In Black & White: Visionary Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

VISIONARY FILM. By P. Adams Sitney. Oxford University Press. 452 pages. $13.95.
ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND. By Malcolm LeGrice. The MIT Press. 160 pages. $12.50.
THE CUBIST CINEMA. By Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press. 265 pages. $11.75 (paperback).
THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York University Press. 380 pages. $20 (paperback $8.95).
A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE CINEMA. The American Federation of the Arts. 176 pages. $5.95 (paperback).
STRUCTURAL FILM ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Peter Gidal. British Film Institute / New York Zoetrope. 140 pages. $2 (paperback).
COVER TO COVER. By Michael Snow. New York University Press. No pagination. $12.50 (paperback).

It’s not possible for me to give as fully authoritative a critique of these books as I would like—and that, as it happens, has a lot to do with my calling attention to them here. By and large, these volumes are concerned with films whose circulation and accessibility have not matched the critical interest which they have generated in print. Most of these films qualify as “underground” or “experimental” in a system of distribution and exhibition wherein the “mainstream” is limited almost exclusively to feature-length narrative films. I am perhaps as guilty as the next reviewer of concentrating on feature films with comparatively wide audience appeal, and yet for some time now I’ve found it rather odd that our views of film art and its history place so much emphasis on feature films and so little on short films and nonnarrative movies. Or, to focus the issue a little closer to the objects of this review: how is it that the American feature film, however rich and engaging, has inspired no book comparable to Sitney’s on “The American Avant-Garde”? and how is it that Sitney’s avant-garde, such a rich and engaging subject, can be such a dim entity for what I assume is the majority of even the most serious moviegoers? and how is it that the more radical forms of modernism seem to have less acceptance in film than in any other art form? Answers to these questions might embrace a variety of habits, assumptions, and circumstances. But the very existence of these books suggests that the “avant-garde” may be much harder to ignore in the future, particularly with respect to American and British cinema.

Sitney’s Visionary Film connects a large group of American avant-garde filmmakers whose preoccupations “coincide with those of our post-Romantic poets and Abstract Expressionist painters.” Sitney, deliberately tracing the films’ ties to “the heritage of Romanticism,” veers away from the Freudian emphases of his predecessors in this field. The result is an impressively detailed account of brands of filmmaking that range from psychodrama to animation to “structural film.” The film artists given extensive discussion include Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Harry Smith, Larry Jordan, Jordan Belson, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Joseph Cornall, Peter Kubelka, Christopher MacLaine, Ron Rice, Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, George Landown, and Hollis Frampton—almost “everybody,” but not quite. Such a broad range of figures demands a very flexible approach, and—fortunately—Sitney is in no way dogmatic about the romantic/visionary aspects of individual works. Even with the structural film, where the links with Romanticism might seem to break down, he manages some analogies with Symbolism which preserve his framework while also reflecting incisively on the films involved. Consequently, what is most valuable about the book has relatively little to do with intellectual superstructure and a great deal to do with close perceptive readings of specific films. They are also very sympathetic readings, on the whole, which for me leaves some unanswered questions about gaps that may exist between intention and achievement.

Malcolm LeGrice’s Abstract Film and Beyond is an interesting blend of historical survey and modest manifesto. LeGrice uses seven of his ten chapters to link past abstractionists with the present, an endeavor which embraces Eggeling, Richter, Kandinsky, Leger, Man Ray, Duchamp, Fischinger, Vertov, Len Lye, Harry Smith and others. But the most striking parts of the book come in the chapters where LeGrice deals with more recent developments in abstract film or, as he tends to call it in these last chapters, the “new formal film.” An abstract filmmaker himself, LeGrice seems uniquely suited to a writing task which entails both partisan interest and critical detachment: indeed, the very inspiration of the “new formal film” depends on an elaborately critical response to the filmed image. I am inclined to say, moreover, that LeGrice and company are developing a form of filmmaking which is largely a highly specialized form of film criticism. An important part of the book’s interest comes from its persuasive, and consciously European, challenge to the perceptions of two Americans, Sitney and Gene Youngblood (whose 1970 Expanded Cinema is an energetic but partly unconvincing tome which, at least in scope and ambition, exceeds Sitney’s). LeGrice offers perceptive critiques of some American filmmakers (e.g. Jordan Belson and Scott Bartlett) and provides intriguing commentaries on Europeans whom LeGrice feels should be given greater recognition in the American avant-garde’s frame of reference. LeGrice’s approach is not nearly as ambitious as Sitney’s and his conclusions rarely range beyond immediate formal concerns. Whether intentionally or not, LeGrice leaves the impression that “abstract film” is truly experimental—primarily a form of research into the nature and possibilities of the film image.

Standish Lawder’s The Cubist Cinema deals with some of the same painters and filmmakers that make up LeGrice’s tradition, but it also touches for a time on narrative film (Abel Gance’s La Roue), and its chief emphasis by far is on a single short film, Leger’s Ballet Mécanique. Lawder treats the film in close detail and produces an analysis that uses Leger’s preparatory notes and sketches as well as more than 300 stills from the film. In a sense, the entire book is devoted to defining the historical moment from which Leger’s film emerged and from which it can draw its fullest possible meaning. Ultimately, Lawder is concerned with showing how abstract films moved beyond painting (including the Futurist and Cubist varieties). But an important justification for devoting so much of his book to a single film has to do with creating an audience for films which share modern art’s tendency to move away from “the traditional world of artistic contemplation generated by static works of art” and toward distinctly “filmic” qualities, “most notably movement and the elimination of aesthetic distance between the art object and the direct experience itself.” Even moviegoers who take an active interest in avant-garde film may feel, however, that Lawder is pushing it a bit when he claims that Ballet Mécanique is infused with the “pulsating energies of modern urban life, its rhythms and its forms, even its flashes of amusing incongruity.” But, possibly in contradiction of his remarks on “static” aesthetic contemplation, Lawder’s book is of interest above all because of its scholarly demonstration of ways in which extended contemplation of a film and of the context of its creation may yield dimensions of meaning and experience that are simply not available within the instant gratification syndrome that dominates most movie audiences. Lawder’s efforts may seem slightly incongruous vis-à-vis Leger’s little film; and yet part of the point—my point, that is—is that any fully formed response to any movie is based on varieties of education and “background” which are at least analogous to Lawder’s here.

Essential Cinema is a gathering of essays on films in the Anthology Film Archive in New York. The Archive itself is worth noting here because, while its policies are exclusive, its collection represents a relatively rare union of narrative and nonnarrative film, of Griffith, Eisenstein, Vigo and Bresson with Vertov, Snow, Markopoulos and Brakhage. There are long sections on Intolerance (by Seymour Stern), Eisenstein and constructivism (by Lawder), Buñuel (by Ken Kelman), Vigo (by Kelman), and Michael Snow (by Sitney), though for me the most interesting sections are two pieces on Bresson (by Sitney and Kelman, respectively) and a reprint of Annette Michelson’s Artforum essay on Dziga Vertov. The first volume of a projected series on Archive films, this is less a book that one would read straight through than a valuable and stimulating reference work—all the more so in view of 120 pages of relevant bibliography.

A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema is actually an exhibition catalogue for an American Federation of Arts travelling film exhibit which uses the same title. The exhibit covers much the same period as Visionary Film, 1943–1972, and both use Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon as a starting point. The catalogue and the exhibit divide the period into seven chronological sections, with the catalogue providing seven corresponding sets of program notes and a bibliography for the films involved. But the most interesting piece in the catalogue is a long introductory essay by “guest curator” John G. Hanhardt. The following is among his more pertinent remarks: “The fact that a critical discourse exists in painting and sculpture that embraces modernism in general and such recent specific movements as minimal art, process art and conceptual art, while no such discourse exists, except marginally, for film, indicates the special manner in which consideration of the avant-garde is held back by the attention given traditional standards of film production and appreciation.” I find Hanhardt’s statement of the problem oversimplified, but the problem does exist.

Structural Film Anthology seems a useful companion for Abstract Film and Beyond (indeed, LeGrice is one of its contributors and one of the filmmakers with whom it is concerned). The selections include interviews, letters, notes, statements, and critical analyses. Parts of it seem unintentional parodies of structural/materialist jargon (the chief offender, unfortunately, is the volume’s editor), but there are a number of interesting documents here. An antidote to Gidal’s persiflage is provided by filmmaker Mike Dunford, whose four brief statements put forth some typical concerns. with untypical directness and clarity.

Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover might be described as a photosequence in book form, but it’s like no photosequence and no book that I’ve ever seen before. Each page is completely dominated by a photograph (no captions, no page numbers, no margins), and the sequence of photos entails a kind of minimalist narrative (involving Snow himself). Snow uses photos of photos, photos of photographers making those photos, “simultaneous” front-and-back shots, and the structure of the book-as-object to create a sort of Möbius-strip of visual narrative. Knowledge of Snow’s films is not a prerequisite for “enjoyment” of this unique piece of work, but I should think that people with a real interest in “structural film” will find it irresistible.

© 1978 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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