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SIMULTANEOUS WATCHING AND ANALYSIS: Early Abstractions

La Schiff

over 3 years ago

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if what you’re looking at is a Harry Smith film or the subconscious images in your own mind when you close your eyes. Harry Smith is what would be the definition of a Bohemian Oskar Fischinger. And being a fan of both, for me the difference lies in Oskar Fischinger trying to alter the state of film editing, while Harry Smith is trying to alter the state of your state. Early Abstractions are a set of short films (dating from 1946-1952) that pull you in with its movement and colors but what you experience out of the combinations is your own.

Harry Smith was interested in the connectedness and interrelatedness of all things, which is easy to see in the smooth transitions from figure to shape to blackness.

Inspirations of Smith’s that can be seen through his choice of imagery is that of Native American cultures, Buddhism, psychedelia, the Kabbala, shamanism, alchemy, the Occult, jazz, mathematics, dada, and surrealism. Besides being a filmmaker, Harry Smith was also an archivist, ethnomusicologist and a student of anthropology. All these aspects of his personal interests come together in a way that makes it a whole new language to decipher:

“There are more levels in Harry Smith’s work than in any other film animator I know”
- Jonas Mekas

Among his techniques of batik, collage, and optical printing in means of manipulating shapes, as well as a variety of materials ranging from removable stickers on the film stock to paint to vaseline (as seen in No. 2), another technique of his was none other than, yes, being under the influence of drugs:

“For those who are interested in such things: No. 1 to 5 were made under pot…No. 7 with cocaine and ups…[No. 10] with almost anything, but mainly deprivation…” – Harry Smith
Igliori, Paola, ed. ‘American Magus: Harry Smith, A Modern Alchemist’. New York: Inanout Press, 1996.

No. 1: A Strange Dream
Hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16 mm
“…the history of the geologic period reduced to orgasm length”

No. 2: Message From the Sun
Hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16 mm
“takes place either inside the sun or in…Switzerland”

No. 3: Interwoven
Hand-painted 35 mm stock photographed in 16mm
“Batiked animation made of dead squares”

No. 4: Fast Track aka Manteca"
16mm
Composed of black and white superimpositions, brushstrokes to represent musical notes.

No. 5: Circular Tensions (Homage to Oskar Fischinger)
16mm

No. 7: Color Study
16mm
“Optically printed Pythagoreanism in four movements supported on squares, circles, grillwork, and triangles with an interlude concerning an experiment”

No. 10: Mirror Animations"
16mm
“An exposition of Buddhism and the Kabbalah in the forms of a collage. The final scene shows Agaric mushrooms growing on the moon while the Hero and Heroine row by on a cerebrum”

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

great intro

my computer still wont let me watch those links, may have to seek other methods ):

La Schiff

over 3 years ago

oh no! try the links i posted in the main SW&A thread, they’re better quality anyway

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

those 7 seperate links are the ones I did try

are these youtube videos the whole of the film

if so I can watch them soon and comment by morning

Jacob W.

over 3 years ago

As usual youtube does absolutely no justice to the films, but what can ya do…

I have scans of a couple very entertaining interviews that I could put up, or you can just listen to one of them here:

Sitney with Smith Pt. One

Sitney with Smith Pt. Two

James Montene​gro

over 3 years ago

@Alana, This film reminds me strongly of the Entoptic phenomena, those colors and shapes one sees when closes his/her eyes. It took me back to my childhood, when I would spend so much time with my eyes closed just to check out the “cool colors and patterns” I could see. My parents thought it was cooky, but cute. Now, I think of this as not just “cool,” but very therapeutic in a way. I concentrate on it when I close my eyes and meditate. I like to think of myself as traveling through inner space, concentrating on ideas, thoughts, and the absence of activity in the brain department. In short, watching Early Abstractions is a real meditative experience for me. Is it the same for others? What do you think or not think about when watching this?

La Schiff

over 3 years ago

@Dennis B – ack sorry bout that, don’t know why they didn’t work. You can just watch the youtube ones, its about 22 mins in total for all the films so it seems like it’s mostly all in there.

@James, YES!!!! that is exactly what i meant when i said “when you close your eyes”, especially if you do it really tight like i did when i was younger. and then you start seeing bright greens and reds, etc. my mother thought i was insane too!! i remember that moment specifically from my childhood.

@Elephant_Gun, thanks for the interview links, i’m definitely going to check those out soon! :)

Salem Kapsask​i

over 3 years ago

Great write-up Alana!

The Early Abstractions were out of this world, I wish I could have experienced them in a better format (these really need to be seen on the big screen) but even with the lower quality youtube vids they made me feel like a was suddenly under the influence.

I must shamefully admit that this was my first experimentation with the drug called Harry Smith. So thank you for introducing me to him.

“This film reminds me strongly of the Entoptic phenomena, those colors and shapes one sees when closes his/her eyes.”
I was thinking the same thing (and I still like to rub my eyes when they are closed or look up at bright lights from time to time just to look at the colors and shapes…. probably explains why I need glasses.)

David Ehrenst​ein

over 3 years ago

“Early Abstractions” was originally accompanied by side one of “Meet the Beatles.”

Harry was quite a character. He had an ability to seduce Boston college boys that surpasses understanding.

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

Dennis...Brian

over 3 years ago

very interesting patterns, something I could def. see as advertising.
most of the images made me think of sex (sticks and openings) but that could be just me.

the dead squares were the most opposing maybe, looked like a prison at times.

“An exposition of Buddhism and the Kabbalah in the forms of a collage. The final scene shows Agaric mushrooms growing on the moon while the Hero and Heroine row by on a cerebrum”

left speechless by this section, the dancer, the hand…WOW

The fims are obviously very evocative and I appreciate having seen them. I dont know what to say about them quite yet

Venus Sands

over 3 years ago

Wow! What a fun experience. Thank you Alana for the great introduction! I agree with Salem that I wish to see this on a big screen one day in high quality. Still though, with my curtains drawn and speakers on high while lying comfortably on my bed, this was a great psychic voyage. I’m a huge fan of experimentation and creation of abstracted thoughts into a tangible form even though technically I understand very little about the development of these shorts. As James Montenergo mentioned earlier, these films do seem to result in entoptic phenomena. I’m happy he mentioned that because I didn’t actually know the term for it until I saw his post. This audio-visual journey kind of put me into a trance-like state and sort of cleared my mind and left it feeling spacious. There must be some science or theory out there noting the occurrences of astrals projections induced by experimentation with sound, image, movement, etc. It seems to me that this is what Harry Smith successfully achieved with his Early Abstractions—an opportunity to momentarily disjoin ourselves from our mundane realities and into a meditative states. I re-watched these films several times paired with different music (The Residents, Whitehouse, and Iannis Xenakis’ Chamber Music). It actually worked out seamlessly into peaceful waking dreams experiences. I highly recommend it!

Robert W Peabody III

over 3 years ago

ability to seduce Boston college boys that surpasses understanding

Perhaps another entoptic phenomena…

La Schiff

over 3 years ago

i like the idea of continual change and never seeming to have an end, just keeps leading into another phase, like it’s building its own universe. especially in No. 5 how it starts off so elemental and just keeps delving into more complex patterns as it goes, made me think of evolution of life forms for some reason haha.

He has this “matter-of-fact” whimsical movement in his films, specifically like when the sun/moon shape goes whizzing by in No. 1. like nothing will stop this pattern in nature.

thought this was fitting: some info on colors and levels in Kabbalah – Light and the Sefirot

Also, @Elephant_Gun…haha, greatttttt interview, he’s hysterical and engaging. I LOVEEEEE HIS VOICE!!


Smith with Brakhage…
<3

javier quinter​o

over 3 years ago

I just saw it. What an intense experience on transformation and metamorphism from basic geometric forms to sincretic religious-human forms. A pictorical experience in the most part, where lines have a marked absense. From the stain to the cut and paste-image and collage, Imo, Harry Smith take us on a travel on spirituality and sacred geometric shapes.

Venus Sands

over 3 years ago

I agree, Javier. That was a nice concise way of summing it up. Did anyone try listening to different music while watching the videos? I think it underscores the universality of the videos and shows how well it generalizes in different experiences/settings….