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Case Number 16288: Small Claims Court

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Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film (1948-1986)

Image Entertainment // 2008 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // May 2nd, 2009

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All Rise...

This past Easter, Judge Daryl Loomis proved he is in the avant-garde of egg dyeing.

The Charge

What does it mean? I am uncertain but perfectly willing to offer a plausible explanation.

The Case

In its fourth volume, the National Film Preservation Foundation presents 26 films over five decades that document some of the finest achievements in the history of avant-garde film. Of these artists, some are very well known and some come from other art forms experimenting with the medium for the first time, but all had their own unique visions. Difficult to see when they were made and, sometimes, difficult to watch today, they remain vital to the history and the future of film.

These 26 films are presented over two discs and come accompanied by a book with information about the films and an introduction by Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ):

Harry Smith: Film No. 3 (1947-49)
Jonas Makas: Notes on the Circus (1966)
Bruce Baillie: Here I Am (1962)
Chick Strand: Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
Jane Conger Belson Shimane: Odds and Ends (1959)
Robert Breer: Eyewash (1959)
Storm De Hirsch: Peyote Queen (1965)
Pat O'Neill: 7362 (1967)
Wallace Berman: Aleph (1959-66?)
Saul Levine: Note to Pati (1969)
Joseph Cornell: By Night with Torch and Spear (c. 1940s)
Stan Brakhage: The Riddle of Lumen (1972)
Christopher Maclaine: The End (1953)

Shirley Clarke: Bridges-Go-Round (1958)
Marie Menken: Go! Go! Go! (1962-64)
Ken Jacobs: Little Stabs at Happiness (1959-63)
Ron Rice: Chumlum (1964)
Andy Warhol: Mario Banana (No. 1) (1964)
George Kuchar: I, An Actress (1977)
Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley: The Off-Handed Jape…& How to Pull It Off (1967)
Owen Land: New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976)
Lawrence Jordan: Hamfat Asar (1965)
Standish Lawder: Necrology (1969-70)
Larry Gottheim: Fog Line (1970)
Hollis Frampton: (nostalgia) (1971)
Paul Sharits: Bad Burns (1982)

With no rhyme or reason to the selections or the order of the films on these two discs, it's hard to see anything but a random collection of shorts. It doesn't diminish the value of the set, which falls in to the sometimes chaotic spirit of avant-garde art, but I'm someone who appreciates at least a semblance of order. Maybe it's my German roots, who knows.

While it isn't easy to find a mainstream audience for a bunch of colored squares moving to computer sounds, that doesn't mean there aren't traditionally enjoyable films in this collection. Nothing between the two discs could ever be called conventional, but Owen Land's long-titled film, for instance, is hilarious and could easily have been a Devo video. In it, a tape intones standardized Social Studies test questions to a man whose job is to place a number on the items corresponding to what the voice says. In this film, in order to answer the questions, he enters the test itself with insane results.

On the more serious side, Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) is an astonishing piece of work and is easily the best film on the set. A procession of thirteen photographs is accompanied by a narrator. As he tells the story of his time as a photographer in the art scene, the pictures are burned to ashes by a burner below, replaced by the next. To watch the artist immolate his own work is one thing. As he discusses his life and the inadequacies that would bring him to the next photo, however, we can see him burning away the regretful memories. A hypnotic thirty minutes, (nostalgia) is one of the best shorts I've ever seen.

The collection provides a few big names in the likes of Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage as well as a few animated works. These are of different kinds, from artists painting directly onto celluloid to techniques that foreshadow Terry Gilliam's great work with Monty Python. Not all the films are accompanied with sound. For a few of those silents, the set provides optional scoring by renowned composer and producer John Zorn. An additional treat for jazz fans, as well, Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round comes with two separate scores. The jazz score is an original piece by Teo Macero, producer for Miles Davis during his electric years, including the classic albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

The two disc set from Image Entertainment is perfectly adequate for this kind of material. The image varies dramatically from film to film, showing different amounts of degradation and dirt, but the transfers are generally very solid. The sound is fine but, again, variable. Some, of course, have no sound, but those that do feature very clear tracks, if a little on the soft side. This isn't exactly a complaint, however. With some of the films, the combination of image and sound is a little overwhelming and I found myself nauseous on a few occasions. Had the sound been stronger, I may have gotten sick. The only extra, if one can even call it that, is a book that discusses each film individually. It's integral to understanding the films, though, so I consider it part of the main program.

The value in this collection lies with the academy almost exclusively. There won't be a lot of hot Saturday nights spent watching 7362, but filmmakers and students alike have much to learn from these films. Much of this collection is available on a home format for the first time, finally making accessible important work that would have otherwise disappeared.

The Verdict

As the name implies, this collection is filled with true treasures. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Independent
• Short Films

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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