Sunday, May 02, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Visionaries

Famous for his montage films often seen on the Academy Award broadcasts, probably no filmmaker has codified the glamorous image of Hollywood’s golden years more than Chuck Workman. Yet those films portrayed a selective vision of cinema history. Now the rebels get the Workman treatment in his documentary, Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema, which premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Call it avant-garde, experimental, counter-cultural, underground, non-narrative, or non-representational, but for less adventurous movie goers, they are just pretty weird. Visionaries may not change any hearts or minds, but it provides easy to digest introductions to several avant-garde filmmakers, including Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubelka, and Robert Downey (Sr.). However, Visionaries places the Lithuanian born Jonas Mekas first among equals, celebrating his work both as a filmmaker and as an impresario for avant-garde film. Fittingly, Visionaries will open theatrically next month at the Anthology Film Archives, which was founded as a permanent home for Mekas’s traveling exhibitions of experimental cinema.

Workman certainly includes plenty of clips from his subjects’ films, some of which are quite strange, but he also interviews many filmmakers and scholars. Fortunately though, they mostly avoid academic jargon, making Visionaries a good primer on the history such extremely independent filmmaking. There are even some sequences that might intrigue new viewers, like an all too brief clip from Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round, featuring its very cool jazz soundtrack composed by Teo Macero.

Throughout Visionaries, Workman presents the directors and their films with scrupulous respect. However, occasional soundbites might confirm uncharitable suspicions among skeptical audiences, like footage of Andy Warhol telling an interviewer he started using a lot of film leader because Mekas would get excited about anything, even leader.

Regardless of how one feels about the avant-garde it is cool to see them get their due in Visionaries. Surprisingly accessible and refreshingly almost entirely free of political statements, it is an entertaining look an under-documented movement in film history. Following its Tribeca debut, Visionaries will screen at AFA on June 4th, 5th, and 6th.