Treasured: Christopher Maclaine's "The End" is one of the films revived for home viewing by SF-based NFPF in the set "Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986."

Box set "Treasures" unearths buried avant-garde

Michael Fox April 2, 2009

The latest wonderfully eclectic and stunningly vital DVD release from the San Francisco-based nonprofit National Film Preservation Foundation, Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986, is not, strictly speaking, intended to be a greatest-hits collection or even a comprehensive introduction to experimental film for the novice. (Although one could imagine the more irreverent artists represented in the two-disc set cheerfully agreeing to inclusion in a black-and-yellow-sheathed "Dummies Guide to Experimental Film.") This splendid package of 26 films, drawn from the avant-garde capitals of New York and San Francisco, is primarily designed to support and tout the NFPF’s mission of helping preserve endangered works of our collective film history. Of course, curator Jeff Lambert didn’t pick films at random, but (with the assistance of experts in the field such as former S.F. Cinematheque executive director Steve Anker) compiled a cross-section of approaches, styles and tones. In reality, what’s immortalized in Treasures IV—what repeatedly smacks the viewer in the face—is the artists’ exuberance for life paired with the excitement of exposing celluloid to light.

To the average citizen raised on Hollywood narratives, experimental films often seem precious, pretentious, oblique and/or obscure. The most amazing thing about this box set is how immediate, spontaneous and accessible the films are compared to the lion’s share of contemporary movie culture. Jazz, nature, modern art, poetry—whatever was in the air, or on the scene, is picked up on by the artists. And just as often, the filmmakers aren’t integrating their influences and friends but expressing their own instincts. Chick Strand’s avant-documentary Fake Fruit Factory (1986) drops us in the middle of a group of Mexican women whose job is making the painted papier-maché fruits and vegetables that once filled the bowls on American coffee tables. Impressionistic and offhandedly feminist, the 22-minute film doesn’t highlight some sociopolitical injustice or even develop an emotional connection between us and the workers. We’re insinuated, rather, into a circle of women chatting about men, sex and bosses, and inculcated in the rhythms of daily life. It’s a vivid, seductive and altogether fascinating film that I expect to revisit once a year.

Another local filmmaker, George Kuchar, contributes the funniest piece in the box (as one would expect). Kuchar makes a film with his class at the S.F. Art Institute every semester, and I, An Actress (1977) shows the teacher rehearsing and directing the actress he’s cast in the lead. This nine-minute foray into black-and-white pseudo-melodrama doesn’t merely satirize Hollywood histrionics but reveals Kuchar to be a terrifically gifted actress, er, actor. A uniquely West Coast strain of droll subversiveness is on display in Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley’s 1967 pseudo-scientific hoot, The Off-Handed Jape…& How to Pull It Off. The filmmakers face the camera to demonstrate the eloquence of nonverbal communication, acting out such instructions as alerting a friend across the room at a party that his fly is open. A charming relic of the pot-and-acid era, The Off-Handed Jape also presages the smart, self-reflexive humor of SCTV and its imitators.

New York is represented by a panoply of icons, notably Jack Smith clowning on a rooftop in Ken Jacobs’ Little Stabs of Happiness (1959-63) and playing an object of desire in Ron Rice’s epic gender-swapping fantasia Chumlum (1964). Of special note is Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (No. 1), a fabulous four-minute study of drag performer Mario Montez pleasuring the titular fruit. A delicious piece of comic erotica and a tour-de-force of silent acting, it will stop the room cold when you put it on at your next party.

Because, by design, this collection is limited to films that have been preserved by the likes of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Anthology Film Archives in New York, there’s no point in quibbling over omissions from Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986. For example, I wish that Bruce Conner, who died last year, were represented here, although I recall he had a very strong preference for having his work projected on celluloid. So take pleasure in what is here, namely four hours of invigorating and even inspiring work, accompanied by a solidly informative booklet (complete with a foreword by preservation evangelist Martin Scorsese).

The San Francisco Cinematheque will screen a selection of films from Treasures IV, including many of the titles mentioned above, Wednesday, April 15, 2009, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The box set, which was released this past month, will be on sale at the show.

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