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The Early History of American Avant-Garde Film

story © Michael Betancourt | published February 13, 2015 | permalink | TwitThis Digg Facebook StumbleUpon  |  


The Museum of Modern Art in New York began a bibliographic indexing project focused on the history and criticism of motion pictures with The New York City WPA Writers Project, following the organization of the museums Film Library in 1935. This project, developed over several years was completed as a three volume survey of English language publications about motion pictures in 1941.

The concluding section of volume 1 of The Film Index: The Film As Art focused on Experimental Films. This section of the study is anomalous when considered in context with the scope employed for the rest of the survey. Harold Leonard, editor, explains the scope in his introduction:

Arbitrary boundaries to The Film As Art were fixed to include only such titles as dealt preponderantly with the creative, as against the production, technical or purely sociological elements of the film medium. Thus, aesthetic studies were entered without qualification. [. . .] By way of compromise it was decided to fix the terminal date of December 31, 1935, for the main body of entries and to admit as later material in abbreviated treatment only books and a bare minimum of periodically articles. Included in the latter category was material on creative or critical trends of comparatively recent origin, such as the documentary film movement, together with material falling into classifications inadequately represented by pre-1935 sources. [xvi]

While it is not mentioned directly, the Experimental Films index must be one of these inadequately represented classifications as it contains only 53 total entries in the general bibliography, 12 (nearly 25%) of which are after the end of 1935 cut off employed in the rest of the book. Only a limited number of American film makers are represented in this section: Man Ray (in France), Ralph Steiner, J.S. Watson and Melville Webber, Robert Florey, Jay Leyda, and Paul Fejos (listed as an amateur film maker in only one article). The absences are notable: Lewis Jacobs (who appears in other sections of The Film Index as a writer and documentarian) and Mary Ellen Bute (who does not appear in the book in any capacity and whose films are also absent). This pair of omissions is surprising since Lewis Jacobs magazine Experimental Cinema was published from 1930 to 1934 and is not listed, even though his history of motion pictures, The Rise of American Film, is; this essay, Experimental Cinema in America that accompanies later editions of his history was written for Hollywood Quarterly in 1948, and was not part of the 1939 first edition.


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