A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
It’s a shame that Oskar Fischinger hasn’t found his way into more literature on avant-garde cinema. Apart from the late William Moritz’s immaculately researched Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger (2004), he remains a figure who’s often referenced along with a slew of other early experimental filmmakers, namely those of the Absolute Film tradition, and receives little to no in-depth inquiry (here, I’m thinking of P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, which makes only one mention of his work). To my mind, it’s uncertain why this is so. Fischinger made over fifty animated films that dazzled viewers with their visual musicality and geometric dramaturgy; attracted the attention of Hollywood giants such as Walt Disney and Ernst Lubitsch; and served as an inspiration to later champions of avant-garde film like Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, and John and James Whitley. Given such credentials, his scarcity can only appear puzzling.
All this makes Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, edited by Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond, an especially exciting publication. Together with the EYE Filmmuseum, the Center for Visual Music has made available a resource that gives Fischinger “the much deserved attention denied to him in his life time” (8), and with its breadth and detail, it will indeed prove indispensable to all those interested in this sinfully neglected figure and experimental film generally.
And what a gorgeous object it is: with its large coffee-table format and vivacious cover—an enlarged still from his early commercial film Kreise (Circles, [1933-34])—it’s sure to attract the attention of all those eyeing your book collection. But this elegance isn’t localized to the volume’s exterior; open its covers, and you’ll see that every page has a sheen and thickness that facilitates and does justice to the stunning images of Fischinger’s work. In fact, if one were to simply pick up this book and allow its pages to pass by their thumb in a quick, flipbook-like succession, watching its images assume the appearance of a colorful, illegible blur, they’d get a sure sense of this volume’s sheer beauty.
What is of more import, however, and what really distinguishes the volume from its now decade-old predecessor, is the multiple points of entry it offers readers into Fischinger’s work, biography, and lasting impact on the seventh art. It consists of ten newly published essays, each of which are of startlingly high quality and verve, and examine the artist from various dimensions. As an example, in Esther Leslie’s “Oskar Fischinger/Wassily Kandinsky: Where Abstraction and Comics Collide,” readers learn that Fischinger, like his fellow German émigré Theodor W. Adorno, attained a strong distaste for Hollywood, indeed ground zero of the Culture Industry. After leaving Nazi Germany, he took a job at Disney and designed a vivacious geometric sequence for—get ready for this—Fantasia (1940). Needless to say, the insertion of Fischinger’s experimentalism into the exoteric, commercial sensibility of the Disney studio proved problematic. Disney staff, says Leslie, worked over his contribution to the project, making his shapes “simpler, for the assumption was that only then would audiences accept” (91). Disgusted, Fischinger resolved to dedicate himself exclusively to independent, non-photographic filmmaking.
Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967 is awash with these kinds of fascinating details; but as would be expected in a monographic format, these contributions tend be synoptic about Fischinger’s biography—we don’t, for example, get any of the probing into his family life and unconfirmed gossip about his treatment at Disney that we find in Moritz’s book. This is far from a weakness, however, and in fact points towards one of the book’s major draws: its approachability. It is because of these essays’ succinctness, and because of their commitment to providing a sampling of various aspects of his life and work, that they’re ideal for quick reference and introductory readings for those new to Fischinger and experimental cinema, a filmic mode that tends to elicit timidity from those unfamiliar with its practitioners and tenants.
This monograph also contains Fischinger’s previously unreleased documents including his letters, essays, and early newspaper interviews, finally available in English translation. This indeed constitutes one of the real gifts of Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967, particularly to Anglophonic readers; it allows them to learn about Fischinger not only through the written expression and research of others but through his own words, each of which evince a seriousness and passion for the seventh art and its untapped potentialities that readers are certain to find lively and inspiring.
His essays provide welcomed insights into Fischinger’s conception of both film and artistic creation. His concern that the true film artist must work hermetically and avoid the contaminative influence of mass-produced motion pictures, which he calls at one point “trashy photo-novel[s]” (97), runs throughout his writing. In his essay “The Composer of the Future and the Absolute Sound Film,” for instance, Fischinger echoes the above-mentioned concerns regarding the vulgar state of industrial, collaborative filmmaking, and sees non-representational, non-photographic cinema as the best avenue for an independent filmmaker: “…a non-photographic creative process—which is for the independent artist (in creative demand) the most necessary presupposition” (96). The film artist, as he elaborates in “My Statements are in My Work,” written eleven years later, should stand in contradistinction to this bureaucratic mode of operation, for there “is nothing of an absolute artistic creative sense in it” (113). What’s interesting here is that Fischinger’s anti-commercial sentiment has a clear symmetry with that of the postwar American avant-garde cinema, and recalls the opinions expressed in such manifestos and publications as “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group” and Stan Brakhage’s long out-of-print Metaphors on Vision. It’s in this sense that Fischinger’s writings are strikingly anticipatory, and it’s unfortunate that we’ve had to wait for Keefer and Guldemond’s monograph to see it so markedly on display.
The book’s main attraction, though, is sure to be its photographs. Nearly all his major works, both in cinema and painting, are represented here: there’s stills from his early film experiments, most of which are redolent of the gaseous, cosmological imagery of Jordan Belson’s spiritual cinema; special effects contributions to Fritz Lang’s Fau im Mond (Woman in the Moon ); black-and-white frames from his Studies; his Stereo paintings from 1949; and frames from his later films such as Allegretto (1936-1943) and An American March (1941). Unfortunately, it doesn’t include any of the extant sketches from his contribution to Fantasia, which is discussed at various points in the book though never pictured; and An Optical Poem (1937) is curiously absent from the bunch, a picture that acquired relatively wide recognition and received even global distribution from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (14). To be sure, this omission is the case because both works, from what I gather, were not on display at the EYE Filmmuseum exhibit on which this publication is based (9). However, as both a fan of Fischinger and believer that these constitute some of his most impressive work (his jettisoned sketches for Fantasia, I think, outdo any of the visuals present in the Disney film we know today), I encourage readers to seek these out.
What Keefer and Guldemond have compiled and arranged between these two covers is truly remarkable. Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction is an important contribution to the literatures on avant-garde cinema: it illuminates the significance of this shamefully neglected film artist, a person who believed in the expressive capacities of non-photographic, abstract filmmaking. And while its photography is more or less its main attraction here, it nonetheless shows his biography and writing to be just as stunning as the high-resolution stills of his work. Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967, no doubt, solidifies Fischinger’s importance to the history of cinema, and I’m confident that it will have urgent claim on the attention of fans of avant-garde, experimental, animated, and expanded cinema.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer. Images are © Center for Visual Music.