The Experimental Abstract Films of Pioneering American Animator Mary Ellen Bute (1930s-1950s)

There’s been a lot of talk about the blur­ring of nation­al and lin­guis­tic bound­aries at the Acad­e­my Awards this year. Have we entered a new era of moviemak­ing inter­na­tion­al­ism? “His­to­ry, that nev­er-fail­ing fount of irony,” writes Antho­ny Lane at The New York­er, “may be of assis­tance at this point.” When Louis B. May­er first pro­posed the Acad­e­my in 1927 at the Ambas­sador Hotel in Los Ange­les, it was to be called the Inter­na­tion­al Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences. “The word ‘Inter­na­tion­al’ didn’t last long. It smacked of places oth­er than Amer­i­ca, so it had to go.”

As every stu­dent of the medi­um knows, how­ev­er, not only have var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al styles dom­i­nat­ed film since its incep­tion, but so too have var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al cin­e­mat­ic languages—among them the pro­duc­tion of abstract “visu­al music” films like those pio­neered by Ger­man-Amer­i­can artist and film­mak­er Oskar Fischinger, who worked on the spe­cial effects for Fritz Lang’s 1929 Woman in the Moon, cre­at­ed sev­er­al dozen short films, and inspired Walt Disney’s Fan­ta­sia.

Fischinger’s work also inspired anoth­er, far less famous Amer­i­can film­mak­er, Mary Ellen Bute, a Hous­ton-born, Yale-edu­cat­ed ani­ma­tor and exper­i­men­tal direc­tor who “pro­duced over a dozen short abstract ani­ma­tions between the 1930s to the 1950s,” notes Ubuweb, “set to clas­si­cal music by the likes of Bach, Saint-Saens or Shostakovich, and filled with col­or­ful forms, ele­gant design and spright­ly, dance-like rhythms.” See a brief BBC intro­duc­tion to Bute at the top, and sev­er­al of her short films above and below.

Bute col­lab­o­rat­ed with many promi­nent cre­ators, includ­ing com­pos­er Joseph Schillinger, musi­cian and inven­tor Thomas Wil­fred, Leon Theremin, ani­ma­tor and direc­tor Nor­man McLaren, and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Ted Nemeth, whom she mar­ried in 1940.

The films in Bute’s See­ing Sound series are “like a mar­riage of high mod­ernism and Mer­rie Melodies”—and the shorts proved so com­pelling they were screened reg­u­lar­ly at Radio City Music Hall in the 1930s.

Like Fischinger’s, her ani­ma­tions spoke a pure­ly abstract lan­guage, though they some­times ges­tured at sto­ry (as in “Spook Sport,” fur­ther down). “We need a new kinet­ic, visu­al art form—one that unites sound, col­or and form,” she told the New York World-Telegram in 1936. She con­ceived of sounds and images as work­ing in har­mo­ny or coun­ter­point, along the same math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples. “I want­ed to manip­u­late light to pro­duce visu­al com­po­si­tions in time con­ti­nu­ity,” Bute wrote in 1954, “much as a musi­cian manip­u­lates sound to pro­duce music.”

The lan­guage of film has nar­rowed con­sid­er­ably in the decades since Bute made her films, it seems, exclud­ing exper­i­ments like visu­al music. In so doing, con­tem­po­rary cinema—with its reliance on nar­ra­tive plot­ting and dia­logue as its cen­tral engines—has exclud­ed a sig­nif­i­cant part of the human expe­ri­ence. In her last film, her only fea­ture, Bute adapt­ed pas­sages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book that turned lit­er­a­ture into music as Bute had sought to do with film.

She opens her Finnegans Wake with title cards bear­ing quo­ta­tions from Joyce, includ­ing a quote she also used to explain her tran­si­tion from abstract, ani­mat­ed film to a movie with actors and sets: “One great part of every human exis­tence is passed in a state which can­not be ren­dered sen­si­ble by the use of wide-awake lan­guage, cut-and-dry gram­mar and go-ahead plot.” Such mod­ernist abstrac­tion in cin­e­ma, Bute wrote, adds up to more than “nov­el­ty,” a word some­times used to describe her work to the pub­lic. Like Joyce, her use of abstrac­tion, she wrote, “is about the essence of our Being.”

via @reaktorplayer

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Opti­cal Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Ani­ma­tor Hat­ed by Hitler, Dissed by Dis­ney

The First Avant Garde Ani­ma­tion: Watch Wal­ter Ruttmann’s Licht­spiel Opus 1 (1921)

Watch “Bells of Atlantis,” an Exper­i­men­tal Film with Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Music Fea­tur­ing Anaïs Nin (1952)

Watch the Med­i­ta­tive Cinepo­em “H20”: A Land­mark Avant-Garde Art Film from 1929

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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