Mary Ellen Bute, born in 1906, was one of the first experimental filmmakers in America. She is considered one of the “pioneers” of this art form and was widely known for creating the first electronically generated film images. Bute was born and raised in Texas up until her teenage years. From 1922 to the early 30s, she began school at PA Academy of Art, then then later studied stage lighting at Yale.
While working in New York City between 1934 and 1953, Bute made fourteen short abstract musical films using her knowledge acquired from her studies on color organs. She was heavily influenced by the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger, a German abstract artist and animator who was a key innovator in abstract animation set to music. His work ranged from early Disney experiments, to advertisements, to avant-garde film-making. Like her mentors, she followed the theory that all music could be broken down into mathematical formulas.
At first, Bute used common household objects such as combs, colanders, ping pong balls, cellophane to experiment with lighting and color. She later used an oscilloscope as a primary tool for her work. Many of Bute’s films were seen in regular movie theaters (e.g Radio City Music Hall) usually preceding a prestigious film. Several of them were categorized as part of her Seeing Sound series. Here is one of the shorts, Escape:
*Here are some of the others that do require special access*
Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer, Ted Nemeth, whom she married in 1940. Nemeth opened his own studio where Bute often wrote scripts for his documentary and advertising films. Two sons, Theodore Jr. and James, were born in 1940 and 1947. Moving to live-action fiction films in the mid-1950s, Bute produced a half-hour featurette, The Boy Who Saw Through casting teen-aged Christopher Walken in his first leading role.
Bute’s film Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, inspired from the novel Finnegan’s Wake, took about seven years to make and was her final finished film. Not only was it produced and directed by her, but it also won ‘Best Debut of the Year’ in 1965. The film is essentially an adaptation of a complicated novel. It was considered a weirdly post-New Wave rediscovery of Surrealism, and in her collection of allusion – 1950s dance crazes, atomic weaponry, ICBMs, and television all make appearances.
Film critic Roger Ebert claims that, “Some of Miss Bute’s visual translations of Joyce are genuinely amusing, and some of her techniques are interesting experiments. She mostly uses a conventional camera style, but occasionally switches to animation, to the manipulation of drawings and paintings in front of the camera, to double exposure and to old film clips run forward, backward and upside down. This suggests the complexity of the subconscious (which, I gather, is one big double exposure up there in your head anyway).”
Click here to watch the film.
Robert Anton Wilson, who studied the novel for others, speaks of his interpretation in an interview from 1988. Click here to listen!
Bute was a founding member of the Women’s Independent Film Exchange. She chose film historian Cecile Starr to distribute her short films. She also worked on two other films (including one about Walt Whitman) that were never completed. Mary Ellen Bute died on October 17, 1983, at the age of 77. Six months before her death she was honored at the Museum of Modern Art where her films were shown.
“There were so many things I wanted to say, stream-of-consciousness things, designs and patterns while listening to music. I felt I might be able to say [them] if I had an unending canvas.”
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