Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old Stuff:
A Post on Avant-Garde Cinema in America (2006)

I wrote this short piece for my other blog back in the summer of 2006, when I participated in Girish Shambu's Avant-Garde Cinema blog-a-thon. Since it touches on some of the themes that emerged in the last few entries of this blog, I thought it warranted a re-posting here:

This is a description of a blog post on the subject of Avant-Garde Cinema in the United States. The post consists of 7 paragraphs, is exactly 1,500 words in length, and was composed by its author between the hours of 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM on Tuesday, August 1, 2006. It begins with specific information about the post's contents, the hour of its creation, and then moves into a series of observations on non-narrative, structural forms of cinematic expression throughout most of the 20th century. In the interim, the author briefly lists some of the terms used over time to designate these works, such as Avant-Garde Cinema, Experimental Cinema, Underground and Independent Cinema, before remarking that those are just the terms which come to him offhand. He then observes that any species of cinema which goes by that many names is perhaps too multi-varied in content to comfortably fit within any one of them, and that when one discusses the avant-garde one is more accurately discussing a cultural attitude rather than a particular work or body of work or mode of expression.

With a weakness for history, the author then outlines the dawn of this filmmaking in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, citing seminal works by Melville Webber & James Sibley Watson (The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; Lot in Sodom in 1933), as well as Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich's The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra from 1928, and Jay Leyda's A Bronx Morning in 1931. The author then states that the earliest avant-garde works in the United States owed a great deal more in terms of their formal grammar to both so-called German Expressionism and the more baroque, montage-oriented cinema coming out of the Soviet Union in the 1920s than they ever owed to the thriving avant-garde of France in that same period. After pointing out that this condition would change, albeit gradually, the author of the post then names several film artists who kept the movement, if movement it could be called, alive in North America until the mid-1940s. The artists mentioned in this sentence include such diverse voices as Joseph Cornell, Norman McLaren, John and James Whitney, Harry Smith, Willard Maas, and the only filmmaker who, it is said by the author, truly bridged the two periods, Maya Deren. The author then makes the point that Deren's earliest films bear a deeper mark of the French avant-garde school than any American so-called experimental works prior to their creation, and then asks a question: Why did it take roughly two decades for a school of filmmaking that would have such a defining influence on the American avant-garde to assert its aesthetic presence? Having only a vague outline of an answer . . . largely concerned with the propensity for trends and events from overseas, working almost in concord, to inform the direction of even the most putatively independent art in this one . . . the author of the post steals into the next point.

Moving abruptly away from an historical treatment to a polemical consideration of America's problematic approach to Modernism, the author recalls Cecilia Tichi's 1987 study Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature and Culture in Modernist America, where she posited the view that the rise of old Modernism in American culture and the advance of what came to be known as the Machine Age were not coincidental to one another. She spots a rough interrelationship (if not an outright commonality) between the two that informed the character, if not always the content, of America's Modern art to a greater degree than the influence of its counterpart expressions in the Old World. In this realm the very thing-ness of a creation . . . its standing, if you will, as an object of art (accent on 'object'), bereft of any non-quantifiable, and therefore 'useless' dimension . . . assumed a sharper focus in developing critical evaluations than anyone could have thought possible in the days when Impressionism held its dominion. The hideous secret laying at the foot of this putative connection, of course, is the implication that Modern Art in America, rather than standing as a reaction to the soullessness of industrial capitalism, was in fact an outgrowth of that socio-economic disease. The author then advises readers who may balk at this suggestion to remember that so many of the museums and temples of Modernism still with us today were underwritten and patronized by the same Robber Barons (Rockefeller, Morgan, Frick, Carnegie, Whitney) who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands and the economic misery of generations. Fully in keeping with the fundamental social disengagement of the enterprise, American Modernism gave birth to a body of critical theory wholly preoccupied with examining a work of art through its component parts, a relentless emphasis on formal properties. As theory it was pointless; as literature it was fiction without narrative.

But nothing prevented this theory-driven form of criticism from being carried over into considerations of America's Avant-Garde Cinema after the second world war; even if, unlike all other mediums of expression upon which it had been applied, the films themselves militated against such treatment. Given the overwhelming power of Cinema, the values (or, as the author of the post puts it somewhat nastily, the absence of values) at the heart of formal/textual analysis proved not only inadequate in comparison to direct experience, they served to invade and sever and destroy whatever bond might be forged between the filmmaker and his or her otherwise disinterested audience; replacing it with an empty discourse where critics state and restate official pieties to one another ceaselessly in a squalid, insular exchange of platitudes, long ago drained of meaning, materiality and relevance. The author seems to think that those who would analyze a work of Cinema as if dissecting an organism with a scalpel are at best neglecting to recognize that they're cutting into, pulling apart and ultimately killing a living thing.

After that hair-raising passage, the post rolls into a treatment of the explosion in non-narrative cinema which took place in the quarter century between 1945 and 1970 (roughly coinciding with the rise and solidification of Television in our culture). It betrays yet another jaundiced view, this time the tendency by some of the principal figures in the avant-garde to organize and make of alternate voices an institution. The author's disdain stands in stark contrast to his considerable affection for most of the films and filmmakers of the period, yet he believes it utterly. He even, in one sentence, adopts the stance that if one admires, say, Jonas Mekas as a filmmaker, there's something terribly contradictory in also admiring the idea, if not the reality, of such Mekas-generated entities as Film Culture (the magazine he founded in 1955 which was, to the Underground, what Photoplay was to Hollywood), the Film Makers' Cooperative, and good old Anthology Film Archives. He avows that Mekas was the single most indispensible figure in the history of Avant-Garde film in America, and that one would be hard put to read even the smallest degree of cynicism into any of his labors on its behalf. But this small truism, to him, does little to diminish the bigger truism that, regardless of anyone's intentions, artists and critics organize only to exclude. Their cooperatives and collectives and fronts and movements and guilds result almost organically in the establishment of bloated social structures, dominated not by art, but by strategic alliances that resemble nothing so much as the old Soviet politburo . . . or the Republican Party in the United States.

Without really exploring his fundamentally conflicted attitude . . . a line of inquiry that, if the author really cared about it, might have yielded some insight into the sensibility of anyone who numbers themselves among the ranks of avant-garde enthusiasts . . . the author plunges forward with yet another list of names: Kenneth Anger, Ed Emshwiller, Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Jordan Belson, Bruce Bailie, Marie Menken, Stan Vanderbeek, Curtis Harrington, Bruce Conner, Paul Sharits, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos, Storm deHirsch, Ernie Gehr, Shirley Clarke, Hollis Frampton. He remarks that he could probably go on, cheerfully typing them for an hour or more, all the while not coming to his fundamental point that the avant-garde reflected in this roll call is as diverse and extraordinary a panoply of filmmaking as any on earth, and that to corral and brand it all with an inelegant umbrella term such as The New American Cinema (to name but one), while certainly making it easy for true enthusiasts like Mekas to conjure the Us vs. Them ether that became so vital to its public identity, ultimately serves it ill.

Not wishing to further be a forum for its author's opressive, Bressonian negativity, the post sidesteps his last observation . . . how the rise of a more democratic spirit of protest in the United States in the late 1960s and the overall decline of the avant-garde were, like everything else, anything but coincidental . . . and abruptly terminates, right in the middle of the last


Marilyn said...

Fully in keeping with the fundamental social disengagement of the enterprise, American Modernism gave birth to a body of critical theory wholly preoccupied with examining a work of art through its component parts, a relentless emphasis on formal properties. As theory it was pointless; as literature it was fiction without narrative.I remember reading a comment to my announcement of the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon that the blogathon was a good idea because movie musicals were an undertheorized area of cinema.


Vanwall said...

Hell, I just wanna watch movies.