Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Ralph Steiner’s ‘H2O’
Here, in my opinion, is a truly great short, abstract film: Ralph Steiner’s H2O (1929). In this film, the image’s eventual distillation from clearly identifiable shots of water into a series of constantly undulating abstract designs on its surface — in glorious black & white — is a marvel of early avant-garde filmmaking. I think that H2O ought to be taught in “introduction to cinema” classes. However, I didn’t learn about this extraordinary film until well after I left college. Although I took a class on American avant-garde cinema, our professor began this kind of film in 1943, with Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s rightfully legendary (but not unprecedented) Meshes of the Afternoon. So, not only was H2O off the syllabus, but so were such intriguing prewar American avant-garde films as Robert Florey’s The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928) and James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s Lot in Sodom (1933). Now, with H2O (a silent film, here accompanied with new music by Larry Marotta) and other experimental shorts now accessible on video and the Internet, a more complete picture of the long history of avant-garde cinema is finally available to be seen by a wide audience.