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The Most Typical Avant-Garde: Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles

With its impish title (pace Victor Shklovsky) and encyclopedic breadth, David James’ recently published The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles canonizes our city as a breeding ground for the production and exhibition of independent and underground moviemaking, dating from well before such terms existed through to the present day. No stone is left unturned in James’ survey: There are films made surreptitiously inside the studio system and those produced at a distant remove, musicals and melodramas, high-art animations and lowbrow titillations — and just about everything in between. It’s an epic atlas to which no single film series could conceivably do justice — hence the combined efforts of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Los Angeles Filmforum, which from November 6 until the end of the year will present a series of eight film programs inspired by James’ book, with the author on hand to introduce each screening. The result is a veritable A-to-Z of the Los Angeles avant-garde — Thom Andersen, Maya Deren, Jules Engel, Pat O’Neill, Slavko Vorkapich and, yes, even George Lucas (whose student-film version of THX-1138 screens on November 4). Among the highlights: Dudley Murphy’s 1920 mindfuck, Soul of the Cypress, in which the tragic romance between a young musician and a tree spirit abruptly gives way to a primitive porno film; Joseph von Sternberg’s feature-length The Salvation Hunters (1925), the story of two “children of the mud” clawing their way toward capitalist America’s promise of sunshine; David Lebrun’s Tanka (1976), an eye-popping journey through the Tibetan Book of the Dead as represented by 16th- to 19th-century scroll paintings; and Gary Beydler’s Pasadena Freeway Stills (1974), which takes a sledgehammer to our perception of “moving” images. There’s even a three-minute ditty called Filmforum Film (1980), documenting the origins of the very organization (the city’s oldest continuous presenter of avant-garde cinema) that co-sponsors this historic series. As the final images leave the screen, on the soundtrack one hears a Filmforum audience member delivering these apt parting words: “Beautiful. I’d like to see a lot more of that.”

Nov. 2-9: UCLA Film and Television Archive, James Bridges Theater, www.cinema.ucla.edu; Nov. 6-Dec. 14: Filmforum at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., www.lafilmforum.com.


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