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DVD Review: Unseen Cinema

By Glenn Abel

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photo Old weird Americana takes a bow in the sprawling and richly rewarding DVD set "Unseen Cinema."

Running almost 20 hours, the collection provides ample evidence that bold, experimental filmmaking thrived in the early days of moving pictures -- decades before the avant-garde torch-bearer "Un Chien Andalou" seared its way onto screens in 1929.

"Unseen" curator Bruce Posner says his goal was to "provide the broadest possible spectrum of experimental films produced between the 1890s and 1940s" -- roughly the period from Thomas Edison to WWII. And so we have everything from home movies to lavish production numbers, wispy dance performances to strident union propaganda, gothic horror to languid studies of life on a farm.

Many of these films have not been seen in decades, and some were never screened for the public. Others, surprisingly, were products of the Hollywood studios.

The best of the early works are triumphs of the imagination over technical limits and creaky acting -- in quite a few, the wow factor remains potent. Watching the many bits of fantasy and cinematic sleights of hand, it's easy to draw a loopy line to the works of cinematic descendants such as Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton and George Lucas.

Image Entertainment has released "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941" in a seven-disc box set produced by David Shepard (retail $99.99). The films come in black and white, tinted color or color. Most are silent films; some have dialogue, tinny or otherwise.

Some of the 155 shorts and excerpts have new recordings of their original music, some have newly written scores, and others remain totally silent. In the case of the mind-bending "Ballet mecanique" (1923-24), the complex original score wasn't recorded as the filmmaker intended until five years ago. The DVD set's audio tracks sound as if they came from the same shop, cutting down on jarring transitions and smoothing the way for extended viewing.

The source materials -- rounded up from 60 or so archival collections around the globe -- were restored from 35mm and 16mm prints. The full-screen images are often surprisingly good, but quality proves case-by-case, of course.

The individual discs are arranged by theme, with titles such as "The Devil's Plaything" (surrealism and fantasy), "The Amateur as Auteur" (home movies) and "Inverted Narratives" (storytelling). New York City merits its own disc, with 29 films set in the metropolis (this fascinating time capsule is available separately, retail $24.99).

For orientation, there are informal but to-the-point onscreen notes before the films. The lack of commentaries undercuts the set's many obvious academic applications -- even so, it's a mind-expanding film course in a box. For extra credit, filmographies and biographical information can be accessed via DVD-ROM.

Posner also pens a booklet that gives a "scattered" history of American avant-garde film. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, he focuses on Orson Welles, whose barely promising first short film is included here, and on the experimental film scene that sprang up in Santa Fe, N.M., in the 1920s.

Plenty of big names are represented in "Unseen" -- Welles, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Charles Vidor, Victor Fleming, Douglas Fairbanks, Busby Berkeley, Elia Kazan -- but the set shows that much of the heavy lifting in cinema's toddling years was done by inspired amateurs and free-thinking artists known for their work in other media.

In comments that proved both prescient and ironic, D.W. Griffith wrote in the 1920s: "The future of the motion picture lies, I believe, in the amateur film movement. ... When motion pictures are made out of love rather than a desire to show profit, they will take their place among the arts."

"Unseen Cinema" first was seen as a traveling retrospective series in 2001, playing more than 50 venues worldwide (including UCLA in 2002). Major contributors and allies include Anthology Film Archives, Kodak, Deutsches Filmmuseum, the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, Blackhawk Films and the Museum of Modern Art and Cineric.

Buy "Unseen Cinema" at 20% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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