Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 7:30pm
Dotting the Eyes of Distortion
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
La Folie du Docteur Tube, Abel Gance, 1915, 16mm, 10 mins
The Lead Shoes, Sidney Peterson, 1949, 16mm 17 mins
Weegee’s New York, Weegee, 1954, 16mm, 20 mins
N.Y, N.Y., Francis Thompson, 1957, 16mm, 15 mins
Tonight, Light Industry presents a brief survey of anamorphosis in cinema, with the inimitable Parker Tyler as our guide.
When Tyler published his landmark study Underground Film: A Critical History in 1969, he was already over 65 years old and a veteran of the avant-garde. By that point, he had long ago written the pioneering queer novel The Young and Evil (1933) with Charles Henri Ford, appeared in Maya Deren’s film At Land (1944), published a slew of celebrated books on cinema like The Hollywood Hallucination (1944), Magic and Myth of Movies (1947), and The Three Faces of the Film: The Art, the Dream, the Cult (1960), and penned program notes for Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. His observations on film became his most widely-known work, yet Tyler wrote with great erudition on dance, art, literature, sexuality, and many other topics, and his criticism became notorious for both its brilliance and its bitchiness. He even achieved a hint of mainstream fame after Gore Vidal featured him in his best-selling satire Myra Breckinridge, in which the titular trans heroine writes her Ph.D. thesis on Parker Tyler and the films of old Hollywood, since, in Breckinridge’s opinion, “Tyler’s close scrutiny of the films of the Forties makes him our age’s central thinker.”
With this long view in mind, Tyler’s tome on the explosion of underground filmmaking in the 1960s takes its “critical” aspect quite seriously; much of it involves Tyler calling out a new generation for what he saw as their shortcomings, while still noting their successes. For Tyler, though the younger crowd bore some great talent—he admires aspects of work by Andy Warhol, Bruce Conner, Ron Rice, et al—they also seemed to him woefully ignorant of cinema’s history, self-congratulatory, and prone to faddishness. Despite his often negative take, Tyler’s stance nonetheless offered many illuminating theoretical concepts for understanding the films of the 1960s. Ideas like the “pad film” (low-budget romps whose obviously homemade sets demonstrate the gap between artistic ambitions and reality) and “footage fetish” (young filmmakers’ overweening love for anything and everything that comes out of their cameras) remain useful for understanding the esthetics and excesses of the moment.
Tyler’s attention to the formal vocabulary of the avant-garde film is at its height in two chapters entitled “Dotting the Eyes of Distortion” and “Psychedelic Anamorphosis and Its Lesson,” which trace a genealogy of anamorphosis in experimental cinema, from the silent era to the 1960s. For Tyler, the distortion of images via the use of anamorphic lenses—elongating or flattening the forms, sometimes to the point of abstraction—needs to be understood as part of a trajectory stretching from the Art Nouveau phallic exaggerations of Aubrey Beardsley, through the visual transformations of Surrealism, Expressionism and Cubism, to the trance films of the post-war American avant-garde, to the the druggy dream sequences in Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher and the live pop psychedelia of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Tyler singles out a few works to serve as signposts in his micro-history of anamorphism. Looking at the use of distorting lenses in Abel Gance’s silent science fiction film La Folie de Docteur Tube, Tyler sees Gance’s trick film techniques as not merely special effects, but propositions for “a way of seeing wedded to, and supposedly expressing, a way of feeling.” He lauds Sidney Peterson’s The Lead Shoes as one of the few pre-1950 films comparable to the work of Maya Deren, and argues that its “seriousness and artistic verve have been almost lost in the current avant-garde efflorescence.” “What have we in this work but an authentic ‘simulation of hysteria’ that is entirely surreal?,” Tyler asks. “The artificiality of the elongated images (like prolonged, high screams) is perfectly adapted to the relentless high pitch of the frantic action.”
Tyler is tougher on two films that use looney lenses to picture New York City. Of photographer Weegee’s documentary Weegee’s New York (which famously premiered at Vogel’s Cinema 16 after being edited down from Weegee’s raw footage by Vogel himself), Tyler says that the film’s “optical novelty appeals ‘psychedelically’ even to those not under the influence of a drug” and yet “the viewer is tired of anamorphism before it is over.” By contrast, Francis Thompson’s N.Y, N.Y. is “a much more carefully planned and interestingly shaped film.” Praising the movie, Tyler writes that “shot after shot, we see fantastic scenes of buildings pulled out of whack, at times mirror-doubled like pseudo organisms floating in space.” At the same time, he continues, “the idea, divertingly optical as it is, remains altogether formal: one’s feelings are not involved, there is almost no human or narrative shape to it, no interesting development; it ends by being an acrobatic stunt.”
Tyler concludes his analysis of anamorphism with one of his most memorable passages, a kind of thumbnail film theory that sums up his advice to the 1960s generation. It’s an admonition we would do well to remember, as its truth may apply, in certain respects, to our moment as well:
“Thus whenever the world is in any way transformed from what it seems normally, from what can be scientifically verified (let us say) by an accurate photographic lens, it is identified with the action, the will, the wish of the spectator. This is the illusion we call art—and the visual compact to accept it as real arises from the spectator’s collusion with the artist. The trouble with the Underground evolution of avant-garde film and its one-time radical transformation of reality is that current filmmakers regard such ‘magic’ as easier than it is, as basically ‘inexpensive’ (it isn’t), as only a matter of instant psychedelism...a lump of doctored sugar in your coffee and you virtually have a film, or if not, you have a trip, which to some is just as good as a film. This insidious attitude—the Drug Attitude, as I call—does not depend on actual narcotics but is a psychological idea with a moral force. I believe it a great continuing error and trust that somehow the Underground will work out of it by growing up and realizing the responsibilities of art. The artistic history of the avant-garde has very real models to offer the Underground filmmaker, if he will only understand both their do’s and their don’t’s. As it is, the New American Cinema notwithstanding, he has to overcome much infantile self-indulgence and fashionable camp hauteur. A thing may be groovy and far from great.”
Tickets - $8, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.