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Avant-Garde Essay, Research Paper

Avant-garde films all start with the belief that film is more interesting as art than as narrative. Not surprisingly, the first people to think this way were artists. In Germany after World War I, Swedish-born painter Viking Eggeling and Berliner Hans Richter collaborated on scroll paintings which they took to UFA studios in the hope of reproducing them as animated films. Richter agreed to prepare a scroll using simpler square shapes, and the animators produced his one-minute abstract film Rhythmus 21 (1921); Eggeling, who kept to his original designs, painstakingly made his own animated short, Diagonal Symphony (1922), but died not long after. The American-born Dadaist-turned-surrealist Man Ray was living in Paris and made his first film in 1923, Le Retour ? La Raison, combining superimpositions and shots of mobiles with his own "rayograms" (registering objects on film by placing them on the photographic surface and exposing them to light). The next year, France's great Cubist painter Fernand L?ger made the first photographed abstract film, Le Ballet M?canique, in which he wildly edited shots lit in extreme contrasts. Also in 1924, Ren? Clair made the zany Entr'acte, with artists Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Picabia appearing onscreen. The late 1920s saw a growing international movement of avant-garde cinema. Richter used color and hand-painted the lines and squares of his Rhythmus 25 (1925); he made Film Study in 1926, combining filmed images in surrealist associations, and then continued to work in film (Inflation, 1927; Ghosts Before Breakfast, 1928). Man Ray made two surrealist shorts, Emak Bakia (1927) and L'?toile De Mer (1928), as well as the whimsical Les Myst?res Du Ch?teau Du D? (1929). In Hollywood in 1927 and '28, French-born Robert Florey directed low-budget features, was assistant director on big-budget films, and made experimental shorts: The Life And Death Of 9413 — A Hollywood Extra (co-directed with Slavko Vorkapich), The Loves Of Zero, Johann The Coffin Maker, and Skyscraper Symphony. In Rochester, New York, James Watson and Melville Webber made an experimental adaptation of Poe with The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928). Soviet director Dziga Vertoz made 23 editions of his one-reel news magazine Kino-Pravda from 1922 to '25, using complex, original editing techniques. His feature Kino-Glaz (1924) consisted mostly of footage of people shot unawares, and his best-known work, Man With A Movie Camera (1929) marshalled all his innovative techniques for a portrait of Moscow. Spanish surrealists Luis Bu?uel and Salvador Dali wrote and directed the landmark short Un Chien Andalou in 1928. Avoiding narrative or symbolic logic, they filled the screen with funny and shocking imagery (including a close-up of Bu?uel slashing an eyeball with a razor). They clashed over their sound follow-up, L'Age D'Or (1930), which Bu?uel took over. Widely banned for its anti-clericism, this classic feature introduced Bu?uel's vision of obsessive eroticism and black comedy. Poet and artist Jean Cocteau made his first film, Le Sang D'Un Po?te (1930), a personal dream journey as loaded with camera tricks as a M?li?s short; later he'd return to personalized, imaginatively-shot surrealism with Orph?e (1950) and Le Testament D'Orph?e (1960). In Germany during the 1920s Oskar Fischinger had made his silent Studies, a series of abstract animated shorts; he won international acclaim with his sound film Composition In Blue (1935) and came to America, where he'd make Radio Dynamics (1942) and Motion Painting No. 1 (1947). Vertoz used sound creatively in Enthusiasm (1931) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934), but Stalinist repression demanded simpler films. Europe darkened with the growth of fascism and the impending war, and by the end of the 1930s Bu?uel, Richter, and Ray had left for America. After the war, Richter would make Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946), an American feature with sequences scripted by himself, Ray, L?ger, and their fellow artists Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder. (Later he'd also do the episode film 8 X 8 (1957) with Jean Arp, Duchamp, Ray, Yves Tanguy, Calder, Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and Cocteau.) In the States, Watson and Webber made their imaginative and erotic Lot In Sodom (1933) only to find that there were few venues where they could screen so daring a film. The artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell began making films in the late 1930s. His celebrated Rose Hobart (1937) took footage of the titular actress from her low-budget jungle movie, East Of Borneo (1931), and collaged it into an elegant celebration of Hobart. His later films, some of which went unfinished for decades, include the trilogy Cotillions — The Children's Party — The Midnight Party (edited in 1968 from footage shot in the '30s) and A Legend For Fountains (shot in 1957 but unreleased until 1970). Mary Ellen Bute, shooting objects in extreme close-ups with a variety of lenses, made over a dozen abstract films, starting in 1936 with Anitra's Dance and Rhythm In Light. Some were shown at Radio City Music Hall as pre-feature attractions, but after 1941 she quit making them. Years later Bute made the stylish features The Boy Who Saw Through (1958) and Passages From Finnegans Wake (1965).In the 1940s, another woman filmmaker became a catalyst for the American avant-garde. Russian-born Maya Deren, with her husband Alexander Hammid, made Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943), a psychodrama of a woman haunted by visions of death. Deren made several notable films in the '40s: At Land (1943), The Private Life Of A Cat (1945, also with Hammid), A Study In Choreography For Camera (1945), Ritual In Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation On Violence (1948). By 1946, she was giving screenings of avant-garde films by herself and others and encouraging a greater awareness of experimental cinema. Deren also spent several years filming Voudoun rituals in Haiti and even became a priestess, but in the last decade of her life she was unable to edit the footage into a completed work; her final film was The Very Eye Of Night (1955). The psychodrama — laying bare the subconscious in personal, supercharged imagery — became an important filmmaking style in the '40s. The teenage Kenneth Anger made Fireworks (1947), a homoerotic dream of death and transfiguration and went on to become one of the major American avant-garde filmmakers with such classics as Rabbit's Moon (1950), a studio-made tale of Pierrot; Eaux D'Artifice (1953), in which sprays of water become exquisite abstract studies; Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954), a hallucinatory assembly of archetypes; and Scorpio Rising (1963), an insightful and witty dissection of biker mythology. Anger's involvement with ceremonial magic informs his dazzling Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969) as well as his magnum opus, Lucifer Rising (1980), a vision of transcendental forces and beings at work on Earth.Sidney Peterson and James Broughton made their first film, The Potted Psalm (1946), as a collaboration. Peterson went on to make such psychodramas as The Petrified Dog (1948) and The Lead Shoes (1949) before retiring in the '50s. Broughton's later work includes Mother's Day (1948), The Pleasure Garden (1953), and The Bed (1968); since the mid '70s he has worked in collaboration with Joel Singer (Together, 1976; Shaman Psalm, 1981). Gregory Markopolous began combining mythology and homoerotic imagery in Du Sang, De La Volupt? Et De La Mort (1948), but after Swain (1950) and Flowers Of Asphalt (1951) he spent the '50s working on the Greek production Serenity (1961). In the '60s his earlier style gained a new visual refinement and originality with such major films as Twice A Man (1963), Eros, O Basileus (1967), Himself As Herself (1967), and The Illiac Passion (1967). He also made films without people, such as the multiple-exposure classic Ming Green (1966), and developed a decontextualizing editing style in which shots are glimpsed only at odd intervals, with Gammelion (1968) and Hagiographia (1973). Markopolous spent the last years of his life cutting together all his films into the mammoth, 22-film-cycle Eniaios (1990).Willard Mass made several gay-inflected psychodramas; his wife Marie Menken assisted on Images In The Snow (1948), and Ben Moore collaborated with him on The Mechanics Of Love (1955) and Narcissus (1956). Menken's own films, including Hurry! Hurry! (1957), Go Go Go (1963), and Wrestling (1964), are prized for her editing skills. Stan Brakhage began making films in the early '50s and by 1955 was making psychodramas: Reflections On Black, Way To The Shadow Garden. The following year he made Nightcats, filming cats in a nighttime yard. The dim light, decontextualizing angles and compositions, and extreme close-ups turned the cats into abstract textures, and since then the prolific Brakhage has made masterpieces with this aesthetic. Usually eschewing a soundtrack, he creates rhythms through action, editing, and film speeds. The most extreme distortions of focus or camera movement become visual poetry, offering a new way to see not just cinema but the world, in such short films as Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Door (1971), The Riddle Of Lumen (1972), and two classic features, Dog Star Man (1964) and Scenes From Under Childhood (1970). Brakhage's Mothlight (1963) consisted of flower petals, moth wings, and blades of grass sandwiched between two clear strips of film; he has also painted on the film stock itself in The Horseman, The Woman And The Moth (1968), Murder Psalm (1981), and his feature Trilogy (1995). In England in 1935, New Zealander Len Lye made Colour Box, painting directly on film: the first non-camera movie. Lye's later work was more traditional, but by the end of the decade, an American teenager, unaware of Lye, was drawing and etching on film; Harry Smith made five shorts in this manner, ending with Number 5 — Circular Tensions in 1946. He then began photographing animation and developed a style of moving collages, into which he poured his years of studying alchemy and the Qabalah, culminating in 1962 with his classic Number 12 — Heaven And Earth Magic. Smith is one of several avant-garde animators of the 1940s who did their most admired work in the '60s. John and James Whitney made abstract animation together starting with their Variations series (1941-43). After 1950 they worked independently: John developed his own films based on the graphics of first the analogue and then the digital computer (Catalogue, 1961; Permutations, 1968); James drew the basic dot-structures for his Yantra (1957) but adapted John's analogue-computer process for Lapis (1966). Jordan Belson made animated films in the late 1940s and by the late '50s was creating his multi-media Vortex Concerts in San Francisco, the density of which led to his '60s films combining animation and photographic techniques: Allures (1961), Re-Entry (1964), Samadhi (1967), Momentum (1969). In the 1960s gay and transgendered men expressed their imagination and sexuality without the angst of Markopolous or Anger: Taylor Mead was a holy fool in Ron Rice's The Flower Thief (1962); the wit and theatricality of Jack Smith are the core of Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs At Happiness (1958/63) and Blonde Cobra (1959/63). Smith made the era's classic, Flaming Creatures (1963), shooting on backdated black-and-white stock and giving the film an exploded, archaic look. This pageant of nudity and crossdressing met with many censorship attacks, much to Smith's horror. His attempts to make Normal Love using backdated color stock were never completed, but Ron Rice's Chumlum (1964) offers glimpses of Smith and his cast from Normal Love, as does a short "newsreel" from an artist making his second try at using a camera: Andy Warhol. Warhol made minimalist films in 1963, silently photographing mundane events from the short Kiss to the six-hour Sleep; in 1965 he made the eight-hour Empire, consisting of the Empire State Building seen from one unchanging angle. But that same year his use of sound brought more character and humor to his work, beginning with his films written by Ronald Tavel, such as Screen Test with drag-performer Mario Montez, The Life Of Juanita Castro with filmmaker Marie Menken, and Vinyl, a version of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange; in 1966 they made The 14 Year Old Girl [aka Hedy; Hedy The Shoplifter] and More Milk, Evette (aka Lana Turner) with Montez, and Kitchen with Edie Sedgwick. Warhol looked at lust and commerce on Fire Island with My Hustler (1965) and his 1967 follow-ups I A Man and Bike Boy. His 3?-hour The Chelsea Girls (1966) was twelve uncut reels of people from Warhol's circle, shown in random sequence, two at a time from two adjacent projectors but with only one soundtrack audible. After Lonesome Cowboys (1968) Warhol turned to producing for writer/director Paul Morrissey, most notably in Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970) with Joe Dallesandro, and Women In Revolt (1972) with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. Other experimental filmmakers also made major works in the '60s — indeed, taken as a whole, the decade is something of a golden age for American avant-garde film. Mike and George Kuchar, identical-twin brothers, began making 8-mm films in the 1950s, and by the early '60s had adapted the situations and language of Hollywood melodramas to their no-budget Bronx-made movies: I Was A Teenage Rumpot (1960), Pussy On A Hot Tin Roof (1961), Lust For Ecstasy (1963). By the mid '60s the brothers worked independently. Mike's films include his science-fiction reinventions Sins Of The Fleshapoids (1965) and Dwarf Star (1974), as well as the abstract Fragments (1967); George's notable later films include Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), The Devil's Cleavage (1973), and Cattle Mutilations (1983). More recently they've both worked in video, Mike with Purgatory Junction (1994) and George with Cult Of The Cubicles (1987) and The Weather Diary (1990). Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank made the quintessential "Beat" film with his first effort, Pull My Daisy (1959), written by Jack Kerouac and co-directed by Alfred Leslie; his later films include the feature-length Me And My Brother (1969), with documentary and staged scenes. In 1958, Bruce Conner made a powerful debut editing found footage for his A Movie. He went on to create such major films as Cosmic Ray (1961), which combines found footage with glimpses of a woman dancing naked; Report (1967), a reworking of television news footage of the Kennedy assassination; and Crossroads (1976), about the atomic bomb. Bruce Baillie made several outstanding films, working with real locations in To Parsifal (1963) and Castro Street (1966), and using superimpositions, negative film, and alternate speeds and exposures in Mass For The Dakota Sioux (1964). George Landow (aka Owen Land) creatively used looped footage in Film In Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966) and The Film That Rises To The Surface Of Clarified Butter (1968); he'd later parody instructional films with Remedial Reading Comprehension (1971) and New Improved Institutional Quality: In The Environments Of Liquids And Nasals A Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976). Stan Vanderbeek made accomplished animated collages, such as Breathdeath (1963) and Dance Of The Looney Spoons (1965), and then began using computers with Computer Art (number one) (1966) and his series of Poem Field films, starting in 1968. Lithuanian-born Jonas Mekas, besides working ceaselessly to promote avant-garde cinema, also made the notable films Guns Of The Trees (1961), The Brig (1964), and the film diaries Hare Krishna (1966), Walden (1969), and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976); his brother Adolfas made the comic Hallelujah The Hills (1963) and the macabre Windflowers (1968). Robert Nelson combined humor and social commentary with Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) and The Great Blondino (1967). More austere were the films of Michael Snow: Wavelength (1967), a continuous 45-minute zoom, and the feature-length (1969, [aka Back And Forth; The Double-Headed Arrow]), highlighted by an accelerating back-and-forth pan. Snow's later work includes Seated Figures (1988), a landscape shot from a moving car. Minimalism also figured in the films of Robert Huot (Leader, 1966; Scratch, 1967) and Hollis Frampton (Surface Tension, 1968; Zorns Lemma, 1970). In 1969 Ken Jacobs made Tom Tom The Piper's Son, re-editing an old silent short into a commentary on itself. Jacobs began his "Nervous System" performances in the '70s, using two near-identical prints shown by two projectors capable of single-frame advance and freezes; the slight discrepancies between prints create 3-D effects in such works as The Impossible: Chapters One To Five (1975-80) and Two Wrenching Departures (1989). Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1966) is stroboscopic light, from 24 flashes per second to four and back to 24. Paul Sharits adapted Conrad's method to include footage of people and objects in Peace Mandala/End War (1967) and N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968). In Austria, Peter Kubelka worked in a similar vein with Arnulf Rainer (1960), while his Unsere Afrikareise (1966) raised film and sound editing to new heights. Kurt Kren imaginatively cut looped footage in 15/67 TV (1967), and the "materialaktions" of Otto Muehl used food, paint, nudity, sexual activity, excreta, and violence for such shocks-to-the-system as Sodoma (1969).Czechoslovakia's Jan Svankmajer began making stop-motion animation shorts in the mid '60s. Whether using antique dolls (Jabberwocky, 1971), chairs (The Fall Of The House Of Usher, 1981), or sculpted clay (Dimensions Of Dialogue, 1982), his imagination has captivated audiences internationally and led to two highly original features combining live-action and stop-motion: Alice (1988), freely adapted from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, and Faust (1994). Equally sensitive to texture, atmosphere, and enigmatic weirdness are the Brothers Quay, identical twins from America who film stop-motion shorts in England — Street Of Crocodiles (1986), The Comb (From The Museums Of Sleep) (1990) — and have also made the live-action feature Institute Benjamenta (1995). In the '70s, several notable avant-garde films came from writer/directors who would also work in commercial cinema. David Lynch made the bizarre but touching abused-child short The Grandmother (1970) and his classic feature, the nightmare vision Eraserhead (1977). In Mexico, Alexandro Jodorowky made the violent and allegorical El Topo (1970); his other surreal features of blood, religiosity, and insanity include The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989). England's Derek Jarman began making striking abstract films shot in super-8, such as The Art Of Mirrors (1973) and In The Shadow Of The Sun (1974); in the '80s he adapted these techniques for his great non-narrative features, The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last Of England (1987). His last film, Blue (1993), shows only a blue screen as the soundtrack relates his thoughts in the last weeks of his terminal illness from AIDS.In the 1980s, the punk-inspired Cinema of Transgression produced several noteworthy sex-and-violence films. Richard Kern's plot-driven shorts are especially memorable: The Right Side Of My Brain (1985) and Fingered (1986), both co-written by and starring Lydia Lunch, and Manhattan Love Suicides (1985) and King Of Sex (1986), both with Nick Zedd. Other notable works of like-minded filmmakers include Tessa-Hughes Freeland's Nymphomania (1993), Where Evil Dwells (1986) by David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner, and Cassandra Stark's Parade Of Cruelty (1995). Most striking are the shockers of writer/director/actor Zedd: Totem Of The Depraved (1983, co-directed with Ela Troyano), Thrust In Me (1984, co-directed with Kern), the police-brutality melodrama Police State (1987), the alternately abstract and erotic Whoregasm (1988), and the phantasmagoric War Is Menstrual Envy (1992). Zedd's excesses may be a hard pill for some to swallow, but he comes from a long line of shock-mongers, including Bu?uel, Anger, and Muehl — all means are acceptable to break down the audience's conditioning and expose them to something genuine, both onscreen and within themselves. Cinematic transgressions are verboten in entertainment, which must always work with the audience's familiarity, and one way or another they represent an underlying impulse of all avant-garde cinema.

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