Examining ’50s avant-garde cinema

By Trevor Ballanger

The concern of experimental filmmaking has long been challenging conventional narrative, which constantly attempts to find new modes of expression and visual language. Exploring the history of this unconventional style, the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., is offering a look back at the 1950s American avant-garde scene on Dec. 7 and 11 as part of a series titled American Cinema of the 1950s.

The films, ranging in length from 5 to 40 minutes, provide a wide cross section of experimentation, such as Christopher Maclaine’s exercise in identification and disengagement in “The End” (1953); Marie Menken’s personal and poetic observations in “Glimpse of the Garden” (1957); Maya Deren’s ruminations on rhythm, movement and dance in “The Very Eye of Night” (1958); and Stan Brakhage’s lyrical exploration of subjective sight in his landmark “Anticipation of the Night” (1958).

The Chronicle caught up with series lecturer, film critic and Film & Video Department faculty member Fred Camper to talk about the upcoming program.

The Chronicle: The term “avant-garde” is a loaded one. What did it connote in the 1950s and what does it mean today?

Fred Camper: The real thing to say about this is that there is not a name for this kind of cinema that any of its original creators are happy about. Avant-garde was judged to be pretentious and European, and it had already been used for French films in the ’20s. Other words were proposed, none of which anyone liked. I usually call it “experimental/avant-garde” as a way of saying there’s no good name for it. Interestingly enough, in recent years, many filmmakers happily call their work “experimental.” Sometimes I agree with them.

Is there anything that unifies these films other than the decade of their release? Why present these works together?

Well, there are two different thre- ads. I didn’t want to show any Hollywood films directed by women, of which there are hardly any, but I wanted to make the point that there were women making films. Avant-garde was especially open to women for obvious reasons—there were no producers. Menken and Deren were probably the two best women filmmakers of the time, and they were both influences on Brakhage.

“Anticipation of the Night” and “The End” are both suicide films explicitly. These were films made by filmmakers out of a state of desperation. They were made because they had to make films—not as an assignment or because they wanted to be filmmakers but because they had to make them. They had to make them in order to decide whether and how and under what conditions they could go on living.

To what extent was the avant-garde movement institutionalized in the ’50s?

It was a fairly bleak period. There were very few places to show these films. There weren’t many filmmakers working; they knew each other only slightly. It was very scattered. The explosion came in the mid-60s, where films got shown as part of the counterculture. Schools then started hiring experimental filmmakers to teach. That was when experimental film became institutionalized in a kind of curious way.

To what extent did these works inform and influence one another? Are their makers in any way connected?

Brakhage knew all three filmmakers and would say that all three influenced him. He saw the Maclaine films in the ’50s and managed to save them in the ’60s by finding Maclaine, who was by then brain damaged by amphetamines. He rescued the prints and got them into distribution. A film that he made, which I think he must have made right after seeing “The End,” a fairly obscure early Brakhage called “In Between,” clearly shows the influence of “The End.” His own “Anticipation of the Night” is his first major mature work and was a huge influence on many other filmmakers, including filmmakers who admired it and realized they couldn’t work that way and had to do something else.

What relationship, if any, do these films have to the Hollywood ’50s filmmaking?

Hollywood films have elements in them that are designed to make everyone feel the same thing. I think experimental films in general are designed for people to have different responses. They’re designed to make the viewer think much more actively. A great Hollywood film can do that too, but a great Hollywood film also has escapist elements. Avant-garde film doesn’t. There’s no hook to suck you in. You have to actively engage and learn a different way of seeing. They’re challenges to the ways that we normally see.

For more information visitSiskelFilmCenter.org/AmericanCinema1950s.