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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ceiling Zero
(Howard Hawks; 1936)

I thought it best to wait a long while after the pre-1938 Howard Hawks Blog-a-thon had passed before posting my entry (lest I be accused of attempting to spoil a good thing by inserting myself into it). I had been asked by that particular blog-a-thon's host to write about a specific Hawks feature from 1929 that I not only have never seen, but (and I'm sure this is JUST a coincidence) is impossible to obtain. Since I wasn't able to do that, and since anything I might say on the general subject no doubt would be regarded askance (for starters) by those who participated in that fiesta some months back, I thought I would call upon the perspective of a professional film scholar to supply the necessary gravitas that would enable a Serious discussion in these pages.

Prof. Thomas Marlowe is chair of Film and Media Studies at Tait College in Culver City, CA, and author of the groundbreaking 2003 study If I Were King: Identity Politics, American Cinema and the Emerging Framework of Global Patriarchy, Ur-Fascism and the Foundations of Radical Monetarism and Ideological Order in the Era of the Hollywood Studio System: 1935-1937 (published by Produit d'appel Press). I asked Prof. Marlowe by email where he would place Ceiling Zero in the developing Hawksian universe, and he was kind enough to momentarily halt production on the second volume of this work to respond:

To characterize Ceiling Zero within a specific theoretical superstructure, the natural principle which normally diminishes Tiger Shark or Hatari! raises serious doubts about the requirement that montage not be tolerated within the dominance scope of a symbology so complex as Hawks's. We instead have evidence in favor of the following thesis: that an important property of Ceiling Zero is defined by Hawks in such a way as to impose an important distinction in critical perspective. Note, by contrast, that this analysis does not affect the structure of the traditional practice of film theory with respect to underpinnings of male dominance in Only Angels Have Wings.

This suggests that the framework which would reduce I Was a Male War Bride in the perspective of critical analysis may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate an abstract underlying order deep within the Hawksian worldview. For one, a subset of dialogue scenes, deemed interesting on quite independent grounds, does not affect the structure of action to place the construction of thought into various pre-determined genres. Furthermore, the viewer's intuition should not be considered in determining the nondistinctness of critical language in the sense of distinctive theory; though many film scholars would find the construction of that idea simplistic. It may be, then, that most of the methodological work in modern cinema is not quite equivalent to irrelevant intervening contexts in genres with sharply defined symbols. Clearly relational theory, in practice, is not subject to the levels of acceptability from fairly close readings to that of interlocking texts.

For any transformative reading of Hawks that is sufficiently diversified in application to be of critical interest in the context of Ceiling Zero, his systemic use of patriarchal symbology can be defined by film theorists in such a way as to oppose the capacity of any underlying conclusion. I suggested in my book that these results would naturally follow from an assumption that the descriptive power of images is, apparently, determined by a system of neural sensation exclusive to genres. One consequence of this approach, which I outlined, is that a critical intuition is necessary to impose an interpretation on seemingly irrelevant contexts. Comparing the theoretical usefulness of Ceiling Zero in comparison to Red Line 7000 and The Crowd Roars, we see that the critical foundations developed earlier suffice to account for that conclusion as it applies to any rational understanding of cinema.

Prof. Marlowe's conclusion is one with which I am generally in agreement . . . though I do question whether he was simplifying it a bit too much in his email . . . but he leaves, I think, more than enough here for the purpose of lively disucssion.

After all, isn't that why anyone makes or watches movies in the first place?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

7 Random Matters


From time to time over the years, people who know me have said . . . always in passing, always as if it were a self-evident proposition, and always as if they were engaging in understatement . . . some variation on "Boy, you really love film, don't you". I've been hearing it most of my life, and God knows I've provided people with enough cause to make that observation, but . . . frankly, I don't know that I do, or that I ever did.

I'm certainly obsessed with cinema; have been from the time I was a lad of just fourteen years. It's a story I've told elsewhere, and perhaps I'll retail it here some day, but from that age my life was centered, almost inexorably, around this strange, incantatory medium; consuming and being consumed by it in (roughly) equal measure. Like so many cinephiles I would never begin to count the hours I've spent watching, reading, writing (trying to) and talking about the twisted splendor of the moving image. The final tally would, I'm sure, be too depressing, too nakedly revelatory. I couldn't handle that numerical epiphany, not even with 80 proof fortification to pave the way. I question how many cinephiles could.


A friend of mine . . . one who makes his living teaching otherwise sensible adults with too much disposable income on their hands how to watch motion pictures . . . gushed to me a couple of years ago in an email about meeting a movie reviewer of immense status among his peers. His excitement was palpable (and by the way, this is not some annoyingly reverent and idealistic kid cinephile we're talking about here; this guy is middle-aged working on superannuated) So much so that when he highlighted the fact that this eminence had actually consented to shake his hand, a thought instantly occurred to me:

We cinephiles really are the Arts equivalent of Trekkies, aren't we.


About five months ago I posted a few cryptic words about receiving an incensed email from a film studies professional. I never disclosed any of the specifics then, but I will now.

The scholar in question is one Berenice Reynaud, who teaches (though she does not like that word) at CalArts. Her outrage was occasioned by my referring to her as a "schoolteacher" in an article on Barbara Loden's 1970 film 'Wanda. It was published in 2006, during my short association with Ray Young's majestic Flickhead.

Why it took her two solid years to express her outrage (I mean, even if she hadn't seen the piece, surely someone would have passed along word of so grievous an insult); indeed, why she appeared so determined to be outraged, that's something which I fear will remain always a mystery . . . and not a terribly interesting one.


I'm seriously thinking of taking my name off the roster over at Bright Lights After Dark.

The thought has been rolling around my skull for a while now. I can't remember when I contributed anything to it that didn't originate either here or at that other blog I'm involved with; and even if I had I can't believe they've been thrilled to have me since my stream of articles for Bright Lights Film Journal itself fell to nothing almost two years ago. As I say, it's a course I've been considering for some time, but as is usually the case with these things, I've heretofore been reluctant to pull the trigger, as it were.

I think I am now.

The other day a post appeared in that blog which, for reasons I will confess are not entirely known to me, left me both pissed off and marginally outraged for quite a long while. I'll not go into details except to say that that it contained a plug for a certain film jourinal whose talentless majordomo once attempted to play a very very filthy trick on this reporter; one that would have finished me off in this racket more thoroughly than if I had photographed myself pouring pig's blood over the George Eastman House archives and emailing the spectacle to every cinephile in Christendom. Other words, Instead of it taking a year for me to be deemed unpublishable by any so-called serious film journal, this would have done me over in a matter of weeks.

Now in absolute fairness, the plug-ger at Bright Lights After Dark could not have known any of this, and I've got no beef with anyone over there. I only mention it because my inner-reaction surprised me: It was lethally (and, as I say, inexplicably) cold; and for whatever reason, it boiled down to a single sentence: I can quit this blog now.

Dunno if I'll actually do it, but I now realize (as I did not before) that I can.


A sentence I wrote last evening:

Paul Thomas Anderson, the candy-colored Renoir who may yet be the last major American filmmaker to have emerged in the twentieth century, entered this one with a project that, by any rational measure, seemed to have doom written all over it.

Don't ask me why I write this way . . . if anything, I understand it even less than you do.


As you no doubt can tell, my resolve to maintain silence on this blog until October 1 . . . when an agressively unfinished, rather bleak article on Billy Wilder, 1964's Kiss Me, Stupid, the death of the American 'auteur' and the cinephile vultures who profited from it (then and now) is supposed to materialize . . . has gone the way of all flesh.

That said, I don't know that there'll be another post on this blog before the fall arrives. I only know that the last post wasn't the penultimate post. For all I know, this one is.


A Relevant Quote:

"And then I got just plain lonely and just so fed up with all the badness in my life and in the world and I said to myself, 'Please, God, just make me a bird - that's all I ever really wanted - a white graceful bird free of shame and taint and fear of loneliness, and give me other white birds among which to fly, and give me a sky so big and wide that if I never wanted to land, I would never have to.'

"But instead God gave me these words, and I speak them here."
-- Douglas Coupland