Sunday, November 15, 2015

Oskar Fischinger: 10 Films (Center for Visual Music, 2006; compiled from films made between 1924 and 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, after the Lifetime movie ended, Charles and I watched a DVD I had bought recently at the San Diego Museum of Art: Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films, a tribute to one of the pioneers of abstract filmmaking. The 10 films ranged in age from 1924 to 1947 and varied considerably from each other, though there were enough commonalities that a strong, clear style came through from the lot. Fischinger was a German, born in 1900, and as a teenager he worked as an apprentice for a firm of organ builders — a job that ended when World War I began and the factory owners were drafted. Then he got a job as a draftsman for an architect, and that lasted until his boss was drafted (again). Fischinger himself was judged too “unhealthy” for combat, and after the war he settled in Frankfurt and got an engineering degree but was more interested in pursuing a career in art. He became an abstract painter, largely influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, who not only was the principal inventor of abstract art but even coined the term for it (he meant it as painting which took objects from nature and literally “abstracted” them to their most basic geometric shapes), and eventually Fischinger drifted into filmmaking with the idea of turning abstract painting into film by adding motion and time. He started in filmmaking by inventing a machine that sliced half-molten wax into rosette-like patterns that could be put in front of a camera and filmed, and the resulting Wax Experiments (1924-27) ended up looking like an odd cross between a 1960’s psychedelic light show and a Busby Berkeley musical number (essentially Fischinger was doing with wax cross-sections what Berkeley was doing later on the Warner Bros. sound stages with human bodies). It’s a real pity Fischinger didn’t have access to color film — the few color processes that existed in the 1920’s were astronomically expensive — though a few of the wax experiments were printed on color-tinted stock.

Later in the 1920’s he experimented with various techniques, including silhouette animation (he’d worked as an assistant to Lotte Reininger on her 1926 silent feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed, sometimes called the first animated feature — predating Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by 11 years, though some critics think it doesn’t count because it was just silhouettes, not fully drawn figures — and learned the technique from her) and live-action photography in the style that would become famous with Geoffrey Reggio’s Koyannisqatsi decades later. Fischinger made a film called Walking from Munich to Berlin (i.e., all the way across Germany from south to north!) which was either single-frame shots or brief clips, and it’s essentially a cross between Dziga Vertov and what became the Koyannisqatsi style. Despite the Nazis’ hatred of abstract artists in general, Fischinger stayed in Germany until the end of 1935 and continued to make abstract movies, including the so-called “Studies,” black-and-white cartoons animated with charcoal (he would draw with the charcoal on paper, then run the negative film instead of printing it so the images would appear white-on-black instead of black-on-white) set to music, often recordings by the German branch of HMV (later EMI). According to Fischinger’s Wikipedia page, these were used more or less as music videos; they were shown in theatres in Germany and they ended with advertisements saying what the music was, who had recorded it and what the HMV record number was so people could go to a record store and order it. Two of these “Studies” are included here, “Study #6” (set to a pop piece called “Los Verderones” by Jacinto Guerrero) and “Study #7” (set to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5), as is a film called Kreise (Colors), made in 1933 and apparently intended as an ad for the color process used in the movie (the first time Fischinger had used color), a dazzling set of abstractions set to the “Bacchanale” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Huldigung’s March from Grieg’s Sigurd Jorsalfar — music whose German or Nordic mythic connotations probably appealed to the Nazis.

Fischinger was able to get his films legally registered for showing under the Nazis and didn’t leave Germany until the end of 1935, when Paramount Pictures offered him a contract to create an abstract sequence for their film The Big Broadcast of 1937. They gave him just about everything he could have wanted — $250 per week, German-speaking secretaries and an English tutor — and assigned him a three-minute piece by composer Ralph Rainger, a pastiche of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue called Radio Dynamics. Fischinger created a dazzling sequence to go with this music — and then found that Paramount wasn’t going to make The Big Broadcast of 1937 in color, as he’d originally thought, nor were they going to insert his sequence in color even if the rest of the film was in black-and-white. Instead Fischinger asked for and received a release from his contract, and Paramount used the Rainger piece as accompaniment for a short sequence showing commercial products flying out of a radio tower. Fischinger would eventually buy back the rights to the material from Paramount, tweaking some of the animation cels and reshooting it in 1943 under the title Allegretto, and in 1937 he went to MGM and actually got to make a short, An Optical Poem (based on Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 — apparently Fischinger had a “thing” for Hungarian rhapsodies). Though he wasn’t credited as director, the film was released as he intended, making him 1-for-2 in his dealings with the Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, his average dropped to 1-for-3 when in 1939 he signed with Walt Disney to do the animation for the opening of Fantasia — the sequence with Leopold Stokowski conducting his transcription for orchestra of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Fischinger wanted the sequence to be completely abstract, while Disney wanted it to start with recognizable images from a concert hall — violins and other stringed instruments being bowed — and then slowly dissolve into abstraction, as if you were falling asleep at a concert and flowing into a dream world. For the rest of his life Fischinger and his wife Elfreide (who’d been his first cousin and whom he’d married in Germany in 1932) lived in Los Angeles and supported themselves mostly with commercial work, though he did get a chance to make one more abstract movie, Motion Painting No. 1 (1947). It was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, who insisted that he set it to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, though by then Fischinger had become disillusioned with the idea that films like his needed musical accompaniment. Indeed, in 1942 he had done a film which, with a sort of spit in the eye to Paramount, he called Radio Dynamics, and the title specified in huge letters that it was not to be accompanied with music on the ground that the visuals themselves would achieve a “musical” effect without actual music cluttering it up.

Most of the above-mentioned films are included in the Ten Films compilation (though An Optical Poem isn’t because Fischinger didn’t own the rights when he willed his estate to a foundation called the Center for Visual Music, which put out this DVD), along with a few oddball items like Spirals — a 1931 silent which briefly made me wonder (as did some of the images in Allegretto as well) whether the people at the Warner Bros. cartoon division had seen this when they worked out the concentric circles at the end of every Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (indeed, at the end of the compilation I did my best Porky Pig impression and said, “Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”), and to my mind the films with music were generally more watchable than the ones without (though that’s true of mainstream silent films as well!), and the ones that worked best with the music they were supplied with were Allegretto and Motion Painting No. 1. Allegretto is a magnificent series of images, warm and flowing in synch with the strong rhythmic pulse of Rainger’s score (which itself is a major achievement; he was known almost exclusively as a songwriter and it’s amazing he was able to create a piece of instrumental music approaching Gershwin’s skill at classical-jazz fusion in Rhapsody in Blue) and in dazzling color (the original was in Technicolor but when Fischinger did his reconstruction in 1943 he had to shoot it in the cheaper Gasparcolor process because that was all he could afford). Motion Painting No. 1 is a far stricter and more severe piece of work, reflecting the difference between Rainger and Bach as composers; instead of Kandinsky his artistic model in Motion Painting No. 1 appears to have been Mondrian. Instead of the free-floating curved forms of Allegretto, most of Motion Painting No. 1 is composed of strict rectangles and circles forming themselves over the screen’s surface in mosaic patterns. Indeed, though the version of the Bach piece used (uncredited on screen) is a pretty typical one for the time, it occurred to me the film might work better with a more rhythmically strict, less Romantic recording of the piece like the kind churned out by the “historically informed performance” crowd that dominate Bach playing today. Overall, Oskar Fischinger: 10 Films is an excellent showcase for one of the most unique talents in cinema history; Fischinger may not have invented the abstract film but he certainly was surprisingly good at it, and I can vividly remember the abstract films and psychedelic light shows I saw in the 1960’s as very obviously Fischinger’s progeny even though back then we’d never heard of him and thought people of our generation were inventing it all. Though one wouldn’t want all movies to be like his (or like Koyannisqatsi, for that matter), Fischinger’s studies on what he called “visual music” are well worth seeing and surprisingly entertaining.