Judging by the two-DVD shorts collection Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema Of The 1920s And '30s, the cutting edge hasn't moved much over the past 80 years. Avant-garde cinema still relies primarily on technical play, dream imagery, wit, and shock. Even its obsessions endure: the decay of the natural world, nude bodies, satire based on genre conventions, and multiple exposures of abstract shapes. But what's especially fascinating about the Avant-Garde DVD set is how much its six hours of shorts sync up with the fine-art movements of the early 20th century, exploring the same issues of confined space and non-representational ways of seeing as the varied strains of Dadaism, surrealism, cubism, and action painting. Something like Viking Eggeling's 1924 "Symphonie Diagonale" resembles an abstract painting set in motion, with its fractions of patterns revealed and concealed.
The best pieces in the Avant-Garde set either experiment eagerly with the medium or play games with narrative. The former category is typified by Man Ray's 1923 "Le Retour À La Raison" and its 1926 "extended mix" "Emak-Bakia," both of which offer a string of memorable images—a town-square message board engulfed in blackness, reflected light off glass, shadows playing across a naked female torso—that create cinematic special effects with no camera trickery. On the other end of the scale lies Dimitri Kirsanoff's stunning 1926 short "Ménilmontant," which tells the fractured story of two sisters forged by violence. It's fairly straightforward formally, with bloody action sequences and naturalistic on-the-fly street scenes, but the plot has been chopped up into a proto-David Lynch nightmare.
Kirsanoff is also responsible for "Brumes D'Automne," which leaves lovely autumnal impressions. It's nowhere near as brilliant as "Ménilmontant," but it makes for a nice contrast. The question of what's great art and what's just historically valuable comes up again and again on Avant-Garde. Do the pat lessons about the grind of show business in Robert Florey's inventive "The Life And Death Of 9413, A Hollywood Extra" deserve praise because they were novel at the time? Or because Florey went on to a fruitful Hollywood career? What about Orson Welles' spoofy 1934 home movie "The Hearts Of Age"—is its sophomoric theatricality forgivable because Welles' hand was involved? And does Marcel Duchamp's hard-to-watch, vertigo-inducing "Anémic Cinéma" have merit simply because it's a Duchamp?
The Kino set doesn't really engage in the debate. (Nor does it offer printed liner notes, or a proper running order on the back of the box.) But it does hide a lot of treasures, like Jean Epstein's eerie romance "La Glace À Trois Faces" and his stark seaside drama "Le Tempestaire," which both look like forerunners to the elliptical French art cinema of today. Equally impressive: Jean Painlevé's pseudo-documentary "Le Vampire," which purports to be about parasites and bloodsuckers, but ends up being a subtle critique of the Nazi party. Films like "Le Vampire" clarify the stakes for the cinema of the time. The Nazis destroyed Hans Richter's "Vormittagsspuk" because they found it dangerously subversive. The film's content? Floating hats being doused with a water hose. This was a time when presentation mattered as much as content, and arguments raged in museum lobbies, staterooms, and on the screen.