Saturday, July 12, 2003

The L.A. County Museum of Art has been screening a film series to coincide with its Modigliani exhibition. The Roaring Twenties in Paris: Silent Classics from the Cinémathèque française showcases nine avant-garde films from the interwar era. Friday night, Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher was preceded by a series of incredible shorts. Mon dieu, if Bald des quatz'z'arts, an anonymously shot documentary, is any indication of what a 1920s Paris party was like . . . hundreds of suited and well-coiffed men, costumed freaks in lobster-tailed suits, nautical-geared muscle-men carrying nude and bejewelled flappers . . . sailors, turtles, and mermen hoisting banners, screaming "L'Arte!" . . . 8 minutes of pure mosh-pit bacchanalia. Unbelievable. And I could have watched René Clair's 20 minute long Entr'acte (written by Francis Picabia and starring Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie, and Man Ray) for hours. Balloon-headed dolls expand and collapse. A bearded ballerina dances on glass. Mourners chase a runaway hearse. When they finally catch up to its lost pinewood coffin a magician pops out, jack-in-the-box style, and makes his mourners vanish. Oh living-dead magician, won't you point your wand my way and suck me into your movie? Picabia wrote, "Imagine for a second that this film is a machine gun and that the music of Erik Satie which will accompany it resembles thunder. And see, over the city, this great light which resembles a conflagration!" Unfortunately, Satie's music did not accompany last night's screening. It thundered nonetheless. Clair's later La Tour is a quieter conflagration, an 11 minute meditation on the construction and consecration of the Eiffel Tower. Études de mouvements by Joris Ivens seems a precursor to Tarkovsky's traffic sequence in Solaris. But while Tarkovsky lets the camera linger, Ivens emphasizes speed and movement, both automotively and editorially. And Noël Renard, a minor filmmaker, dedicates Balançoires to "the infinite crowd." A couple of lovebirds romp around a bustling funfair where they get a taste of the afterlife from Fakir, the resident hypnotist. According to Claudine Kaufmann, who presented the films, Renard's reputation as minor is due to his blatant appropriation of avant-garde film techniques. I found his Christian dualism of light and dark, good and evil, heaven and hell unbearably facile. Eugéne Deslaw's city-symphony Montparnasse, by contrast, canvasses the panorama of Parisian life perfectly (or more precisely, the perfect Paris of imagination). After these beauties I found it hard to stomach Usher's petty gothicism. Even Buñuel, Epstein's assistant director, tried to disown it. Perhaps I should watch the film once more, in isolation.

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