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PST, A to Z: 'Alternative Projections' at L.A. Filmforum

November 9, 2011 |  6:30 am

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Whitney-Yantra1
For most people, film in Los Angeles is synonymous with the glamorous, commercial products of Hollywood, but the region has also nurtured a rich, diverse “alternative” scene that includes experimental film, documentaries, and video art. Founded in 1975, Los Angeles Filmforum is the longest-running organization devoted to promoting and screening such works, and its contribution to Pacific Standard Time is a series of about 20 screenings titled “Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980.” Together, they cover a lot of ground, from early abstract animations to Beat-influenced underground films, to the political expressions of women, Chicano and Asian American filmmakers, and the influence of rock and punk culture.

The screening I attended, “Film/Music/Forms—Early Abstractions of the 1940s and 1950s” on Oct. 23, was a delightful selection of 14 short films that use animation and other inventive techniques to create abstract works. In some cases, they reflected the then-contemporary gestural preoccupations of Abstract Expressionism, but they also anticipated electronic music and present-day digital effects. Many are newly restored or had not been seen for years. (Disclosure: Ten of the prints screened were provided by the Academy Film Archive; I work at the Margaret Herrick Library, which is also administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Decker-CrystalsSome of the films could be seen as a kind of apotheosis of abstract painting. Paintings, after all, are the aftermath of movements and rhythms that can be brought to life in real time in animated works. Shapes and colors pulse and cavort in time to the music in Frank Collins and Donald Meyer’s “Moonlight Sonata,” from 1948, Lynn Fayman’s “Sophisticated Vamp,” of 1951/58, and John Whitney’s “Mahzel,” circa 1949. Created through the layering of colored lights or gels, or in Whitney’s case, by improvisational “drawing” in a pan of oil, they have a freshness and immediacy lacking in today’s sometimes overwrought digital animation. Whitney, in collaboration with his brother, James, even seemed to anticipate the luminous plastic constructions of Craig Kauffman, or the glowing rectangles of James Turrell in “Film Exercises #4 and #5” from 1945.

The Whitney brothers are perhaps the most well-known filmmakers in the bunch. (John’s collaboration with designer Saul Bass on the title sequence for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” was also screened.) They were pioneers in the technology of abstract filmmaking, inventing a machine that used some kind of pendulum system to directly inscribe sounds onto film. (After the screening, film preservationist Mark Toscano admitted it is not known exactly how it worked.) It may have been an early synthesizer, and the “Exercises” are marked by a buzzing, droning soundtrack that would not be out of place in today’s electronic music.

Other artists used the camera to shoot collage or sculptural works in inventive ways. Flora Mock’s 1949 “Paper Moon” is a "West Side Story"-style romance told in the vocabulary of cut and torn paper. “Phantasmagoria,” from 1948/49 by Curt Opliger, depicts ball bearings hurtling through constructed environments to a frenzied musical score that evokes a martial panic. And “Crystals” by Elwood Decker from 1951 manipulates microphotography of crystalline growths to flood the screen with lovely, intricate, and colorful patterns.

Introspection1 UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive  © UC Regents. All rights reservedAmong all of these amazing works, however, two really stood out. Sara Kathryn Arledge’s “Introspection,” from 1947, is a striking, abstract use of dance or rather dancer’s bodies. Arledge shot the dancers wearing black, corset-like costumes that effectively segmented their figures so that the resulting images depict an isolated pair of legs walking or a pair of arms gesturing. She then used color gels and multiple exposures to create mysterious flower-like compositions or other eerie effects in which body parts function both as abstract, moving shapes and as surreal, almost doll-like appendages. The work certainly reflects the influence of Martha Graham and seems to anticipate the psychedelic filmic techniques of the 1960s and '70s.

The other exceptional work is James Whitney’s “Yantra” from 1957. Designed as a device for stimulating meditation, its intricate swarms and clusters of dots in a spectrum of hot colors gather, disperse, and segment themselves in chromosomal fashion. Created with little more than hand-painted cards, the piece’s complexity of design and movement approach the randomizing effects now available with digital technology. (There's a rather poor transfer available online, although it hardly does it justice.) It’s too bad such works are rarely seen on film. They remind us, viscerally, of the virtual realities that existed long before the ubiquity of the computer.

— Sharon Mizota

Most screenings take place at the Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., through May. Check website for screening dates, times and locations: alternativeprojections.com

Photos, from top: Still from "Yantra," 1957, by James Whitney. © James Whitney. 

Still from "Crystals," 1951, by Elwood Decker. © Elwood Decker.

Still from "Introspection," 1947, by Sara Kathryn Arledge.  Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive © UC Regents. All rights reserved

All photos from Los Angeles Filmforum.

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