‘The Unfinished Film’: A Good Night for the (Almost) Movies


With their open invitation to imagine, unfinished films, like blueprinted buildings and prematurely deceased musicians, have the particular advantage of never being able to concretely disappoint.

The Gladstone Gallery takes a broad view of this subject with its show “The Unfinished Film,” grouping together, per its catalog, “projects that are intentionally unfinished as well as those abandoned out of frustration, halted by dwindling resources, cut short by death, or curtailed by political circumstance.”

The space is divided between the display of artifacts relating to unrealized projects—Soviet kino-fist pumper Dziga Vertov’s 1936 sketch of a proposed “Creative Laboratory” studio, from which he proposed to proselytize for a system that no longer had use for him—and a black-box theater screening a regular daily program of films and film fractions. In between showtimes, Ken Jacobs can be heard in a 1972 radio interview, calling for collaborators on a folly called A Good Night for the Movies, whose imagined scope is not atypical of the phantom films featured: “Twenty-four 16mm sound projectors will be set up atop buildings spread through the five boroughs … projector beams deflected against small front-surface mirrors to expand straight upwards into a cloudless sky …”

Naturally on hand are American commercial cinema’s Patron Saints of Lost Causes. Erich Von Stroheim’s directorial Waterloo, Queen Kelly (1929) plays in its only, stillborn, incarnation (and the first hour is still fantastich). In the Maysles Brothers’ short portrait Orson Welles in Spain, filmed in mid-’60s Madrid, we encounter the director in good raconteur form, bloviating on bullfighting and seemingly pitching his The Other Side of the Wind, a quixotic project left impounded and unedited when he died 20 years later, knowledge that makes poignant Welles’s stated revolutionary intent: “We’ve been cranking along in movies for too long in the same way.… [Film is] a wonderful medium, but nobody’s done anything new in it.…”

Among the movies-on-paper, there’s an edition of Joseph Cornell’s first “script” from 1933, Monsieur Phot, and an unfurled accordion notebook of Kenneth Anger’s storyboard sketches for a proposed feature, Puce Woman, meant to continue (or complete) his short Puce Moment. Elsewhere, concepts become artworks in their own right: German animator Oscar Fischinger’s “ornament sound” drawings, meant to appear on-screen while simultaneously playing as an optical soundtrack, share a corner with Paul Sharits’s chroma-coded scores for an unmade film, diagrams of rainbow felt-pen dashes.

The scraps of “Unfinished Film” were collected by Thomas Beard, co-creator of the outer-borough cinematheque Light Industry—soon to be housed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, after a year or so “couch surfing”—and Catholic tastes show in his programming. Included in its cross-section are experimental projects that, by their very ambition, seem to invite incompletion as their inevitable endpoint: Hollis Frampton’s Magellan Cycle was conceived as a 1,000-part, 36-hour epic, to be doled out across a 369-day calendar. Frampton finished eight hours, before cancer finished him. Also visible is an outtake from Harry Smith’s underground mega-production of The Wizard of Oz, entitled The Approach to the Emerald City—a grand destination with no arrival. Beard says Approach “could be the alternate title to the show.”