With a mixture of side-show enthusiasm and pop-art advertising, Mary Ellen Bute’s films tend to speak for themselves: "Let your eyes and ears dance this one for you," announces Polka Graph (1947), while Color Rhapsodie (1948) asks: "Do you see anything like this when seeing sound?". Though perhaps the title at the start of Abstronic (1952) says it best of all: "Enjoy yourself!" One would have to try hard not to enjoy oneself during her visual-music films, for they are, if nothing else, undeniably entertaining. Using popular pieces of classical music as a foundation, such as Copland’s "Hoedown" and Saint-SaÃ«ns’ "Danse Macabre," Bute and her alternating cast of collaborators (among them Norman McLaren and her husband Ted Nemeth) created an unprecedented cinematic sensation: an animated synthesis of music and abstracted impulses that pulsed and gyrated in organic ecstasy. There is such unbridled joy in her films — as though the images themselves were an elastic and ever-expanding dance — as well as an irresistible sense of humor. The amorphous blobs, lingering shadows, and malleable squiggles that are Bute’s "actors" contort themselves in endlessly creative fashions: in Spook Sport (1939), which opens with a credited "cast of characters," bats suddenly turn into mallets that beat on bone-shaped xylophone keys. It is flights of fancy such as these that give the visual music of Mary Ellen Bute’s films their ageless appeal.
Born in Texas in 1906, Bute began making films in the mid-1930s after studying painting while in school. In a lecture given at the Chicago Art Institute and reprinted in Robert Haller’s First Light, Bute explained the genesis behind her interest in film: "[Kandinsky] used abstract, nonobjective elements so you could experience a canvas the way you experience a musical compositionâ€¦ Well, I thought it was terrificâ€¦[but] these things should be unwound in time continuity." Through her work in film, Bute was able to merge these concepts of abstraction and duration, as well as her interest in lighting effects. And it is through lighting that Bute distinguished herself from others such as Walther Ruttmann and Max Fischinger: whereas those two filmmakers worked with two-dimensional shapes, Bute preferred three-dimensional objects, often animating light and shadow and distorting the original object beyond recognition.
Renowned film historian Lewis Jacobs illuminated Bute’s work procedure in a Hollywood Quarterly article. "Bute and [Ted] Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent storeâ€¦ Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc." Pay close attention to Bute’s first completed film, Rhythm in Light (1934), and marvel at the way she is able to mold shadows as if they were tactile objects: it is as if her hands can merge with the light, giving her an intimacy with shadow rarely seen elsewhere.
For all of the experimental nature of Bute’s work, she was able to achieve something out of reach for all but a few avant-garde filmmakers: mainstream commercial success. Bute’s visual-music shorts were shown at Radio City Music Hall and often toured the country, playing before the feature attraction at local theaters. This in no way diminishes the integrity or groundbreaking nature of her work, but instead speaks to Bute’s skill at creating works that are as entertaining and enjoyable as they are engaging.
Screening alongside of Bute’s shorts (for which she is best known) is her rarely shown Passages from Finnegans Wake (1966), which has never before played at Anthology Film Archives. Based on the legendary novel by James Joyce, Bute uses the theatrical adaptation by Mary Manning as the basis for her film, an imaginative and hallucinatory journey for which the label "surrealist" is hardly sufficient. Upon the film’s premiere in 1966, Albert Johnson wrote in Film Quarterly: "[It is] a hypnotic experience in Joyce’s world of Irish whimsy and wistful regrets. Through the dreamworld of the film, the spectator as well as the characters reach the kind of aesthetic self-redemption that defies definition—it is all emotional—this succession of awareness and indefinable recognitions of oneself." It is best to approach Passages from Finnegans Wake with a strong sense of wanderlust, as the labyrinthine nature of the film, and the illogic of the narrative and dialogue, is easy to lose oneself in; once lost, however, one has entered into the midst of great beauty and horrible nightmares. As Johnson rightly suggests, Passages is very much an "emotional" work. As with her visual-music shorts, Mary Ellen Bute’s work certainly engages the mind, but it always first caresses the senses.
Two programs of Mary Ellen Bute’s work shows at Anthology Film Archives this weekend. Passages from Finnegans Wake plays Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20 at 5:30PM, and a selection of 9 shorts plays Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20 at 7:30PM.