Cineaste, Winter 2006, Vol. 32 Issue 1
“Unseen No More? The Avant-Garde on DVD”
Thanks to several landmark DVD releases, the works of avant-garde filmmakers have at last become available for home viewing. But how will this new visibility affect the movement?
When it comes to home entertainment, the avant-garde is always late—that is, if it isn't left off the guest list altogether. Needless to say, the absence of a reliable niche market for sub-feature-length nonnarrative movies is a major stumbling block to corporate investment but let's not discount ingrained suspicion by experimentalists of mass culture, specifically its tendency to maim experiences of fragile art in the process of making it more available. Media industry honchos and filmmakers working at the motion-picture fringes have ample grounds for mutual distrust. For the average fan, an evening in the company of experimental shorts has traditionally conjured visions of dental surgery. While any genuine rapprochement between mainstream and margins remains a pipe dream, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of exotic yet user-friendly DVD's of varied provenance, released through a combination of discerning commercial distributors and fledgling, Internet-based boutique operators. If the proportion of absolutely essential nonmainstream work lags far behind that of classical Hollywood or, for that matter, key European art films and documentaries, the helter-skelter rush toward digital conversion constitutes a genuine watershed for a kinetic movement sporting a long and often recondite history. Although DVD's have been around for barely a decade, the time is ripe for an assessment of how this dominant format is exposing cinema's perennial underground.
First, however, a bit of explanation, a brief history of the avant-garde's flirtation with in-home technologies, and a dollop of esthetic theory are in order. Given the mythology surrounding marginal cinemas, newcomers might well regard this turf as narrow, demanding, and ultraserious. In fact, the movement has nearly as many branches, moods, and avenues of pleasure as, say, Hollywood cinema. For starters, the avant-garde is not a genre; it has genres, including the portrait, comic parody, landscape study, and autobiography. Further, even the epithet 'avant-garde' is contested, a useful label for French films of the Twenties allied with prominent artistic factions like Surrealism, but misleading when applied to sixty-plus years of institutionalized nonmainstream American endeavors. Some prefer the term 'experimental' although it makes complex, highly articulate idioms sound like quasiscientific exercises.
At this late date, it makes no sense arguing over well-worn nomenclature; I use the conventional terminology loosely and interchangeably. Regardless of what they are called, films discussed here tend to be low-budget, non-feature length, and made outside industrial systems of production by single artists (or, occasionally, by several collaborators). The idea that they are oppositional to values and codes of Hollywood movies is simultaneously true--they are certainly defiant in creative method—and decidedly misleading since from the beginning they have carried on intricate dialogs with commercial fare. Moreover, any insider/outsider exchange cuts both ways, with Hollywood and its satellites borrowing esthetic or technological innovations, styles of editing or shooting, and even personnel from the avant-garde roster (perhaps the most famous instance of appropriation involves a mysteriously celestial filming technique pioneered by Jordan Belson then adapted by Kubrick for the 'slit-scan' ending of 2001). The point is that even devoted Hollywoodians, who wouldn't ordinarily watch something devoid of stars, stories, or schmaltzy music, already possess a substantial backlog of crypto-avant-garde experiences--and don't get me started on the condensed formal languages of TV commercials or music videos.
Not surprisingly, the early marketing in the 1950's of 8mm movies for domestic consumption--including newsreels, sports and science 'featurettes' along with flashier attractions--bypassed a great legacy of European experimenters ranging from Man Ray to Joris Ivens. The videotape revolution of the 1970's presumably deemed both homegrown and foreign avant-gardes too arcane to justify the expense of professional transfers. Laserdiscs hit the scene in 1978 but didn't last long enough to reach the cinematic margins. Cable TV's unprecedented growth
in the Eighties was hailed as a potential conduit to wider circulation, with the giant maw of twenty-four-hour movie channels turning inevitably to eye-catching avant-garde 'filler.' It didn't happen. Ditto public television, despite its mandate to encourage subaltern social perspectives.
Few observers could have predicted in 1997 that DVD's would so swiftly transform not only worldwide patterns of movie viewing but also economic realities in the dominant industry. For practitioners outside the mainstream, the format's initial promise was of greater image fidelity than VHS--an important factor for celluloid purists--plus increasingly affordable access. Pragmatic issues of reproduction and image retrieval were soon trailed by the familiar, millennial whiff of enhanced public exposure. To be sure, experimental filmmakers had for years circulated videotape copies of their work for promotional or study purposes. Yet the collapse of once sacrosanct boundaries between mechanical and electronic recording, prodded by skyrocketing 16mm production costs, made the prospect of disseminating new or established bodies of work on disc, as well as digitally preserving deteriorating film prints, a salutary breakthrough instead of a wary compromise (nearly all surviving first-generation American avant-gardists have by now tried their hand at video production, and not a single filmmaker I spoke to in preparing this article disparaged benefits of converting films to DVD, although several noted that public screenings should remain limited to celluloid).(n1) On the negative side of the ledger, the DVD explosion has clearly exacerbated an ongoing and generalized decline in 16mm rentals--especially to universities, a primary income source for the avant-garde's= ever-beleaguered artist-run distribution cooperatives. And here is where financial concerns bump headlong into esthetic tradition and cultural ideology.
n "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," theorist Walter Benjamin famously proclaimed that movies and related organs of twentieth-century mass culture had sapped the "aura" from previously exclusive experiences of art: the "presence in time and space [of an artwork's] unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Unlike dance or theater, the same movie can be shown democratically in multiple locations at once. It is indeed a striking irony that the history of avant-garde film has been galvanized and sustained by an updated, strangely incongruous version of phenomenological presence, the aura of uniqueness. From the beginnings of European experimental cinema in the 1920's, filmmakers not only showed their work to small bohemian gatherings but, as members of a contentious artistic milieu, also made in-person appearances to annotate or discuss their creations. Film projection was often accompanied by live music or was interspersed with autonomous musical or dance performances. The fact that one did not go to the local picture palace to see Viking Eggeling's abstract Symphonie Diagonale(1924) became part of the movement's implicit appeal, a condition which informed the imagination of possible film experiences.
As the avant-garde impulse caught on in America in the mid-Twenties, a similar ragtag network of film clubs, gallery events, lectures, and specialized journals helped connect what were otherwise isolated creative struggles. Such institutional supports attained greater stability as a post-WWII generation of experimentalists installed their own highly original forms of subcultural community: workshops, co-ops, screening venues, funding and exhibition affiliations. Consequently, part of the meaning of the avant-garde--any given film as well as the movement as a whole- resides in where and how it is consumed by actual viewers. There are no comparable site-specific dynamics, including IMAX, relevant to commercial moviegoing. Over the last twenty years or so, a robust avant-garde faction has reinforced an ethos of unique presentation by mining new variations on improvised projection, performance-film hybrids, and other 'live' uses of the medium.(n2) In this context the notion of 'home entertainment' becomes moot.
Demographic setting, however, is crucial. It will come as no shock that so-called alternative cinema has a distinctly urban profile, forever dependent on industrial and social resources of modern cities. Less obvious is that at least in America, slightly risqué vibes surrounding experimentalism cannot be divorced from an individual's immersion in an esoteric subculture, the charm of both screening venue and the person occupying an adjacent seat. Prospective audiences for the avant-garde are thus constrained by the exigencies of small nonprofit theaters nestled in peripheral neighborhoods in a handful of cities along with irregular programs in art museums and university film societies. Living beyond reach of this loose circuit, even the most avid or catholic movie fan would find it impossible to stay abreast of emerging artists and styles--even grizzled old troupers like myself often feel at sea--or, for novices, to acquire a passable understanding of the movement's history. Regardless of how many nonmainstream DVD's are rolled out, a residue of material contingency is unlikely to disappear entirely. Its coordinates, however,will be irrevocably transformed; indeed they have already changed
In the future lore of film scholarship, 2005 will be known as the year in which historical avant-gardes seized the public spotlight at last. Two
Questions of historical scope or completeness--always dicey given the Morass of movie copyrights and hermetic print elements--each set offers
From comments thus far, Unseen Cinema might seem the collection of choice, yet the Kino set has at least a couple of virtues that outshine its
Epstein is a major director and important early theorist whose work is scandalously little known in this country. Kino serves up two interestingly fractured narratives: the acidic La glace a trois faces (1927) and Le tempestaire (1947), a late gloomy seascape. The earlier film is an impressionistic cautionary tale about a self-destructive rake and his three female victims that anticipates radical attacks on dramatic structure launched by the French New Wave. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, we are transported back to a period in which standardized visual idioms and the syntax of movie stories functioned less as imperial edict than open blueprint for personal exploration. Part of what makes the viewing of these films so satisfying, indeed so necessary, is the reminder that commonplace devices such as dissolves, tracking shots, slow motion, and superimposition can be deployed, as it were, against the grain for deeply expressive effects. If nothing else, these collections revive our sense of the medium's vast formal possibilities in an era consecrated to technological glitz. Speaking of glitz, one of cinema's supreme innovators, Sergei Eisenstein, gets a wry nod from Kino on Romance sentimentale (1930), directed in France with Grigori Alexandrov, one of
There are a number of quirks in the Kino set, not all of them salutary--careless subtitles, contradictory release dates, untranslated titles and untranslated voice-overs, incomplete notes and incomplete credits. Nevertheless, if the goal is to redress a missing chapter in the early push-pull between mass-produced linear storytelling and category-busting independent exploits, Kino's lineup offers a great platform. In addition, there are intriguing opportunities to compare noted European stylists with their underappreciated American counterparts; the latter tend to be a bit heavy-handed in symbolism and derivative in their use of film language. One can also extrapolate shared themes, such as the subjectivity of sexual longing, which Hollywood productions of the time barely touched. Over the course of roughly two weeks, I devoured both collections end to end (that's why Cineaste pays me the big bucks). Less compulsive viewers will undoubtedly take a different route--mixing and matching, jumping back and forth to revisit especially challenging work, creating custom miniprograms organized by motif or year or esthetic affiliation (graphic abstraction, Surrealism, poetic documentary). Even if you don't wax nostalgic for the bounty of 'short subjects' that routinely fronted commercial double bills, Settling in for a couple of cine-poems as prelude to a recent blockbuster--or as late-night substitute for that obscure Andy Hardy sequel on TCM--can sharpen visual sensitivities to realms of pleasure way beyond narrative-driven action
Regardless of how you navigate these twin streams of pre-WWII experimentation, it will be evident that Unseen Cinema possesses enough
Minus an ideological ax to grind, Posner follows the line adopted by Sitney's critics. His project benefited from a 1995 collection of essays edited by Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema: The First American Avant-Garde, 1919-1945, which explicitly took issue with Sitney's
Distilling the rarefied from the merely rare in a collection this huge is no easy task. Each disc is loosely organized around a specific theme or idiom or mode of production: headings include "The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism," "Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled," "Viva la Dance," and "The Amateur as Auteur." Posner's rubrics are, to be sure, largely ornamental since consistent rules for inclusion are ambiguously instated then heedlessly trashed. For instance, I have no idea why brief visual fanfares extracted from Douglas Fairbanks and Victor Fleming's When Clouds Roll By (1919) or James Cruze's Beggar on Horseback (1925) should count as "Surrealism" although the case for including junk footage collages orchestrated by assemblage virtuoso Joseph Cornell (but completed years later by Lawrence Jordan) is relatively obvious. Bringing to light seven delicate vignettes by one of the giants of twentieth-century art--each plying unsettling juxtapositions that burrow under rose colored myths of childhood--is a genuine gift. That said, Posner's decision to file three Cornells under the heading of "Amateur" is grossly misleading. Cornell was a recluse who reportedly saw little of the avant-garde canon but I question the logic of placing him alongside casual Sunday filmers like Elizabeth Woodman Wright, who wouldn't recognize a metaphoric edit if it bit her in the ass.Distilling the rarefied from the merely rare in a collection this huge is no easy task. Each disc is loosely organized around a specific theme or idiom or mode of production: headings include "The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism," "Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled," "Viva la Dance," and "The Amateur as Auteur." Posner's rubrics are, to be sure, largely ornamental since consistent rules for inclusion are ambiguously instated then heedlessly trashed. For instance, I have no idea why brief visual fanfares extracted from Douglas Fairbanks and Victor Fleming's When Clouds Roll By (1919) or James Cruze's Beggar on Horseback (1925) should count as "Surrealism" although the case for including junk-footage collages orchestrated by assemblage virtuoso Joseph Cornell (but completed years later by Lawrence Jordan) is relatively obvious. Bringing to light seven delicate vignettes by one of the giants of twentieth-century art--each plying unsettling juxtapositions that burrow under rose-colored myths of childhood--is a genuine gift. That said, Posner's decision to file three Cornells under the heading of "Amateur" is grossly misleading. Cornell was a recluse who reportedly saw little of the avant-garde canon but I question the logic of placing him alongside casual Sunday filmers like Elizabeth Woodman Wright, who wouldn't recognize a metaphoric edit if it bit her in the ass.
Similarly, what makes esteemed Griffith cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer's 1904 two-minute overhead crane shot of a Westinghouse factory floor an
It is worthwhile recalling that during the period covered by both collections, the status of cinema as art in American cultural discourse was far from a done deal. To legitimize film within the pantheon of traditional art forms, filmmakers and advocates alike borrowed the cultural prestige of painting, music, dance, or poetry. Assertions on behalf of Hollywood narratives inevitably enlisted the qualities of theater or the novel. It is no accident that avant-gardes on both sides of the Atlantic were stocked with practitioners from other mediums, nor is it irrelevant that in most instances successful artists abandoned cinema after an experiment or two. In Travel Notes (1932), Walker Evans demonstrates that even the greatest still photographer doesn't always know when to end a shot, or how to transition from one shot to the next. Similarly, when the painter George L.K. Morris converts graphic shapes to animated color phrases in Abstract Movies (1937-47), the outcome is a hopeless muddle. Morris's failure, however, doesn't prevent Dwinell Grant, in two films usually referred to as Themis (1940) and Contrathemis (1941), from evoking the type of rich painterly tensions associated with Kandinsky. The work of Morris and Grant appear on a disc labeled "Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction."
Unseen Cinema unearths a startlingly prolific gang of cine-paintings, eye-music études, and other crossbred entities. The inclusion of several otherwise forgettable women filmmakers--perhaps to deflect charges of gender imbalance (although no such quota was applied to quirky filmmakers of color like Spencer Williams)--does not negate the ambitious animations of Mary Ellen Bute yet an overabundance of similar films does her a disservice. In one sense, however, she is the epitome of Unseen's transmedium agenda since Bute seemingly tried to incorporate all other art forms Simultaneously. Nonetheless, as is true of Posner's nomenclature generally, what distinguishes Bute's cine-dances from her
The flipside of the 'film art' debate is embodied by Slavko Vorkapich, an omnidimensional cinéaste represented here by his groundbreaking
In personal conversation, P. Adams Sitney accurately referred to Posner's method as "history by curating." I would add that it is also history by
How do individual films acquire the avant-garde mantle? Posner's introductory notes contain clues: Bitzer's subway tour is a "predecessor
So where should you draw the line in excavating the 'true' avant-garde? Elsewhere I have argued that definitions of, especially, the American movement based on modernist pedigree, esthetic innovation, or opposition to Hollywood are not only simplistic, they wind up being either too narrow or too amorphous to handle copious stylistic or rhetorical options. In contrast, an institutional perspective--call it vulgar materialism--might
It must be acknowledged that institutional markers have become increasingly conspicuous and fixed since the 1960's, even as specific organizations or practices have waxed and waned. Eighty years ago esthetic and social boundaries between what we now recognize as the domains of avant-garde, documentary, and mainstream narrative were more fluid than they are today, an important caveat whose implications are explored by
The bridge between early avant-gardes and the contemporary American scene is anchored, as Sitney rightly insists, by Maya Deren. Her off-screen influence, as it were--via DIY distribution schemes and public advocacy--proved as decisive as her small, six-film body of work. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a pioneering Trance Film made in the shadow of Hollywood with her professional cameraman husband, Alexander Hammid, is available from Mystic Fire Video in a nicely tailored "authorized edition" DVD. Along with her more obscure yet fascinating dance-dreams like At Land (1945), extras include a fragment of Deren's prodigious unfinished project on Haitian mysticism, Divine Horseman, a bibliography, and assorted writings.
Space limitations do not permit a comprehensive guide to the post-Deren era on DVD; what follows is intended to alert potential buyers both to
Discovering what looks good on a TV screen is a trial-and-error process. Some films simply demand a larger-than-life scale and thus shrink into
Anthologies are by nature partial and subjective, imposing particular esthetic frameworks or interpretations on larger oeuvres. By Brakhage is
Applied to almost any other filmmaker, such observations would be the minor quibbles of a fussy academic. Here, however, they underwrite some
If the market for avant-garde discs continues to expand, we may expect the current frontier atmosphere to be supplanted by a few hardheaded
In the category of self-distribution, you can't go wrong with Ken Jacobs's incredible Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004), the Moby-Dick of
Zeitgeist, an excellent source for contemporary foreign films, has brought their collection of feminist icon Yvonne Rainer's work to DVD, but for
Aside from Rainer, Su Friedrich is probably the most respected and accomplished contemporary woman filmmaker. Unlike Rainer, her films are
Two upstart avant-garde outfits deserve a final, brief mention. Based in Portland, Oregon, Peripheral Produce has been around for a decade helping promote younger mediamakers straddling accepted boundaries between avant-garde, documentary, and indie narrative. Naomi Uman, an artist previously unknown to me, has made both observational studies of Mexican farm families and poetic, found footage distillations that foreground corporeal anxieties. Her Hand Eye Coordination (2002) generates a lively riff on manual film manipulation.
Other Cinema, a plucky tendril of filmmaker-entrepreneur Craig Baldwin's subterranean San Francisco antiempire, dispenses cheesy exploitation
DVD's and Books Reviewed in This Article
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941 Seven DVD set,
Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s Two DVD set, B&W, silent/musical accompaniment, approx. six hours. A Kino Video release
Maya Deren: Experimental Films DVD, B&W, 73 mins. A Mystic Fire release
By Brakhage: An Anthology Two DVD set, B&W/color, silent/sound, 243 mins. A Criterion Collection release
Star Spangled to Death Ken Jacobs, Four DVD set, B&W, 440 mins.
Greenaway: The Early Films Two DVD set, B&W/color, 326 mins. A Zeitgeist Fims release
The Films of Su Friedrich Five DVD set, B&W/color, 447 mins. An Outcast Films release
Sins of the Fleshapoids Mike Kuchar, DVD, color, 97 mins. An Other Cinema Digital release
Milking and Scratching: Hand-Made Films by Noami Uman DVD, B&W/color, 99 mins. A Peripheral Produce release
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893-1941 Edited by Bruce Posner. New York: Black Thistle Press/Anthology Film Archives, 2001
The Most Typical Avant-Garde:History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles by David E. James. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.
(n1) A minority opinion, vigorously and persistently voiced by filmmaker entrepreneur Pip Chodorov, founder of the Paris-based avant-garde distribution company Re:Voir, insists that videotape offers a superior visual copy due to the algorithmic compression, hence loss, of information on DVD; read his analysis at www.revoir.com. Lacking the requisite technical knowledge to evaluate Chodorov's rebuke, I can only say that his company has turned out terrific cassette editions of films by Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, and other pantheon directors. In 35 years of writing about--and making, and curating, and administering--American avant-garde film, I can attest to the utter speciousness of cultural stereotypes about arrogant, hermetic, elitis filmmakers. Historically, an unremitting desire for greater public exposure and acceptance has spawned any number of, sometimes misguided, initiatives and stylistic trends. Like Dali and Buñuel, who wheedled a performance of Un Chien Andalou before an outraged bourgeois movie house, most filmmakers I have met would savor the opportunity for responsible theatrical distribution. Which is not to say that the movement isn't replete with cantankerous, dogmatic egos.
(n2) For an overview of avant-garde engagement with performative techniques, see Millennium Film Journal 43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005).
(n3) See, for example, "Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde," Critical Inquiry 27 (Summer 2001).
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