COSMIC RAY x2: review of experimental film at Tate Modern and BFI

A tale of two screenings.

You wait ages for an evening of hand-scratched celluloid and then two come along at once. They couldn’t have been more different. One bracketed to the hilt, full of explanation and exposition. One left unattended, like a secret garden gone wild. Both coincidentally anchored by  Bruce Conner’s 1961 animation COSMIC RAY. Both made possible by that endangered creature of the night: the arthouse projectionist.

INDEPENDENT FRAMES: AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL ANIMATION IN THE 1970S + 1980s, Tate Modern, 17.02.17 – 19.02.17 (We saw EXPLODED VIEW, 17.02.17, 19:00)

We popped along to the first screening in Tate Modern’s weekend-long retrospective INDEPENDENT FRAMES: AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL ANIMATION IN THE 1970S + 1980s. It was one of those nights when the moving images are extraordinary, their brightness dimmed – slightly – by the presentation. Not to say that Tate Modern’s Starr Cinema isn’t a great place to see experimental film of all hues. Given the vintage assortment of films and formats on display, it’s hard to imagine many other cultural cathedrals having the curatorial and technical prowess to dig this deep. Hats off to guest curator Herb Shellenberger: the programme over the 3 days was truly exceptional.

The problem comes from what we might call shy showmanship. From premature thank you speeches to a needlessly marathon runtime (12 animations shown back to back with encore screenings for two films plagued by sound difficulties), it was hard to rock out with all the rockstar footage. We love Tate for their knowledge and dedication to excellence. The gallery just needs to think more about how it lets the films truly shine.

As to the films, these rarely-seen artworks were made in bouts of creative experimentation, often under the radar. The independent animation scene in the USA involved artists, often without animation training, breathing life into celluloid frames through a variety of improvised techniques. Bills were paid – as we learnt in an engaging Q&A with oscar-winning couple Frank and Caroline Mouris – from a heady mix of work for Sesame Street, Playboy’s Night Time Entertainment and the occasional call to Hollywood.

“Sesame Street hired a lot of independent animators and helped us all survive” Frank Mouris, 17.02.17

The short films, from 3 to 16 minutes long, fulfilled their brief, representing a range of unusual and often remarkable animations. Not every film set our tawdry hearts on fire, but every film was a bold step beyond the mainstream. The most experimental of the bunch were saved until last: Paul Sharits’ 3D MOVIE (1975) – 8 minutes of swirling, primordial soup with barely perceptible anaglyph 3D – and Bill Brand’s CIRCLES OF CONFUSION (1974), which was much like being locked in an industrial lift shaft on a foggy night.

Whilst CIRCLES was one of our standout choices of the evening, sadly, much of the audience didn’t seem to agree. Maybe, by this time, they’d lost the will to watch, shuffling throughout. That old-school cinematic device – the interval – would have given these latter, more challenging works a chance.

rabbits_moon
RABBIT’S MOON (1950-71), Kenneth Anger, screened as part of RESTORED AVANT-GARDE FILMS at BFI 20.02.17, 18:10.

RESTORED AVANT-GARDE FILMS, BFI, 20.02.17, 18:10

Next up was BFI with an evening of RESTORED AVANT-GARDE FILMS as part of the MARTIN SCORSESE CURATES season. Given new life with funding from Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, these pieces varied in length, from a screeching 4 minutes to an audience-testing 35 (there were walk-outs). The approach couldn’t have been more different to Tate’s, even if we got our second dose of tits and atomics c/o COSMIC RAY.

With minimal screen notes – BFI’s cultish photocopies merely providing title, technical, maker and restoration details – it was an unaccompanied step into absolute darkness. The difficulty here is that you simply don’t know how far you have to fall and what bracing position you might need to adopt. Shifting metaphors, it was a little like having a tasting menu flung at you with no explanation of each dish or the ominous, erratic pauses between courses. This clearly took its toll as the audience started to peel its attention away from the art works in the second half of the programme.

Where the two evenings bore some similarity was in their journeys from gentler introductory works to epic in-your-face abstraction. BFI started with Kenneth Anger’s RABBIT’S MOON (1950-71), which is beautiful but patience-testing (not being purists, we prefer his 1979 accelerated version). The evening ended with BLONDE COBRA (1958-63), 35 minutes of drag provocateur Jack Smith posing, pouting and screaming. COBRA becomes truly unhinged in episodes where filmmaker Ken Jacobs almost abandons moving image entirely, giving Smith a free-form blank screen to tell lurid tales of abusive childhood and lesbian nuns. It’s a film that wipes the floor with cinematic expectations and demands repeat screenings to fully appreciate its legendary status. Whilst it’s not surprising that it has been featured as one of those ubiquitous 1001 movies, we guess that quite a few cinematic lives will remain unfulfilled, which is a great shame.

Heading onto cinematic adventures anew, we think there’s a halfway house between these two markedly different approaches, one that locks in audience attention but gives each film a chance to fly. In an era of increasing uniformity in the way films are screened – we all sit together in a big black box, rooftop bar, hot tub – and watch the same things in the same way – there is surely a call for a return to showmanship and provocation. We don’t want Tate/BFI to abandon what they’re doing – we just want them to unleash their inner Elvis.


Interested in more?


Find more places to shelter from the storm in our GUIDES and REVIEWS.

Featured image: COSMIC RAY (1961).

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