Experimental and Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1940s

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Experimental and Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1940s

The European Exodus and Other War-Related Developments
Postwar Film Culture
Meshes of the Afternoonand the Poetic Psychodrama
Geography of the Bodyand Fireworks

Lauren Rabinovitz

After World War II, non-Hollywood films became a more visible part of U.S. urban movie culture, and a greater number of people experienced new types of cinema. A perceived difference emerged between Hollywood fare and independent or foreign cinemas, an opposition that theater exhibitors and critics alike promoted in the practice of differentiating customer groups for their movies. Within this divergence, independent cinema (any movies made independently from or outside of Hollywood production studios) developed a widespread film culture similar to that of the prewar European cine club movement.1 While such a model for film culture held sway in the United States in the 1930s among leftist cultural-political clubs like the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) and the John Reed Clubs, it reemerged after the war as the model for a system of alternative cinema as art rather than of cinema conceived as a political weapon.

The European Exodus and Other War-Related Developments

Various wartime developments had resulted in significant shifts in U.S. art institutions. During World War II, the international art capital or marketplace changed from Nazioccupied Paris to New York City. A similar transcontinental displacement occurred in independent filmmaking activities. European painters immigrated to America to escape the Nazis, and they subsequently influenced a generation of American painters and sculptors; among the European artists who immigrated to the United States were a number of filmmakers who acted as mentors to a new generation of young filmmakers. For example, Luis Buñuel immigrated from Spain and spent the war years in Manhattan at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Circulating Film Library, where he reedited, dubbed, and directed documentaries for Latin American distribution. The American expatriate Man Ray left Nazi-occupied Paris and lived in Los Angeles for the duration of the war. His good friend and Dada collaborator, the artist-filmmaker Marcel Duchamp, moved to New York City and became active among surrealist artists and filmmakers there.

Although some European filmmakers spent the war years in exile in the United States, other filmmakers immigrated permanently to New York and Los Angeles and actively contributed to transforming a new American experimental cinema. The German animator Oskar Fischinger, who specialized in what Goebbels decreed was "forbidden" abstract art, left Berlin and went to work for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood in 1936. Fischinger had great difficulty working within a studio system of production that depended upon regimentation and division of labor, first with Paramount and then with Disney Studios, to whom he brought the idea of a feature-length animated movie set to classical music (Fantasia). When he met the curator of the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation during a trip to New York City in 1938, he found someone who would help him receive a series of grants during the war years when he could not obtain employment because of his German citizenship. Back in Los Angeles, he continued to work on his animated abstract films, and he gathered around him a group of young musicians and film artists that at times included John Cage, Edgard Varèse, the Whitney brothers, Maya Deren, and Kenneth Anger. Both Cage's and Varèse's compositional experiments drew upon Fischinger's experiments with synthetic sounds.

Another important European abstract painter-animator, Hans Richter, immigrated from Germany to the United States. In 1940, he came to New York City, where he began the Film Institute of the City College of New York in 1943. He befriended and encouraged Maya Deren and later, in the 1950s, the filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke. His live-motion, feature-length film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944—1947) was a collection of surreal vignettes suggested by various friends of his who were well-known European artists in exile in New York City—Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, and Max Ernst.

The animated films Richter made in the 1920s (Rhythm 21, 1921; Rhythm 23, 1923; and Rhythm 25, 1925) and Fischinger's films (especially Motion Painting 1, 1947) were prominently featured in the landmark "Art in Cinema" series held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in the late 1940s. Richter's films inspired Jordan Belson, a recent graduate of the California School of Fine Arts, to make his first films.2 Transmutation (1947) and Improvisation #1 (1948), both now lost, were abstract paintings set in motion. Fischinger's work was an important model for a kind of abstract animation that attempted to coordinate visual and sound sensations. During the 1940s, a few filmmakers were working independently on animation as a natural extension of experiments in abstract painting and time, or in modern music and composition, or in both. Harry Smith batiked abstractions directly on celluloid in a series of hand-painted films, Nos. 1-3 (1939-1947). The artist Dwinell Grant, an assistant curator at the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation during the time when Fischinger was a fellowship recipient, exhibits Fischinger's influences in his nonobjective, stop-motion Compositions, 1-4 (1940-1945). The filmmaker and composer John Whitney and his brother, the painter James Whitney, worked together to develop a unified relationship between film and music in their animated paper cut-out films that explore sound and image synchronization (Film Exercises, Nos. 1-5, 1943-1944). Norman McLaren used techniques first introduced by Fischinger in visualizing synthetically produced sound pitches in a series of direct-drawings-on-film that he made while working at the New York City Museum of Non-Objective Art (1939-1941) before he began his lifelong association with the National Film Board of Canada in 1941. Mary Ellen Bute's "seeing-sound" films, color abstractions rhythmically set to classical music (Tarentella, 1940; Polka Graph, 1947; Color Rhapsodie, 1948), have often been compared to Fischinger's films but are more sensuous and tactile in form and color, are less rigidly patterned, and more frequently use the music for counterpoint effects.3 The painter-animator Douglass Crockwell's Glen Falls Sequence (1946) explores the pictorial qualities of a series of abstract painterly images. His film The Long Bodies (1946-1947) uses a sliced-wax animation technique similar to one invented by Fischinger.

In addition to the influx of several leaders of the arts in Europe, greater availability and commercial marketing of affordable film technology and materials revolutionized the possibilities for independent filmmaking. Sixteen-millimeter film stock and equipment offered an economical alternative to the 35mm gauge stock and equipment employed in Hollywood studios. Film stock and printing cost less for 16mm than for 35mm, and the equipment was lighter in weight, portable, and more easily manipulated by one or two individuals. Although not widely circulated before the 1940s, 16mm stock and equipment had existed since 1923. Only when the government adopted 16mm during World War II for military use in training films and war documentaries and as the medium for exhibition on military bases around the world were the advantages of 16mm widely publicized. More important, the surplus of used equipment after the war and Eastman Kodak's need to find new markets to replace dwindling military consumption resulted in more economical and more readily available materials and processing.

The advantages of the 16mm format had been revealed to a new generation of filmmakers who were watching government films during World War II or reading about how the government made its films. Others became familiar with 16mm while making films in the armed services or working for the government. Alexander Hammid, Willard van Dyke, and Peter Glushanok were among the independent filmmakers who worked in film services for the Office of War Information. The experimental filmmaker Marie Menken learned how to work in 16mm while she was employed during the war at Time News Services.

Postwar Film Culture

After the war, more students were able to learn the techniques of 16mm filmmaking because military veterans' benefits packages and a booming postwar economy provided new sources of funding support for new educational programs. Not only did the GI Bill subsidize college-bound veterans, but the resulting increase in college enrollments and tuition revenues allowed schools to expand curricula and to introduce such new subjects as filmmaking and film appreciation. In 1947, the California School of Fine Arts became the first art school in the United States to teach 16mm filmmaking as a regular part of its curriculum. The integration of filmmaking into arts curricula helped to legitimate independent cinema's status as an artistic medium among the vanguard arts. Such institutional integration occurred in a number of key places and through a number of significantly decisive moves, such as the George Eastman House's 1947 opening of a film archive to preserve cinema's history as an art form. Even New York City film societies took field trips to Rochester to view cinematic art at Eastman House.

Measuring the growth of a postwar film culture in numbers is just as impressive as the measure of institutional "firsts." By 1949, there were more than 200 film societies in the United States, with an estimated audience of approximately 100,000, whereas at the beginning of the decade only a handful of film societies had operated, with a small membership.4 Museum art schools and colleges that had begun to teach filmmaking also began to sponsor film societies that screened classic European movies and independent cinema. As an analog to their filmmaking courses, they offered film appreciation courses. One could see experimental cinema almost anywhere because the MOMA Circulating Film Library distributed movies nationwide to colleges, universities, museums, film appreciation clubs, and study groups.

At both East and West Coast art centers, new film societies especially became important models for a national culture of experimental cinema. In 1947, two students at the San Francisco Museum of Art launched a series of screenings on independent cinema. Their program was so successful that the "Art in Cinema" series ran at the museum until the early 1950s as a film society with approximately six hundred members.5 Because they also published their screening lists and program notes as an art catalog, they offered a widely circulated prototype of experimental cinema canon formation and aesthetics.

On the East Coast, Cinema 16 became the preeminent showcase for independent film, as well as the largest film society in the United States—by 1949 it boasted a membership of 2,500.6 In addition, Cinema 16 began distributing independent films in 1948. From their first screenings, Cinema 16's directors, Amos and Marcia Vogel, emphasized a discourse of film appreciation in the selection, arrangement, and presentation of film programs. The film critic Scott MacDonald characterizes this programming policy: "One form of the film collides with another so as to create a maximum intellectual engagement on the part of the audience, not simply in the individual discrete films, but with film itself and the implications of its more conventional uses."7 Programs regularly included scientific films, government-sponsored documentaries, independently made documentaries, experimental films, animation, foreign features, and classics. The Vogels supplemented the films with written program notes and even with appearances by the filmmakers themselves. Among those who authored program notes were the film critics Arthur Knight, Parker Tyler, and Siegfried Kracauer.8 The program notes discussed cinematic aesthetics within a context of modern psychological and literary thought. They implicitly defined artistic cinema through the use of symbols and spatio-temporal experimentation.

At the same time that film societies experienced significant growth, postwar expansion of art-house cinemas and a small system for commercial distribution of independent cinema facilitated significant theatrical alternatives to Hollywood movies. When the major Hollywood studios reduced the number of films released annually and booked them for longer runs at first-run theaters, they were slowly squeezing smaller second- and third-run theaters out of the distribution circuit. As the film historian Janet Staiger describes the economic situation: "The growth of art houses may have been due less to any new audience demand per se than to an opening of exhibition options arising from changes in the U.S. film industry's structure and conduct."9 Smaller theaters then, needing an alternative product, increasingly turned to foreign films, documentaries, and reissued classics. While not a direct economic or institutional model for the emergent cine club culture of independent cinema, foreign films differentiated through art-house marketing and exhibition practices provided a highly visible discourse for the future of aesthetics and sexuality, issues that would be explored in experimental cinema.

It is interesting that Americans would patronize movies other than Hollywood fare at precisely the moment when Hollywood was experiencing a postwar drop in theater attendance. By articulating its difference from Hollywood cinema primarily in terms of social consciousness, explicit sexuality, and artistry, art-house cinema promoted a new type of movie to patrons who, for various reasons, sought alternatives to standard Hollywood fare. Literary journals and art magazines provided an important base for thinking about and defining foreign, experimental, and independent films in these ways. Such periodicals as Saturday Review, New Directions, Kenyan Review, and Theater Arts featured stories on independent cinema, and magazines such as the New Republic and The Nation regularly reviewed non-Hollywood films in the latter half of the 1940s. By the very act of including cinema in discussions of the arts, these popular magazines promoted cinema's status as a contemporary radical art form.

Critical discourse about experimental cinema emphasized the preoccupation of new short films with interior psychology or the experience of interiority. The criteria for understanding the new cinema was not so much the intelligibility of its narratives but more importantly the ways that it disrupted time and space logics for self-expressive purposes. The discussions foregrounded the new stylistic strategies, which countered narrative causality with dream logic and challenged the dominant conventions of established film style—the linear story film, Hollywood styles and genres, standards of professionalism, and mainstream production values.10

Meshes of the Afternoonand the Poetic Psychodrama

The best-known experimental films of the decade, influenced by surrealism's dynamic presence in New York City during World War II, were poetic psychodramas that could be readily understood within the charged contexts of art cinema as sexually explicit, scandalous, and radically artistic. They emphasized a dreamlike quality, tackled questions of sexual identity, featured taboo or shocking images, and used editing to liberate spatio-temporal logic from the conventions of Hollywood realism. In 1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid made Meshes of the Afternoon, the first American example of this type of filmmaking. The film is about a woman's dream of her quest for self-identity as expressed through a series of surrealist encounters between her multiple selves inside an ordinary house. Deren made two more films about women's self-identities, At Land (1944) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), as well as two films that were short exercises in editing dance or dancelike movements across different geographic spaces (A Study in Choreography for Camera, 1945; Meditation on Violence, 1947). Curtis Harrington's Fragment of Seeing (1946) and Picnic (1948) continued in the same vein, exploring the logic of spatio-temporal discontinuities in dream narratives about an isolated protagonist whose quest is for self-identity.

Made in the same year as Meshes of the Afternoon, Willard Maas and Marie Menken's Geography of the Body is a series of extreme close-ups of the naked body edited together with the spoken description of a fantastic travel narrative to remote regions. This film and Maas's Image in the Snow (1948) emphatically narrativize images through poetic, sexually expressive commentary.

Menken's Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945) is a poetic essay of sensuous abstract forms and rhythms, a stylistic hybrid between the abstract animations and the cinematically psychological realism of the introspective dramas. Menken made the film while house-sitting at the studio of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi when he was away on a trip; she freely swung her camera in smooth, rhythmic motions around the artists rounded, polished organic forms.

The Potted Psalm (1946), Sidney Peterson and James Broughton's first film, is a more freewheeling dream that combines distorted images, obvious optic effects, disjointed narrative progressions, and wild camera movements to pose a pseudo-narrative about a set of adventures that take a schizophrenic man from the graveyard to the city and back to the graveyard. It was an important model for their individual efforts over the next several years: The Cage (1947), Horror Dream (1948), Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur (1948), The Petrified Dog and The Lead Shoes (1949). Peterson's films, often made for little money with his students at the California School of Fine Arts, consistently depend on distorted imagery made with an anamorphic lens that undermines the illusion of realism heralded by Deren. They operate at an inter-section between their attention to formal abstraction and their referentiality to dream modes filled with sexual icons, Freudian scenarios, and schizoid adventures that result in picaresque pseudo-narratives about the unconscious. They are psychodramas that masquerade as witty sexual fantasies marked by a sense of anarchic humor.

James Broughton's Mother's Day (1948) is a more lyrical examination of sexual identity as a perverse nostalgic exploration of the Oedipal complex. It is a meditative attempt "to fathom the awesome sexuality of Mother," as Lucy Fischer says.11 Stylistically similar to the individually made films of his friend Sidney Peterson, Broughton's Mother's Day is a surrealistically played-out montage of Freudian fragments about memory, Mom, and the remembrance of childhood as a denial of sexuality.

A few of the psychodramas of the 1940s represented homosexual desire and employed explicit images about what was a taboo subject, a situation that made the films not only controversial but in violation of censorship laws in some states. The best known and most enduring of these films is Kenneth Anger's dream narrative Fireworks (1947). Gregory Markopoulis's Psyche-Lydis-Charmides (1948), made while he was a student at the University of Southern California, is a reverie of homoeroticism that combines such sexually charged images and Freudian fragments as a battering ram that becomes a phallic symbol and close-ups of the male body.

For succeeding generations of college students and film critics, however, Meshes of the Afternoon has remained the most famous as well as the most important work of U.S. experimental cinema. The origins of Meshes of the Afternoon lie in the relationship and collaboration between the newlyweds Maya Deren, a poet and secretary to the New York-based Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and Alexander Hammid, an émigré filmmaker from Czechoslovakia. Deren met Hammid in Los Angeles when she accompanied Dunham's dance company to Los Angeles, where it was to work in a Hollywood feature film. Deren and Hammid married, and with his lighting, photographic, and editing expertise and her desire to extend her previous experience as a poet to film, the two made an eighteen-minute, black-and-white, silent film for $260 in their rented California bungalow.12 Although the film owes some stylistic and conceptual debts to Hammid's Aimless Walk (1930), Meshes expresses more intense emotions and an overall mood unlike anything that Hammid had previously done.13

By plotting the film according to the coordinates of a woman's inscription in a heterosexual relationship, an obsessively fetishistic southern California domestic scene, and a visual style indebted to Hollywood film noir, Meshes of the Afternoon culturally and psychosexually moves well beyond Hammid's previous intellectual allegiances and experience to American cultural conditions and constructions of woman's identity in the early 1940s. Maureen Turim associates the film's images of domestic disorder—a telephone off the hook, a record player turntable spinning relentlessly, a knife stuck in a loaf of bread—and the detailed attentiveness to the architectural space of domesticity with the biographical elements of the home movie, a genre obsessively about "writing" the familial and psychological identity of the filmmaker.14 It is both the domestic woman-centered subject matter and the manner of its presentation that have allowed critics to understand the film's author as Deren rather than Hammid.

Meshes of the Afternoon begins by introducing a woman—played Deren—who is seen only as an extended arm, legs running up stairs, and a shadow projected onto the sidewalk. The initial sequence of events comprises only close-ups: an arm reaches for a paper flower, the hand lifts the flower, sandaled feet alternate with a profile in shadow moving up a flight of stairs to the door of a house. The hand takes a key from a purse and drops the key; the key falls in slow motion to the ground, bounces, and heads offscreen. A hand enters following the same trajectory of movement as the key. Across several similarly composed shots alternating the hand, the key, and the feet, one continuous trajectory of movement implies a spatio-temporal metamorphosis from object to body part to object to body.

The body parts substitute for an unseen but implied "whole" woman. But the arm, legs, shadow, and flower as objects of equal size and depth are positioned within the diegesis as autonomous agents rather than as extensions of any unified subject that controls the movement. The relation of subject to object is reversed: the woman becomes passive while the objects act aggressively. Deren herself wrote program notes explaining that the film presents a malevolent vitality in inanimate objects.15 The result is a fragmented subject and a narrative organized around an initial act of dislocation that underlies the simple linear progression of a woman doing an everyday activity in an ordinary environment.

From the outset, Meshes of the Afternoon plays with a meaning it refuses to assign, giving way to self-reflexivity on the nature of cinema itself as well as to the imagistic body of woman as the material through which signification is played out and questioned. While it may borrow cinema vocabulary from Hollywood cinema and especially from film noir, the overall organization and purpose of spatio-temporal fragmentations, extremely oblique camera angles, high-contrast lighting and deep shadows, and character point-of-view shots are anti-Hollywood. The film refuses to conform to simple cause-and-effect story relationships and rejects the idea of psychological motivation expressed through character development and fullness, even the idea of character identity expressed through bodily unity: Meshes is about a woman contending with her own fragmentation and disequilibrium. As Julian Wolfreys has noted, "The shadow is itself [simultaneously both] a signifier of the female and not the woman (nor her image) at all" and instead functions as a trace of the nature of filmic projection itself.16 In this regard, then, he argues that the film's beginning refuses to make meaning in any conventional way. Instead, it locates the fulfillment of meaning in the self-reflexive trope of a "signature of a signature"—or rather, in the image of a projection on a wall (the shadow) that is contained within an image that is really a projection on a screen (thus, a mise en abyme). In this case, it is not the body of any woman that bears this burden of both meaning constructions and denials but the bodily index of one of the filmmakers. The image is thus also a referent to authorial trace, which functions in its capacity both to construct and deconstruct the authorial role in cinema.

Such double-edged play on meanings, offered from a more modern context of feminist and post-structuralist criticism, suggests the rich capacity of this film for different reception contexts. Since the 1940s, Meshes of the Afternoon has been linked to several agendas for independent cinema. In the 1970s, it entered into several discussions as a model of formalist aesthetics.17 Since the 1980s, it has figured in discussions of woman's discursive strategies, the poetics of home movies, psychoanalytic and especially Lacanian interpretive strategies for understanding the formation of gender, and, finally, Derridean deconstructionist techniques for understanding the film as an expressive act of linguistic resistance.18 One critic has even suggested that the film's "innovative spatio-temporal ordering transformed its audiences concept of film."19 The perennially central position of Meshes in shifting discourses about experimental cinema suggests not merely a chameleonlike adaptability to changing critical fashion but the density of Deren and Hammid's production.

In the 1940s, however, Meshes of the Afternoon was more modestly hailed in discussions of surrealist influence on U.S. experimental cinema. A dance reviewer in 1946 compared Meshes to important surrealist psychodramas: "Seashell and the Clergyman might have sprung from the heart of an identical twin of Maya Deren. Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, too, is not far from Meshes of the Afternoon."20 Writing for the Kenyon Review, the film critic Parker Tyler compared Deren's film to "the visions of Cocteau and Dali."21 Although Deren herself consistently refused any linkage with surrealist goals or aesthetics, the surrealist films of the 1920s provided the critics with the primary cinematic comparisons for dream imagery, logic disturbances, and concern for the sub-conscious that they saw in her film.

From the film's opening, Meshes suggests a strong sense of subject fragmentation, psychological disturbance, and spatial dislocation. Once the woman enters the house, she stops to rest in an easy chair and falls asleep. A close-up of her eye followed by a point-of-view iris or telescopic shot makes her eye an objectively rendered gateway to the internal world of her dream imagination, where she chases a hooded figure with a mirrored face into the house and encounters ordinary domestic objects such as a phonograph and a telephone. The sequence of events occurs three times, each constructed around a search through the space whereby the staircase provides a pathway to dramatic spatial and temporal disruptions of the environment. The searches end with the three "dream" Mayas facing off around the dining room table in order to determine which one will kill the fourth Maya asleep in the chair. At the moment when the woman's self-destruction in this world seems imminent—a dream Maya lowers a knife toward the sleeping Maya—the dream is abruptly replaced by the sleeping woman's point of view of a man's face bending over her. They go upstairs to the bedroom, where his viewpoint and actions control the flow of images. He returns her to normalcy, that is to say, to representation within a narrative where her body is portrayed as a sexual object of desire in relation to the male gaze. But following this possibility held out for the spectator of a conventional ending and of closure is a rapid montage organized around many of the same iconic images that figure earlier in the film: a paper flower, a knife, an eye, a broken mirror. The narrative then returns the spectator to the outside of the home and to another entry into the domestic realm. The man who awoke the sleeping woman approaches the house, enters, and sees the woman with her throat slit, mirror fragments strewn around her, and seaweed dripping down her clothing. His final point-of-view close-up images are of her dead eyes and bloody mouth.

The ending is ambiguous and raises many questions. How does one interpret the woman's "death"? Is it, as Mary Ann Doane observes about women characters who appropriate the camera's subjective "gaze" in the Hollywood genre of women's pictures in the 1940s, that her desire is so excessive the only closure possible is her death?22 Or is the ending the result of a revolt against conventional cinematic structures of containment? Or is it dramatically signifying her end as a construction of Woman within his dream world? Or her dream world? As Maureen Turim similarly questions, "Is it the dream of the man or the woman, is it an act performed by the woman that shatters the man/mirror of her self? Or is she drowned already as she sits dreaming on the easy chair in her living room?"23 What is important is that the ending is the outcome of a combined series of spatio-temporal fragmentations and shifts in signification that progressively develop around a theme of latent domestic violence and the politically resistant potential of a nonunitary identity.

In this regard, Meshes appropriates the psychological realism that was in vogue in classical Hollywood cinema but expresses it through spatio-temporal discontinuities rather than through the verisimilitudinous continuity that was typical of Hollywood films. For example, the woman is unable to master the environment not because of her psychological motivation and character traits as expressed within the contours of a plot set in a stable diegesis but because abruptly changing camera angles and jump cuts present the space itself as constantly changing around her as she tries to traverse it. Turim writes: "The house space is magical. Its architecture includes an infinite staircase, a second story window that one can leap into from the outside, a picture window that becomes a telescopic tunnel into the space of dreams."24 It is a domestic world of dream logic where objects turn into other objects, where the speed of motion does not correspond to physical laws, and where geography is neither constant nor consistent. Time and space are so fractured that such everyday occurrences as walking up the stairs, entering a bedroom, or answering the telephone become traumatizing experiences. The film critic Parker Tyler describes the process: "Physical laws are transcended and implemented by filmic devices. Slow motion, weird angles, magical mutation and transitions. Time is not literal, but a means of poetic expression. Meshes is an afternoon reverie of erotic suspense."25 It is worth noting that Tyler enjoins both the narrational motivating terms associated with female desire in two Hollywood genres, the erotic element of the woman's film and the suspense of film noir, to describe a dream narrative largely preoccupied with the woman's physical placement and inability to find containment in a traditionally female world of domesticity that has suddenly become noir-esque.

More important, however, the anti-Hollywood position taken by Meshes is most pointed in its on-screen inscription of multiple Mayas, who literalize the film's performance of modernist fragmentation and pluralization of subjectivity. Julian Wolfreys argues that the three Mayas framed together around the dining room table intercut with their active gazing and reaction shots of each other is a performance that denies "the [notion of] unitary consciousness which it has been the project of both filmic and literary realism to promote." The multiple Mayas, who also stand in for the artist-author, denote a fragmented subject who must contend with her own objectification and the resistance to any unitary subjectivity. Their multiple corporeality ultimately questions the capacity of the female body as a material signifier for subjectivity. This scene is the culmination of the film's terms of subjectivity: a refusal of and resistance to Hollywood's classical treatment of a woman who occupies physical space insofar as she is physically fragmented within a system of shots organized by a male gaze so as to objectify female subjectivity into an eroticized and fetishized Woman. In Meshes, the figuration of the multiple Mayas—constructed across the narrative, its cinematic logic, and even its iconography—"is not the classical objectification of women, but belongs instead to what is potentially a feminist poetics—and politics—of refusal."26

Geography of the Bodyand Fireworks

In the same year that Deren and Hammid made Meshes of the Afternoon in their Los Angeles bungalow, Marie Menken and Willard Maas in their New York City apartment made a different type of poetic drama that also examined the representation of subjectivity. In a differently structured example of domestic collaborative filmmaking, Menken, her husband, Maas, and their poet-friend George Barker filmed each other. A friend had left his 16mm camera with them when he entered the army, and they experimented with it by taping a set of cheap magnifying glasses to the camera lens. They shot extreme close-up views of the details of each others bodies. Barker wrote a poem and then recited it for the film's soundtrack, an account of a fantastic journey. It is the juxtaposition of the sounds and images that unifies meanings as a reverie of Eros. According to Lucy Fischer's characterization, "By fragmenting images of body parts and sequentializing them in time, the sense arises of the body as a navigable landscape and of its comprehension as a psycho-physical journey."27 Contrary to Meshes, Geographyof the Body strives to make comprehensible that which Deren set adrift, dislocated, and dissembled by relocating subjectivity in the spaces of the body itself.

Geography of the Body does, however, share with Meshes the oneiric or dream-like purpose of expressing a poetics psychological interiority. Like Meshes, it gives a privileged position to the eye viewed in close-up, a potent index of the bridge between psychological interiority and objective exteriority. The framing device of a close-up of an eye opens and closes the film, suggesting that the content of the film is a dream, a reverie, a psychological landscape of sexual subjectivity.

Geography of the Body, like Meshes, relies on editing together disparate images, but for the purpose of constructing a unified bodily presence. If Meshes relies on editing strategies for reversing subject-object relations and making active the spaces in which the bodies move, Geography of the Body reverses this process in order to "cement fragmented body parts" into one composite body and to allow sound-image relationships to recover the gaps between the parts.28 For example, an image of an ear is accompanied by a sound reference to the entrance of an Indian temple, and an image of the navel occurs during a poetic phrase inquiring about the opening passage to the mysterious cavern. In this way, the narrative of the film is the body itself, which becomes a spatial frontier imbued with the abstract visual properties of magnification and a sound adventure narrative of wondrous exploration. One is reminded more of strategies of pornography associated with cinematic or visual exploration of the surfaces of bodies and sexual organs viewed close up than of the erotic associated with woman's desire in the woman's film or in its imbrication in Meshes of the Afternoon. The erotic here is located in anatomical space and given a powerful sexual aura through visual magnification and its narrative capacity to signify more than its materiality, that is, to signify psychic mysteries through the linguistic, rhythmic journey of the soundtrack. Geography of the Body exemplifies the importance of oneirism and formal expressivism as the means for making cinema a potentially liberating force. Like Meshes and Deren's subsequent films that further explored woman's psychological identities in the shifting registers of dream worlds (At Land and Rtual in Transfigured Time), Geography of the Body taps the deep undercurrents of sexuality and gendered identities commonly argued as most explicitly realized in the dream states that draw upon the reservoir of the human subconscious. By giving expression to deep psychological realities, the filmmakers hoped to make conscious psychological truths of human nature through the very structures of cinema itself and to achieve a higher degree of psychological realism than that offered by Hollywood cinema's conventional telling of psychological truth in story formats that served as fables or moral tales about psychological states of awareness.

Fireworks (1947) furthers this set of assumptions in its efforts to overcome the sexual repression of homoerotic desire in a dream expression that sets the interior subject free through the dream itself. Like Meshes, the film's exploration of subjectivity is played out through the body of the filmmaker as the film's protagonist. But Fireworks is more closely wedded to the surrealist conceptions of dream logic than either Meshes or Geography. More than any other American film, it is the heir to Jean Cocteau's classic oneiric fantasy of the artist's homoerotic self-identity as an artist, Le Sang d'un Poete (Blood of a Poet, 1930). The basic assumption of Fireworks is that the dream world is Other to the waking world; sexual repression is overcome, and the interior subject can be set free.

Fireworks, a film made by Kenneth Anger when he was only 17 years old, synthesizes the corporeal dream landscape of Geography of the Body and the labyrinthine dream noir narrative of Meshes of the Afternoon for a study of the homosexual man as a sexual subject. Unlike Deren, whose exposure to Hollywood production practices was minimal and who spent almost the entirety of her artistic career in New York City as a cinema advocate in anti-Hollywood terms, Anger grew up surrounded by both the business and allure of Hollywood filmmaking. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he seems to have relished the fascinations of the mythical Tinseltown. At an early age, he had a small movie role as the changeling in Max Reinhardt's 1934 A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he later boasted about taking tap-dancing classes with the child star Shirley Temple. Using 16mm home movie equipment, he began making his own movies when he was only 11 years old.

Even from the beginning of what has been a long and sustained career as an experimental filmmaker, Anger drew upon the iconic imagery of American popular culture in wholly unique and unexpected ways in order to explore deep sexual undertones and to offer some subversive reworkings of Hollywood's best clichés. In this regard, Fireworks is indeed different from contemporary experimental films because, while it explores sexual identity through "new ways of seeing," it defines itself more aggressively as anti-Hollywood in homoerotic readings of Hollywood's staging of masculine hetero-sexuality through images of cowboys, pilots, and sailors. As Anger has said, "This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July."29 It is about what was then considered a taboo subject: the elabo-rate "coming out" of a high school adolescent who, as Vito Russo said, "dared to film one of his own wet dreams."30

Fireworks begins with a uniformed sailor posing and holding a half-naked, bloody figure (Anger) in his arms. It is followed by Anger awakening in bed. Richard Dyer suggests that the opening image is "a visual rhyme with the Christian pieta" and a deliberate inscription of Christian iconography, which has provided endless detailed images of beautiful, suffering men and of masochism (of punishment as pleasure), utilized here for a conflation of homosexual desire and masochism, of homosexuality and Christian persecution of gays. Dyer says: "This photograph, often used to evoke the film and the filmic world of its director, Kenneth Anger, is in itself an image of masochistic homosexual desire. In the film it is looked at by the young man and thus represents his memory or fantasy. Thus an image of gay desire is also an image of what the gay person is. The face of the young man, in its soft, troubled expression, is an icon of beautiful melancholy."31

This all-important iconic image recurs later as a self-referential photograph or still from the film that appears in the diegetic space. Like Meshes, the opening offers retrospective play on its signifying capacity. Is it the dream he has just dreamed or a foreshadowing of the events in which the film culminates? Is the image an interior point of view in Anger's dream world? Is the oneiric state in which the filmmaker's body signifies the protagonist an expression of the filmmaker's true self, and the film an autobiographical revelation about the author's sexuality? Or is it an objective image of a material entity? Is the material image of the photograph or the movie being projected on the screen substantially different from the dreamer's dream image? In this regard, Fireworks opens with an elaborate display much like the representation in Meshes of the process of textual construction, although the psychoanalytical overtones are more overt here.

When the dreamer awakens and finds himself alone in bed, he arises with a mock erection, dresses, and zips up his fly. As he dresses, a plaster cast of a broken hand figures prominently in the foreground. He leaves the room through a door with an exaggerated "Gents" sign. Once through the door, he enters a spatio-temporal realm comparable to that of Meshes, where the continuity of the subjective positions under-goes continuously changing spatial and temporal relationships to the spectator. In other words, the identity of the figure remains constant, but he is subject to constant movements into and out of the spatial field, rearrangements across geographies, and rigorously formalized poses within the frame.

Within this transforming diegesis, the protagonist in Freworks meets a sailor in a bar. Through a cut, he and the sailor are transported back to the bedroom. The encounter with the sailor continues across the geographic spaces of a side street at night and the bedroom. Eventually, a group of sailors approaches Anger and attacks him. In the ritualistic beating that ensues, the sailor tears open his chest to reveal a ticking meter in the place of his heart. Roman candles are set off, a Christmas tree is carried aloft, and the dreamer awakens from the dream. The bedroom is the same except that he is in bed with another man whose face has been scratched out, and the broken plaster cast by his bedside is now restored as whole.

Like Meshes, Fireworks relies upon a stylistic vocabulary associated with Hollywood film noir to convey this sense of psychological disturbance—extremely oblique camera angles, figures isolated in deep shadows, prominent foreground objects, point-of-view shots, nighttime exterior settings. But Fireworks fairly vibrates with the romantic sadism that is present but invariably only latent in the American film noir. As P. Adams Sitney notes, "There is a comic or satiric element in the hyperbolic symbolism of this film.… [Its roots] lie in French Romantic decadence of the late nineteenth century."32 Anger makes this hyperbole not only the manifest content of his film but a celebration of the inversion of the Hollywood myth.

Meshes of the Afternoon and Fireworks, the two most significant dream dramas of the 1940s, stylize violence in different ways for radically different effective outcomes about sexual identity. The violence in Meshes may confuse and refuse the logic of feminine identity, but the refusal also carries a potential for destruction. The narrative and narrational violence effected on the bodily subject in Fireworks culminates in a sexual aggression that is mocked with phallic imagery and the liberation of waking. The objects linked to sexual violence—Roman candles, the Christmas tree, the metered heart, and the broken (castrated) plaster hand—are the shifters that traverse the spaces of the dream and waking worlds within the film, positing the two worlds as oppositional. The sexual violence of which the figure of Anger is the target is also the filmmaker's satirical target for the rationality and sexual repressions of the exterior waking world. Yet, the alternative that he imagines, one that counters Hollywood's mythologized heterosexuality, is an expression of the very icons of the sad young man through which Hollywood castigated homosexuality. The radical otherness that Anger proposes through sexual liberation can be expressed only through a dialectical relationship to Hollywood's dominant representational and ideological practices.


The rise of an independent cinema after World War II, a cinema specifically defined as anti-Hollywood, had important political and cultural consequences. As the film critic J. Hoberman has observed, "A film practice that opposes the dominant culture, resists commodity status, invents its own means of production, and sets out to challenge habitual modes of perception is political—no matter what it seems to be about and sometimes because it's not 'about' anything."33 Hoberman's characterization, made more than thirty years after the fact, that the postwar experimental cinema was an important political alternative to Hollywood cinema is echoed by the participants themselves in the late 1940s. The legendary story of the diarist Anaïs Nin about Deren's 1946 public screening at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village resonates with the same sense of cultural import: "The crowd was dense, and some policeman thought he should investigate. He asked: 'Is this a demonstration?' Someone answered: 'It is not a demonstration, it is a revolution in film-making.'"34 Independent cinema in the 1940s that became understood as anti-Hollywood, sexually and aesthetically daring as well as intellectually elite, allied cinema more broadly as a medium to other avant-garde media understood as radical artistic activity.

Once the booming postwar economy of New York City and the West Coast art worlds opened up the means through which an alternative cinema in the United States could flourish, cinema was increasingly identified as an object divided on the basis of the intellectual discourse associated with different groups of media objects. By the end of the decade, "highbrow," "lowbrow," and "middlebrow" had become the popular designations of hierarchical categories of aesthetic taste. Such categories signaled the ways in which popular and conventional cinema had become differentiated from more experimental or avant-garde films, and intellectual dispositions or aesthetic interests at the movies could be identified with certain moviegoing audiences. More important, these sets of interests shared among filmmakers, critics, and audiences were organized through an apparatus understood as a challenge to the hegemony of the Hollywood studio system. The implications then of independent cinema practices in the United States immediately after World War II are far-reaching, because they did nothing less than signify that resistance to Hollywood's practices of meaning construction could also reform cinema's place in culture.

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Experimental and Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1940s

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