Kino Video engages in esoteric time-traveling with Tuesday’s release of a two-disc anthology, “Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s.”
Comprising about two dozen titles — largely European in origin and varying in length from a breezy two minutes to an overextended half-hour or so — the selections reflect the vintage “art movie” holdings of the late exhibitor and collector Raymond Rohauer.
A figure of recurrent controversy in his prime, Mr. Rohauer once operated a Los Angeles revival theater named the Coronet. Its specialties were American pictures that predated the censorship system installed in 1934, called the Production Code, plus imports and independent films that often aroused suspicions of sexual depravity in the vice squad. However, it may come as a letdown to discover just a smattering of carnality in “Avant-Garde.”
Mr. Rohauer also specialized in acquiring or asserting copyright title to many of the films showcased at the Coronet. His litigious tendencies often brought him into conflict with rival exhibitors or museum archivists, who were vexed to discover that Mr. Rohauer was claiming ownership to titles previously nestled in the public domain. The Buster Keaton inventory became the most notorious sore point between Mr. Rohauer and his detractors.
A mellower figure toward the end of his life, Mr. Rohauer donated a sizable batch of 35mm nitrate prints to the Library of Congress before he died in 1987. Often reviled while enlarging his film collection, Mr. Rohauer engineered a transition to elder statesman and benefactor while disposing of his reputation as a piratical figure.
In some respects, the miscellany in “Avant-Garde” can be misleading. For example, if you knew little of the reputations of the people who made them, “The Hearts of Age,” circa 1934, and “Romance Sentimentale,” circa 1930, would be easy to dismiss as expendable trifles.
The former is an obscure piece of juvenilia from Orson Welles, made when he was just 19. It was improvised one afternoon with a handful of friends when he had returned to his prep school in Woodstock, Ill., to supervise a summer theater festival. Years later, Mr. Welles dismissed it as a lame attempt at a surrealistic spook show. A fair assessment.
If encountered cold, “Hearts of Age” would not alert you to a future cinematic virtuoso; “Romance Sentimentale” wouldn’t validate the presence of one who had become an international rave in the late 1920s.
The most intriguing or diverting titles in “Avant-Garde” derive from people who ended up specializing in other fields — the photographers Man Ray, Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, the painter-academician Hans Richter, the painter Charles Sheeler — or from inspired amateurs who lacked staying power.
The anthology reminds us that filmmaking possessed a creative allure for many people in the fashionable art world of the 1920s. Marcel Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema” and Fernand Leger’s “Ballet Mecanique” testify to the overlap between abstract imagery on the canvas and on the screen. Man Ray’s “Emak-Bakia” (a Basque euphemism for “Leave Me Alone”) and Hans Richter’s “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” made in 1926 and 1928, respectively, illustrate games of catch-up with the playful possibilities in film illusion, already second nature to many of the people who had mastered trick photography or slapstick gags as part of their professional apprenticeship. Buster Keaton had been a conspicuous example long before these hobbyists picked up a movie camera.
Nevertheless, everyone attracted to the medium needs to reinvent the wheel while exposing and editing footage. Man Ray and Hans Richter demonstrate considerable flair while reinventing cinema for themselves. It’s satisfying to watch the former experiment with multiple images or discover the impact of close-ups in which attractive women open their eyes to the camera or form smiles for the camera. In a similar respect, Mr. Richter reawakens a reliable form of enchantment when suspending a quartet of bowler hats in midair.
A 1921 collaboration between Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, “Manhatta” anticipated a genre of pictorial tone poems while linking panoramic images of New York City with lines from Walt Whitman.
The most accomplished film in the anthology, Ralph Steiner’s “H2O,” made in 1929, may have proved the undoing of countless aspiring amateurs in search of formal perfection. Composed of seemingly abstract imagery derived from the reflections and undulations on bodies of water, the movie is so sure-handed that it lets wave movement provide all the animation. As far as one can tell, the camera is as steady as a rock.
Mr. Steiner seems to observe and then orchestrate a sublime water ballet, capturing a bedazzlement of surface patterns that would defy the imagination and patience of an animator. It’s a peerless tour de force.
Dimitri Kirsanoff’s “Menilmontant” of 1925 commands esteem for apprehensive undercurrents and an extraordinary leading lady, Nadia Sibirskaia, the filmmaker’s muse and spouse at the time. An Estonian who fled to Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr. Kirsanoff had an extended career in the French movie industry, but he may never have surpassed the concentrated pathos in this early dramatic short.
Orson Welles’ slapdash attempt at a surrealist spoof was easily trumped in 1937 by a trio of cronies — Roger Bigelow, Harry Hay and LeRoy Robbins. They collaborated on a slapstick short titled “Even — As You and I,” the concluding selection of “Avant-Garde.” The pretext: A contest to make a comedy short in the manner of the popular “Pete Smith Specialties” at MGM has inspired a group of amateurs to try their luck. A Time magazine feature on Salvador Dali gives them the idea of a silent caprice titled “Afternoon of a Rubberband.”
While parodying some famously outrageous images from the Dali-Luis Bunuel shocker “An Andalusian Dog,” the team brings off some admirable brainstorms: A light bulb in a frying pan explodes into a fried egg; a mock-ominous razor slices a hard-boiled egg and a small pastry before scraping shaving lather from a face; and, in a suspense sequence, a snail is threatened by an approaching steamroller.
The suggested retail price for “Avant-Garde” is $29.95. It can be pre-ordered at a discounted $20.97 from Kino Video, 333 W. 39th St., New York, NY 10018. The Web site is www.kino.com.