Oskar Fischinger

This is the first part of a two-part posting that will explore the first DVD releases of the venerable Los Angeles-based Center for Visual Music: Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films (2006) and Jordan Belson: 5 Essential Films (2007). CVM is a nonprofit film archive, library, research and education center devoted to “visual music.” It’s directed by Cindy Keefer, who amiably gave me a tour of CVM’s facilities located in downtown’s historic Spring Arts Tower. The Center has a long history of organizing exhibitions and is hard at work on upcoming programs for several European museums and festivals. Keefer has described Visual Music as a “rapidly-expanding genre” that includes everything from “experimental filmmakers to video artists, animators, CG artists, VJs, installation artists, painters and musicians.” CVM’s tireless efforts to promote the work of key figures in the genre remains a fascinating, ongoing venture.

Motion Painting No. 1

Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films

This is a lovingly produced DVD with high-definition digital transfers and a host of extras. Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) was one of the earliest pioneers of abstract animation, placing him in the company of filmmakers like Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter, who were working only a few years after Kandinsky’s first entirely nonrepresentational painting in 1910. There’s an amusing anecdote about Fischinger making a presentation to a literary group in 1921, where he “visually illustrated” the emotional dynamics of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on a chart like a dramatic seismograph. Apparently, confusion among his audience abounded, prompting him to consider the motion picture–with its built-in element of time–as a better medium to express his ideas.

Fischinger began experimenting with a wax slicing machine and camera that he invented (and later sold to Ruttmann as a special effects device for Lotte Reiniger’s famed 1926 silhouette film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed). The DVD contains Fischinger’s Wax Experiments: 1921-’26, which are genuinely beautiful in their organic, kaleidoscopic growth. The disc also contains two more early Fischinger works, a playful silhouette film of his own (Spiritual Constructions) and–for me the most engrossing–Walking From Munich to Berlin, both made in 1927. The latter is often described as a document of Fischinger’s 620-mile trek between the cities comprised of single-frame footage, but its imagery actually varies in tempo, fluidly combining isolated scenes with longer, time-lapse footage of clouds passing or wheat fields blowing in the breeze. Its sights are supremely evocative of rural Germany between the wars (children playing, pastoral compositions, farmers and workers) and the white flash frames he includes only intensify the feeling of being privy to the filmmaker’s personal memories.

Fischinger continued to experiment on various projects, including assisting with the special effects for Woman in the Moon, directed by Fritz Lang, who would remain a lifelong friend. He soon found enormous success producing hand-drawn charcoal animations (synchronized with records) advertising new musical recordings; these three-minute Studies were screened in theaters–and thus have been called the first “music videos”–and are serious works of art in themselves. The DVD contains Studies numbers six (1930) and seven (1931), the latter of which was choreographed to Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” and–according to William Moritz’s excellent 2004 biography, Optical Poetry–“proved so impressive that four filmmakers at least (Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye) were encouraged to pursue a career in abstract musical animation after seeing it.”

Soon, however, Fischinger’s luck took a downturn, and the rise of Nazism and its hatred of abstract art forced him to immigrate to Hollywood in 1936, where his insufficient English and independent spirit continually frustrated attempts to work within the studio system. Paramount so butchered his initial contributions that he soon moved to MGM, who commissioned a short film, An Optical Poem (1938), but paid him so little he never made a profit despite the film’s limited theatrical run. (This film isn’t included on the CVM disc, but you can find it in Image Entertainment’s Unseen Cinema box set–disc seven–in all its vivid colors, circles, and movements; its most unusual aspect, however, may be the lion-roaring MGM logo that precedes the landmark avant-garde film.) Fischinger also worked on Disney’s Fantasia–a film he arguably inspired, not only in previous discussions with the film’s conductor, Leopold Stokowski, but also given the fact (as Moritz writes) that he “brought prints of his films, which were screened every week for nine months for the entire Disney staff during lunch and breaks.” Yet Fischinger’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” was so simplified and watered-down that he eventually terminated his contract.

Fortunately for Fischinger, the Guggenheim Foundation had its first exhibition of non-objective art in 1936 and dedicated a museum to it in 1939, and Fischinger was one of its first grant recipients. He used the money to not only buy back and finish his work at Paramount (which he turned into 1941’s Allegretto), but also to complete the silent Radio Dynamics (1942) and what many consider to be his masterwork, Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), all three of which are included on the DVD. Allegretto develops as an invigorating contrast between overlapping, expanding concentric circles and flocks of angular, foreground shapes that sail across the screen in time to Ralph Rainger’s jazzy score. Radio Dynamics–which opens with the hand-scrawled request, “Please! No Music Experiment in Color-Rhythm”–juxtaposes several short movements: quickly choreographed, angular shapes expanding before static, abstract paintings; vertical and horizontal swathes of shifting colors; circular fields enlarging independently of one another. It’s an energized and elegant expression of what Fischinger then termed “absolute film.”

Motion Painting No. 1 is set to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No.3,” and it’s the closest Fischinger ever got to capturing the painting process itself, as dots and lines of oil paint on glass simultaneously branch off from various parts of the screen and build up from each other layer upon layer; unlike his previous work, however, the movement and rhythm of the lines and shapes flow more freely according to their own sense of form and composition rather than accentuate every nuance of the music. The resulting film is an immersive symphony of color that slowly generates a genuine sense of grandeur. The DVD provides a quote emphasizing Fischinger’s own satisfaction: “[In the film], for the first time, visual music was born, creating that deep, emotional, almost pleasurable feeling (as we know it) that we get from good music.”

Fischinger had already been painting offscreen to pre-plan his films, but he ultimately spent the last twenty years of his life largely devoted to the art, completing around 800 spectacularly modernist works that are still held in public and private collections around the world (including pieces at the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). One of the best features on the CVM release is a sampling of his paintings, as lively and vivid as the films he left behind.

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