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The Essential Cinema

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.

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