Filmmaker-photographer Rudy Burckhardt, who died last year at age 85, had a career almost impossible to imagine anywhere except New York City. Galvanized by a post-WWII cultural explosion ripe with opportunities for artistic collaboration, Burckhardt moved freely among the too often disjunct worlds of painting, poetry, dance, and avant-garde cinema, turning his bohemian friends and his zeal for urban street scenes into the twin touchstones of dozens of short, unpretentious comedies and lyrical documentaries. Not the least of their many pleasures is watching folks like Red Grooms, Larry Rivers, John Ashbery, Alex Katz, and Edwin Denby perform creaky costumed skits in the manner of Georges Méliès or Buster Keaton.
Anthology Film Archives is presenting three programs of films from the ’50s and ’60s, the most prolific period in his 50-year, 90-film frolic with moving images. (The series runs in conjunction with an exhibit at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, which pairs Burckhardt’s photos of artists with examples of their work.) After arriving here from Switzerland in 1938, he began stitching together bits of mostly unstaged footage—buildings and empty lots, subway traffic, and, especially, kids at play—into episodic clusters often evoking an aura of the pastoral within the urban. Gently spoofing TV documentaries, The Automotive Story (1954) is typical in its hybrid blending of fictional with spontaneous incidents; accompanied by piano fragments from Debussy, Poulenc, and Scriabin as played by Frank O’Hara (his taste in background music was as eclectic as his art-world alliances), it features a text by poet Kenneth Koch.
Of four films made with the legendary Joseph Cornell, A Fable for Fountains (1955-57) is an uneasy mix of Burckhardt’s rambunctious street life, Cornell’s delicate worship of mysterious women, and their mutual affection for the movements of children. Two extremes of Burckhardt’s calling are represented by Tarzam (1965), with Taylor Mead carrying on like crazy, and Square Times (1967), a closely observed dusk-to-dawn appreciation of pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street. Burckhardt considered himself an outsider in the burgeoning film avant-garde; he never worked in a single recognizable style and embraced the possibilities of accident over rationalized structure. In this regard, his films have probably never looked so fashionable.