If the truth, as Jean-Luc Godard has asserted, is 24 frames per second, then the 24 women avant-garde filmmakers assembled for the Whitney’s “The Color of Ritual, the Color of Thought” series offer multiple cinematic realities and possibilities. Avant-garde is an expansive term here, encompassing genres from the straightforward memoir (Silvianna Goldsmith’s Lil Picard from 1981) to the more austere structural film (Joyce Wieland’s 1967 short 1933) to the prolix, theory-packed features of Yvonne Rainer.
“The Color of Ritual” has a slightly auteurist bent, devoting much time to four featured directors: Maya Deren, Helen Levitt, Shirley Clarke, and Rainer. Levitt’s In the Street (1943-52), a collaboration with Janice Loeb and James Agee, is a mildly cloying collage of the “image of human existence”—often dancing toddlers or dour women in tenement windows—and seems out of place among the adventurous top-billers. Deren’s black-and-white works At Land (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) are mesmerizing pieces about desire and vision, combining surrealist symbolism, lusciously choreographed movement, and editing tricks: slow motion, freeze-frames, and shot repetitions.
Clarke, whose early work includes the color-saturated, hypnotically rhythmic Bridges-Go-Round (1958), skewers the notion of the coolly objective documentary filmmaker—a tenet held firmly by those in the American cinema verité movement of the 1960s—in The Connection (1961) and Portrait of Jason (1967). The fascinating latter film records Clarke’s manipulative commands behind the camera and aspiring cabaret performer/hustler Jason Holiday’s outrageously flamboyant performance before it. Clarke exposes the failings of cinema verité as much as she scrutinizes blackness, masculinity, and homosexuality (Marlon Riggs, in his 1994 doc Black Is. . . Black Ain’t, plaintively addresses Jason in a clip from Clarke’s film).
Rainer’s bravura takes self-reflexivity to the nth degree, obliterating narrative and authorship and supplanting them with a dizzying amalgam of sound—ranging from heady texts (Julia Kristeva, Fredric Jameson) to teenage journal entries—and image, including clips from noir classics and aerial footage of Stonehenge. Her mixture of high and low chips away at the dichotomies of theory versus practice, masculinity versus femininity.
One of the added pleasures of “The Color of Ritual,” a series devoted to a counter-Hollywood aesthetic, is witnessing indelible star turns. Anaïs Nin vamps it up in Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time, and cinema scholar Annette Michelson in Rainer’s Journeys From Berlin/1971 is as regal as Catherine Deneuve in Time Regained. Yet the biggest star of the series is New York City, lovingly depicted in many of the films, but most poignantly in Noll Brinckmann’s melancholic West Village Meat Market (1979): The pre-Pastis days of this neighborhood seem almost prelapsarian.