For all the impact that DVDs have had on expanding viewers’ knowledge of films and filmmaking, few discs have had the potential to alter cinema history. This is what makes the massive, seven-disc, 19-hour homevid release of “Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941” so important: It literally unveils some work long thought to be lost forever, and will permanently rewrite the story of American experimental film.
The set, tied into a traveling film series and book, is inspired by historian-filmmaker Lewis Jacobs’ 1947 essay on avant-garde film. It amasses monumental evidence that alternatives to classical Hollywood narrative reach back all the way to the beginning, in Thomas A. Edison’s studio.
Project can be seen as one of the first great triumphs in the DVD age of the world’s leading archives working in tight collaboration, led by curator Bruce Posner and the visionary Gotham film center Anthology Film Archives.
Such institutions, ranging from the Deutsches Filmmuseum and George Eastman House to the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA Film and Television Archives, have been spurred by the explosive DVD business to hunt down and restore “lost” and degraded work.
And though these efforts have resulted in numerous landmark vid releases, not even the magnificent group curatorial effort “Treasures From American Film Archives” (and its recent follow-up) match this set for detective work and sheer adventurousness.
The discs are organized brilliantly according to form or subject matter, with films programmed almost consistently in chronological order — an enormously helpful decision that allows for viewers’ maximum appreciation of the art’s development, especially in the early decades.
First disc surveys innovative techniques, such as Frederick S. Armitage’s incredible fast-motion lensing in “Down the Hudson,” (1903), Henwar Rodakiewicz’s extremely sustained single takes in “Portrait of a Young Man,” (1925-31), or the mind-blowing cinematic muscularity of Jerome Hill’s virtually unknown 1932 short “La Cartomancienne” (The Fortune Teller).
Subsequent discs provide tours of American surrealism, music on film, narrative experimentation, New York City from 1899 (“The Blizzard” pans across the city streets) to 1935 (with Busby Berkeley’s mind-altering “Lullaby of Broadway” sequence from “Gold Diggers of 1935”), amateur artists and dance. Each disc contains a CD-ROM component for further background readings and study.
Beyond experiencing this collection on a disc-by-disc basis, there are endless pleasures in linking various films together or tracing a filmmaker’s work through the set. Numerous experiments in filming water, for example, allow comparison of Ralph Steiner’s lyrical “H20” and montage master Slavko Vorkapich’s more pictorial “Moods of the Sea,” while the wonderfully playful work of Joseph Cornell and Berkeley — whose dance sequences in otherwise conventional MGM musicals are kinetic masterpieces of the cinema of dream and the subconscious — pop up on more than one disc.
Watching “Unseen Cinema” is like rummaging through buried treasure (such as Broadway dancer Annabelle dancing in color-tinted 1897 footage) and coming across famous yet hard-to-see films, such as the astonishing Fernand Leger/Dudley Murphy “Ballet mechanique” and Paul Strand’s exquisite “Manhatta.”
And it’s here, on the American fringes, where stars-to-be were born, from Joseph Cotton (in Rudy Burckhardt’s “Seeing the World”) to a 17-year-old Charlton Heston (David Bradley’s wild “Peer Gynt”), and young Elia Kazan, acting up with friends in the Group Theater and the Nykino film collective in the bitter political satire “Pie in the Sky.”
The notables don’t stop there: The collection also boasts the first pic by Orson Welles (1934’s “The Hearts of the Age,” co-directed by William Vance), Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexican footage and “The House With Closed Shutters,” D.W. Griffith’s precursor to “Birth of a Nation.”