Much like Kenneth Anger’s celebrated short “Fireworks,” Curtis Harrington’s “Fragment of Seeking” (1946), which prefigured “Fireworks” by a year, explores the struggle of a young, gay man with his sexual identity. Only Harrington does so with considerably more subtlety and ambiguity, resulting in a beautiful, languid piece about the pressures faced by those whose desires conflict with the roles placed upon them by society, and about the need to cast aside society’s ever increasingly more inadequate notions of masculinity. Harrington’s output of such homoerotically-charged Avant Garde works as “Fragment” would eventually earn him a place on the short list of the most influential, early gay filmmakers along with the likes of the aforementioned Anger. And it’s with this powerful short piece that Flicker Alley’s 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD release of The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection opens.
Unlike Anger, however, whose work tended to be more explicit in its subject matter (there’s really no mistaking what “Fireworks” is about from right early on, for example), the process of understanding a Harrington piece tends to be far more cumulative in nature. Particularly with 1948’s “Picnic,” the second film in the collection, you need to experience every shot of the film in order to truly understand it. Although any given viewer might well assume that he/she has a solid grasp on Harrington’s intentions with “Picnic,” only in the final moments of the film does he allow it to achieve total thematic clarity as he ties the myriad narrative threads together, thereby rewarding viewers handsomely for completing the piece in its entirety.
By contrast, the subsequent works collected here: “On the Edge” (1949), “The Assignation” (1953), and “The Wormwood Star” (1955) may lack the thematic palpability of “Fragment” or “Picnic,” at least on an intellectual level, but Harrington’s hauntingly poetic visuals in these films achieve an intensity that, at the very least, will affect their viewers emotionally. “The Wormwood Star” in particular stands out in this regard, as this deceptively simple pseudo-documentary from Harrington takes viewers on a journey through the artwork of occultist and Kenneth Anger alum, Marjorie Cameron. In a strange way, I found myself likening Harrington’s work on “Wormwood” to that of director Chris Smith on American Movie (1999). And by that I mean that Harrington appears to be simply letting his subject speak for itself but is in fact so subtly guiding our understanding of Cameron’s artwork that we’re apt to overlook the manipulation.
The feature program of this collection concludes with Harrington’s final film, “Usher” (2002), skipping over the 47 years of the director’s career in which he went to work in Hollywood and on television, directing films such as Night Tide (1961) and Games (1967) and working on such series as Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. “Usher” is an incredibly odd and stilted film, featuring Harrington himself in dual roles as twins Roderick and Madeline Usher. Apart from its link to “Wormwood” through the occult, as Harrington here cast former Satanists Nikolas and Zeena Schreck in bit parts, “Usher” seems wholly out of place juxtaposed with his earlier, Avant Garde work. Yet it needn’t have been this way. All it would have taken is a simple tweak to the feature program.
Tucked in among the special features is Harrington’s 1942 adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which Harrington also played dual roles as the Usher twins. Not only was this the director’s first film, but he made it in high school at the age of 14! And with that in mind, primitive though the piece may be, it’s an incredibly impressive little film, featuring wonderful cardboard miniature sets and even cardboard lightning. More importantly, it shows Harrington’s passion for filmmaking and the immense talent he would exhibit later in his Avant Garde films in particular. Additionally, his career both originated and culminated in adaptations of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and viewing “Usher” in that light makes its inclusion here indispensable. Yet, unless you watch the special features first (and who does that really?), you’re liable to walk away from “Usher” confused and just a bit disappointed that the set would open with five experimental works only to jarringly close with a fairly straightforward narrative piece. Of course, this by no means constitutes a condemnation of the collection from yours truly, just a strong suggestion that you go into the special features and watch “The Fall of the House of Usher” before partaking in the feature program.
The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection is the product of a partnership between Flicker Alley and Drag City Inc., and features restorations of the six films overseen by the Academy Film Archive. Other special features in the collection include two interviews with Harrington (clocking in at just over an hour combined) and “The Four Elements” (1966), a surprisingly stylish government documentary Harrington made for the United States Information Agency about the nation’s power supply. Also included is a 28-page booklet featuring notes on the restorations by American Film Archive preservationist Mark Toscano, as well as an essay by Lisa Janssen.