The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Blog-a-thon Entry #2:
A Post on Avant-Garde Cinema in America

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

20 comments :

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Excellen

Tom Sutpen said...

Muchas gracias, lrhb!

A welcome word (however incomplete), considering your own none-too-shabby entry. I salute thee!

Michael said...

A nice marriage of form and content there, Tom. And very informative as a result.

"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."

We murder to dissect, as Wordsworth once wrote.

Richard Gibson said...

Tom, I enjoyed reading this, great post.

Vanwall said...

The author writes so wonderfully! Great one!

Maya said...

How wry! Making this post entertaining as well as informative. Thank you.

andyhorbal said...

Wow, this is just fantastic!

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.

I'm going to be quoting this one day soon, I just know it. But it will never be as effective as it is here, where it conjurs up the unsettling image of one scalpel in particular, and the vitreous humor of one very famous eyeball...

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of contributions to our blog-a-thon I proceeded in alphabetical order so this is comes as something of a dessert course. It's a delicious end to a delightful repast!

Miss F said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Miss F said...

Westerners seem to have this deEp-rooted mania for anaLyzing and dissecting (may be underst00d when you study wesTern history, scieNce, philosophy) f0r they see orgaNisms as separate entitiEs, c0mposed of separate parts, br0ught to the w0rLd rather than spontaneous radiati0ns/pattern of a WorLd, they are individuals wanting to control nature rather than adaptiNg to it ... this is pr0bably why science and techNoLogy deveLoped in the wesT.




as f0r Modern Art.. in generaL it has no profound relevance to peopLe who think differentLy, esp. traditional societies that don’t care about “progress”.for this, I do not bLame the WesterN Artist- it is a sociaL maLady and the artist is merely reacting to what He internalizes and sees (and the state of his budget). how else can you be but "p0stmodern" if you liVe in such a fragmented, individualisTic, non-spirituaL society?




But ofcourse there are wonderful excepti0ns- Beyond the madness, the shock, the lack of coherence, the need to be ir0nic, the "need" to be experiMentaL, the destructi0n of “pers0nal stories” and narratives which OTHERS can relate to--- i see a childLike artless artist aband0ning himselF to his vision- that is aRt.



and I guess in the US, where filmmaKing is generally seen as a Money making MachineRy rather than an expressi0n of an artist's visi0n, horrible art is to be expected the m0st.



reporting from Manila, Philippines,
Fredda

P.S in the philippines and i suppose in most p0or countries- the artiSt is "watched".we don't like artists who imitate wesTerners because their w0rks do not ring of authenTicity, of a personal truTh that c0mes from a deeply-"lived experience".



"What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or his ears if he is a musician? ...On the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly on the alert to the heart-rending, burning, or happy events in the world, molding himself in their likeness."


- Pablo Picasso

Tom Sutpen said...

Michael, Richard, Rob:

Many thanks. Certain as I was of how negatively it would be regarded in some quarters, I'm pleased (and amazed) to see the response isn't totally that. It is appreciated. Know that.

Maya:

I've always thought that if my writing (such as it is) has any intention, it's to be as illuminating as it possibly can be without descending to the base of analytical fiction and without putting the reader to sleep. I'm glad to see you think I succeeded on this occasion.

Andy:

What can I say? Considering that I thought yours the best of the lot (far and away), I'm deeply pleased you think this highly of my effort.

Fredda:

I've long been fascinated by the social underpinnings of Modernism and what I call the disease of Western Rationalism, which I think has resulted in everything from the generally anemic discourse on Cinema through the years, to every misery subjected on the peoples of the Third World. To me it's an absolute perversion of Enlightenment thought.

That being said, I can't agree that what was wrought by the Modernist impulse in art hasn't been very often extraordinary, regardless of the medium. What I refuse to accept is that any critical theory or analysis or utter dogmatism can be in any sense more fundamentally enlightening than direct experience with the work. More to the point, I think most people who write about, say . . . I dunno . . . Cinema (myself no less a defendant in the indictment than anyone) know this. How can we not? Therefore thereis, upon this enterprise (even at its point of absolute purity) the shade of cynicism. The difference is, some of us will admit we're working a racket, and some of us won't.

girish said...

Tom, this is just great.

A post describing the process of its own birth and what's more, doing it....as it is being born. Ingenious. And great fun. Thank you.

Tom Sutpen said...

Thanks, Girish! Your wods do not go unappreciated in this quarter, and I thank you for them.

Miss F said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Miss F said...

Thanks for your very enlightening reply. Yeah , I must agree with you that any artist trying to function (?) in such a chaotic climate would have no choice but to be cynical and extremely ironic. How can one write about THOUGHT for instance, when you know that the very vocabulary you’re using is probably biased and inadequate?


As for direct experience with the work, I cannot agree with you more… Western traditions of analyzing something as though you can grasp it after you find out about its “nature” or essence, of intellectualizing, philosophizing and problematizing are good in themselves, but when it begins to think in dualistic terms (as in objectivity VS subjectivity) it loses its meaning. So for me, when a writer on cinema resorts to dogma it only shows a mistrust of himself and others, and he does not really have inner conviction. Also, this habit of looking at something piecemeal, in its separate aspects, rather than , as you said, DIRECTLY EXPERIENCING ir "as a whole", is particularly perplexing.



For me most of Western Philosophy from Plato down to Rorty is very unique, strange and grotesque (and of course wonderful and enthralling and particularly enjoyable to read ^^ ). Rationalism in particular, is so far removed from reality, because it does not recognize that the sum is greater than the parts, the interrelatedness of all human beings and the fact that human relations are more important that OBJECTS and “progress”.


your Filipina penpal,
Fredda

The Cinesthete said...

Describing avant-garde cinema in an article that is avant-garde itself.

Very well done! It reminds me of something by Abbas Kiarostami.

The way he plays with the truth of the narrative and the identity of the narraters. "And Life Goes On" comes to mind.

HarryTuttle said...

Sorry for the late comment, better late than never I guess.
Fantastic AG post, I would love more of these!

I want to point out to the dissection quote too, but I'll differ. Yes, it is a truism that theory is nothing in comparison to first-hand experience of the art, but who says it pretends to substitutes itself to it? I don't understand well this seemingly disparaging of in-depth analysis.

Lyrical criticism is all well for figurative art, but precisely when it comes to AG, no less than clinical dissection can bring forth any other than the plainest banalities. What can you say of Pollock without hardcore analysis? How do you "pitch" Un Chien Andalou without a frame-by-frame decoding?
AG negates the exercice of conventional criticism. Because AG goes beyond mere appearances, its criticism must go under the skin and spell it out. A quasi-scientifical approach is the only resort to the observer who has to write about it. It's when theory defines concepts and trends that the AG abstraction could be translated into words, however vague and imprecise they can be, it's the only alternative to experiencing it live and studying yourself for hours. Either we accept dissection of we'd have to reject the idea of an AG critique (which would equate to censorship).

Just my uneducated impressions.

Tom Sutpen said...

Sorry for the late comment, better late than never I guess.
Fantastic AG post, I would love more of these!

*****
Thank you!

I want to point out to the dissection quote too, but I'll differ. Yes, it is a truism that theory is nothing in comparison to first-hand experience of the art, but who says it pretends to substitutes itself to it?

*****
I don't believe anyone has ever proclaimed it to be a substitute . . . though God knows someone may have tried somewhere along the way . . . my point is that it becomes a substitute almost by default. By rendering any thought or feeling into words, one is engaging in a process of substitution, and one that is very often inadequate to all that it stands in place of. In a sense I'm hauling out the hoary dictum that the best Poetry is that which is unwritten, but I reject its anti-intellectual implication. There's potentially great value in critical discourse, but it can become horribly insular and . . . orthodox if its methods go unquestioned. Think of it almost as an occupational hazard for those who immerse themselves in the body of criticism generated by any medium.

Tom Wolfe once predicted (only half-seriously I hope) that, given the absolute primacy of criticism and theory to Modern art, galleries in the future would have framed reviews of art works as the exhibits, with 8x10 reproductions of the works under review tacked up next to them as illustration of the text. As I say, I don't believe he was serious (and it certainly hasn't come to pass so baldly in the three decades since he made the prediction), but the allergens of such a development are, I think, very real and very persistent. No one loves critical back-and-forth more than I, but if I were compelled to make a choice between direct experience of a given work and reading even the most insight-filled analysis of it, I would unhesitatingly choose the former.

I don't understand well this seemingly disparaging of in-depth analysis.

*****
It's not a disparagment of in-depth analysis, per se, as much as it is a mild (for me) rebuke of a certain species of criticism. I will confess that I come at so-called Serious film criticism, both as a reader and writer of it, from a different cultural route (though this wasn't always the case with me), and I tend to believe that the best, most cogent analysis is worthless if it's not well-written. Apart from the positions taken, a lot of film criticism reads as though it were written by the same hand, and there are people celebrated in this field . . . and, no, I'm not going to name them, because it'll just get me into trouble all over the place . . . who I think are utterly abysmal writers; barely literate. They've read so much film criticism in their lives (in many cases I suspect they've read nothing else, unless it was assigned to them in school), and so absorbed the patois of this curious literary strain, that they're able to spew great dolorous slabs of cinephilic boilerplate; theoretical face cards from 1971, if you will. The deja vu is unsettling, and the only thing that changes from article to article are the titles or the names of the directors (by the way, I separate this from the kind of fanboy auteurist emanations written by those who find occasion to gush over everything they see; that kind of criticism is not only unreadable, it's beneath contempt).

I could go on for hours about what I believe really motivates people who write about Cinema in this fashion (hint: It's got nothing to do with Cinema), but I think I've disclosed myself on this subject enough.

Lyrical criticism is all well for figurative art, but precisely when it comes to AG, no less than clinical dissection can bring forth any other than the plainest banalities.

*****
But you see you're making a division between modes of expression (AG, Figurative art) that I contend comes from without. The intentions of Arnulf Rainer, say, and Wagonmaster might be (and indeed are) totally different, but not so different as to consitute emanations from two entirely separate mediums. They're both, at bottom, Cinema; and I see no reason to devise separate critical languages for them (that is, if one must write about them at all).

What can you say of Pollock without hardcore analysis? How do you "pitch" Un Chien Andalou without a frame-by-frame decoding?

*****
But here we come to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: Why does anything have to be said of Pollock's or Bunuel's or anybody's work? What is it we're trying to do, after all, when we 'decode' a work? What are we striving toward? Are we taking it upon ourselves to fulfill some crucial aesthetic function that the artist, that blinkered creature, neglected to perform; thereby completing the work? What, in the aggregate, is the value of criticism in relation to art? And if its value is, as I suspect, marginal, then why do we do it?

Again, I'm sure these sound like extremely odd values coming from a cinephile, but I think too few examine these questions, and I don't believe effective answers are easliy reached. I couldn't tell you with any precision why I write about Cinema (apart from entirely venal reasons that are only part of the story), and I can't think of one good reason why I (or anyone else) should. But I do, nonetheless, and I daresay I'll continue. This is what I meant in the post when I alluded to the author's 'conflicted' attitudes.

AG negates the exercice of conventional criticism. Because AG goes beyond mere appearances, its criticism must go under the skin and spell it out. A quasi-scientifical approach is the only resort to the observer who has to write about it. It's when theory defines concepts and trends that the AG abstraction could be translated into words, however vague and imprecise they can be, it's the only alternative to experiencing it live and studying yourself for hours. Either we accept dissection of we'd have to reject the idea of an AG critique (which would equate to censorship).

*****
I couldn't agree more, in theory; though it would only be censorship if it was imposed from without. When I say we need to question why we do this, or that some of us would do well to think about revising our respective approaches to the matter of Cinema, I was offering it as a voluntary proposition.

Just my uneducated impressions.

*****
What, like they aren't welcome? Don't even think it. Thanks for the comment!

Tom Sutpen said...

Cinesthete,

Thanks for the kind words! I didn;t see your comment before, so I apologize for only answering it now. Though if I'd answered it a month from now, your words would not be appreciated any the less.

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you for the extended reply. I'm afraid this could become an endless discussion back and forth, but like you say it's an interesting question to debate. I agree with your interrogation, but I have a different point of view I guess.
A roundtable on the why's and how's of film criticism would be realy interesting if enough people would be so inclined. (hint hint)

While you reject anti-intellectualism, this position to dispute "the right to criticism" is nonetheless anti-intellectual per se. Intellectualizing art doesn't substitue the experience, it's another route of connection to it.
Your position assumes that writing on art is vain and I think that writing on art (in the margin/backstage of art) is constructive in principle (now maybe few critics are able to live up to the task, but that's a practical problem that doesn't render criticism obsolete in general). I don't think you mean it in a bad way though, reading your blog proves itself your position isn't purely confrontational.

To me criticism is to art what a user guide is to kitchen appliance, no more no less. You can learn to use a microwave without having a microwave (for pure knowledge). You can use a microwave without the user guide (for empiristic practice). There is no choice to make because their purpose doesn't directly overlap, and people can live their whole life without either of them or both. So in other words the existence of criticism doesn't command a certain apprehention of arts. There are some who need to "consume" art and criticism in concordance and those who prefer to ignore criticism and rely on their inner feelings.

I agree with you that there are hazards to let a corpus rule the rights and wrongs of arts without being artists themselves. I'm all for constant dogma questioning. But that's an inherant flaw that is self-corrected with time and new generations of critics. Critics are aware their partial authority will be challenged by others. What matter aren't the mistakes of critics (or artists), only the enlightments stay for posterity.

I totally agree with your statement that self-sufficiant critics abuse of expert terminology and phrases to obfuscate (or render more important in appearance) their content. But it's an argument about good/bad criticism, not about the right to criticism.

I guess lots of critics would like great criticism to equal art, but it's not possible by nature. And when you suggest that criticism can only be good when well-written, it implies that the literary art in there should play a role in establishing aesthetics values (onto non-literary arts), and that's where we part. Developping stylistic/rhetoric criticism is precisely a step toward claiming its own artistic worth for a work of studies ON art. To produce art by commenting art is self-contradictory (not that art wouldn't be critical of other arts or itself, but then the artistic statement overwhelms the underlaying critical judgment).

I didn't mean to make a division between modes of expression in this context (to me criticism is as much necessary for obvious arts than for obscur arts), although AG without analysis is far more elitist than criticism itself can be. The role of criticism in AG is didactical. Noone, ignorant of anything art, will feel comfortable with AG without a minimal understanding of what it stands for.
Picasso without intellectualization is childish painting, Pollock without analysis is paint blot, Malevich without theory is a blank canvas, Kandisky without reasoning is wallpaper geometry. Could you translate your experience of them, in a meaningful way, without using concepts produced by theory (that might be part of common language now though)?
Very few artists who matter in history didn't intellectualize their work through theory. Even Van Gogh, who was a self-taugth uneducated soul, had an impressive understanding of colors and light that his educated conformist fellow ignored.
Art is not chance, it's intellectualization of art, so why should intellectualization of criticism should be taboo?

Art can get so complex that direct exposure isn't enough (for most people), or at least can be confusing or contradictory with our feelings. Art is not a ready-to-go, self-explainatory object, some knowledge is at least helpful to make sense of our experience (that is if you really want to get in touch with the artist's intentions). With or without criticism you have to work on it to understand, to reach enlightment. I'd argue that a pure emotional experience is tremendously poor in comparison to the understanding of everything going on that escapes us without intellectualization.

To answer your questions, and seemingly in contradiction to what I just said, Art is standalone by nature, so we don't have to write on Pollock or Buñuel, but there is no reason why we shouldn't either. Only people who wants to would read criticism, it is a voluntary "spoiler" if you want to call it that. If you think theory spoils your experience it's easy to stay away from it.

Well like you see I could go on for hours too. ;) Such a vast subject and lots of questions to be asked.

Squish said...

After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you'd like to be a part of it:

http://pasquish.blogspot.com/