VanDerBeek’s 1963 film Breathdeath is full of animated collages satirizing gender roles and politics. There’s also an arresting staged scene — a woman sits on a bed nuzzling a figure made from an empty shirt and trousers, topped by a television set showing men’s faces; she looks into the camera while “I Put a Spell on You” wails on the soundtrack.
Stan VanDerBeek is a legendary name in the history of experimental film. A restless adventurer who began making experimental animated films in the 1950s, VanDerBeek filmed happenings, designed windows for Tiffany’s and worked with John Cage and Claes Oldenburg.
He also explored the artistic possibilities of new technologies of his time: video, computers, even the fax machine. He was artist-in-residence at Bell Labs and at NASA.
Now, a survey of VanDerBeek’s work is on display at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.
VanDerBeek made dozens of these collage films in the 1950s and early ’60s, using altered clippings from magazines and newspapers to create whimsical but pointed commentary. The films look like they must be the primary inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animated sequences, which appeared a few years later.
But VanDerBeek did not start out as a filmmaker. He attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study visual art. There he met people who were transforming art: composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg. But painting wasn’t enough for VanDerBeek.
Frank and Caroline Mouris developed the technique of collage animation in their Academy Award-winning film “Frank Film”.
The harsh, grimy atmosphere of decay, the ominous quality of chiaroscuro, the dazzling use of lights and texture and adept camera movement give their films an eerie, sublime quality.
The miniature sets of the Quays create a world of repressed childhood dreams. Absurd and incomprehensible images exist in a chaotic, multilayered world where human characters live at the mercy of insidious machines.
The impact of his haunting images of living creatures often dominates over the narrative, as people take on the appearance of robots, and inanimate objects engage in savage acts of decapitation, suicide, and cannibalism.
Jan Švankmajer was one of the most remarkable European filmmakers of the 1960s. His bizarre, often grotesque, Surrealist style aroused controversy after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and his opportunities to work in Czech studios were restricted.
Robert Breer moved to Paris and became heavily influenced by the hard-edged geometric qualities of Neo-plasticism and the abstractions of De Stijl and Blue Rider movements. He also experimented with rapid montage by juxtaposing frames of images in quick succession.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Smith’s collage films became increasingly complex. He cut out pictures and meticulously filed them away in envelopes, building up an image archive which he used in later works such as “Heaven and Earth Magic”.