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The new American cinema

12.01.2011

Another important school of noncommercial filmmaking was the New American Cinema, a loosely knit group of artists who made experimental or underground movies in 16 mm on nonexistent budgets. These movies nevertheless profoundly influenced the language of cinema, in everything from MTV videos in the 1980s to television commercials, as well as the editorial and visual style seen in such televiperimental film was pioneered in the 1940s and 1950s by the independent filmmaker Maya Deren, whose Meshes of the Afternoon (co-director, Alexander Hammid, 1943) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) first introduced audiences to an authentically American avant-garde filmic vision.


By the 1960s, an entire underground movement had developed in New York and San Francisco as a part of the emerging counterculture of the period. Scott Bartlett was one of the first to mix video and film in his electric love poem Off On (a k a Off On, 1972), and Stan Brakhage, one of the most prolific members of the move from Under Childhood (1967-70), and the sensuous, shimmering ode to physical love, Lovemaking (1968). Bruce Conner specialized in violent collage films, using found footage with original material to create Cosmic Ray (1962), a four-minute visual assault on the viewer that many consider the prototype of the MTV video, set to the beat of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say?” Conner also directed Report (1967), a brilliant compilation film that interrogates the assassination of John F. Kennedy. James Whitney’s Lapis (1966), one of the first computer-generated films, featured mathematically precise, circulating forms of a mandala set to classical Indian music.


 Other notable films of the New American Cinema include Jack Smith’s Queer classic Flaming Creatures (1963), a transgendered orgy set in an Orientalist fantasy world, and Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic Scorpio Rising (1964), which links the members of an outlaw biker gang to Christ and the twelve apostles, cut to the beat of a sound track of early sixties rock. Shirley Clarke directed numerous short films as well as several features, the most famous of which is The Connection (1962), based on the play by Jack Gelber, in which a group of jazz musicians in a loft wait for their “connection,” a heroin dealer, to arrive.


The most famous filmmaker of this movement was undoubtedly pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol began turning out films at a staggering rate in the early 1960s, starting with a series of three-minute silent screen tests of celebrities and fellow artists who passed through his New York studio, dubbed “the Factory.” He then moved on to the epic Sleep (1963), a five-hour, thirty-five-minute film of the poet John Giorno sleeping, and Empire (1964), an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building from dusk to dawn, both silent. Later sync-sound films, such as Vinyl (1965), Warhol’s version of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, and Chelsea Girls (1966), a three-and-a-half-hour, split-screen, color and black-and-white voyage into the depths of the New York art world scene, are vigorously framed, nearly formalist works, part documentary and part fiction. After his near-fatal shooting by Valerie Solanis in 1968, Warhol retired from filmmaking but continued painting, leaving it to his associate, Paul Morrissey, to direct such films as Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970).


Near the end of the 1960s, a new trend emerged in the cinematic avant-garde: the structural film. Its foremost proponent was Michael Snow, whose Wavelength (1967) is basically a forty-five-minute zoom across an empty loft while Snow manipulates the image using various stocks and color filters. It created a sensation and attracted an entire school of filmmakers in its wake, such as Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton, and Joyce Wieland, who made films that were concerned primarily with the formal properties of the film medium, such as grain, duration of shots, framing, light, color filters, and camera movement.


Bruce Brown created a new genre in the 1960s, the surfing movie, with his crossover hit The Endless Summer (1966), originally intended for fellow surfers but eventually emerging as an independently produced commercial movie. The Endless Summer is essentially a travelogue, filmed around the world, and structured without much planning. Mike and Robert are fixated on their quest for the best surf, and Brown simply sets up his camera on a tripod to record the two young men’s exploits, intercut from time to time with some clumsy comedy segues that help to bridge the gaps between the disparate sequences. What is most Robert Downey Sr.’s corrosive satire of the advertising industry, Putney Swope (1969).


striking about The Endless Summer is its inherent artless-ness, but the film was a breath of fresh air for audiences, particularly in those areas where surfing was just a dream.


The iconoclastic Robert Downey Sr. made a series of brutally satirical films in the early 1960s as a writer/director, starting with the improvised feature film Babo 73 (1964), which cast underground film icon Taylor Mead as “President of the United States,” and Chafed Elbows (1966), a warped musical comedy about a mother and son who fall in love and go on welfare. His most successful film is undoubtedly Putney Swope (1969), a savage satire on American racial attitudes and the advertising business, as token African American advertising executive Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) is accidentally elected the head of a top Madison Avenue ad agency and turns the company upside down.


Firing most of the agency’s staffers, Putney renames the shop the Truth and Soul agency, and begins creating a series of TV ads that are both brazen and effective. Soon, all of corporate America is flocking to Putney’s door, but ultimately the temptation of easy money is too pervasive and Putney sells out, fleeing the agency with a briefcase full of cash. Downey went on to write and direct the allegorical western Greaser’s Palace (1972), and has since written and directed a number of equally idiosyncratic features such as Rented Lips (1988) and Too Much Sun (1991).



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