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On Film: getting strange in the golden age

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Bruce Posner had always suspected that American avant-garde film predated Maya Deren's 1943 landmark short Meshes of the Afternoon, but his suspicions weren't confirmed until 1995. While curating a survey of abstract films at the Harvard Film Center, he found a few scattered titles from the 20s. Manhatta, for example, a seven-minute visual paean to Gotham by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand that was critically lauded despite having "no heroine, no villain, no plot," dated back to 1921. But it took a brush with mortality before Posner considered compiling these early films. In 1999, he says, "I choked on a chicken bone. I almost died. Twenty-two days and three operations later I decided 'I am going to do this.'"

The resulting 15-hour touring retrospective, "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941," is an eye-opening collection of abandoned, overlooked, and never-before-screened work from the era before Deren put the American avant-garde on the map. The 160 works include Alla Nazimova, Charles Bryant, and Natacha Rambova's Salome, a succession of campy tableaux inspired by Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde; J.S. Watson Jr. and Melville Webber's The Fall of the House of Usher, a virtuoso exercise in shadowy expressionism and erotic horror; poetic silent shorts; a clinical record of epileptic seizures from 1905; and montage sequences excerpted from Busby Berkeley musicals and studio features such as Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The last, which Posner presents as works of cinema in their own right, are indicative of the porous border between the avant-garde and Hollywood in the 20s and 30s. Much of the intriguing filmmaking, mainstream and otherwise--influenced by the influx of expressionist directors fleeing Europe--explored daring camera angles, dramatic lighting styles, and arresting editing tempos.

Many of the montages, for example, were created by Belgrade-born experimentalist Slavko Vorkapich, whose work on studio movies such as So This Is Paris, Manhattan Cocktail, and Wolf of Wall Street was distinctive enough to turn his surname into a noun and a verb. "His success was so great that the studios would say 'I want a Vorkapich here,'" says Posner. "It also became derogatory, as in 'don't Vorkapich up the picture.'"

There were, however, still differences in budget and scale. One title in the series, The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra, seems to refute a lesson Posner learned in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, from his experiments with his dad's Super-8 camera: "You couldn't make a Hollywood movie in your garage." This surreal 1928 satire of studio casting was made in a kitchen by Vorkapich, Paris-born writer Robert Florey, and Greg Toland, who later shot Citizen Kane. Charlie Chaplin was a fan and introduced the film to powerful exhibitors, but Life and Death attracted as much attention for its budget as it did for its artistic merits. "He Made a Movie for $97!" hyperventilated a headline in Hollywood Magazine. Remade in 1936 at Paramount as Hollywood Boulevard, Florey's bohemian-themed debut was hyped as "the first of the impressionistic photoplays to be made in America!"

Throughout his career Florey continued to produce artsy side projects while employed as an assistant to Josef von Sternberg and King Vidor. He went on to direct The Cocoanuts, the first Marx Brothers film, as well as The Beast With Five Fingers and a score of other features for Paramount, MGM, and RKO.

Posner has had a similarly amphibious career. He once worked as an optical printer in a lab, where his duties included pan-and-scanning John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 to reformat it for USO screenings. But he was also an acolyte of avant-garde visionary Stan Brakhage at the School of the Art Institute. Now he runs a weekly film salon from his home in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, and argues that the obscurities in the "Unseen" series don't belong in the historical hinterlands of cinema. "It will become clear that what we have today--especially with fast cutting and music synchronicity--doesn't just go back to the 60s avant-garde. It goes back to the very beginnings of film."

Organized by Anthology Film Archives in New York City and the Deutsche Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, "Unseen Cinema" runs Saturday, September 22, through Monday , November 26, at two locations. Cinema Borealis is located on the fourth floor of 1550 N. Milwaukee; admission is $7. Doc Films is at the Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes Hall on the University of Chicago campus, 1212 E. 59th; admission is $4. Call 773-293-1447 or see the listings in Section Two for more information.

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