On The Avant-Garde

 

Perhaps the toughest part of introducing people to avant-garde cinema is getting them past the term itself. To some, “avant-garde” sounds inherently pretentious—even presumptuous. It’s like a dare: “This movie is innovative, challenging and cutting-edge. Can you handle it?” Quite a few potential A-G fans may be scared away by the notion that they’re being recruited into some kind of cult of the snooty. And a few may be scared away because they’re not sure they can handle it.
 
My earliest exposure to the avant-garde occurred in film classes (one at a high school summer camp, two in college), though what surprised me about the form at the time was that—contrary to any preconceived biases—so much of what I was seeing felt familiar. Once I got past the idea that movies must tell stories—which is an arbitrary limitation, really—I recognized that many of the classics of the avant-garde had a kinship with various pieces of pop ephemera I’d enjoyed throughout my life. If you’ve seen music videos, movie credits, impressionistic TV commercials and Sesame Street educational shorts, you’ve seen cinematic art that has a lot in common with experimental film—and which in some cases were directly inspired by it. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that the general public would be more receptive to comics if they realized how much they rely on the juxtaposition of words and images in sequence on a day-to-day basis. Similarly, I wonder if the popularity of avant-garde cinema might be boosted if someone wrote a book (or made a movie) showing how the cultural impact of the A-G is all around us.
 
I’m not going to claim that the new DVD set Treasures IV: Avant-Garde 1948-1986 is the home video equivalent of an Understanding Comics, but it may be the best way for the uninitiated to grasp how exciting this kind of cinema can be. Previous sets in the “Treasures From American Film Archives” series have combined early experimental efforts with socially and historically significant narrative films, industrial films and documentaries. This fourth volume hews close to the edgy, collecting—and preserving, most importantly—26 short films by some of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century.
 
Treasures IV moves logically—but not chronologically—from one filmmaker to another, making connections between their varied approaches to the form. The set contains films that take an anthropological approach, like Bruce Bailie’s Here I Am, an impressionistic 1962 documentary about a school for what were then called “emotionally disturbed children;” and Chick Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory, about the collision of the ersatz and the real at a Mexican manufacturer of papier-mâché foodstuffs. Other Treasures films are more in the mode of personal diaries, like Wallace Berman’s Aleph, which consists of some of the beat poet’s favorite images, collected and edited together over the course of a decade; or Saul Levine’s Note To Pati, which records scenes from a snowstorm, for the benefit of a friend far away. And Treasures IV contains plenty of work that has more in common with the traditional visual arts, like Stan Brakhage’s The Riddle Of Lumen, which strings together shots of ordinary places and objects transformed by light; and the splashes of color and lines that constitute Harry Smith’s “Abstractions:”
 
 
 
Just from that batch alone, it’s clear what a moveable feast the avant-garde can be. It’s easy to spot the artistic inclinations in the ever-shifting blobs of Smith, or in the flickery animations of Robert Breer (who’d later create original work for The Electric Company), or the discolored shapes of Pat O’Neill (who’d later work for George Lucas). But what exactly makes the Bailie and Strand samples on Treasures IV “avant-garde,” beyond the company the filmmakers kept, and the other work they did? That’s a challenging question, but one that may help open up the meaning of the term enough to allow for a proper appreciation of betwixt-and-between films like Jonas Mekas’ Notes On The Circus, which consists of home movies cut-up and sped-up and scored to rowdy jug-band music; or Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley’s The Off-Handed Jape…& How To Pull It Off, a piece of sub-Python sketch comedy elevated by its casualness. And the notion of what counts as avant-garde—or “art” for that matter—certainly enlivens any discussion of films like Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (No. 1), or Ron Rice’s Chumlum, or Ken Jacobs’ Little Stabs Of Happiness, all of which offer elaborately staged, often homoerotic fantasias featuring the filmmakers’ friends.
 
Between the helpful Treasures IV liner notes (featuring a forward by A-G enthusiast Martin Scorsese) and the smart arrangement of the program, it’s easier to pick up on where these films stand, both historically and in terms of their enduring influence. Filmmakers as diverse as John Waters, Todd Haynes and Guy Maddin have all been inspired by underground filmmakers like George Kuchar, whose 1977 film I, An Actress may seem on the surface to be an aimless exercise in camp—with an overzealous director queening it up in his efforts to get his starlet to emote—but which sways so easily between the artificial and the natural that it ends up being a commentary on both:
 
 
 
The sensibilities of the individual viewer will determine their reaction to a lot of the work on Treasures IV, but I for one relished the opportunity to see some astonishing work I’d never encountered before, like Marie Menken’s 1964 piece Go! Go! Go!, a collection of silent time-lapse views of New York that is at once kinetic, rhythmic, beautiful and historical, capturing a version of the city you won’t see in any other film of the era; and Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line, which holds tight on a misty field for 10 minutes as the fog slowly clears, recording a natural change that’s almost imperceptible as its happening, but which is startling once the patient viewer experiences it in full. I was also knocked out by Standish Lawder’s Necrology, which takes grainy black-and-white footage of New Yorkers on an escalator and runs it backwards in slow motion, making it appear as though a bunch of beaten-down souls are ascending into heaven:
 
 
 
My friend Jeff Lambert helped put Treaures IV together, and he writes in the set’s liner notes about Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), a conceptual masterpiece that has Frampton placing a series of old photographs on the burner of his stove and then filming as they're slowly consumed by flames, while fellow A-G filmmaker Michael Snow describes the image coming up in the next photograph. The film is a direct challenge to the audience’s own memory and to their ability to divorce visual information from the spoken word. (While watching one photo get destroyed, can we recall what Snow said about it a few minutes earlier?) Jeff writes, “I recall the first time I saw Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia). I immediately wanted to watch it again but had to wait years for another theater screening.” His circumstance only reinforces Frampton’s demonstration of how images and memories perpetually pass through and around us.
 
Inspired by Jeff’s comment about (nostalgia), I asked two other friends of mine—perhaps the most fervent fans of experimental film that I know—to recollect for me what first drew them to the avant-garde, and what’s kept them interested in it over the years.
 
Michael Sicinski, contributing writer for Cinema Scope and a critic specializing in experimental film, wrote:
My academic and aesthetic interests were originally oriented toward painting. I went to art school, studied painting and photography, and then moved into art history. My connection to ‘the movies’ was somewhat cinephilic in an upper-middlebrow kind of way, fairly committed to keeping up with foreign films, seeing classics and the like. But I stumbled onto avant-garde cinema almost by accident. Articles I read about art and cinema mentioned names like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, and the video stores that stocked Godard and Greenaway films also had Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren tapes, and so I discovered their films through cross-reference. Then, when I had a sense of who some of the major figures were, I did a bit of research. Scott MacDonald's series of interview books A Critical Cinema really gave me an exciting sense of the field of avant-garde cinema, and a bunch of films and filmmakers whose work I could spend the next decade tracking down. (It's a bit easier now, with DVD collections like this new one.) The so-called obsolescence of cinema means that it can be (and is) being put to all sorts of bizarre and thrilling new uses. It's a medium freed from most industrial imperatives. The intersections of cinema and video, of photographic and digital media, can be quite exciting, but can also give way to sloppy thinking as well. I find that the most compelling work happening right now tends to be broad and operatic in scope, unafraid of grand emotional gestures and direct affect. Despite avant-garde films being modest in scale, they needn't lack ambition.”
 
Chris Stults, the Film/Video Assistant Curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH, wrote:
Unlike most people, I never saw avant-garde film as a separate tradition from commercial cinema; they were both part of the same continuity. I imagine this is because at the same time I was devouring Martin Scorsese’s films, I was reading about the formative influence that Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, et al had upon him. And the first book of film criticism I found meaningful was J. Hoberman’s Vulgar Modernism, where Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs brush shoulders with David Lynch and Tex Avery. And then, in looking at cinema as an art form and not just as entertainment, I found that the avant-garde was able to express aspects of the fundamentals of cinema that couldn’t be easily integrated into larger-budgeted productions. Even more than with the auteur theory, the avant-garde allowed for the personal expression of a singular vision closer in line with artisanal practices or painting or poetry.
It’s important to remember that in cinema’s (and proto-cinema’s) formative years, it wasn’t pre-ordained that film would be a narrative art form. Early cinema pioneers explored the possibilities of the medium in ways that didn’t give all-consuming importance to story, and even Griffith stated that film’s greatest power was in showing “the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.” While there is a remarkable tradition within experimental cinema of dealing explicitly with early cinema (especially in the films of Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs and Andy Warhol), most of the richest works made in the avant-garde field strive to make the viewer see cinema anew. (As Michael Snow famously said about Gehr’s 1970 film History, “At last, the first film!”) At this date in the 21st century, the avant-garde has become a genre of its own, although within it, there are many sub- and parallel genres. There are still works being made that discover new territories and potentials, but most of the work currently being produced is continuing to mine the terrain initially charted in the middle of the 20th century. That’s not to say that the exploration of these furrows is unproductive or irrelevant. The avant-garde has (and continues) to produce some of the richest and most vital works in cinema’s history and compared to other cinematic genres—say, the European art film, the Hollywood blockbuster, or the Sundance indie—it remains under-explored and under-understood. And young filmmakers like Michael RobinsonBen Rivers, Jennifer Reeves and David Gatten continue to build upon and tweak the genre’s history in new ways and open up new avenues.
The thing that has always drawn me the most to avant-garde cinema is that it is intended for an individual viewer, not a mass audience. The individual has to complete the work. To go back to the idea of seeing cinema anew, the viewer often has to figure out how to watch the particular film or video and then from that process of learning how to watch, meaning and interpretation can follow.”
 
I wish I had my friends’ dedication to the medium. I meet up with them every year at the Toronto International Film Festival, and they’re jazzed up about the prospect of seeing some structuralist film or projected installation that for them represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And while I make noble plans to join them, more often than not I back out at the last minute and end up seeing some soon-to-be-released arthouse drama with name stars. Partly that’s because as a freelancer, I know I can turn a screening of a movie like The Duchess into income someday, while watching the latest James Benning film won’t fatten my pocketbook. But I also hesitate because there’s a certain wild card quality to avant-garde cinema that can be daunting. Sometimes experimental films can be disorienting, or tedious—and sometimes they can be so exciting that for weeks and months afterward it’s impossible to watch a conventional narrative film without feeling vaguely insulted.
 
There are quite a few films on Treasures IV that are inspiring in that way, promoting the notion that cinema doesn’t have to be bound by the rules of narrative or journalism, but can be like an essay, or a journal, or a painting in motion. And it’s important to note how much fun so many of these pieces are. They’re playful, energized, spirited—and far less pretentious than you might think. Watching them isn’t like suffering through a homework assignment; it’s like connecting with a cinematic movement that stood in concert with and in opposition to the mainstream for four of filmmaking’s most crucial decades.
 
Maybe these works will lose something essential now that they’re not so hard to see anymore. Maybe (nostalgia) won’t be the same (nostalgia) now that viewers can rewind it at will and remind themselves of what the narrator is saying. But for too long an essential part of our cultural history has been locked away at the academy, or held by distributors commanding exorbitant fees for purchase or rental (because that’s been one of the only ways the filmmakers could recoup some of their personal investment). Now DVD—and soon Blu-ray, and streaming HD—is making it possible for self-taught students of cinema to watch Ken Jacobs and Wallace Berman alongside Robert Altman and Douglas Sirk, and to see all the grand auteurs dance together, consciously and unconsciously. 
 
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For more on the avant-garde, here are some A.V. Club reviews of other experimental film collections and documentaries: By Brakhage, Anxious Animation, The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Sins Of The Fleshapoids and Women In Revolt, Jack Smith And The Destruction Of Atlantis, two of the earlier Treasures sets, and various shorts collections, some A-G, some not.
 
I also asked my friends Michael and Chris for their input into good starting points for A-G novices, and here’s what they said:
 
Michael:
Depends. If you want people and performers in your films, I'd suggest Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, whose classic films are available on DVD. For some slightly more conceptual work, Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) on the new Treasures set is a great place to start. And for pure pictorial beauty and eye-scrambling, mindblowing painterly overdrive, there's always Stan Brakhage.
 
Chris:
More often than not, the biggest barrier for people interested in the avant-garde is access to the film, not the films themselves. So I’ll restrict myself to recommending films that are readily available on DVD and then encourage people to seek out any nearby screenings afterwards. The DVD titled Maya Deren: Experimental Films offers an immediately recognizable starting point (in terms of larger world cinema, she falls between Jean Cocteau and David Lynch) that still has the capacity to seem revelatory even though she has been imitated for decades. The range and importance of Stan Brakhage’s work makes the Criterion Collection’s DVD By Brakhage a perfect introduction to many of the rewards, pleasures, and challenges that the genre can offer. The Anxious Animation DVD offers several great elliptical narratives by Lewis Klahr and Janie Geiser that create deeply felt subversive melodramas out of pop culture remnants. Of course, the new Treasures volume offers a staggering range of works. The earlier editions (as well as the Unseen Cinema collection) offer many essential works, but their price tags don’t make them ideal “introductory” materials. (Although the Treasures IV set could serve as such.) They’re only available on region-2 discs, but the collections Martin Arnold: The Cineseizure and Peter Tscherkassky: Films From a Dark Room have proven to be gateway films for many people. The discs can be easily ordered (and slightly discounted) in North America through this website.
 
Happy hunting to all!
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