by Amos Vogel
After two decades of obscurity, poverty, ignorant rejection, and dogged persistence, the American film avant-garde suffers today, for the first time in its history, from an ominous new ailment: over-attention without understanding, over-acceptance without discrimination. Crime of crimes, it has become fashionable. Its gurus and artists are in danger of becoming the avant-garde establishment; its growing fame hides only imperfectly an inner weakness. The following observations, aimed at the removal of confusions, represent a criticism from within, fully cognizant of the movement’s many achievements.
These lie not merely in the many talents and works it has discovered and championed, but in its continuing creative “desecration” of the medium, leaving nothing undisturbed, taking nothing for granted. In the hands of the movement’s foremost practitioners, film is sacked, atomized, caressed, and possessed in a frenzy of passionate love; neither emulsion, exposure, lighting, film speeds, developing, nor rules of editing, camera movement, composition, or sound are safe from the onslaught of these poetic experimentalists who have irrevocably invaded the medium. While most commercial films can safely be followed with one’s eyes closed, these works force spectators to open them wide, thereby rendering them defenseless against the magic powers of the medium.
The American avant-garde is part of a strong international trend toward a more visually-oriented, freer, more personal cinema. This movement expresses a revolt against the ossifications of institutions and the conservatism of the old. It represents a cinema of passion.
By restoring the primacy of the visual element, this movement brings us face to face with the essence of the medium, the profound and inexplicable mystery of the image.
Thematically, stylistically, and ideologically, the films belonging to this tendency reflect and prefigure an era of social change, disorientation, and decline, and are suffused with an existentialist humanism devoid of certainty or illusion. Liberated from nineteenth-century art, they increasingly displace realistic narrative structures, clearly defined plots, and well-delineated characters by visual ambiguity and poetic complexity, exploring ideas and forms vertically instead of illustrating events horizontally. There are strong influences of surrealism, neo-Dadaism, Pop Art, the “absurd” theatre and the Theatre of Cruelty, Robbe-Grillet and the new novel. Textbook rules of filmmaking have been abandoned. Editing is explosive, elliptic, unpredictable; camera movements fluid, frequent, and free; time and space are telescoped, destroyed, or obliterated and memory, reality, and illusion fused, until, in a flash of revelation, we realize that the totality of these uncertainties and discontinuities reflect nothing less than the modern world view in philosophy, science, art, and politics. These questioning, white-hot filmmaker — themselves anguished configurations of the anxieties and limited wisdoms they portray — are the committed artists of the sixties, the true explorers of our day.
But the American avant-garde seems to have arrived at a crossroads. On the one hand, the seeds planted by Frank Stauffacher’s “Art in Cinema” series and Maya Deren’s screenings in the forties, as well as Cinema 16’s programs of 1947–1963, have been transformed into a full-blown, highly visible movement. There are unceasing, voluminous productions; new exhibition outlets; schools, art centers, and civic groups clamoring for the “underground”; discotheques and coffeehouses utilizing film-oriented mixed-media techniques; mass circulation magazines and television providing widespread publicity. This new state remains the undeniable achievement of Jonas Mekas and the “New American Cinema” Group.
On the other hand, however, there now exists a certain wariness concerning the movement even among its friends and supporters. Too many of the films are unsatisfactory, even with the greatest of efforts at a sympathetic magnification of their small virtues. In film circles, it is no secret that, after all the growth and publicity, audiences at the Film-Makers Cinematheque in New York are leveling off. To this must be added the paradox of voluminous productivity and little new talent; the growing credibility gap between the movement’s house organs and observed filmic quality; the absence, despite new and laudable attempts, of any real resolution to the crucial distribution and exhibition problem. As the faint odor of trouble becomes more noticeable, the evangelical ardor of the movement’s leaders becomes more insistent, the manifestos and exorcisms less circumspect.
To begin the process of an informed critique of the American avant-garde (and more specifically, the ideology and style of the New American Cinema tendency within it) is an act of the highest and most necessary loyalty to the movement. The time has come to rescue it from the blind rejection of commercial reviewers and the blind acceptance of its own apostles; both posing as critics and neither subjecting it to dispassionate, informed analysis.
1. Confusing Times Square with Manhattan
The New American Cinema (NAC) and the American film avant-garde are not synonymous. The NAC group is the dominant, but not the only factor within the American independent film movement today. Because of its vociferousness and quantity of production, it impresses its values and style on the entire movement, and is frequently and erroneously equated with it. This leads to the convenient omission of Bruce Baillie and the Canyon Cinema Cooperative, other East coast filmmakers; George Manupelli and Richard Myers in the Midwest; and Hilary Harris, Carmen D’Avino, Francis Thompson, Len Lye, and others in New York.
2. Confusing a Producers’ Cooperative with a School
The New American Cinema is neither ideologically, stylistically, nor otherwise a unified movement or tendency. In its manifestos, it elevates eclectic aestheticism and undifferentiated enthusiasm into a principle, instead of admitting that the group — ranging the spectrum from Anger to Breer to Warhol to Brakhage — is an economic and not an aesthetic unit.
3. Confusing Historical Continuity with Immaculate Conception
It is necessary to situate the NAC within history – the past, the present, the speculative future. As to the past, the American film avant-garde has its roots in the European surrealist and expressionist avant-garde of the twenties and the American experimentalists of the forties and fifties. The current NAC leaders, for obvious and indefensible reasons, prefer to draw a veil of silence and disregard over the past, thereby contributing to the provincialism of its adherents. It is only recently and because of internal criticism of the kind perpetrated here in public that a few of the works or writings of the “forerunners” have begun to appear on some Cinematheque programs or in Film Culture. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the crucial importance of such filmmakers as Sidney Peterson, the Whitney Brothers, Ralph Steiner, Oscar Fischinger, Watson-Webber, Maya Deren, Curtis Harrington, and James Broughton remain unknown or unanalyzed trivia in the ideological development of the new generation. A resemblance to a certain type of history rewriting is not entirely out-of-place. It evinces the customary narrowness and demagoguery, but is fortunately unaccompanied by effective control over the information media. One shudders at what might happen if some of our present-day proponents of total liberty became Commissars of Film Culture.
As to the present, the NAC is undeniably and inevitably part of the worldwide movement toward a more visual cinema, all their protestations to the contrary. It is impossible to remain neutral when confronted with the astonishing provincialism of the NAC’s ideologues in dismissing, disregarding, or exorcising Antonioni, Godard, Resnais, Skolimowski, Bellocchio, and Lester; and as their field of vision narrows, magnifying every object in it, until pygmies loom like giants.
The NAC will transcend its present dilemmas only by studying carefully the techniques and achievements of these experimenters; and by fully acknowledging that this international “pro-visual” movement is neither an exclusive club nor a dogmatic sect, but include both Emshwiller and Antonioni, VanDerBeek and Godard. No film or filmmaker can be read out of this movement by papal decree.
Jonas Mekas’s statement at the recent Museum of Modern Art “New Cinema” symposium (“Old cinema, even when it is successful, is horrible; New Cinema, even when it fails, is beautiful”) is provocative and untenable. Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, Dreyer’s Gertrud, Skolimowski’s Walkover, Schorm’s Courage for Every Day, Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, Rocha’s Black God and Blond Devil, Jancso’s The Round-Up, Paradjhanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Antonioni from L’Avventura to Blow-Up, Resnais from Hiroshima to La Guerre Est Finie, Godard’s Breathless to whatever his latest — all of these were created within what Mekas calls the “old” cinema — are avant-garde works. They are not merely more important than the failures, but often more important than even the successes of the independent avant-garde. Some day soon an interesting discussion will be begun as to the relative degree of experimentation, achievement, subversion, and political or artistic daring in these works on the one hand and the NAC films on the other. In any case, the creations of these so-called “commercial” directors can be disregarded only by hopeless dogmatists.
4. Confusing Freedom with Formlessness
Lack, failure, and disregard of form is the over-riding weakness of today’s avant-garde. Current tendencies in all the arts toward improvisation, fluidity, and chance are mistaken for a total absence of form, and the temptation is to disregard the fact that it is precisely the achieved works of this kind that reveal an inner structure and logic.
This inner coherence is “felt” rather than explicable. It is totally lacking in so many current efforts, which could go on equally well for fifteen minutes or for fifty, and in which the succession or duration of shots remains totally irrelevant or mutable in terms of the total construct of the work. They lack surprise, mystery, and that inexorable form and flow that are the characteristics of all great art.
Film, both as a plastic and time art, involves considerations of tempo, length, progression, editing, camera positioning. These considerations, even in experimental works, are not and can never be suspended. They operate quite independently of the artist’s announced intentions on the deepest psychological levels, and they determine the work’s value as art. A strong sense of form, structure, and tempo are inevitably present in the best works of the American avant-garde movement, quite regardless of their specific and differing aesthetic commitments.
5. Confusing Content with Quality
Thematic liberation is no guarantee of quality. Nor is the use of five simultaneously-operating projectors, extreme nudity, unexceptionable anti-Vietnam sentiments, hand-held cameras, portrayals of transvestism. Said Cocteau ironically, when first confronted with Cinemascope: “The next time I write a poem, I shall use a larger piece of paper.”
6. Confusing Non-Selectivity with Art
The NAC’s proudly proclaimed policy of showing, distributing, and praising every scrap of film is self-defeating. Every new person who gets a camera and thereupon “completes” a “work,” immediately obtains a public showing and distribution. In this manner several hundred titles are added to the yearly “oeuvre” of the American avant-garde. Under the circumstances, it is easier to discover epigones of Brakhage than new Brakhages.
It may be essential to show every single film to filmmakers at internal, workshop screenings so that they can see each other’s work; it is suicidal if this is done with general audiences. Given the present volume and level of “production”— miles of new films —this gluts the market and inundates the viewer in a morass of mediocrity or worse. Sooner or later, the audience refuses to accept the frequent ratio of five minutes of promising footage to two hours of tedium. Unable to judge the works in advance or to rely on somebody else’s judgment (since no selection takes place), they ultimately decide to stay away or to stop renting films, their frustrated interest supplanted by hostile irritation. How could they have known, amidst the welter of unknown new productions and a total absence of critical writing, that Metanomen, Lost in Cuddahy, Oh Dem Watermelons, and Relativity were most eminently worth seeing and four hundred other recent films were not?
There is therefore a need for a new showcase for the avant-garde, not under the control of one faction within the movement, however important, but presenting the best new avant-garde films, as carefully selected by a group of avant-garde — including NAC — critics and writers. Selectivity is a function of taste and of proper growth.
Any criticism of this method of selection as an impermissible “directing” of public taste is hypocritical. First, wherever there is exhibition, there is prior exercise of judgment. Second, this criticism applies, if anywhere, to the present system of control by one faction.
7. Confusing Good with Bad
It is time for the NAC to admit that there is such a thing as a bad avant-garde film; that in fact there are more bad avant-garde films than good ones; that at least half of the films presently exhibited or distributed are bad; that one must be able to point out why some are bad or why others are good; and that to do so, it is necessary to establish critical standards and to develop critical writing and taste.
It is time to admit that not all that is good is avant-garde; that not all that is avant-garde is good; and that even a good avant-garde filmmaker can make a bad film.
Ultimately, there is only good and bad art, within the framework of one’s particular value system. Our real interest in avant-garde art resides not in its being avant-garde, but in its implicit promise of quality as against the exhaustion of the commercial cinema. There is nothing inherently superior or automatically supportable in the concept of avant-garde cinema as against the “old” cinema, unless it proves its superiority in practice.
8. Confusing Propagandists with Critics
It is quite correct to say that publicists and propagandists were eminently essential to the creation of this so often unjustly maligned and disregarded movement. No one will deny their success in contributing to the creation and visibility of the movement.
In the process, however, they have unperceptively blurred all distinction between propaganda and criticism, until their “reviews” and house organs have begun to resemble the literary vanity presses, with an appropriately hallucinatory inflection.
Today, when the avant-garde is entering a dangerous new stage, analysis must take precedence over publicity and the two must be clearly distinguished from each other. Publicists are hyperbolical, particularly where the client’s products are concerned. For this reason, the following formulations, continually posing as critical evaluations in published articles and essays, should properly be labeled publicity or advertising copy: “A work of beauty,” “a beautiful work,” “it is beautiful.” Particular care must be taken with such phrases as “one of the…” (e.g., “This is one of the most beautiful works of the American avant-garde”). Finally, the continuous procession, week after week, of new masters, geniuses, and giants quickly becomes an object of suspicion or ridicule.
We need proponents, not fetishists, of avant-garde cinema. We must rigorously insist on the same standards of judgement for avant-garde films as we apply to any other works of art. This concern with standards must not be equated with authoritarian strictures regarding style or content. On the contrary, it is when we coddle the experimenters with misplaced tolerance, when we talk of “achievement” where there are only attempts, of “attempts” where there is nothing, of “retrospectives” after two years of production, that we profoundly weaken the movement.
9. Confusing Publicity with Achievement
Publicity is no proof of quality; large-scale attention by the mass media is no guarantee of achievement. It merely denotes that the avant-garde film has reached the level of a marketable commodity; it has become “copy.” This is because the avant-garde’s aggressively antiestablishment stance expresses itself frequently in well-advertised taboo subjects: eroticism, “deviations,” drugs; charmingly offbeat acts and disturbances; publicizable new techniques (mixed media, “creative” tedium); and interesting visual gestures of a vaguely oppositional nature.
Since this limited radicalism is, by virtue of nonselective programming, drowned in endless reams of innocuous films, it is the more easily subsumed by the establishment, which, by publicizing it, robs the underground of its cult appeal while simultaneously deriding it ideologically. In this sense, the latitude granted to these isolated showcases for exhibiting whatever they wish implies that they serve as a safety valve for the draining off of radical impulses and that the avant-garde, at the very moment of its acceptance by the establishment, is faced with the possibility of imminent emasculation or absorption.
10. Confusing One Swallow with a Summer
The commercial success of a single film, The Chelsea Girls, must not blind us to the realization that the distribution and exhibition problems of the avant-garde remain unresolved. The reviews and word-of-mouth publicity regarding this film’s presumed depravity and sexual daring automatically provide a ready-made audience for it. No pejorative comment is intended; the saleability of sex in a sexually repressed society is inevitable.
11. Confusing One Generation with Another
It is a significant comment on the stagnation for the American avant-garde that most of those who are by common consent considered today’s best directors are members of the middle generation first seen at Cinema 16: Anger, Brakhage, Breer, Clarke, Conner, D’Avino, Emshwiller, Harris, Frank, Markopoulos, Menken, Maas, Rice, VanDerBeek. Of the younger generation, among the few to approach the above in promise or interest are Warhol, Bruce Baillie, Peter Goldman, and, possibly, Tony Conrad and Sheldon Rochlin.
Among the welter of new works and new directors there will undeniably be found new talents, and, in this sense, the present explosion of filmmaking is to be welcomed. But after more than six years of this activity, it is today equally legitimate to speculate as to the paucity of significant new talents and to wonder, when they do arise, about the influence of unquestioning acceptance and the dismissal of world cinema on the later development of such new talents.
To this query must be added the threatening or already-accomplished exhaustion of some of the middle generation talents and their inability to progress beyond earlier achievement.
12. Confusing Literary with Visual Critics
The movement needs not merely critics as such; it needs visually-oriented critics. Most of the current reviewers and critics come out of a literary or journalistic tradition. Their commitments are to clear narratives, realism or naturalism, noble and identifiable sentiments, with the visual serving as illustration of an underlying literary thesis. This is criticism oriented toward sociology, literature, psychology, not toward the visual essence of cinema.
Art critics and historians, such as Amberg, Arnheim, Hauser, Langer, Panofsky, Read, Richter, Schapiro, and Tyler, have always concerned themselves with the aesthetics of film; and the recent incursion of new art critics and historians into film criticism (Battcock, Cohen, Geldzahler, Kepes, Kirby, Meyer, Michelson, O’Doherty, Sontag) is therefore to be welcomed and encouraged. Visually oriented, their special sensibilities and commitments, their openness to the techniques and philosophy of modern art, could significantly contribute to the elaboration of an aesthetic for the visual cinema. This new aesthetic must include an investigation of the differences between film and the other plastic arts (the element of time, the illusionary portrayal of motion and reality on a two-dimensional surface, the use of sound, the cinema as a palace of dreams). These “filmic” characteristics, at least in the case of Happenings, Environments, and mixed-media works, are now, in any case, becoming more closely related to the other arts.
13. Confusing Popes with Free Men
Ultimately, the growing ability to “see” implies the ability to see oneself. Growth occurs through mistakes recognized as such, criticism realized as valid, the expo- sure of the self to new and alien influences, interaction with a hostile yet changing world. Blind adulation and hermeticism are the enemies of growth and lead to the repetition of what has already been achieved; the rise of epigones and mediocrities; the progressive narrowing of vision and the cumulative deterioration of taste. What the American avant-garde is confronted with is sectarianism parading as freedom, flattery as criticism, sterile eclecticism as artistic philosophy, anti-intellectual know-nothingness as liberation. Dogmas, myths, and popes are inevitable stages in human pre-history; a higher state will be reached when they are superseded by men of free will.
(PDF of this article here)
Evergreen Review, June 1967
© Amos Vogel/Evergreen Review
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