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Program 11: American Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1960s and Dance Film: Ed Emshwiller –
Cine-dances of a man who wanted to become a camera

The American Avante-Garde Cinema program is dedicated to Ed Emshwiller, a legendary filmmaker and intermedia artist, virtually unknown to the Russian audiences.

"By means of the camera and the editing table, he [filmmaker] creates image movements and relationships different from those of the dance choreographer. So, in some cases, two choreographies are united in one film –dance choreography and film choreography. In other cases, dance choreography in the usual sense is practically non-existent. Then the camera and editing techniques provide the movement, contrasts, and transitions in the dance’s image. Cine-dance, then is another way of using dancers – not exactly dance, but a legitimate art form in its own way. To me it is fascinating and challenging." – Ed Emshwiller, Dance Perspectives #30, 1967

“A madman who wants to become a camera”, an optimist with incredibly warm roaring laughter, a science fiction illustrator, a painter, a filmmaker, a cine-choreographer, an intermedia artist, a teacher, an advocate of avant-garde cinema, Edmund Alexander Emshwiller was born in Lansing, Michigan, USA in 1925 and died in California, in 1990. He earned a Bachelor of Design Degree from the University of Michigan and studied graphics at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and the Arts Student League in New York. In 1979 he became Dean of the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts; he taught at Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the State University of New York in Buffalo, among other institutions.

Emshwiller’s creative talent and devotion reflected in everything he did in life. Most all of his personal films (except for “Relativity”) Emshwiller financed himself, working as a director of photography on many commercial productions. He was such a desired cameraman that Stanley Kubrik invited him to work on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Emshwiller declined the offer as he had commitments to his personal work at the time. He loved, however, to collaborate with different artists. “Emsh” worked with Alwin Nikolais (films “Totem” (1963, 16’) and “Chrysalis” (1973, 22’)) and Pilobolus dance company (film “Pilobolus and Joan” (1973, 58’) and also took part in multimedia Happenings of the 1960s. He was one of the first artists (along with Trisha Brown) who brought on stage and mobilized the film projector. Dancers physically manipulated the projectors and treated them as partners during the stage performances. Multiple projections and physical layering of images in real time (as opposed to post-production) became signature in his work. One of Emshwiller’s most successful multimedia performances is considered “Body Works” (1965-66, 30’) where he used 5 projectors, 3 of which were directed at dancers in white.

Later in the 70s, Emshwiller expanded to video and computer animation techniques. His seminal works in this area are “Scape-Mates” (1972, 28’) and “Sunstone” (1979, 3’). Similar to Einstein’s theories or Plato’s philosophy, Emshwiller’s vision spread far beyond his times. As renowned film historian Cecile Starr points out, the early Emshwiller films remain as “hauntingly fresh and beautiful… as they were when the first one so revitalized [her] senses and [her] soul.” Emshwiller’s continuous search for new techniques that the film medium had to offer, allowed the artist to assemble a rich palette of tricks that often supercedes an effect toolkit of some of the slickest contemporary technologies. Emshwiller’s formalist approaches to dance as well as his intention to fixate the movement resonate with and preclude contemporary motion capture technologies. “The truly great craftsmen are creatures with demons at their service. And thus [in their work] the borders of art and craft disappear in the mystery of created and found reality.” Emshwiller was one of those great craftsmen.

Above and beyond technical perfections, it is the clarity and originality of structure in every film as well as their precise and refined realization that assure Emshwiller films an infinite lifespan and put him among the most innovative and visionary filmmakers of the 20th century." - AK

Dance Chromatic (7min, 1959, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller

A fusion of dance, abstract painting, and a percussive score achieving a hypnotic and strongly rhythmic synthesis. – EE

Lifelines (7min, 1960, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller; Music by Teiji Ito.

A combination of animated line drawings with live photography of a nude model. A play on the title (living lines, life model, procreation and hand life line).

Thanatopsis (5min, 1962, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller; with Becky Arnold and Mac Emshwiller.

An expression of internal anguish. The confrontation of a man and his torment. Juxtaposed against his external composure are images of a woman and lights in distortion, with tension heightened by the sounds of power saws and a heartbeat.

Totem (16min, 1963, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller

Made in collaboration with Alvin Nikolais, featuring Murray Louis and Gladys Ballin with the Nikolais Dance Company. Electronic score by Nikolais. A filmic interpretation of a modern dance ballet by Alvin Nikolais. Earth, fire, water and primordial mysteries in a cine-dance.

Film With Three Dancers (20min, 1970, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller

A cine-dance film featuring the dancers Carolyn Carlson, Emery Hermans and Bob Beswick. The trio, first in leotards, then in blue jeans, then naked, pass through rituals of movement. They are shown in stylized, "naturalistic" and abstract images accompanied by stylized, naturalistic and abstract sounds. A series of ways of seeing the dancers.

"Best (underground) picture of the year." -- Camille J. Cook, Chicago Sunday Sun-Times

Exhibition: Sorrento Film Festival; Whitney Museum of American Art.

Relativity (38min, 1966, USA) on 16mm
Director: Ed Emshwiller

A man wonders, measures, views relationships, people, places, things, time, himself. A sensual journey through a series of subjective reflections.

"[A] beautifully photographed color montage of shots; insect, animal, man and galaxy; a sobering antidote to the orgy of subjectivism going on elsewhere." -- Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"The artist's search for the meaning of his own existence is never-ending and takes many forms. Ed Emshwiller's remarkable epic, RELATIVITY, continues this exploration with extraordinary frankness and rare technical skill. The sequence which symbolically portrays a woman at the moment of sexual climax is one of the most beautiful in the literature of film." -- Willard Van Dyke

"RELATIVITY is a marvelously sensual film ... it is, I have no doubt, a masterpiece." -- Richard Whitehall, LA Free Press

Awards: Special Events program selection, NY Film Festival; London Film Festival; Special Jury Award, Oberhausen Film Festival.