Though certain filmmakers have been making films for personal reasons, rather than institutional or financial ones, since the days of silent cinema, this tendency toward authorial independence only began to coalesce into a bonafide artistic movement in the United States during the 1940s – the decade in which American filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger began making their first “underground” movies. This movement, heterogeneous in its concerns and techniques, has no official name that may be uniformly agreed upon – many refer to this body of work as a kind of “experimental” cinema, though to this the filmmaker Peter Kubelka has replied, “I made many experiments in the process of making this film. I left them all in my editing room. What you’ve seen is not an experiment, but a completed work.”
More commonly accepted is the term “avant-garde,” which itself has roots in the European theatre of the early twentieth century. About the American avant-garde cinema of the 1940s-1970s, a few general things may be said: 1) these films do their work primarily through the formal properties of cinema (i.e., light, color, sound, texture, movement), rather than through the devices of narrative, drama, or acting; 2) these films are almost always made on extremely low budgets, financed and shot independently, without any commercial expectation of financial reward; and 3) these films tend to be resolutely personal, not only in their origins of production, but in the way that they attempt to document or dramatize a kind of inner self on the part of the artist, and, at their best, provide us with an alternative way of viewing the world.
Last October, the IU Cinema curated one of its more exciting programs to date with “The Spiritual Avant-Garde,” a selection of six short American works, made between 1943 and 1979, which were all shown on 16mm prints. (Because these films display such rigorous attention to the minute, shifting qualities of light and texture, it’s important to see them in a celluloid format, rather than in a digital copy, in order for their diverse array of effects to be properly rendered.) One quality that set this program apart from other avant-garde programs was its seasonal emphasis on the spiritual realm, as well as on the cultural rituals associated with this realm – namely, with witchcraft, occultism, mythology, and feline mediums, among other things. If the avant-garde can often be seen as an attempt to document or dramatize the self, then the films in this program attempt to commune with something outside of or beyond the self, to transgress the material and move toward that which may be called the spiritual or the metaphysical. The program also did an excellent job of choosing representative films and filmmakers, and as such functioned as an ideal introduction to major figures of the American avant-garde.
Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1957-1966), for me the most impressive work in the program, synthesizes a kind of baroque pageantry with forms of day-glo psychedelia. The film represents an attempt to invoke mythological figures through the performance of ritual – in this case, a dazzling convocation of gods and goddesses at a feast dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and theatre – but how seriously Anger takes the whole thing is up for debate. This deeply celebratory film, an attempt to put highly cryptic, inscrutable images before a popular audience, represents a kind of return to the hermetic world of silent cinema, an opportunity to luxuriate in the handsome textures and ghostly superimpositions made possible by Anger’s extreme sensitivity to film form. This is a ravishing, jewel-like work, comparable to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) in its visual intensity, and best experienced on a good print.
Stan Brakhage’s Cat’s Cradle (1959), a silent work about “sexual witchcraft,” remains more radical than Anger’s work in the way that it eschews a conventional sense of filmic space and, at various moments, figural shapes altogether through its rapid cutting and highly mysterious movements amid red light and darkness. Brakhage made many of his films without a camera at all, but rather by directly scratching, painting onto, and manipulating reels of 16mm film. Cradle is one of his early, photographic films, and it deals with the peculiar relationship between five figures: two couples and a black cat (the latter being the “feline medium” identified in the program notes for the “Spiritual Avant-Garde”). In Brakhage’s superbly creative hands, the material becomes a kind of horror film about domestic space, rendered as such through the forceful ambiguity of the relationships and the highly charged use of gauzy color and natural light.
Also of interest in the program is Maya Deren’s unfinished Witch’s Cradle (1943), filmed in the Art of This Century gallery in New York. The film uses suggestive props and gothic architectural details to imbue Deren’s character (and, by extension, the audience) with the sense of being lost within a kind of darkened labyrinth or haunted house. I quite liked Harry Smith’s No. 17: Mirror Animations (1979), an exuberantly playful work of cutout animation that deals with reflection and movement. The film draws on the aesthetic trappings of comic strips in ways that I found exciting. More obscure to me in terms of meaning were Storm de Hirsch’s Geometrics of the Kabbalah (1975), an ultra-rare, and deeply sensuous, feminine portrait, and Jonas Mekas’s Hare Krishna (1966), a document of a youth gathering on a Sunday afternoon in New York. I can only hope that, given the eclecticism on display in the selections of this program, the Cinema’s Underground Film Series continues to give us wonderful opportunities to look at avant-garde work in its intended format.
The IU Cinema’s Underground Film Series is an ongoing project, curated by grad students working in film and media studies, dedicated to screening works that explore the “vision of non-commercial and marginalized filmmakers.” The Spiritual Avant-Garde screened as part of the series in October 2019, and was curated by Joseph Wofford, Anthony Silvestri, and Carmel Curtis.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.