"The so-called 'professional's' worst handicap, in making anything, is that his knowledge sets into him and concretizes all his thought, thus blocking him from creative adventure..." Stan Brakhage, introduction to Lenny Lipton's Independent Filmmaking (1972)
Brakhage was fond of quoting Maya Deren’s etymological derivation of “amateur” from the Latin amator, or “lover”; that is, “one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity.” And, indeed, cinema is unusual in that most of its avant-garde development has been initiated by so-called (or self-professed) amateurs. Take Marie Menken, for example: the very definition of the amateur, whose films were originally made on a 16mm Bolex, shown to her friends in intimate settings, and generally derided as trifles by her husband, poet-filmmaker-professor Willard Maas. Ironically, history and criticism have been kinder to Menken’s films—Sitney’s Eyes Upside Down (2008) has seen to that—and she is now generally considered one of the most formative influences on the New American Cinema and on Brakhage in particular.
All of this came to mind as I sat through the contents of two upcoming programs at Anthology Film Archives, Orphans Redux (Friday the 21st) and Amateur Night: Home Movies From American Archives (Saturday the 22nd). For the sake of continuity, let me begin with the latter program and circle back around to the first.
Where was I? Ah, yes—amateur filmmakers. Their relationship to the avant-garde is a natural one, if only because so many respected artists have embraced an amateur aesthetic. While most home movies offer little of artistic value, they may remind us of experimental films we have seen—and vice versa. The two overlap most obviously in the “diary film”, whose most important contributor is perhaps Anthology’s own Jonas Mekas, and in extreme cases of found footage work, such as Hollis Frampton or Ken Jacobs signing their names to anonymous films of their liking. When does a filmmaker first become professionalized? Is Saul Levine less of an amateur filmmaker because his work is featured in Artforum?
Amateur Night is a compilation film by Dwight Swanson that vacillates between an urge to explicate and the desire to let this material speak for itself; not going far enough in either direction is ultimately its weakness. For example, Amateur Night often employs DVD-style commentary by those who knew the filmmakers, yet the film’s ambivalence leaves one wishing to know more about the larger picture of home moviemaking in America: some discussion of popular formats, when they were introduced and their socio-economic basis would have been enlightening, particularly as some of these pieces were made on rather obscure gauges like 9.5 and 28mm. Still, there are a number of interesting films here, some of which are marred by poor contemporary soundtracks. There is even some home footage of Hitchcock in England toward the end of the 1920s, though this is not terribly exciting stuff on a visual/visceral level. Indeed, the least interesting works tend to be those that ape commercial standards, like the Christmas fantasy of Margaret Conneely’s Fairy Princess (1955), Homer C. Pickens’ documentary Smokey Bear (1950), C. C. Minnich’s slapstick/trick film The Coker Avenue Gang (1930), or Dr. Frank S. Zach’s motion picture pamphlet Welcome San Francisco Movie Makers (1960). On the other hand, there are intriguing instances of citizen journalism like Naokichi Hashizume’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center (1945), which documents a Japanese family’s sojourn from Los Angeles to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and finally Wyoming during WWII; Morris Margolin’s Innsbruck (1953), an Austrian travelogue; Louis C. Harris’ Atom Bomb (1953), a newspaperman’s home movie of Operation Upshot-Knothole; and Lower 9th Ward (2005) by Helen Hill, who was murdered the following year after returning to New Orleans.
Wallace Kelly’s Our Day (1938) is the most technically accomplished film here, and was named to the National Film Registry in 2007; it’s a very interesting piece of middle class ritual, an attempt by the Kelly family of Lebanon, Kentucky to define their particular brand of rural happiness in the midst of the Depression (see video below). But my favorite films were the pastoral Naushon Sheep Drive (1915) by one of Emerson’s grandsons, Alexander Forbes, which creates some wonderfully accelerating rhythms amid all the hard cuts and sun flares, and, oddly enough, Nixon Visits Idaho Falls (1971), a document of lost innocence as teenagers singing “we are Americans, we hope that you are too” clamor to shake the infamous president’s hand. The most avant-garde piece is certainly David H. Jarret’s Butt Shakers (1959), a Super-8 silent film found at a Pittsburgh flea market by that city’s Orgone Cinema group. Filmed in the Hill District, “the center for music and night life between New York and Chicago," we see a group of young African-American dancers flanked by people engaged in conversation and newcomers at the door. Halfway through this excerpt, the filmmaker began dabbling with double exposures, perhaps winding the film back in the camera and shooting over the same material; now we have people relaxing in the kitchen while ghostly bodies vibrate in the air like free radicals. I say “avant-garde” because superimposition is the one filmmaking technique which is never used to clarify or disseminate information and is, therefore, pure poetry.
Orphans Redux is a selection from the 7th Orphan Film Symposium, a bi-annual event organized by Dan Streible. The gathering, which took place at New York University back in April, featured works by Andy Warhol, Gustav Deutsch, and Ed Bland’s The Cry of Jazz (also at Anthology not long ago) as part of its 80 miscellaneous presentations under the broad heading of “Moving Images Around the World.” I say presentations because the films are generally accompanied by scholarly work—Friday’s show will feature introductions by Charles Musser, Bill Brand and Mark Cooper, among others. Some of the oddities include Chinese Motion Picture Studio (1934), a Movietone reel supposedly offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Chinese film industry, but whose repetitions of hackneyed dramaturgic formulas are more likely to recall experiments by Peter Kubelka and Martin Arnold with commercial detritus; Cartier-Bresson and Herbert Klein’s With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1938), a propaganda film in the newsreel style which depicts those wounded fighting against fascism and desperately implores the audience to donate money for their cause (scholar Juan Salas makes some interesting connections between Lincoln Brigade, Buñuel, and Bataille’s brand of surrealism); experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller’s home movie of the March on Washington (1963); Lidia García Millán’s Color (1958), a recently restored experimental film from Uruguay that reminds one of Menken’s Drips in Strips (1961), exploding the myth that paint on film is somehow just moving paint and nothing more; and the Miles Bros.’ A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire (1906), which AFA’s program notes wryly call “a highly unusual, lyrical, and even structural single-take film,” with full knowledge that this is the same piece structural filmmaker Ernie Gehr used to make Eureka (1974) after Annette Michelson showed it to him in Europe.
Of particular note is Scott Nixon’s The Augustas (1930s-1950s), shot on both 8 and 16mm and compiled by a traveling salesman whose 26,000 feet of footage is now in the archives of the University of South Carolina; this particular entity being restored by the National Film Preservation Foundation. The Augustas is a peculiar kind of travelogue, documenting 38 sites bearing that name across the U.S., from Augusta, KS to Augusta Springs, VA to Augusta Street in Savannah, GA. The use of “Augusta,” with its etymology of “august: great or venerable,” is perhaps ironic in light of the drab rural and small-town settings documented by Nixon. None of these locations is of historical import, yet they are brought together under the umbrella of an abstract sound-pattern—which is, perhaps, the same principle that led Hollis Frampton to make Zorns Lemma (1970), organizing disparate signposts under the guiding hand of alphabetized typography. Nixon’s use of “Augusta” has the same delicious tension between what Northrop Frye called an “anagogic” realm, or “language as existing in its own universe, no longer a commentary on life or reality,” and a recalcitrant reality that bears an irreducible ‘local color,’ an absolute connection to geographic space, at its heart.
Orphans Redux is playing on Friday, January 21, at 7:30 PM, and Amateur Night on Saturday, January 22, at 7:30 PM, at Anthology Film Archives, corner of Second and Second.