Sunday, January 26, 2014

CINEMA: America's First Surrealist Film - Object Lesson - Early Avant-Garde Movie by Chris Young - Son of Charles Morris Young, Renowned American Landscape Painter - Subject Lesson

OBJECT LESSON (1941) was described by its director, Chris (Christopher) Young, as "America's first surrealist film". (Lovers of Cinema)

Chris Young worked with Lowell Thomas and was married to Mary Elizabeth Bird Young, who represented the United States in alpine skiing at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Christopher Baugham Young, born 1908, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, died 1 December 1975, Hartford, Connecticut. Films: Object Lesson (1941), Subject Lesson (1953-1955, 1955 or 1956 depending on source), Nature is My Mistress (after 1955), Search for Paradise (after 1955).

The late Robert (Bob) Schubel Sr. was the "Sound Engineer" for Object Lesson's movie sequel, SUBJECT LESSON (1956), an independent avant-garde short flim again directed by Chris Young. Original copies of the sound tapes to the Subject Lesson film still exist and there must be film copies somewhere out there in cinema-land. Please let us know if you know if and/or where one or both films can be obtained. Thank you.

OBJECT LESSON (1941) as a film is currently available in part online, and that video is embedded below, but make sure you also read the text following, especially if this entire subject is of interest to you.

A YouTube Video of OBJECT LESSON

OBJECT LESSON (1941), directed by Chris (Christopher) Young, is currently found in part online (1:45 minutes of a ca. 12-minute film) at YouTube. Share the video using this link.


The "Opening Screen" unfolds entering this text line by line:

LET US CONSIDER OBJECTS
FOR THEY TELL THE STORY OF LIFE
THERE IS NO THING WITHOUT MEANING
__ AND THE COMBINATION OF THINGS
MAKE NEW MEANINGS THAT ARE
TOO COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN_

It is accompanied by some -- for that era and given our own special interests -- spectacular photography of anthropomorphic figures in stone, thus proving an early recognition of such figures by Young, which of course is of particular interest to us because of our work on megalithic cultures.

It is known that Chris Young was at one time in a skiing party that was rescued and dug out of an avalanche in Switzerland, so that these anthropomorphic figures could be located somewhere in Europe, perhaps in Switzerland, rather than in the United States.

Here is our version of the transcript of OBJECT LESSON for that 1:45 intro, as corrected by us from the otherwise erroneous English "transcript" shown online at YouTube, but we must point out that we are VERY thankful neverthelss to the YouTube poster for putting this video online. Thank you! Here is the transcript of the narrator's text in the film in its introductory minutes:
"In the beginning, before life had appeared on the Earth
there were life-like forms,
places and figures in the very rocks and stones.
But out of the stones will come life,
out of life, man,
and out of man,
new things that he will make
from the stones and the stuff from the Earth --
things that may be beautiful,
or useful,
or dangerous.
The story of them can not be told with words
but only by the things themselves.
It begins with the first Spring."
The rest of the movie is not shown in this YouTube video, except for some shots of a human-sculpted Venus in the landscape -- we presume -- intended to show the transition from anthropomorphic figures not created by mankind to those so created.

Indeed, we might venture to guess that anthropomorphic natural "faces seen in stone" may at some stage in history have served as models for human sculpting of similar figures by hand in stone for a variety of purposes. Young's father as a landscape painter had apparently instilled in his son the same talent that he had for spotting essentials in the landscape, also in stone.

Chris Young was the son of Charles Morris Young, a famed landscape artist. See the Charles Morris Young artist profile, in more detail at Brush with Greatness, and examine the auction prices obtained recently for his paintings.

Chris Young as a man was not only an early, creative filmmaker, but also traveled in Europe and was "an avid skier, explorer and mountain climber". He passed away with an estate worth more than $1 million in 1975 and left legal questions about the whereabouts of several of his father's paintings.

The Young films mentioned here (there are others) received cinema awards in their era. "Object Lesson" won the award for best avant-garde film at the Venice Film Festival in 1950, while its sequel, "Subject Lesson," won the top Creative Film Award in 1957, a series of prizes sponsored jointly by the Creative Film Foundation and Cinema 16.

Both films are in fact listed in the Final Cinema 16 Distribution Catalog Film Listings, 1963, Columbia University, where Amos Vogel, Cinema 16, wrote as follows (excerpts):
"Since the publication of our first listing of experimental films in 1950, the independent and avant-garde cinema in America has come into its own. In 1950, we were the first to pioneer in both the exhibition and distribution of such films at a time when their very purpose, integrity and seriousness were openly questioned by many; step-child of the industry, they were at times considered scandalous, fraudulent, or irrelevant. Their distribution was limited to hardy individuals and stubborn public institutions unwilling to join in the prevailing lack of celebration. Today these films are used by hundreds of universities, public libraries, churches, civic groups, film societies, art institutes and individuals across the nation. They have become curriculum-integrated in cinema, art, or English literature departments. They are exhibited at church conventions; at special festivals, on television and in theatres; discussed in magazines; used by art galleries, advertising agencies and coffee houses for their own nefarious purposes; purchased by international film archives. The basic question asked is no longer why such films are being made but rather (and rightly so) an investigation of the quality and originality of a particular title or tendency in the field....

There is also no doubt that the publication of this new catalog — the most comprehensive listing of experimental cinema published anywherein the world — will further contribute to a more rapid opening up of the field and a more general appreciation of the efforts and achievements of the film avant-garde.... Produced by independent film artists, these are explorations in the cinema. Offered as significant efforts to broaden the scope of the film medium and further develop its aesthetic vocabulary and potential, these films express the psychological and emotional tensions of modern life; delve into the subconscious; explore the world of color and abstract images; experiment with cinematic devices and synthetic sound...."
We have found some additional materials online about Young's films.

In An introduction to the American underground film (1967), New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Sheldon Renan writes:
"Second Film Avant-Garde

The second film avant-garde began as the Depression ended. Sixteen-millimeter film and equipment, available since 1923, were becoming more accessible, and the Second World War, because its training films and features for the troops were on 16mm, rapidly increased this accessibility. Sixteen-millimeter was less expensive than 35mm, the film stock used by the first avant-garde, and the coming of prosperity eased the money problem in this expensive art medium. There was, too, the effect of the Museum of Modern Art's circulating film programs, starting in 1937, which brought back into sight the refreshing old French trick films and the work of the first avant-garde. Later the Art in Cinema showings in San Francisco and those of Cinema 16 in New York gave publicity to the personal art film and a chance for exhibition to the new film-makers.

By 1941 Crockwell, Bute, and Nemeth and some new people were already at work. Francis Lee made 1941, an abstract antiwar film. He was then drafted and left the pawn ticket for his camera in the hands of Marie Menken and Willard Maas, soon to become film-makers themselves. Dwinnel Grant made Themis (1940), Contrathemis (1941), and Three Dimensional Experiments (1945), all abstract films. Mylon Meriam made unnamed abstract films (1941-42). And Christopher Young made Object Lesson (1941), a work that employed symbolic objects placed in natural environments to give the effect of a journey through a surrealist landscape. His later Subject Lesson (1953-55) did much the same thing in color." [emphasis added]
In the Village Voice, June 13, 1956, page 6, we find written:
"Eleven Receive First Creative Awards

Christopher Young and Hilary Harris, makers of experimental films entitled "Subject Lesson" and "Generation", were last week named the top winners of the first annual Creative Film Awards, a series of prizes sponsored jointly by the Creative Film Foundation and Cinema 16. Young and Harris each received an award for Exceptional Merit.
In the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 4, 1959, page 36, we find under the headline, Asolo Opens Fall Season Wednesday:
"Subject Lesson," a short produced by Christopher Young, won the highest Creative Film Award in 1956. It is a sequel to Young's 1950 award winner, "Object Lesson" and is an imaginative representation of the inner life of man, told in symbols."
In the CITWF Complete Index To World Film we find the following entries:

CHRISTOPHER YOUNG - Person Information

OBJECT LESSON - Director CHRISTOPHER YOUNG, 1941, 12 Minutes, USA

SUBJECT LESSON - Director CHRISTOPHER YOUNG, 1956, 22 Minutes, USA

At the BFI (British Film Institute) in Film Forever we find under the entry Christopher Young Filmography for SUBJECT LESSON only a marvelous -- from the artistic point of view -- still photograph from the film of a beach with statues and sculptures in the sand (Venus statue, Adonis statue, Lion sculpture, and Hand of God sculpture ala Michelangelo). We have reason to believe that at least some of these statues and sculptures were originally in the garden of the house of Christopher Young in Connecticut (perhaps in Sharon, near Canaan and Cornwall, CT).

The Underground Film Journal lists both films in its Underground Film Timelines for 1940-1949 and 1950-1959:
1940 — 1949
Filmmakers:
.... Christopher Young ... Object Lesson
1950 — 1959
Filmmakers:
.... Christopher Young ... Subject Lesson (1953-55)
We found at The Sticking Place: Theatre - Film - Books, The Angry Young Film Makers, by Amos Vogel, who wrote:
"Christopher Young’s Subject Lesson (Creative Film Foundation Winner 1957), symbolic tracing of the development of man’s consciousness, with startling juxtapositions of familiar objects and incongruous backgrounds...."

originally at Evergreen Review, November/December 1958
© Amos Vogel/Evergreen Review
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders
The Sharon Greenhorn in The Harlem Valley Times, Feb. 14, 1957 wrote:
"It is a pleasure to correct an error made in this space two weeks ago. We reported the fact that Christopher Young's movie "Subject Lesson" had won one of the 1956 Creative Film Awards. Incidentally, it received the top award of "Exceptional Merit." We then said he had a new film, "Object Lesson" which he had enjoyed and which you could look forward to seeing on the award lists in the future. We were happily incorrect. "Subject Lesson" is the new film, and "Object Lesson" the older one which did win an award at the Venice Film Festival in, we believe, 1950. Both are very special...."
To add an international touch, we find written at the prestigious Pompidou Centre in  France -- in la collection en ligne du Centre Pompidou - Musée national d’art moderne -- the following French text about Chris Young and his films, citing as a bibliographical source: Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema, The First American Avant-Garde Film 1919-1945. Please go to Google Translate if you do not read French and plug in the text below to get a translation in your preferred language:
"Christopher Young a été une figure marginale du cinéma d’avant-garde américain. Sa réputation repose essentiellement sur un film, Object Lesson (1941), une fusion singulière d’invention visuelle et de symbolisme naïf. Object Lesson, réalisé juste avant l’entrée des États-Unis dans la seconde guerre mondiale, reflétait les courants intellectuels et politiques dominants de l’intelligentsia américaine : il situe le caractère inévitable et tragique de la guerre dans la nature de la psyché humaine, et incarne formellement les principes de la sémantique que posaient alors les écrits de Korzybski, Hayakawa et Chase. À l’instar de 1941 de Francis Lee, réalisé l’année suivante, le film de Young souffre d’un symbolisme excessif, qui résulte peut-être de l’intensité des pressions politiques et sociales de l’époque ; il reste que, de même que le film de Lee, ses résonances dépassent largement les limites de l’allégorie nettement explicite. Dans un texte écrit à l’époque de ce film, Young révèle lui-même la détermination univoque des objets de cette allégorie : “Les forces de la vie, exprimées dans ce film sous forme symbolique, sont… : la nature (symbolisée par les rochers, la végétation), l’idéalisme et les idées de l’Homme (les statues grecques), l’art (le violon), la guerre (les épées, etc.), le déclin (la destruction, etc.).”
De crainte que le spectateur ne manque le récit symbolique, malgré de telles précisions, le film commence par un titre d’introduction : “Considérons les objets, car ils nous racontent l’histoire de la vie. Il n’existe nulle chose sans signification et l’association des choses crée de nouveaux sens qui sont trop difficiles à expliquer.” Le trope sur lequel s’ouvre le film, qui réunit des statues féminines et une épée, avec tous les signes du printemps, indique la concaténation de l’agression destructrice et régénératrice qui est inscrite dans la différence sexuelle. Le film montre les sublimations cycliques et les éruptions violentes de cette tension fondatrice.

Object Lesson indiquait le chemin d’une utilisation plus mystérieuse et anti-allégorique de l’association prônée par Deren, Broughton et Anger, et par les autres cinéastes du style dit du “film de transe”, qui avait marqué le premier grand épanouissement du cinéma d’avant-garde américain, peu après que Young eut réalisé son premier film.

L’emploi spectaculaire qu’il faisait du raccourci et des angles de caméra, qui dérive peut-être du cinéma d’Eisenstein et qui évoque les compositions de Que viva Mexico !, et son montage innovateur de sons symboliques et isolés (sur un fond de chant russe) ont contribué à la réputation du film autant que son utilisation des objets. En fait, le son anticipe curieusement d’une vingtaine d’années La Jetée de Chris Marker.

Avant Object Lesson, Young avait réalisé un film documentaire pour le ministère de l’Agriculture, The Vanished Land (1935), qui traite de l’érosion du sol dans la réserve Navajo, ainsi que deux films nés de sa passion pour le ski. Après avoir servi dans les transmissions durant la seconde guerre mondiale, il a réalisé au moins deux autres documentaires. Entre 1953 et 1956, il a essayé de retrouver le style et les préoccupations d’Object Lesson, avec Subject Lesson (1956). Le film a reçu l’Award of Exceptional Merit de la Creative Film Foundation de Maya Deren, mais ne possède pas la force historique de son modèle. Entre 1941 et 1956, le cinéma d’avant-garde américain avait subi une telle évolution que Subject Lesson, qui n’en tient pas compte, se faisait l’écho d’une technique antérieure et naïve, et d’une ambition sans prétention.

La description que fait Young de la conclusion du film laisse indirectement entrevoir ses réticences face aux investigations de Deren, Broughton, Peterson et Anger, dans la littéralité sémantique: “Au sein du feu, l’Homme voit son ancien soi, puis son autre soi, puis son propre soi, répété (à l’infini : indiquant que l’objet de sa quête est lui-même). Ces nombreux “soi” se dissolvent dans le feu. Alors apparaît le globe de la conscience, reflétant la double image de l’homme… L’Homme et Vénus sont entourés par le feu.
La Main de Dieu (La Main de Dieu de Michel-Ange) apparaît. L’Homme est seul au coucher du soleil. Titre : fin, suivi d’un plan du Sphinx qui indique qu’il n’y a pas de fin à la quête humaine de soi-même.”

P. Adams Sitney

Bibliographie sélective [Selected Bibliography] :
Christopher Horak (sous la dir. de), Lovers of Cinema, The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945, op. cit. [Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-garde, 1919-1945, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, 404 pages.]


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