Sunday, November 6, 2011

Independent avant-garde film makers of the 1940s...Eleanora and Hammid Deren

“The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra”

Laboring in the Shadow of Hollywood


Manohla Dargis

November 4, 2011

The New York Times

In January 1943 the Russian-born poet, essayist, former radical and future filmmaker Eleanora Deren wrote a friend that her husband, Alexander Hammid, was having a tough time finding work as a cameraman in Hollywood. The union, she wrote, was one of those “racketeer things,” though there might be a job at Paramount Pictures. “There are other prospects,” she added, “but in Hollywood prospects are a dime a dozen.” Four months later she and Hammid carved out a different future in the poetic form of “Meshes of the Afternoon,” a black-and-white, 14-minute silent film and a classic of the American avant-garde cinema that they shot a few blocks from the Sunset Strip.

Deren and Hammid made “Meshes” in their apartment on the border of Los Angeles proper, where gangsters and stars partied and played out of reach of the city’s laws. Shot for less than $300 and in 16 millimeter film, “Meshes” involves a woman (Deren) who, after returning home and falling asleep, dreams a dream involving a mysteriously hooded figure, a knife, shards from a broken mirror and multiple versions of herself. In “Meshes” Deren doesn’t just invite you into another person’s head; she also shows the whirring gears of consciousness. The film itself was a vision — that of a different practice far beyond Hollywood’s gates — and it inspired generations to see film as a means of personal rather than industrial expression.

It may seem surprising that a milestone of the American avant-garde cinema was made a few minutes from the Chateau Marmont, that favorite movie-star haunt. Yet almost as long as there’s been a Hollywood in Los Angeles, there has been an off-Hollywood too, the provenance of those toiling at the edge and far outside the mainstream. Some, like Deren (who died in 1961), were just passing through the city; others were there for the duration, like Kenneth Anger, who as a child appeared in the 1935 Warner Brothers version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and at 17 made “Fireworks” (1947), a landmark gay film that he shot at home with some burly male friends dressed as sailors while his parents were at a funeral.

It’s possible to follow one thread in the off-Hollywood story, its histories, productions and personalities in Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945-1980, a six-month series coordinated by Filmforum, the longest-running avant-garde film organization in Los Angeles, and one of several moving-image programs in Pacific Standard Time. (Another, “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” was coordinated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, where it runs until Dec. 17.) An initiative of the Getty Institute, Pacific Standard Time is a sprawling collaboration of more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions that aims, as a Getty news release puts it, “to tell the birth of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a major new force in the art world.”

There was of course an art scene in Los Angeles before 1945, and Deren was deep in it. She moved to the city in 1941 while working for the Katherine Dunham dance troupe and soon met Hammid, a Czech filmmaker, at a party, where they chatted about movies. Their conversation continued and led them to art houses, where, now a couple, they caught foreign-language titles. He took photographs, she wrote poetry and among their circle were the abstract filmmaker Oskar Fischinger (who worked on Disney’s “Fantasia”) and the art collector Galka Scheyer (who introduced the work of Klee and Kandinsky to America). Hammid schooled Deren, and in 1943 she bought a 16-millemeter camera. They made “Meshes,” and she changed her first name to “Maya” — Sanskrit for illusion.

“Meshes of the Afternoon” wasn’t the first avant-garde film made in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, that monument that became — misleadingly — interchangeable with Los Angeles. East Coast filmmakers migrated to the city at the beginning of the 20th century for assorted reasons, including weather, which allowed them to shoot outdoors for much of the year, and terrain, which provided nearby mountain, forest, ocean and desert locations. By the time Deren and Hammid lived there, the movie industry had fully consolidated and was an international cultural force. Legions went west, willingly or not, some yearning for that proverbial big break or just a blast of sun. Artists, bohemians, social outsiders, refugees: they came, made art, hustled for work, grappled with modernism, raged against the machine or were seduced by it.

In Alternative Projections the programmers Adam Hyman, the executive director of Filmforum, and Mark Toscano, a curator and film preservationist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, zero in on those who, even when working in the belly of the beast, followed another, more experimental, expansive cinematic way than that offered by Hollywood. The 20-part series, which includes film and video abstractions, animations, gritty documentaries, experimental narratives, conceptual gags and even some early work by some guy named George Lucas, also make the case week after week, work after work, that the mainstream and the margins are never independent but are instead interdependent: each absorbs and presses against the other, consciously or not. Hollywood fed off the avant-garde while Hollywood, in the memorable phrase of the theorist Paul Arthur, became “the animating skeleton in the avant-garde film closet.”

The earliest work in the series, “The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra,” is a witty, 10-minute illustration of how some Los Angeles artists navigated the weird, alienating world in which they worked. Shot in 1928 and directed by three up-and-comers, Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland, this expressionistic mix of live-action and animation tracks an aspiring actor who falls on hard and then lethal times. The film wasn’t a calling card but a critique from inside the machine and as such was appreciated by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Florey later directed films like “Murders in the Rue Morgue”; Vorkapich worked in special effects and created montage sequences; Toland was an assistant cameraman who became a cinematographer, most famously for “Citizen Kane.”

In addition to making montage sequences for movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Vorkapich was the chairman of the cinema department at the University of Southern California from 1949 to 1951. It was the first American university to offer a bachelor’s in film and is now perhaps most famous for its former students (and later, generous donors), Mr. Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But before either of those blockbuster titans left their imprint, the school was under the experimental sway of Vorkapich. His students included Art Clokey, who, inspired by his mentor’s techniques, created the little green clay animated figure, Gumby — and with it children’s television surrealism.

The film schools in Southern California, which include the University of California, Los Angeles, and the California Institute of the Arts, have long functioned as both official and unofficial adjuncts to the studio system, churning out generations of artists and technicians, but they’ve also served as important institutional alternatives, providing artists a means of living and influence outside the industry. Located about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, CalArts was the brainchild of Walt Disney, who envisioned an art school along the elite lines of Caltech. The animator Jules Engel (another “Fantasia” veteran) established the school’s experimental animation program, an aesthetic counterweight to the straighter, commercial forces embodied by the Disney family; among his students were Tim Burton, and John Lasseter.

Other important teachers at CalArts include Pat O’Neill, part of its founding faculty. A Los Angeles native, Mr. O’Neill began making films while a graduate student at U.C.L.A., where he studied product design. He was influenced by the filmmaker Bruce Conner, whose work Mr. O’Neill first saw at the legendary Los Angeles Coronet Theater. (The Coronet showed avant-garde work and documentaries throughout the 1950s; the artist Ed Kienholz sometimes hung shows in the lobby.) Working with an optical printer, a pre-digital age machine in which filmed images are copied onto raw film stock, thereby allowing users to greatly manipulate visuals, Mr. O’Neill created a stunning oeuvre while often working in special effects, as he did for the first “Star Wars” movie.

Several of Mr. O’Neill’s early shorts are featured in Alternative Projections, as are some from Thom Andersen. Known for his monumental 2003 video feature, “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Mr. Andersen is a filmmaker (and CalArts instructor) who merits a wider audience. Among his earliest works is a sensational 12-minute short titled “--- -------,” also known as “The Rock and Roll Film” (1967), that transforms mostly originally shot footage of musicians performing on the Sunset Strip into rhythmic visual and sonic bursts. Made with Malcolm Brodwick, who compiled the seamless patchwork of sound and music, the film reaches an apotheosis with a glorious shot of dancing feet — hovering on tiptoe as if unencumbered by gravity and accompanied by the song “Earth Angel” — that, when the camera pans up, turn out to belong to Mick Jagger.

Considerably further down the food chain are the demimonde subjects of the eye-opening matched set “I Don’t Know” and “Hats Off to Hollywood,” made by Penelope Spheeris around 1972. Now best known for commercial hits like “Wayne’s World,” Ms. Spheeris made these two shorts while she was a U.C.L.A. graduate student in film in an overwhelmingly male department. Located at the border of documentary and fiction, the films pivot on the funny and painful misadventures of a beautiful hustler, Jennifer (né Jimmy), whose liminal identity is a source of liberation (for her, for the viewer) and a periodic catalyst for trouble. Exquisitely intimate, the films offer a deeply human alternative to Hollywood’s then dominant vision of the pathological (or dead) homosexual.

There are other surprises and rediscoveries packed into Alternative Projections, including several experimental shorts by the actor Russ Tamblyn, who is perhaps best known for his role as a Jet in “West Side Story” (and the father of the actress Amber Tamblyn), but in the 1960s belonged to a group centered on the artist Wallace Berman. Mr. Tamblyn bridged Hollywood and off-Hollywood. Others had a rougher time making sense of these separate yet connected worlds, failed to find a balance, fled the scene or rejected the mainstream outright. Some, like the San Francisco native Robert Nelson, brilliantly incorporated their ambivalence about Los Angeles and its famous factory into their work. In “Suite California Stops & Passes Part 1” (1976), Mr. Nelson opens with a Godardian deconstruction of a Hollywood film, then heads into Death Valley before landing in Los Angeles, where he ends up in a park that is home to the Hollywood sign. He then turns his camera toward the megalopolis beyond, where the buildings stand wreathed in smog, totems of a city still trying to be seen.

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