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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.

LA Weekly