Avant-Garde Cinema of the Seventies
Avant-Garde Cinema of the Seventies
The writing of any history of the avant-garde in the arts is an undertaking fraught with difficulties due to the esoteric nature of much experimental work. When the art under consideration is the cinema, the problem is magnified. Since the entrance of film studies into the university in the 1960s, mainstream cinema has received increasing critical attention, which has led to the establishment of a canon of films deserving of and receiving ongoing consideration. But avant-garde film has rarely found its way into either film scholarship or undergraduate syllabi. While the following chapter attempts to account for experimental filmmaking practices in the 1970s in the United States, it inevitably omits films of value that have failed to receive either notice or adequate distribution. Furthermore, due partially to growing interest in film by the National Endowment for the Arts and by universities, which occasionally hired and taught the work of avant-garde filmmakers, the 1970s was a decade of tremendous diversity in experimental filmmaking. While filmmakers who had been active for decades—such as Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, or Bruce Conner—continued to work, a new generation of artists influenced by Minimalism, film theory, and feminism exploded the parameters of the avant-garde with a multitude of experimental films.
On December 1, 1970, Anthology Film Archives in New York City opened its doors as the first institution solely dedicated to the preservation, exhibition, and study of avantgarde cinema. Avant-garde film—also identified as underground, experimental, or New American cinema—is generally a 16mm filmmaking practice that occurs outside of the Hollywood-based industry, which it often opposes (purposefully or not) by exploring aspects of cinematic space, time, and perception ignored by mainstream narrative feature film. P. Adams Sitney wrote a manifesto for the Anthology Film Archives that expressed its desire to preserve the great artistic monuments of the cinema just as a museum conserves and presents the other visual arts.1 With roots going back almost thirty years, to the first films of Maya Deren in the early 1940s, there was plenty of material to organize. The critical enterprise of selecting those films to be saved and maintaining a program of continual reevaluation was assumed by Sitney and filmmakers James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, and Jonas Mekas. The group chose the best print of each film, which was then shown cyclically in the archive's Invisible Cinema, designed by Kubelka with blinders around each of its ninety seats to facilitate the viewer's total concentration in complete darkness and isolation. Neither dubbing nor subtitles were acceptable, and no one was admitted into the screening space once a film had begun. Other public venues for screening the avant-garde in the 1970s came to include the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum, the Collective for Living Cinema, the Millennium Film Workshop, and the Whitney Museum in New York, as well as several museums and theaters in San Francisco, Chicago, and Minneapolis.
Throughout the 1970s Anthology Film Archives published several books that addressed the films in its collection, including The Essential Cinema (1975) and The Avant-Garde Film Reader (1978). At the same time, many of the people involved in the archive, as well as graduate students from recently founded cinema studies programs and other interested scholars, contributed critical essays about the avant-garde cinema to journals such as Film Culture (edited by Mekas), Millennium Film Journal, and The Cinema News. Writing on experimental cinema also appeared in Wide Angle, Camera Obscura, Field of Vision, October, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Screen, Afterimage, and Artforum. In sum, the 1970s was the first decade to witness the broad acceptance of cinema as a serious art form.
In addition, experimental films that veered from the expectations created by Hollywood narrative cinema were no longer dismissed as incoherent but seen as worthy of attention. The earliest and most influential model for the study of avant-garde cinema was provided by P. Adams Sitney's formalist, descriptive essays and by his indispensable history of experimental cinema in the United States, Visionary Film (published 1974; revised and expanded 1978). Other approaches have included the investigation of the relation of the avant-garde to dominant cinema, which is typified by Scott MacDonald's critical essays in the 1970s and his later collections of interviews with filmmakers, and the consideration of this marginal cinema in relation to the larger culture. This latter concern, which came to the fore in the 1980s, is typified by David James's Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
Using the work of the writers noted above and diverse essays and reviews about the experimental films of the 1970s, this chapter is organized in a loose chronology. In order not to suggest too narrow an evolution, I address the entire career of a given filmmaker at her or his first introduction. Since the avant-garde tends to be prolific, I examine or note representative films in the text and provide a fuller filmography at the end of the chapter. I begin with a consideration of the 1970s films of filmmakers who started working before 1970, then turn to the work of newer artists who engage film traditions from earlier years, including first-person cinema, the diary film, films that refer to Hollywood, and graphic cinema.2 Next, I deal with the influential art movements of the 1960s, particularly Minimalism, as they affected the coming decade, and the resulting body of films that have been described as Structural. From this point I trace the dominant films and concepts as they appear chronologically, including feminist cinema, work influenced by film theory, and punk film. While I try to be as inclusive as possible, the vagaries of film distribution and reception and the brevity of this chapter will invariably lead to omissions and misrepresentations. The following chronicle is but an introduction to a vast array of films that deserve a much fuller account.
Unlike narrative film, avant-garde cinema cannot be organized or understood as thematically linked to the social or political movements of its day in any direct way. The films of the 1970s in particular are often not about anything except cinema itself. David James has described these films as visual events that cannot be recoded into another discursive mode, like criticism.3 Although any film that challenges the habitual ways of seeing engendered by Hollywood cinema ultimately has a political function, few films have this as their original intention. Sitney describes the trajectory of the American avantgarde since the 1940s as a continual condensation of cinematic form, in which the shape and material of the film become its sole content. While Sitney believes this process leads to what he calls a "mythic encounter" involving the viewer, the film, and the world,4 others, like James, believe that the cinema of the 1970s fully engages a critique of representation, in which relations between film language and any extra-textual reality are rigorously analyzed and reduced.5
Stan Brakhage, who started making films in the 1950s and is the best known and most prolific filmmaker of the American avant-garde, continued his influential work throughout the 1970s. His signature first-person use of the camera, in which the movement of the apparatus defines consciousness itself, was expanded from documenting immediate perception to recording the filmmaker's encounter with memory and the world at large. Brakhage himself best described his lifelong project in the opening lines of his often-reprinted manifesto of 1963, entitled Metaphors on Vision: "Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception…. Imagine a world before the 'beginning was the word.‧" This union of body and camera that records the very process of experiencing the world regardless of all established codes of visual language is inherently documentary. Brakhage's work as an editor was to join and layer what he had discovered in the world, to suggest in a single work of art the endless correspondences in and the richness of perceptual experience. Since Brakhage's films, which range in length from minutes to many hours, manifest neither thematic unity nor recognizable technique, they are virtually indescribable. However, they reflect the concerns of the seventies to the degree that they use the world as raw material, yet eliminate all recognizable imagery through abstraction.
Sitney describes Brakhage's project, along with those of several of the younger filmmakers of the 1970s including Diana Barrie, Warren Sonbert, Dore O., and even Kenneth Anger, in naming autobiography as the key genre of the avant-garde. Sitney writes in The Avant-Garde Film Reader that "the very quest for a cinematic strategy which relates the moments of shooting and editing to the diachronic continuity of the film-maker's life is the true theme of our contemporary avant-garde film."6 Brakhage's strategy is the assemblage of filmed images of the past—such as home movies, photographs, or albums of photographs—to suggest all that was not recorded of any given experience. The juxtaposition between the images that remain of the past and the indescribable depths of individual memory trigger an examination of cinematic representation and its limitations. Several multi-part films made or completed by Brakhage in the early 1970s examine the nature of childhood vision and experience as a universal phenomenon. Both parts of the proposed "The Book of the Film," the four-part Scenes From Under Childhood (1967-1970) and the three-part The Weir-Falcon Saga (1970), counter the rigidity of adult vision with the freedom of the child's perception. Much like his earlier work, these films are marked by dazzling speed and fluidity and a trove of visual and thematic correspondences, created by his freely roaming camera, superimposition, dissolves, and rapid editing. The films provide a glimpse into the lost vision of the past, to which the conventional imagery of photographs and home movies can only refer.
The more than fifty films that Brakhage made in the 1970s have been described by Sitney as marked by the "horrors of solipsism."7 Among these films is a trilogy comprising Eyes (1971), Deus Ex and the best-known The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971)—for which Brakhage took his first-person camera into a police station, hospital, and morgue, respectively. Influenced by Frederick Wiseman's films about similar institutions, Brakhage attempted to interact in the broader social realm rather than in his preferred domestic sphere—which he had created with his wife, Jane Brakhage, and his children in rural Colorado. Dana Polan has described these films as Brakhage's failed attempt to confront the urban dangers that he had abandoned.8 The poetic abstraction carried out by distorting lenses, slow motion recording, rapid cutting, and various masking devices could not eliminate the hard facts of violence and death.
The most successful of Brakhage's films of the 1970s are generally thought to be The Riddle of Lumen (1972) and especially The Text of Light (1974). Both films take light as their sole subject and allow any symbolic or referential content to dissolve in color, movement, and shape. The Text of Light came to be shot through an ashtray extending from the camera lens after Brakhage apparently placed his malfunctioning camera next to an ashtray on a friend's desk and happened to see the novel image that was created.9 Shooting frame by frame over several months and editing, or composing, in the camera as a way to preserve the actual trail of perception, the film loses all reference to the things of the world except by way of the light and color infusing them. The viewer senses multiple phenomena—including people, animals, city lights, and landscapes—but sees them anew. As in all of Brakhages best work, the world is not transcended but instead allowed to reveal all that most viewers have been taught to ignore.
The four films made by Warren Sonbert in the 1970s exhibit a similar concern with exploring the full range of the language of cinema as a means of documenting the filmmaker's perceptions of public behavior. Carriage Trade (1968-1972) consists of hand-held shots of ten to fifteen seconds in length on various stocks of film with myriad light conditions, distances, angles, and focus, which show the world in a montage that reflects Sonbert's perceptual activity. While the spectacular series of images, which are linked according to graphic matches, visual motifs, and thematic connections, refer to recognizable things, there is no narrative line. Noblesse Oblige (1978—1981) continues the use of rapid, elliptical editing and superimposition, yet with a focus on symbols of American democracy that are countered by images of angry people in varied situations and scenes of destruction and disaster. While the film was a response to actual events (the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco), it seeks only to suggest the wealth of possible related images and perceptions, which are then left to the viewer to connect. Like Brakhage, Sonbert stretches the viewer's sense of the possibilities of perceptual activity available in the world.
The Scandinavian filmmaker Gunvor Nelson and the German filmmaker Dore O. both worked in the United States during the 1970s. Nelson's films are largely recognized for their dreamlike lyricism, which in Moon's Pool (1972) is created through underwater photography of moving bodies that are juxtaposed with shots of landscapes. However, Nelson also made a straightforwardly poetic film about birth, Kirsa Nicholina (1970), and the funny and pointed Take-Off (1972), in which the conventions of striptease are mocked. However, while Dore O.'s films are also known for their delicate beauty, she worked more closely in the tradition of Brakhage where the world is meaningful to the degree that it engages perceptual activity that can be cinematically conveyed. Kaskara (1974) poetically suggests the nature of summer by dissolving and superimposing images of a landscape through a door and window, thus merging inside and outside with people coming and going.
The degree to which the cinema, as the art of light, is perceived as a way to see the world more deeply is evident in the films released by Kenneth Anger in the 1970s. Rabbit's Moon, which was made in 1950 but not released until 1971, uses a Pierrot figure who reaches for the moon, and a Columbine, who is revealed by a magic lantern, to suggest literally and metaphorically the desire for and benefits of an ever more focused and brighter light. Yet Anger's larger project, Lucifer Rising, which he started in the middle of his career in 1966 and finished in 1980, suggests the complexity of his relation to both the cinema and the occult. With his simultaneous adoration of and repulsion by Hollywood's excess and star culture, Anger created his demonic Lucifer, as God of Light, to embody this contradiction. David James describes the figure as inhabiting "Anger's cinema as both the figure of its mythology and its basis as formal practice and material event. As an agent of Lucifer, Anger documents magic, and his practice is itself magic; his lifework is MAGICK, the cinematograph is his Magical Weapon, and his films are a Magick Lantern Cycle." In other words, Anger celebrates the Lucifer who is both the attractive light and spectacle inherent in film as a material form, and the means through which Hollywood perpetrates its normalizing and repressive social vision. The interruption of the sheer beauty of Anger's images—often with disturbing sounds, characters, actions, and editing patterns—forces a continual reappraisal of the institutions of cinema and the ambiguous relations between film, the world, and the unconscious.
While not involved in the occult to the same degree as Anger, Storm de Hirsch was a poet and filmmaker who considered her work to be part of visionary, mystical experience. De Hirsch was active in the 1960s, exploring ritual and dream through the manipulation of the film itself through scratching, painting, and split screen. My Experiment in Meditation (1971) continues this tradition with fluid colors and alternating zooms. De Hirsch's later films, some of which are part of her "Hudson River Diary," and others that are made in Super-8 as opposed to the more usual 16mm, are impressionistic documentations of her travels and observations that she calls cine-sonnets.
One filmmaker who attempted to remain unknown, thus exemplifying the dilemma of a history of the avant-garde, is Diana Barrie, who made twenty-six films in the 1970s. Scott MacDonalds interview with her in A Critical Cinema10 introduces an artist whose own interests span the concerns of the decade. Her early work not only reflects Anger's interest in dream and occult imagery but is involved with first-person cinema, in which the camera and the light are intimately tied to the actions of the filmmaker. For example, The Annunciation (1973-1974) is a Super-8 film in which the female filmmaker gives light to the Mary figure, who, as a filmic phenomenon, is herself made of light. This film presages several of the key concerns of the decade, including investigations of cinematic form, the use of found footage, and the examination of the cinematic construction of gender and the origins of filmmaking. The visually stunning My Version of the Fall (1978) turns to another primal female, Eve, and to the hand-tinting of the early days of the cinema. In the film Barrie reverses the story of the Fall by ending her version in the middle of the actual film and then running it in reverse as both a literal undoing of the text and a metaphoric erasure of one of the basic narratives of Western culture.
A second major form that was explored by filmmakers who started their work in earlier decades and continued into the 1970s is the diary or chronicle film, as distinct from the first-person, more lyrical film described above. Unlike documentary films, in which events in the world are recorded as straightforwardly as possible and edited rhetorically, these films employ a full range of formal devices to document private lives and experiences, political issues in relation to private lives, and the filmmakers interpretation of broader cultural phenomena. Unlike the documenting of a filmmaker's perceptual experiences in the world, as found in Brakhage's autobiographical films, the diary or chronicle film allows the referential world a more recognizable and conventional presence. Yet James Broughton's observation that "Looking is a grasping act. Seeing is a receiving act," indicates that continuities exist between the two modes of filmmaking.11
Broughton, who started working in avant-garde film in San Francisco in the 1940s, is the best known of the poetic autobiographical filmmakers. As a poet and the author of a book of film theory called Seeing the Light (1977), Broughton made films that are lighthearted but searching combinations of spoken poetry, images from nature, and theatrical enactment of mythic concepts. At the same time, the camera itself and the cinema's ability to remake the world poetically are ever-present concerns. In High Kukus (1973), a single image of water that is disturbed by wind, debris, and insects is shown while Broughton's voice-over describes all that cannot be seen in the image, such as the sky, the tree, or the mud below. As Sitney quotes from the film, "Anywhere you look at it/Said the Camera/this is the way it is./…/I have no meaning./Said the film,/I just unreel myself."12 This childlike openness is present in Broughton's best-known film, Testament (1974), in which the filmmaker tells his life story in reverse to explain his artistic avocation.
Accompanied by the reading of one of his poems, the film includes documentary footage of Broughton's hometown as it celebrates him and sections from several of his older films featuring images that have become iconic in his work, particularly a metallic nude Pan figure who leaps through a meadow. The most powerful sequence in the film is a series of still portraits of Broughton shown in reverse order from old age to infancy that speak movingly of the fragility of life and the power of cinema as an art form.
Broughton began working with the Canadian filmmaker Joel Singer in the late 1970s on a series of films, such as Song of the Godbody (1977), that celebrate the male body, Walt Whitman, and the pleasures derived from cinematically manipulating images of the human body. Singer also made films on his own that were more formal in their concerns. For example, Sliced Light (1976) is a black-and-white film of a landscape that is subordinated as subject matter by the cameras activity. Much like the films of Ernie Gehr discussed below, the pans, swish pans, telephoto shots, zooms, and superimpositions are the real subject of the film.
Two of the pioneers of avant-garde filmmaking who continued working into the 1970s were Sara Kathryn Arledge and Rudy Burkhardt. Arledge made the first experimental dance films in the early 1940s, then returned to make Tender Images (1978) and Interior Gardens, I (1978). Burkhardt, who made the first of his lyrical, often humorous films in 1938 and collaborated with Joseph Cornell in the 1950s, worked on brief, poetic documentaries in the 1970s. Whether the subject observed is a lakefront in Maine in Summer (1970), the streets of New York Doldrums (1972), or the painter Alex Katz in Alex Katz Painting (1978), Burkhardt's later films are best described as impressionistic collages of recognizable images. With his casual, musing sensibility, Burkhardt believed that if he framed the everyday world in the right way it would speak for itself.
Two lesser known filmmakers working in the 1970s, Tom Chomont and Robert Huot, engaged the personal diary film most rigorously. Chomont, who rarely distributes his films due to their personal nature, used the sparest equipment to make small, meticulous films about, as Scott MacDonald says, "what it is like to be Tom Chomont."13 In the twenty-two artisanal films he made during the decade, Chomont used formal devices such as mirror printing to make emotional experience concrete. As was common to avant-garde artists of this period, Chomont felt that the filming of the banal material world could release what he believed to be a mystical essence. Huot came to cinema from painting, where he started as an Abstract Expressionist and moved to Minimalism. Although he was part of a circle that included Hollis Frampton (who is discussed below), Huot was a diarist who recorded the smallest details of his life with straightforward sincerity. Using the formal limitation of the single roll of film, his serial presentation of the events of his life, which for a time included his relationship with the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, who was then his wife, was free of all narrative drive. The fourteen films that he made in the 1970s convey a sense that the unwinding of time is experienced as both progressive and cyclical.14
Freude (Freude Bartlett) was also involved in autobiographical diary filmmaking in the 1970s, as well as in the exhibition and distribution of avant-garde films made in San Francisco. Rejecting the usual system of distributing experimental films through cooperatives, such as Filmmaker's Co-op in New York or Canyon Cinema on the West Coast, her Serious Business Company advocated aggressive marketing of avant-garde film. Printing brochures, assembling film packages, and traveling with the films, Freude attempted to educate the public and earn more money for the filmmakers she represented. As a filmmaker in the 1970s, Freude made five poetic explorations of her daily life that suggest the connections between humans and animals and between life in the home and the natural world. Like others in the autobiographical genre, her films differ from documentary to the extent that they use formal devices such as superimposition, dissolves, and alternations between sound and silence, to express more about the experience of life than is conventionally conveyed through either narrative or cinema verité recording of the world.
Perhaps the most personal of the autobiographical filmmakers of the 1970s was the performance artist Carolee Schneemann. Her 1967 film Fuses was the first in a series of works documenting her relationship with another filmmaker, James Tenney (both of whom are featured in several of Brakhage's early films). In this first film and in Plumb Line, which was made between 1968 and 1972, Schneemann manipulated the actual film itself in every possible way: painting it, reversing it, splitting and quartering the screen, and superimposing multiple layers of film. In addition, not only is the film the product of a collage of images made in the camera, but it was edited just after it was filmed in order to capture most fully the intensity of the experience. Fuses particular has had a difficult history, partially due to its explicit erotic content. While most of the small number of avant-garde films made by women have been incorporated into feminist study, Schneemann's work frequently has been dismissed for its unquestioning use of the conventionally beautiful, naked female body and its concentration on a heterosexual love relationship.
Counter to Schneemann's work is that of Anne Severson (now known as Alice Anne Parker) who made Near the Big Chakra in 1972. While Severson's film is at least as sexually explicit as Schneemann's, in showing close-ups of the vulvas of thirty-seven women of all ages over seventeen minutes, its serial presentation and de-eroticizing of the female body made it an icon of early feminist cinema.
Jonas Mekas, one of the founders of Anthology Film Archives and Film Culture, made two films that pushed the personal diary film into a broader social realm. In 1971 Mekas made Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, documenting his return to his homeland after living for many years in New York City as a displaced person. While the images in the film are recognizably Lithuanian landscapes and other locations, the film actually documents the very moment of Mekas perceptions of these spaces, as well as his conscious search for significant images. Shots are as short as one frame in length and are made with an incessantly mobile, handheld camera that zooms, cuts, reframes, and pulls focus in tandem with Mekas's shifting attention. Influenced by the filmmaker's commitment to the spontaneity and sincerity of the Beat movement, the camera and in-camera editing mediate Mekas's encounter with his past. Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) continues his autobiographical search for a meaningful life in his adopted country. Using the same techniques to explore both his expatriate and film communities, Mekas suggested the ties between experimental cinema and fully living life, as well as the power of art and the community of artists to facilitate personal renewal. David James quotes a line from the film spoken by Mekas in his distinct, plaintive accent as he wanders through a field: "It was very quiet, like in a church and we were the monks of the order of cinema."15 Mekas's films document a profound faith in avant-garde cinema as a positive personal, social, and artistic phenomenon.
Located professionally and aesthetically between the work and careers of Mekas and Brakhage is the West Coast filmmaker Bruce Baillie, who also founded the Canyon Film Society, The Canyon Cinema News, and the distribution agency Canyon Cinema Cooperative. As an artist documenting the world around him, Baille was most active in the 1960s but completed Quick Billy in 1971, and Roslyn Romance (Is It Really True?) in 1978. The former film is the most extreme example of Baillie's dense layering of images, in which the world is almost totally abstracted into what P. Adams Sitney calls a "pulsating matrix," where beings and things seem to mutate together in a suggestion of birth and death.16 Baillie's earlier work addressed the tensions between the natural, organic world and the mechanical, urban one by documenting both with the same poetic, fluid style, characterized by graphic matches. His later, more expressive work suggests that the two worlds must be merged cinematically as a means of retraining the viewers perceptual faculties. Roslyn Romance extends Baillie's concerns past diary film to suggest a tapestry of time as well as space, in its blending of photographs from the past with the filmic present and its depictions of seasons in transition. In this personal work, the filmmaker, who appears in the film, tries to find a balance between nature and technology (represented here by the cinema itself), ritual and everyday life, and memories of the past versus the lived, fully perceived present.
Among the many filmmakers working in the 1970s who moved from the diary film to experiment with new ways of chronicling the culture at large, as opposed to the self in some relation to the world, is Chick Strand. Strand had been an ethnographic filmmaker before beginning a body of work that uses the full range of cinema's formal devices to analyze the social forces that determine women's lives. Films such as Elasticity (1976) and Mujer de Milfuegos (1976) are marked by a ritualistic tone created through repetition, associative editing, slow motion produced through step printing, superimposition, and freeze frames. Where the former film uses found footage to present and parody stereotypical female conduct as a way of suggesting how contemporary female identity is formed, the latter conveys the sense that deeper structures determine behavior. In an isolated, ruined villa, the black-garbed woman in Mujer de Milfuegos is depicted enacting domestic chores such as sweeping as if they are timeless rituals. The mythic quality created by the film's pacing and editing, which is further suggested by red-tinted sequences evoking sex, birth, and death, prevents a simplistically, feminist reading of the film.
After the first-person poetic film and the diary film, the third strain of filmmaking to move into the 1970s from earlier decades comments on Hollywood and popular culture. After making some of the best known films of the early avant-garde, beginning in 1958 with A Movie, Bruce Conner continued assembling his stunning compilation films through the 1960s. Conner's short films are made entirely of found footage—which includes entertainment, industrial, and archival films as well as film leader, title sequences, and trailers. Conner's filmmaking consists of editing together unrelated pieces of film according to visual and thematic associations, then creating an equally complex aural track from sound effects and popular music. Unlike the majority of avant-garde filmmakers who mask footage of the modern, industrial world through layering, quick cutting, or the introduction of visual metaphor, Conner works with both the referent depicted in the footage and the status of the footage as a pop culture product. Marilyn Times Five (1974) loop prints a sequence of a woman, who may be Marilyn Monroe, stripping and singing, "I'm through with love," five times. The repetition deflates the erotic charge of the image, which in turn reveals that the actual subject of the film is not the profilmic event but the formal device. The autobiographical Valse Triste (1978) diverges from all of Conner's other work with its use of fades to suggest causality, the passing of time, and dream. Mongoloid (1978) captures world as seen by someone with Down's syndrome, using the device of Conner's Cosmic Ray (1962), in which a popular song provides the structure for the film. (In the early 1970s, Standish Lawder continued the found footage tradition in a number of short compilation films such as Dangling Participle , which uses instructional films, and Raindance , which is composed of footage from an old cartoon showing falling rain.)
A less analytical and more camp attitude toward Hollywood and its products was taken by George Kuchar, who started making films with his brother Mike in the 1950s. The brothers worked in 8mm, with George moving to 16mm in 1966. The nineteen films that Kuchar made in the 1970s were often collaborations with friends who shared an attraction to and repulsion by the glamour of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. The titles of the films suggest their tone, from Devil's Cleavage (1973) to I, an Actress (1977) to Symphony for a Sinner (1979). Scott MacDonald describes Kuchar's devoted audience as loving "to guffaw at the ludicrous costumes and sets, at the outrageous over- and under-acting, at the zaftig leading ladies and the geeky leading men, at the absurd plots and the cheap, raucous mise-en-scène, at the overly melodramatic music."17 This description could just as easily be applied to the followers of John Waters, who was strongly influenced by George Kuchar. While both filmmakers were interested in the gap between the banality of everyday life and the illusions and desires created by Hollywood, Waters's approach was more distanced and cynical. Working exclusively in Baltimore with a stable group of actors and technicians and higher budgets, Waters pushed Kuchar's aesthetic into popular culture in six features made in the 1970s. Films such as Pink Flamingoes (1972) are full-length narratives that combine intelligent observation, unpretentious humor, and outrageous plots. Waters and his main actor, Divine, were able to shock and offend the audience, while at the same time provoking laughter at their perspicacious audacity.
The fourth and final category of films that began in earlier decades and continued through the 1970s is graphic cinema, which ranges from hand-drawn animation to sophisticated experimentation with computers. James and John Whitney started working in the 1940s with the assumption that both traditional animation and the use of pre-existing music were uncinematic. They were concerned with the formal properties of the medium, including the illusion of movement and depth, light, frame, screen, and editing patterns. James Whitney was particularly interested in the serial presentation of abstract form in patterns of theme and variation. As the titles of his three films from the 1970s indicate, he became increasingly intrigued by Eastern philosophy and practices. He believed that films such as Dwija (1976), with its loops, superimposition, solarization, and rephotography that dissolve mandala-like form into pure light, manifested the effects of meditation and served as an aid to the practice. John Whitney was a composer of music who applied the mathematical principles of twelve-tone music to the construction of films in computers that he designed. In his five films of the 1970s, ranging from Osaka (1970) to Arabesque (1975), John Whitney transformed complex sound tracks, geometric form, and color into stunning films that seem to defy the two dimensionality of screen space. (Another filmmaker from the early years of animation was Jules Engel, who made three films in the 1970s after beginning his career with Walt Disney in the 1930s.)
Both Stan Vanderbeek and Ed Emshwiller continued the tradition of experimentation with computer-generated cinema in the 1970s. Echoing Maya Deren's original avant-garde films (e.g., Ritual of Transfigured Time, 1946), both filmmakers turned to dancers to provide the human form that is then manipulated by video and computer techniques through fragmentation and speed adjustment. The attempt to create a dialogue between conventionally conceived and executed art and technology is evident in Van Der Beek's Film Form #1 (1970) and Emshwiller's Scapemates (1972). Both films use video to transform the dancer's body and the journey through space by way of color and abstraction. Many of the films of the West Coast filmmaker Scott Bartlett also used computer and electronic manipulation of the image. Taking advantage of earlier work done in the mixing of media, Bartlett's films explore the experimental technique as vocabulary in his varied films. While Medina (1972) and Greenfield (1977) document the filmmaker's experience of Morocco and a ritual celebration of the summer solstice, respectively, other films take on mythic subjects and/or the nature of perception.
Robert Breer came to graphic cinema in the 1950s as an abstract painter in search of greater dynamism. Using hard-edged abstract animation and brilliant color, Breer's seven quickly-paced films of the 1970s generally explore the perception of depth and scale in film through the interplay of geometric form. Fuji (1973) breaks the pattern to a degree by integrating live-action footage of a man on a train passing by Mt. Fuji, with loose, lyrical drawings of the same imagery. Breer often shows his films in loop format, since he sees them as objects through which to explore the difference between normal and cinematic perception. A second animator to begin work in the 1950s was Larry Jordan, who started his career by finishing six films that had been initiated by Joseph Cornell, and later completing a film about the artist, Cornell, 1965 (1978). Like his mentor, Jordan was a collage artist who applied the editing techniques of dissolves and superimpositions to brilliantly colored, cut-out imagery, often taken from old steel engravings, to create magical juxtapositions. Jordan's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977), which is narrated by Orson Welles, uses engravings Gustave Doré combined with rich color and inserted imagery of various animals. With its characteristic use of quirky synthesizer sound, the film serves as a good example of Jordan's meticulous and haunting work.
The final filmmaker in this brief analysis of graphic cinema is Jordan Belson, who began with single-frame animation in the 1960s before moving toward Brakhage-like meditations on perception in the 1970s. As David James writes, the geometrical shapes of Belson's films are "kinesthetic optical effects [which] are both produced in response to the visual and visionary experience of altered states of consciousness and used to achieve them."18 Belson was interested in awakening perceptual activity so that the external world could be understood to lead into an inner realm. Meditation (1971) tries to approach the mind's eye by layering circular imagery made of radiating light and water. Chakra (1972) uses cosmic imagery that suggests rain, clouds, and planets, while Light (1974) invokes light in motion to suggest that the material phenomena of the world can be united with the consciousness of the perceiver through the agency of cinema.
Working at the same time as the filmmakers who continued their careers into the 1970s from earlier decades, were those artists who were influenced by the broadly-based movement in the arts known as Minimalism. Within the visual arts, Minimalism emerged in the early 1960s as a reaction to the emotive excess of second-generation Abstract Expressionism. Rather than being an articulation of the artist's psyche, the Minimalist art work was a material object, sometimes made of industrial matter, that tended to neither refer to, represent, nor comment on anything outside of itself. Contrary to most notions of artistic creation and skill, the majority of the artist's work involved the determination of the formal system of the piece. What remained was an object with a specific material presence that confronted the viewer at first encounter, with no suggestion that any more could be read from or into the work. In the earliest days of Minimalism, the Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka made a series of short formalist films that shared many of these same concerns. Films such as Adebar (1956-1957), Schwechater (1957-1958), Arnulf Rainer (1958-1960), and Unsere Afrikareise (1961-1966) are the medium's most meticulously constructed works of art. While Kubelka's work lacked the requisite absence of content and separation from the artist's hand, its formal concerns presaged the powerful influence that Minimalism was to have on film by the 1970s.
Where painters, sculptors, and dancers had to make an effort to keep the imprint of the artist's hand or body from the work by employing manufacturing processes, commonplace objects, or task-related movements, filmmakers worked with an industrial product from the start. However, film as generally understood was a photographic medium with an assumed reference to things outside itself. The artists who came to be known as Structural or Material filmmakers found their greatest challenge in foregrounding the chosen form of the film so as to prevent the viewer from inferring reference to a world outside the film, thus preventing a story from being seen as encoded or, worse, recorded. Ernie Gehr, who is discussed below, expressed this new rigorous concept of film in stating: "Film is a real thing and as a real thing is not imitation."19
Like Minimalism, Structural filmmaking produced unprecedented amounts of theory and criticism by artists and scholars to explain its purported simplicity. The most important member of the group, Hollis Frampton, took great pains in his work and in his writing to redefine film according to Structural precepts. In a presentation called "Lecture," given on October 30, 1968, Frampton foregrounded form as the topic of the lecture itself and through the material that was presented and performed.20 A pre-recorded text was played while Frampton, the speaker, operated a projector from the back of the room. The piece was intended to illustrate that self-expression in art was a short-lived phenomenon; that artists are only interested in "reconstructing the fundamental conditions and limits" of their art; and most crucially, that the film being projected during the talk (that is, the light emitted by the empty projector) "is only a rectangle of white light….But it is all films. We can never see more within our rectangle, only less." Thus, the project of Structural film was the formal delineation of all the possibilities for defining the rectangle of white light through its methodical reduction.
A second major influence on Structural film in the 1970s was Andy Warhol, who made films between 1963 and 1974. Warhol's first films, which the artist conceived himself but had executed by assistants, Sleep and Eat (1963), are Minimalist works of art in which the titles precisely state what is seen in the film. Sleep is a six-hour film of a man sleeping, in a fixed-frame film of unedited one-hundred foot rolls that flare every two and three-quarter minutes as they end. Eat, which is forty-five minutes long, uses the same technique to record a man eating a mushroom. These films and the eight-hour Empire (1964), in which a camera records the Empire State Building overnight, overtly challenge the audience to consider the nature of the cinema. Since the films show neither a narrative event nor the perceptual adventures of a filmmaker, the viewer is left to contemplate the form itself. In these films, the formal properties include the effect of light on emulsion, the limitations of the frame, the presence of off-screen space, the brevity of the roll of film, the arbitrariness of film length, and the effect of the camera on the subject. P. Adams Sitney interprets Warhol's films as a direct commentary on American avant-garde cinema. Through parody and reduction, Warhol explodes "the myth of compression and the myth of the filmmaker" embodied by the style, concerns, and persona of a filmmaker like Brakhage. Sitney describes Warhol's legacy to Structural film as the challenge to orchestrate duration by directing "the wandering attention that [triggers] ontological awareness" toward a goal.21
Warhol's films became less influential in the avant-garde during the 1970s. His films of the mid-1960s were closer to those of George Kuchar in their fascination with the influence of Hollywood and the performance of the self. Using scripts, sound, zooms, pans, and in-camera editing, films such as The Chelsea Girls (1966) or Bike Boy (1967) are more involved with ironic parody of star culture than with the form of the film. By the time the Structural filmmakers had started working, Warhol had very little to do with his films outside of providing the milieu in which they were created. Paul Morrissey wrote, photographed, or directed most of Warhol's work of the 1970s, which were chiefly fragmentary, rough-hewn narratives about Hollywood notions of female glamour and exhibitionism, often performed by transvestites. Finally, with films like Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1974), Warhol simply "presented" a film that had been made by Carlo Ponti's production company as the ultimate fulfillment of his authorial distancing.
The work of artists who were not primarily filmmakers but who used film to document conceptual, body, or earth art were more influential than Warhol by 1970. Yoko Ono, Vito Acconci, and John Baldessari were known for films that recorded or were part of performance pieces, while Robert Smithson recorded his earth work "Spiral Jetty" in a film of the same name in 1970, and Bruce Naumann made Art Make-up: Green, Black, White, Pink in 1971. In addition, installation artists such as Nam June Paik and Taka Iimura in New York and Pat O'Neill in Los Angeles explored film projection and other aspects of the medium in gallery settings. Through the use of loop prints, the pieces called attention to aspects of duration, the screen, and the light emitted from the projector.
Two of the films of the late 1960s that most influenced the next decade were Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1966) and Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967). The former film is clearly about the optical effects of quickly alternating frames of film. With its absence of referentiality or implied significance, it is a purely structural analysis of a single cinematic phenomenon. While Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer (1958-1960), for example, is also a mathematically calculated alternation of black and white frames with a corresponding sound track, the formal system is hidden from the observer by its complexity. Moreover, Kubelka believed that the film evoked natural images in the viewer's mind.22 Although Snow's Wavelength displays a similar rigor, its complexity suggests the reasons that Minimalist concepts had to be transformed as they made their way into the cinema.
While films can be made that foreground the material nature of the medium in a rationally constructed, immediately perceivable way, few films can be totally abstract because the cinema is largely a photographic art form. The referential world can have a minimal presence, as does the corridor in Gehr's Serene Velocity (1970), or an arbitrary one, like the barn in Larry Gottheim's Barn Rushes (1971), but the thing recorded is almost always in some way pertinent to the action of the dominant formal device. In addition, as Paul Arthur and others have indicated, rarely is the complete organizational system of a film immediately graspable by the viewer.23
Indeed, very few films can be defined as purely Structural, although the influence of the technique explored in these films has been considerable. In the best of the Structural films and those that follow, Minimalist simplification permits awareness of the often elegant workings of the cinema, which are often so skillfully hidden in narrative film, in relation to content evoked by the imagery.24 The short films made by the Canadian filmmaker Joyce Weiland in 1967, 1933 and Sailboat, epitomize this deceptive simplicity. The sailboat on the ocean depicted in the latter film becomes the ideal device with which to explore the film's topic, the illusion of screen depth.
Wavelength, made by another Canadian filmmaker who strongly influenced experimental film in the United States, was celebrated at its first appearance as a revolutionary artwork. Michael Snow's film is a forty-five minute forward zoom through a loft space that ends on a black-and-white photograph of waves in an ocean, accompanied by an electronic sine wave that becomes increasingly more compressed and shrill. The zoom pauses occasionally so that day turns into night, and things happen in the room, such as the moving of furniture, the collapse of a man, and the making of a telephone call by a distraught woman. But, as P. Adams Sitney suggests, more important than the things that happen in the room are the things that happen to the room cinematically through the use of the zoom, superimposition, negatives, and colored gels.25 This observation strikes the viewer forcefully as less and less of the room remains to be explored. In one of many analyses of the Structural films of the 1970s, Annette Michelson's 1971 essay in Artforum, "Toward Snow," elucidates the power of Wavelength and indicates the crucial role that film came to play in the aesthetic discourse of the time. Michelson writes of the experience of Snow's film, "we are proceeding from uncertainty to certainty, as our camera narrows its field, arousing and then resolving our tension of puzzlement as to its ultimate destination, describing in the splendid purity of its one, slow movement, the notion of 'horizon' characteristic of every subjective process and fundamental as a trait of intentionality."26
Snow's next two films also explored the workings of a camera set in a single space. Back and Forth (1969) features a camera that swings from side to side and up and down, across an area in which various banal happenings occur, such as a janitor sweeping and a girl reading. As the speed of the camera accelerates, the space is flattened and the events blur until the credits appear and the actions shown in the film return in a series of superimpositions. The film is less a perceptual experience than an illustration of the ways in which the camera can dissolve time. The Central Region (1971) is a three-hour film in which a camera on a tripod designed and programmed by Snow to move in 360-degree arcs simply records the barren plateau on which it is placed. The viewer is aware of the camera's movement, the tripod, and focus, until the camera's pace increases to make the world, rather than the camera, seem to be in motion. Snow's last major film of the seventies is Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974). Almost five hours long, the film is a comprehensive, serial construct with twenty-four loosely connected episodes that explore every conceivable approach to the combination of sound and image that might be used as a means of representing the world on film.
The most straightforward of all the Structural filmmakers is Ernie Gehr, for whom film is simply light, time, and the illusion of movement, without reference to events in the world or subjectivity. History (1970) is his purest film. Shot without a lens, the film was exposed to a black cloth then reprinted to reveal the grain of the film, before being shown at sixteen frames per second to emphasize the flicker of the projector. Gehr's best known work is Serene Velocity (1970), in which an empty corridor is shot through the night with a zoom that is altered every four frames, with an ever-increasing ratio and cyclical alterations of exposure, so that the continual optical jolts become ever more extreme. Even though the illusion of distance between the ends of each zoom grows, the eye compensates due to the phenomenon of persistence of vision in order to create the sense of a coherent space. In 1979 Gehr released Eureka (also known as Geography), which was one of several influential works to use an early film as its raw material. Eureka is composed of a four-minute film that was made in San Francisco between 1903-1905 of a Hale's Tour trolley car as it makes its way through the city. Each frame of the film is reprinted eight times to extend the event, which makes a pulse of light occur every eight frames. This tactic not only allows the viewer more time to study the chaotic activity of people and traffic in the street, but it emphasizes every sign of deterioration on the film to reveal the emulsion itself. The viewer is made acutely aware of the passage of time and its effects.
Ken Jacobs also worked with an artifact from cinema's earliest years. In addition to his use of three-dimensional film in performance pieces in the 1970s, Jacobs made Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1971). The film uses a ten-minute film of the same title shot by Billy Bitzer in 1905, which it re-presents in multiple ways. By running the original film backwards, at different speeds, with shifting focus, and from various distances, countless heretofore unseen elements are revealed. Not only does the viewer see new things in the mise-en-scène and performance, but the film itself—as an abstract pattern of light and shadow—is really seen for the first time.
One of the more rigorous of the Structural filmmakers was Bill Brand, who also returned to early cinema in an attempt to analyze the materiality of film. Brand's films are often simple explorations of the filmic material itself. Rate of Change (1972) shows a tinted, frameless strip of celluloid, while Touch Tone Phone Film (1973) features the motion of a strip of film slipping in the projector. Demolition of a Wall (1974) is Brand's most complex work. Using six frames from a Lumière film in which a group of men knock over a wall with sledgehammers, Brand explores the place of the frame in the single shot. Each of the six frames is step-printed four times, then every permutation of the six images and the six musical tones accompanying them is played out, which results in 720 changes over a thirty-minute period. Brand's later films used computers to continue his analysis of the basic units of visual language in film and the role of memory in deciphering cinematic structures. (Similar to Brand in his rigor is the American filmmaker Peter Gidal, who worked in the European avant-garde. Gidal's theoretical writing and his strenuously Structural-Material films examined the nature of film, particularly the mobile frame and off-screen space, and the processes of cinematic signification.)
Two influential films of the 1970s made by filmmakers active through the decade were Production Stills (1970) by Morgan Fisher and Print Generation (1973-1974) by J. J. Murphy. The structure of Fisher's film is determined by the fixing of eight Polaroid images to a white wall, which becomes the white screen when it is projected. The length of the film is determined by the time it takes for a four-hundred foot roll of 16mm film to go through the camera. As one hears the crew talking and sees the white wall/screen, images that are taken from the filming of this very wall during Production Stills appear on the screen. Thus, the film is the documentary of its own production through still and motion photography. J. J. Murphy made quintessentially Minimalist films, in which he formulated an elementary concept and set it in motion. Highway Landscape (1971-1972) simply shows a section of highway, with sounds that make one speculate about directionality. Print Generation is a series of sixty commonplace images in a one-minute loop accompanied by ocean sound, which is reprinted repeatedly. The result of this process of reprinting is that each print contains less and less of the original matter, and consequently of the imagery and sound, of the original film.
Perhaps the most important figure in the avant-garde of the 1970s was Hollis Frampton, who made numerous films and wrote a series of theoretical essays during the decade (published in 1983 as Circles of Confusion by the Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester, New York). Frampton had been a photographer in New York in the 1960s, where he was part of a circle of serious Minimalist artists that included the sculptor Carl Andre. In addition, he had spent time with Ezra Pound in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s, where he formulated the notion that visual images could refer to the world without being subservient to narrative. As a theorist and poet of the cinema, Frampton made films that analyze every element of the structure of cinema as well as the nature of photographic representation. More than most Structural filmmakers, Frampton made films that investigated properties as basic as the frame or the illusion of depth, for example, which were also evocative and moving.
In the essay "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative," Frampton asks, "what are the irreducible axioms of that part of thought we call the art of film?" He likens film to the waterfall and the gas jet, which are not things but "stable patterns of energy" that have a characteristic shape in space and time.27 The boundaries that define film as such are the frame and the photographic illusion, with the latter due to the assumption that every photograph implies the existence of some actual phenomenon.
Frampton makes the important distinction that the photographic illusion is not a representation, since any photograph is an abstraction of its original matter. Finally, since it occurs in time, every film contains at least the narrative of its own making. Another essay in Circles of Confusion, entitled "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses," suggests that all cinema contains references to the medium's history and that Frampton's project is the making of all the films that need to be made to complete this history.
In the late 1960s, Frampton made a series of films with titles such as Surface Tension (1968) and Palindrome (1969) that refer to academic disciplines that interested him, physics and linguistics respectively. Zorn's Lemma (1970), which takes its title from mathematical set theory, is one of Frampton's best known works. Over an hour's time, each of the film's three sections explores possibilities for the creation of both cinematic language and meaning. The first part is a dark screen with voices rhythmically reading the Bay State Primer, an old-fashioned text that was designed to simultaneously teach the alphabet, grammar, and Christian dogma. The central section is longest and is a silent serial presentation in which the twenty-four letters of the Latin alphabet (with I/J and U/V combined) appear for a second at a time, photographed for the most part from existing signs in New York City. In arbitrary order and at irregular intervals, each letter is replaced by an image, which then takes the letter's spot in the alphabet. For example, a shot of a fire burning replaces each regular occurrence of the letter X, while the painting of a room and the peeling of a tangerine appear in place of other letters. This rhythmic, preordained process, which is also a game of guessing and remembering, teaches that although one can read the manifold properties of the shot and the sequence, cinema cannot be reduced to language. The final segment shows a couple walking into deep space in a snowstorm while women's voices metronomically read one word at a time from a medieval text called On Light, or the Ingression of Forms. The words are made meaningless by the reading style, with the film ending as the people finally disappear into the snow-filled distance and the screen becomes the pure white rectangle that is, for Frampton, the most complete film.
Between 1971 and 1972, Frampton made a series of seven films entitled "Hapex Legomena," which is a term from philology referring to those words of which only a single instance survives in all the ancient textual sources, so that the meaning must be inferred through its specific context. Each film investigates one aspect of the material of cinema, with (Nostalgia) [sic] (1971), the first part, considering the nature of the photographic illusion, the relation of still and motion photography, and the relation of sound and image. In the film, an autobiographical text describing a series of photographs taken by Frampton is spoken by Michael Snow. After appearing for several seconds, each photograph is seen to be lying on a hot-plate that proceeds to imprint its coiled form before gradually burning the photograph to a crisp. Thus the property of motion, which defines the cinema, does not occur in connection with any narrative but only in relation to the actual photographic paper. This procedure also makes the concrete photograph doubly ephemeral by turning it into cinema, which only exists in the instance of projection, and by burning it. Moreover, one soon realizes that the aural text describes not what is seen, but the next photograph in the series. The viewer then must both accumulate and remember visual imagery in preparation for the next reading, while recalling the visuals of the previous image in accordance with what is being heard. Filled as it is with irony, unintentional associations, and parodies of the art world, the film typifies Frampton's investigations of film.
The other sections of "Hapex Legomena" include Poetic Justice (1972), which considers the generic film script through having an actual script read as it lies on a table; Critical Mass (1973), about editing between sound and image; Travelling Matte (1971), about framing; Ordinary Matter (1972), about the projector and stop motion; Remote Control (1972), about the relation between video and film; and Special Effects (1972), which ponders the powerful desire to find significance in the most minimal image. Between 1972 and his death in 1984, Frampton worked on another body of work that he called "The Magellan Cycle." The unfinished piece consists of over twenty-five films of various lengths that were to be shown over a year and a day, in segments ranging from very short films to several longer films intended for the solstices and equinoxes. The thirty-six hours of film in the completed film cycle explore epic themes conceptually and expressively, without recourse to narrative, in sections with titles such as: Straits of Magellan: Drafts & fragments (1974), and The Birth of Magellan: Dreams of Magellan (Dream 1: Matrix) (1979), and Lamentations. In an extensive essay and an interview with Frampton concerning the films, William Simon suggests that the films teach its viewers how to interpret in the act of viewing, and calls "The Magellan Cycle" a Utopian, "grammatically complete synopsis of the [infinite cinema]."28
While Frampton, Snow, Gehr, and others mentioned above were concerned with the material and structure of film and the relation of film to language, another group of filmmakers was interested in the relation of film structure to perception. Paul Sharits made the first color flicker films in the late 1960s, such as N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968) and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, (1968) with the sole intention of affecting the consciousness of the viewer by working with cinema as light. The alternating colors in the films soften the cuts and frequently produce, in the viewer's mind, pulsations of colors that are not actually present. Sharits also uses recognizable imagery in his films, which he empties of meaning through the flicker effect, superimposition, and rephotography from the screen that distorts and blurs. In 1970, Sharits made S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED, which features female voices repeating the word "exochorion" in counterpoint, along with scratched color footage of moving water. As the words begin to metamorphose into other words and phrases, and as the eye shifts from seeing only depth in flowing water to seeing only the surface of the film in the scratched emulsion, the film produces extraordinary perceptual experiences. In over fifteen films, with titles like Analytical Studies I: The Film Frame (1971-1976), and several installations, Sharits spent the 1970s analyzing the perceptual effects of the most basic aspects of cinema.
In the same years, George Landow (also known as Owen Land) made films that questioned not only the formal means through which film induces psychological states, but also the ways that film manipulates the audience's logical responses. As the title of his 1971 film Remedial Reading Comprehension suggests, Landow believes that part of the project of the avant-garde is to undo commonplace assumptions about film in relation to concrete reality and authority. With characteristic irony, this film combines found color test footage; a faked commercial about rice containing the phrase: "suppose your name is Madge and you have just cooked some rice"; flashes of text in a speed-reading manual; a sleeping woman whose dream appears as a comic book word balloon; and a rephotographed image of the filmmaker running, with the superimposed words: "This Is A Film About You…. Not About Its Maker." The issue of address is central to the film. The viewer must consider whether or not to assume the position of the "you" of the film, which in turn determines whether the film is understood to represent the world in a conventional way or to challenge film's relation to reality. (A slightly anomalous film in the larger career of the San Francisco filmmaker Robert Nelson, called Bleu Shut , shows similar concerns. Through the use of grids, buzzer sounds, mock commercials, and a timing clock in the corner of the frame, Nelson parodies television game shows and their relation to consumerism.)
Landow's 1976 film New Improved Institutional Quality: In The Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops most directly addresses the ways in which film reflects and participates in authoritarian modes of learning, as well as the tendency to condense real experience and memory into film-like stories. Unlike the first version of this film (1969), in which the viewer took an absurd I.Q. test, in this version an older man responds to a voice tonally addressed to a young child by obeying its orders. The audience observes and shares the man's confusion and paralysis in reaction to ambiguous directions like: "answer the telephone, put a number four on what you would touch," when a telephone is heard ringing on the film's sound track. Landow forces the viewer to participate in the film through his mode of address, which provides a visceral sense of the degree to which the representational strategies of narrative film are equated with reality.
Although the best known experimental films of the 1970s are those made by the Structural filmmakers who dealt methodically either with pure form or with the capabilities of cinema's formal properties to evoke perceptual experience, many other filmmakers experimented with the medium during the decade. One tendency of the period is exemplified by Larry Gottheim, who made a series of short, meticulously planned formal films about the experience of perception. For example, Fog Line (1970) is a single fixed shot of a meadow in which mist slowly rises and alters the graininess of the image, the color, and the focus of the visible world. Barn Rushes (1971) uses a series of camera movements, particularly a leftward track with a rightward pan, to film the side of a barn. The cinematic processes change the viewer's perception of the world; the barn jumps in the frame as it shimmers and blurs in the changing light. Barry Gerson worked in a similar mode, in which aspects of the everyday world are delicately considered through cinematic properties such as the play of light or the adjustment of focus. Inversion (1973), like many of Gerson's brief films, is composed around a window to suggest the layering and merging of different kinds of space. Gerson pays careful attention to the phenomenal world, and the illusions it produces, as a way of suggesting a more spiritual realm beneath it.
Other filmmakers of the decade who received critical attention include James Benning and Ken Kobland. Benning made a series of films that formally document the midwestern industrial landscape through the exploration of depth, scale, color, and motion. One Way Boogie-Woogie (1977) lives up to its Mondrian-inspired title in its use of objects like cars or signs as flat blocks of color in a series of sixty, one-minute shots accompanied by a sound track of radio and industrial noise. Ken Kobland made a number of films in the late 1970s that use more unusual cinematic techniques to explore space, often with a sense of humor. Frame (1976) plays with flat versus deep space and off-screen space through the blue-screen process, while Near and Far/Now and Then (1979) layers swish pans of fall scenery with postcards held in front of the camera by the filmmaker's hands, accompanied by magisterial music and a combination of cartoon and ambient sound.
Indicative of the diversity of filmmaking in the 1970s is the fact that Hollis Frampton programmed the 29th of February, in the year-long "Magellan Cycle," to show any one of the films of Yvonne Rainer. Although Rainer and Frampton both have deep roots in Minimalism and are considered to be involved in the Structural project, Frampton felt that Rainer's work was the direct opposite of his, due to her concern with narrative.29 Rainer was a choreographer who brought Minimalism to dance, particularly through a series of performances in the Judson Church in New York in the early 1960s. In place of the theatricality and display of skill characteristic of traditional dance, Rainer worked with a series of movement tasks that involved improvisation and ordinary actions, as well as spoken texts and film. As concerns with narrative, emotion, and the forms of classical Hollywood cinema began to dominate her work, Rainer turned to filmmaking. However, it was not until the end of the decade that she stopped using the stylized performing body as the principal tool in her films.
After making a series of short dance films in the late 1960s, Rainer made her first longer, narrative work in 1972, entitled Lives of Performers. The film is a collage of dances, photographs of performances, improvisations, commentary, and a performance based on stills from the 1928 film by the German director G. W. Pabst, Pandora's Box. Rainer intended this episodic juxtaposition of material from her own life, particularly her romantic relationships, and conventional representations of similar material to highlight the ways in which the subject is created in language. Because of her interest in melodrama, female experience, and sexist representation, as well as the new complex images of women that she had created, feminists immediately laid claim to Rainer's films. However, Rainer asserted in these early years that her work was about the possibilities for structuring content, not about the content itself. The well-known sequence in Film about a woman who…(1974), called "An Emotional Accretion in 48 Steps," supports Rainer's argument. With a love affair as its subject matter, two characters woodenly perform forty-eight possible ways of relating to one another in discrete, preordained segments. Multiple formal possibilities for behavior are explored in relation to sound, address, performance style, and composition in the frame.
By the end of the 1970s, the importance of Rainer's work in feminist film studies, the influence of her deadpan style in relation to melodrama, her complex use of written and spoken text, and her commitment to emotional and experiential concerns were widely recognized. Unlike her male counterparts in Minimalist-inspired film, Rainer (as well as her director of photography, filmmaker Babette Mangolte) used film self-reflexively, in order to question representation, and politically, to examine the repercussions of Hollywood's dominance. Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1979) is a three-hour film that challenges conventional means of filmic narration through episodic construction, destabilized space, the interplay of fiction and documentary, and the use of several performers per character. The film includes long psychoanalytic sections with several therapists, diary readings, a long tracking shot across a crowded mantelpiece, and documentary shots of the Berlin Wall, Stonehenge, New York, and Europe seen from a moving train. However, it is chiefly committed to exploring the relationships among feminism, psychoanalysis, politics, personal needs and memories, and morality. The film is purposefully difficult and irreconcilable, which makes the spectator attentive and suggests the insolubility of the dilemmas it presents. In particular, the question remains as to how one lives morally in an era of political violence, when the courage of others provides models of behavior that are both extraordinary and ambiguous.
Rainer's films helped to end the Structural era of avant-garde filmmaking in the 1970s by exhibiting a concern with content. Other influential filmmakers in the transition include the Belgian Chantai Ackerman, who made News from Home in New York in 1976. This film catalogs the sights of the city in straightforward long takes, which are modified by the reading of letters from the filmmaker to her mother in Belgium. Outside of Rainer's work, most experimental films of the early to mid-1970s were divorced from social and political life in the United States. The careful exploration of the medium seemed to preclude concern with the era's multiple political assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and increasing activity in the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. The avant-garde's concern with perceptual experience, mystical states of consciousness, and logical puzzles investigating cinematic form waned as the decade ended.30 In the late-1970s, the avant-garde turned to documentary, autobiography, and punk filmmaking in an effort to comment on the larger social and political sphere, in addition to continuing its investigation of the language of cinema.
Marjorie Keller made a number of films throughout the decade that follow this trajectory. Keller's films explore the nature of the medium through sound/image interplay, shifts in focus, and rapid editing of thematically and visually associated imagery. The films range in tone and appearance from Brakhage-like flurries of indistinct images to echoes of Landow's humorous reconstructions to Rainer-like documentary footage. What is different and consistent in Keller's films is a concern with autobiography and social situations. Misconception (1973-1977) is a formally complex combination of imagery and sound associated with the pregnancy and childbirth experienced by Keller's sister. While the film is a personal tribute to her sister and a pointed commentary on Brakhage's lyrical childbirth films of the early 1960s, it is also about misguided and confusing cultural conceptions about birth. Also working throughout the decade was Barbara Hammer, who produced a body of visually compelling films about lesbian experiences and goddess imagery that has continued to grow. Finally, Su Friedrich made Cool Hands, Warm Heart in 1979, a film that documents women performing personal hygiene rituals in public spaces, which was the first in a series of rigorous, formally challenging films about women's contradictory relation to political and social history.
The increased attention paid to women filmmakers of the past and the growing number of women making films was closely connected with the rise in feminist film theory that was precipitated by Laura Mulvey's 1975 Screen article, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." The psychoanalytically inclined essay called attention to the fact that, despite decades of formal experimentation in the cinema, women in avant-garde as well as Hollywood films continued to play the role of non-acting object of the male gaze. David James believes that the writing of feminist theory was itself a "subcultural practice of cinema," which in turn led to a search in the next decade for a new kind of film language.31 Mulvey had called for a counter-cinema, in the tradition of the "feminine writing" of French feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. This alternative and thus difficult filmmaking practice was intended to subvert the binary structures of patriarchy. While Friedrich, as well as Jackie Raynal and Leslie Thornton, responded to this call in various ways at the end of the decade, the avant-garde of the 1980s actually saw the rise of feminist filmmaking on a large scale. (The only film made by the collective of film theorists that included Anthony McCall, Claire Pajaczkowska, Andrew Tyndall, and Jane Weinstock, was Sigmund Freud's Dora , which encapsulates the concerns of the time. Investigating one of Freud's key cases and the facts surrounding it, the film also explores the silent and passive place of women in Hollywood representation, the mechanics of the gaze in narrative film, and women's social roles. This rigorous and poetic film provided a model for both filmmakers and theorists during the next decade.)
Other filmmakers were inspired by elements of film theory that were not necessarily feminist. After his work in New York University's cinema studies department, Manuel De Landa made The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle in 1976, which explores the way in which filmic space is created through shot/counter shot, in a story about a confrontation between a man and a woman. DeLanda was also interested in documenting and commenting on the dirtier aspects of urban New York in films such as Ismism (1979). This concern with the life of the street characterized the filmmaking trend of the mid-to-late 1970s known variously as No Wave, Punk, or Super-8, which can be understood to be avant-garde to the extent that it rejects commercial cinema. Filmmakers such as Beth B. and Scott B., Vivienne Dick, Amos Poe, and many others rejected the poetic, personal, and art world affiliations of the traditional avant-garde. They used cheap equipment—which they learned to use in the act of filming—to make gritty, primitive, socially-aware narratives about life on the streets, which they then screened in bars and clubs. The influences they claimed were B-level film noir of the 1940s, as well as Warhol, the Kuchars, Anger, and Jack Smith's outrageous orgy film Flaming Creatures (1963).
Beth B. and Scott B. collaborated on a number of anti-commercial and purportedly anti-avant-garde films. Black Box (1978) is about a man who is obsessed with the television show Mission Impossible and is subsequently captured by thugs who torture him in a black box. Before the film ends, the viewers are subjected to the sounds and lights experienced in the black box. Other experiments in form included a weekly punk melo-drama of 1979 called The Offenders, which was screened between musical sets at the New York club, Max's Kansas City. The Irish filmmaker Vivienne Dick was known in the 1970s for spontaneous, collaborative films in which the camera participates to invoke confession and to combine urban sites through in-camera editing. Single rolls of unedited Super-8 sound film structure the 1978 GuÉrillÈre Talks, while She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978) uses a handheld camera to create the tension in a drama about two women.
Eric Mitchell's Kidnapped (1978) seems the most appropriate example of the raw personal films created with the Super-8 sound cameras that became widely available to consumers in 1974. Mitchell's hour-long film of unedited, aimless pans of his punk friends hanging around his slum apartment pretending to be terrorists has been described as a "1960s underground movie happening today."32 Mitchell's self-reflexive film marks an ironic reverse trajectory by returning to a classic Warhol situation, but with a complete rejection of the ambiguous glamour of Hollywood that inspired Warhol. Due to the social and political context of its introduction in the 1970s, Super-8 filmmaking tended to document the grittier aspects of urban life in films by Becky Johnston, Paula Gladstone, or Dave Lee. Other filmmakers, such as Ericka Beckman or Greg Sharits, used the freedom given by the small camera to create special effects in and out of the camera. While Beckman created dreamscapes through superimposing fragments of images, Sharits made more formal films by superimposing lights and buildings.
Avant-garde filmmaking in the United States in the 1970s is part of the coming of age of cinema itself as a fully developed, malleable art form. The Structural filmmakers, the graphic artists, and filmmakers influenced by feminist film theory fully and brilliantly articulated the formal parameters of cinema as well as the ideological implications of conventional practices. The lyrical and autobiographical filmmakers who had started their work in earlier decades, as well as the iconoclastic No Wave filmmakers of the late 1970s, reinforced the notion that film can be a personal as well as an institutional practice. The results of the experimentation of the 1970s have been the acceptance of film as a field of study, the recognition of the cultural influence of the cinema, and the cataloguing of the vocabulary of cinema for the study of film and for the next generation of filmmakers.
"Avant-Garde Cinema of the Seventies." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/avant-garde-cinema-seventies
"Avant-Garde Cinema of the Seventies." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved August 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/avant-garde-cinema-seventies
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