Hidden Wonders

Brother, can you spare a dream? James Cruze's "Beggar on Horseback"
James Cruze

As anyone who ever crammed Latinate roots into her head for an SAT prep course can testify, the word amateur--before it came to snobbishly denote weekend dilettantism--originally referred to one who loves something deeply. "The First American Film Avant-Garde"--as Jan-Christopher Horak subtitled Lovers of Cinema, the survey of early American art films he edited in 1995--was largely composed of such enthusiasts. Drawing its inspiration from Horak's book, "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941," curated by gadfly historian and avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Posner, arranges the odd, often brilliant obscurities by these artists into 20 thematically grouped programs, 5 of which are screening at Oak Street Cinema on consecutive Tuesdays.

Prior to Horak, critical consensus held that most American art films made before World War II were either shoddy copies of German expressionism or the rough equivalents of home movies. A "genuine" American avant-garde began with Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon," we are told--and, in a coincidence sadly familiar to Midwestern artists and critics of all media, a sizable chunk of avant-gardists and their critical celebrants all happened to live on the island of Manhattan. Posner's series, then, presents an alternative, secret history of American film, exhibiting relics of an experimentalism that developed alongside Hollywood standardization rather than in direct opposition to it years later.

It has become a cliché to say that though the first Velvet Underground record sold very few copies, every listener went out and formed a band. Well, I don't know how many Americans saw Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but apparently each of them went out and made a movie. In "Unseen Cinema," there's Caligari in the enchanted woods, Caligari in the elliptical city, Caligari in a boat on a moat with a goat. And, with fitting and unsurprising frequency, there's Caligari superimposed upon adaptations of Poe tales.

The spirit even infected the young Orson Welles, who would later express his hatred of such nonlinear experimentalism. Made in 1934, Welles's "The Hearts of Age" (screening March 5 as part of the "Devil's Plaything" program) is his surreal celebration of Death, as impersonated by the man himself in leering expressionist makeup. The director and star later compared his short to "Sunday-afternoon fun out on the lawn," and disparaged its disjointed narrative, unusual camera angles, and unnatural staging as Caligari rip-offs. He's right on both counts: Nobody said derivative juvenilia couldn't be good fun. But many of his similarly influenced contemporaries accomplish something more: They leave unmistakably American jagged edges on their expressionist exercises, arriving at disconcerting results through jarring, amateurish abruptness--as opposed to the beguilingly stylish montage of their European predecessors.

Other films follow different experimental paths. Another familiar name, curiously credited here as Elia "Gadget" Kazan, appears in "Pie in the Sky" (March 12, as part of "First Steps: Early Efforts by Hollywood Directors"). Here, two beggars imagine an alternate world amid a junkyard, and we're reminded of the comic potential of nonrealism. Such comedy is exploited even more fully by James Cruze's 1925 film "Beggar on Horseback" (March 5), in which the lead character is swept passively from scene to scene with the absurd logic of a dream. (The all-frog marching band that floods down the aisle at the fellow's wedding is unforgettable.) There's a largely ignored lesson here about the advantage of art over life: Art doesn't have to make sense all the time.

These experiments achieve a thematic dimension in Emlen Etting's dazzling "Poem 8" (February 12, as part of "Light Rhythms: Melodies and Montages"). Following trains down tracks, cars across bridges, and crowds every which way, Etling's short is an ode to movement of all kinds. Roaming from the fields to the city, the camera occasionally pauses to frame a particular woman, and each woman then consciously performs in some way--after all, there's a camera pointed in her direction. It's easy to forget when you see your neighbor gracefully parroting expected sound bites about a local tragedy on the nightly news, but it took the better part of a century for Americans to learn how to act naturally.

In the current age of American empire, with cultural exports, at once glossy and tawdry, jostling their way into unwilling foreign markets, it feels somehow petty to discount the European influence upon American art. But there's a certain American impulse to be cherished here--irascible, restless, and vibrant. Predictably, it was thwarted by an alternate American impulse--professional, all-encompassing, and mercantile. Still, the sense of possibility, of play, of discovering the possibilities of the form, is palpable in "Unseen Cinema." Here is a forgotten tale of an unsuccessful rebellion against the tyranny of narrative, of filmmakers who bravely asked, "Yeah, but what if I don't want to tell a story?" Appropriately, that tale is itself disjointed and nonlinear.

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