCAPE (1937), the latter employing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Bute turned to animated color drawings with S POOK S PORT (1939), made in collaboration with Canadian animator Norman McLaren. Accompanying Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, the film utilizes anthropomorphic forms, as well as drawings of ghosts, bats, and skeletons. Bute continued producing animation until the early 1950s, when she turned to live-action films.

Finally, a number of short, independently produced, 35-mm fiction films produced in the 1930s have been generally thought of as avant-garde. Charles Vidor’s THE SPY /T HE BRIDGE (1931) is an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Vidor’s film uses a flash-forward technique to visualize the escape fantasy of a man condemned to be hanged. Making use of real locations and nonprofessional actors without makeup, the film’s quick cutting style, a montage of fantasy and grim reality, effectively creates a mixture of objectivity and inner subjectivity, stretching a few moments into a one-reel film. 54 Vidor went on to a generally undistinguished career as a Hollywood director.

Adapted by Seymour Stern (later a film historian), Josef Berne’s DAWN TO DAWN (1934), was, at a length of thirty-five minutes, thought to be an “arty” featurette. It told the story of a young farm girl who comes into conflict with her authoritarian father over a young drifter, leading to the father’s death of a stroke, after the young man leaves. Presented in only a few scenes with a cast of unknowns without makeup and virtually silent except for a musical score, the film’s strength was its lyrical realism; its pastoral scenes on a real farm, which did not suppress the harsh reality of American agriculture before the age of electricity and machinery; and its explicit seduction scene. Berne remained a virtual unknown, directing Poverty Row productions.

Finally, the Hollywood still photographer Roman Freulich directed a remarkable one-reel short, BROKEN EARTH (1936). It relates the story of a black sharecropper whose son comes down with a fever and is miraculously revived through the father’s fervent prayer. Shot in real locations with nonprofessional actors—except for the lead, Clarence Muse—the film’s early scenes focus in a highly realistic manner on the incredible hardship of black farmers, with plowing scenes similar in power to those in DAWN TO DAWN, while the latter half demonstrates the centrality of religion to the rural African-American experience. Roman Freulich’s earlier directorial effort, THE PRISONER (1934), is another apparently lost avant-garde film.

An important, if isolated figure, whose work still needs to be reassessed is the painter Emlen Etting. 56 Born in Philadelphia in 1905, Etting graduated from Harvard in 1928 and then moved to Paris to study painting with cubist André Lhote. While in Paris, he shot ORLAMONDE (1931) with a 16-mm camera. He returned to Pennsylvania the following year, where he started teaching art at the Tyler School at Temple University and produced POEM 8. His third film, LAUREATE (1939), was shot on 16-mm Kodachrome.

Etting thought of all of his films as film poems “wherein the pictures, their sequence and development are used as in a poem as opposed to the customary story form. … In the film poem, music, the dance, the theater and the artist will all work together.” 57 ORLAMONDE elaborates on the idea of Mélisande, using as music Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Fire and Gustav Hoist’s “Saturn” from The Planets. POEM 8 makes one of the earliest uses of the subjective camera and, according to Amos Vogel, has “retained a certain poetic vitality and verve.”

While it is true that material conditions for the production of avant-garde films diminished steadily throughout the decade, especially since exhibition sites became ever fewer, films continued to be made. The surviving films themselves   point to the fact that American avant-garde films in the 1930s covered a broad spectrum, from highly symbolic, expressionist works to dadaist satires, from lyric documentaries to abstract animation, from subjective portraits to realistic narrative shorts. All of these genres would indeed be revived in the late 1940s when a new generation of American film avant-gardists would claim their place in the consciousness of art-film audiences.

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over 2 years ago

This article is plagiarized wholesale from my book, Lovers of Cinema: The First AMerican Avangarde (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995). Please remove or credit my work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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over 6 years ago

I didn't approve of this.