Screen gems rediscovered

The touring exhibition 'Unseen Cinema' revives avant-garde films

Cinema is well into its second century, but not everyone is convinced the movies are better than ever. Could there be undiscovered gold hidden in the archives and annals of bygone years? Might some glittering nuggets come from sources Hollywood has nothing to do with?

The answer is yes on both counts.

Proof lies in a widely touring program called "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941," assembled by Bruce Posner, an intrepid prospector who has scoured the world for movies.

One of Posner's most fascinating discoveries is that some of the most adventurous and entertaining pictures ever made can't easily be pigeonholed as either "commercial" films, targeted at neighborhood theaters, or "art" films, aimed at sophisticated connoisseurs.

Labels prove inadequate when moviemakers are motivated not by financial profit or high-culture ambition, but by sheer love of moving pictures - and driving curiosity about all the things this versatile medium can accomplish.

"Unseen Cinema" covers a wide range of works. At one end of the spectrum are sequences made for Hollywood blockbusters by visionary directors.

Examples include the "Lincoln Memorial" scene crafted by Slavko Vorkapich for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the beloved James Stewart drama, and the "Lullaby of Broadway" number choreographed by Busby Berkeley for "Gold Diggers of 1935." Although they were produced by mainstream studios, these episodes have an explosively experimental spirit.

No less compelling are movies at the other end of the spectrum, made by renowned artists who used film when they weren't busy painting or sculpting.

Joseph Cornell, one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century, made movies like "Thimble Theater" and "Rose Hobart" in the 1930s and '40s, and legendary European artists like Marcel Duchamp ("Anémic Cinema") and Fernand Léger ("Ballet Mécanique") considered film an important means of expression.

New York was the center of early filmmaking before Hollywood usurped the crown, and many "Unseen Cinema" attractions have titles like "A Bronx Morning" and "Coney Island at Night." Timeless tales from "Jack and the Beanstalk" to "The Tell-Tale Heart" were filmed in styles as fantastical as their subjects from the beginning of the 1900s. And many filmmakers tried their hand at purely abstract projects like "An Optical Poem" and "Light Rhythms," both from the '30s.

What drew Posner to assemble this sweeping panoply of little-known movies?

"It was my father's movie camera," he told me in an interview. "He made home movies from the mid-'30s on. I picked it up and tried to make a Hollywood film, but that wasn't easy with an eight-mm camera in the family garage!

Years later, I discovered the avant-garde movement, which didn't need big budgets, and then I found that none of the history books cover that movement's history before the 1940s. I became a film programmer and started looking for [noncommercial] filmmakers who were still alive. I discovered there was a really great tradition of their work."

Shaping the "Unseen Cinema" series involved restoring old or damaged films and hunting down obscure items all over the world - "scrounging" from major repositories like the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, and also from small archives at home and abroad. Posner made many finds in Russia, where American movies were seized from German owners during World War II.

Posner's personal favorites tend to be movies from the earliest years of cinema, when filmmakers were still inventing basic equipment and figuring out what to do with it. He loves the experimental frame of mind - "How do you make this work? What should you put on the screen?" - that starts with the primitive movies made by Thomas Edison's employees.

Asked if one particular quality sums up the spirit of the "Unseen Cinema" films, Posner responds with a single word - "innocence" - reflecting his view that movies had a certain purity and vitality before entrenched commercial interests started to dominate them. He also stresses that "many of them are downright fun!"

'Unseen Cinema' plays at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art through Sept. 9. Coming engagements include Anthology Film Archives, New York, Sept. 8-Oct. 14; American Museum of the Moving Image, New York, Sept. 15-16; Cinema Borealis, Chicago, Sept. 22-Oct. 20; University of Chicago, Sept. 24-Nov. 26; University of Colorado at Boulder, Nov. 12; BAM Kinematek, N.Y., Nov. 5-26; UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles, Feb. 14-26; and many more over the next two years.

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