Experimental Cinema in the 1980s
101. Continuations and Transformations
Experimental Cinema in the 1980s
Some Noteworthy Careers
All history—including film history—is provisional and under constant revision. But no arena of modern film history provides more of a challenge to the historian than what is most often called avant-garde film or experimental film (various other terms have been used for various sectors of this immense, other cinema).1 While we can know how many commercial films are produced during any one calendar year, the personal nature of so many avant-garde films, and the limited distribution and exhibition options for this work, are capable of keeping even some of the most remarkable films outside the general awareness, even of those relatively few who are fascinated with alternative cinema. Further, because so many avant-garde filmmakers are exploring cinema in new, "obscure" ways—that is, because few of these filmmakers feel an economic stake in abiding by any particular set of commercial conventions—even when those of us who are interested find our way to these films, we are often confronted by experiences we cannot make head nor tail of, at least at first, and sometimes for years. I have often found myself entirely confused about what a filmmaker is attempting to accomplish, even after multiple viewings of a film; and yet I may remain interested, even confident that at some point I will understand. Finally, because so many "avant-garde" films offer explicit or implicit critiques of conventional industrial film and television, and of the conventions and traditions of particular areas of noncommercial film, those of us committed to understanding the varieties of avant-garde practice must also stay reasonably abreast of film production in other areas.
By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that, whatever hopes for a vital, national avantgarde film scene had been nourished first, during the late 1940s through the early 1960s, by the remarkably successful New York film society Cinema 16, and then, during the 1960s and early 1970s, by the emergence of what Jonas Mekas called the new American cinema (and what others called "underground film," "expanded cinema," "abstract film," or "visionary film"), the reality was that the future of avant-garde exhibition and distribution was precarious at best.2 The demise of such fixtures of the media scene as New York's Collective for Living Cinema in 1984 and the Pasadena Film Forum in 1983 (the Film Forum relocated to Los Angeles where it struggled until the end of the decade), of Media Study/Buffalo soon after, and then of the San Francisco distributor Serious Business were signs of trouble for alternative media makers and those who admired and used their work. Even the existence of the New York Film-makers' Cooperative, one of the two leading distributors of avant-garde film (Canyon Cinema in San Francisco is the other), seemed precarious: the New York "Coop" could not find a way to update its 1974 catalog until 1989.3 By the end of the decade virtually no one was sanguine about the future of avantgarde cinema in America.
There were several reasons for this apparent slippage in energy. Most obviously, the public audience willing to pay to have their assumptions about the movies confronted by films that stretched the limits of conventional cinematic terminology and history was disappearing. As early as the mid-1960s, the increasing commercial openness about nudity and eroticism, as well as the violent and bizarre, was luring audiences away from the film societies and the underground screening rooms that, until the 1970s, had been virtually the only exhibitors of such material. The advent of "mid-night movies" in particular was simultaneously a triumph for the avant-garde and confirmation of a fundamental split in its audience.4 If for a time, unusual formal strategies and edgy subject matter had often existed in the same films—in Stan Brakhage's—Window Water Baby Moving (1959), for example, and in Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray (1962), Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1963), Andy Warhol's Kiss (1963) and Chelsea Girls, (1966), Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1964), George Kuchars Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), Carolee Schneemann's Fuses (1967)—the 1970s successes of such filmmakers as John Waters (Multiple Maniacs , Pink Flamingos , Female Trouble ) and Paul Morrissey (Flesh , Trash ), and of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), as well as of hardcore pornography and new, more visceral horror films—George Romeros Night of the Living Dead (1968), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—created a gap between different sectors of what had seemed to be a single audience. While some filmgoers could enjoy the midnight movies, the new horror films, the pornography, and the formal experiments of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, and Paul Sharits, most could not; many abandoned avant-garde screening rooms and never returned.
There were other distractions as well. The then-new medium of video art was beginning to emerge, demanding the attention and resources of many of the same organizations that were committed to the maintenance of avant-garde cinema.5 And if at first this emerging video work was less impressive than contemporaneous avant-garde film, the video artists could nevertheless claim that their newer medium was in fact more "avant-garde," at least technologically, than avant-garde film itself. By the 1980s, these two alternative histories often found themselves pitted against one another, despite the many obvious formal and ideological relationships between avant-garde filmmakers and video artists. Some established filmmakers resented the new medium, in much the same way that serious commercial filmmakers have sometimes resented the onslaught of commercial television; and some fought efforts by media artists who made both film and video to have their video work distributed by the same avant-garde film distributors, though Gene Youngblood would argue that the attempts to separate film and video were illogical, since both media were part of the same "cinematic" tradition.6
A final major distraction from avant-garde film was less direct. The decision of many academic institutions to develop film studies programs allowed some of those familiar with avant-garde film history to hope that this history would be used, more and more frequently, to critique conventional filmgoing from within the classroom movie theater. For these people, avant-garde film was a tradition that had developed alongside the commercial industry, the way the history of poetry has developed alongside the more fully commercial history of the novel. As film departments expanded, it seemed only fitting that, as in other areas of the arts and humanities, the best work of all kinds would be made part of the curriculum. However, while this curricularization did occur to some degree, the process of using alternative cinema to critique commercial cinema and its audience was, in large measure, sidetracked by the influx of new theoretical approaches from Europe and subsequently other sectors of the world. Applying new anthropological, linguistic, psychological, political, and philosophical insights to the history of commercial cinema became the focus of academic film studies, and the idea of using the movie theater space itself as an arena for doing theoretical work directly—cinematically—never fully developed. The result is that, even in the 1990s, the unparalleled pedagogical resources of avant-garde film history have remained underutilized at best.
If the health of avant-garde distribution and exhibition seemed more precarious during the 1980s than it had during the previous three decades, it would be unfair not to recognize that individuals and institutions continued to labor on behalf of the field. In New York City, avant-garde films and filmmakers were presented at the Museum of Modern Art's Cineprobe series (curated by Larry Kardish and Jytte Jensen), at the American Museum of the Moving Image (program director, David Schwartz), at the Whitney Museum of American Art (program director, John Hanhardt), at the Millennium Film Workshop (program director, Howard Guttenplan), at the Donnell branch of the New York Public Library (program director, Marie Nesthus), at Film Forum (program director, Karen Cooper) and at Anthology Film Archives (program directors, Robert Haller and Jonas Mekas), though this particular pillar of the New York avant-garde community at times seemed on the verge of collapse. In the Bay Area, Steve Anker continued his inventive programming at the San Francisco Cinematheque, and the Pacific Film Archive, under the directorship of Edith Kramer, continued to present a wide range of programs in Berkeley (Kathy Geritz was responsible for avant-garde programming). And across the country, a network of screening spaces—Berks Filmmakers in Reading, Pennsylvania (under the directorship of Gary Adlestein and Jerry Orr), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (under the directorship of Bruce Jenkins), Cornell Cinema (directed by Richard Herskowitz), the Harvard Film Archive (directed by Vlada Petric), Chicago Filmmakers (screenings programmed by Brenda Webb), among others—maintained some public visibility for alternative cinema. The 1980s also saw the development by John Columbus of the Black Maria Film Festival, a traveling film festival focusing on short films and videos, and the continued success of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, directed by Ruth Bradley until 1984 and subsequently by Vicki Honeyman. Canyon Cinema, under the directorship of Dominic Angerame, seemed as healthy as ever. The Museum of Modern Art's Circulating Film Library, under the directorship of Mary Lea Bank and William Sloan, expanded its collection and, with a new catalog in 1984 and a substantial supplement in 1990, emerged as a major distributor of avant-garde work.
In any case, how one understands the continued, even increased, marginalization of avant-garde cinema (and a variety of factors in addition to those I've described could be cited, even the tendency of music video makers to exploit avant-garde techniques and siphon off a younger audience interested in moving-image experiment), the general weakening of the infrastructure for avant-garde exhibition and distribution was part of a remarkable paradox: despite the increasing tenuousness of the possibilities for seeing avant-garde cinema, the actual production of interesting work continued through the 1980s with remarkable consistency. Indeed, on the level of productivity, the 1980s were one of the more impressive decades for the American avant-garde, which has always tended to be a history of individuals finding ways to make work despite limited financial support. The filmmaking achievements of the 1980s can be suggested in a three-part arrangement. First, a good many of those filmmakers who had made significant contributions from the 1940s through the 1970s continued to be productive. In some cases, the 1980s saw a revival of reputations thought to be fading by the mid-1970s, in other instances, the production of impressive films at the ends of careers that were slowly tailing off. Second, several general approaches to filmmaking, none of them entirely new to the avant-garde, became focal points for exploration and resulted in new bodies of work that represented healthy additions, and in some cases correctives, to the history of American avant-garde filmmaking up through the 1970s. And finally, the 1980s saw the maturation of a number of film artists whose best work can rival the most interesting avant-garde cinema from any decade and who can function here as tentative representatives of the complex Zeitgeist of the moment.
Among the already established filmmakers for whom the 1980s were a productive decade, the most obvious was Stan Brakhage, whose astonishing output had already become legendary.7 The Canyon Cinema catalog lists sixty-two Brakhage films completed from 1980 to 1989; and this does not include the twenty-five "Songs" Brakhage transferred from 8mm to 16mm or the new sound version of Flesh of Morning, finished in 1986. Brakhage remained not only prolific, but accomplished and inventive. The decade began with The Roman Numeral Series (actually, parts 1 and 2 of the series were finished in 1979, the remaining seven sections in 1980), nine brief, lovely, evocative lightscapes, each of which combines the texture, color, and quiver of light in somewhat different ways. At times, the imagery seems to hover at the edge of identifiability (the horizontal striping of "VII," e.g., reveals that the imagery originates on a television screen) and in some cases verges on allusion (the mandala shapes in "V" suggest Jim Davis and Jordan Belson); but overall the series of films seems a combination of Brakhage's ongoing fascination with recording and exploring visual realms just at the edge of human consciousness and cinematic possibility, as a means of honoring not just light, but Light as emblem of the spirit.
Unconscious London Strata (1982) is a longer (twenty-two minutes), more elaborate exploration of the concerns evident in The Roman Numeral Series, though its visual mysteriousness is more playful. Filmed during Brakhage's first visit to London, the imagery is a semiabstract history, simultaneously, of this particular visit and of Brakhage's sense of British history. Within an impressive exploration of color, texture, and visual rhythm (like Scenes from Under Childhood, I  and The Text of Light , Unconscious London Strata is a tour de force) the viewer is able to recognize a variety of London landmarks—the Thames, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament—until, in the film's final gesture, we see a brief passage of time-lapsed imagery of a busy intersection, an emblem of the present moment and of modernity in general. As is true in a good many of Brakhage's films since the 1960s, a variety of general kinds of imagery are edited into a weave, a skein, that becomes increasingly familiar and at least to some degree readable as the film proceeds. Much the same structure is evident in the four parts of Brakhage's final major series of the 1980s, Visions in Meditation (the first two sections, #1 and #2: Mesa Verde, were completed in 1989, #3: Plato's Cave and #4: D. H. Lawrence in 1990), which, like Unconscious London Strata, explores both the "strata" of Brakhage's unconscious and various (in this case, American) geographies that have fascinated him.
While the domesticity that by 1960 had come to seem so fundamental in Brakhage's work remained a crucial dimension of many of his 1980s films, it was a domesticity in transition: the decade saw the conclusion of Stan and Jane Brakhage's life together and the beginning of Brakhage's new life with Marilyn Jull—a transition that can be charted in Jane (1985), The Loom (1986), and Marilyn's Window (1988). Indeed, The Loom in particular seems to represent both the culmination of the complex life Jane and Stan Brakhage had built together and Brakhage's re-visioning of this life. While The Loom is structurally of a piece with a good many earlier films—as the title implies, it is a weave of a variety of threads into a visual skein—the imagery itself seems new and distinctive, and brimming with allusions to the history of culture. The focus of The Loom is the animal pen just outside what was the Brakhage home in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado, where their ducks, chickens, geese, and goats were kept. We see these animals, and, from time to time their owners, in multilayered compositions distinguished by their flatness. In fact, it is this flatness that causes The Loom to be as arthistorically evocative as it is.
The combination of the length of The Loom (fifty minutes) and its relentlessly slow pace provides a cinematic environment within which Brakhage can allude to the representation of animals in cultural history. Some compositions recall the cave paintings of southern France and northern Spain; others recall biblical scenes, and especially the tradition of the crèche. At times, Brakhage's compositions suggest medieval tapestries; in other instances, they evoke Native American petroglyphs (indeed, the overall structure of The Loom is evocative of Navajo rugs). Many particular compositions also suggest more recent cultural artifacts. One obvious reference is to the American Quaker folk painter Edward Hicks, especially his The Peaceable Kingdom (1843) and Cornell Farm (1849). Henri Rousseau's jungle fantasies also seem relevant. At times we see into the pen through the grid of the fence that encloses it and at other times see the animals moving in front of the fence, making Eadweard Muybridge's animal locomotion photographs a particularly obvious and consistent reference. In his catalogue notes for The Loom, Brakhage himself makes clear his indebtedness to Georges Méliès ("The film is very inspired by Georges Méliès: the animals exist … as on a stage"), whose development of superimposition is the source for Brakhage's layering of the imagery in the film.8 The emphasis on the pen as a frieze is suggestive not only of Méliès, however, but also of other early filmmakers, and of Ken Jacobs, whose Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son explores the dimensions of the friezelike space of the early Biograph version of the nursery rhyme.
But for all Brakhage's visual inventiveness and allusiveness in The Loom, the space he explores remains, fundamentally, an enclosure, not just literally, but in his use of the film frame; the multiple layers of imagery do not open out but fold in on themselves—a way of suggesting, perhaps, that for all the psychic complexity of the life he and Jane had built together, domesticity had ceased to be a liberation for them. That Stan Brakhage's respect and admiration for Jane Brakhage had not wavered is obvious both in The Loom and in Jane; but the freedom of movement evident in Marilyn's Window, a freedom more in keeping with much of Brakhage's earlier work, suggests that his domestic energies had been relocated, bringing to a close the most elaborately visualized domestic saga in the annals of American cinema.
The 1980s also saw the continuation of one other major strand in the skein of Brakhage's career, as well as the exploration of a new cinematic avenue. Paintings and collage-on-film have always been crucial in Brakhage's work. Indeed, the collage work Mothlight (1963) remains Brakhage's most frequently rented film; and as recently as October 1997 heard Brakhage claim that of all his filmmaking, painting-on-film is most fundamental to his self-definition as an artist. The 1980s saw the production of a number of paintings-on-film, including Caswallon Trilogy (1986) and Loud Visual Noises (1986), and the collage film, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), a Rocky Mountain version of Mothlight. As its title suggests, The Garden of Earthly Delights is an evocation of, and a response to, the Hieronymus Bosch painting. Here the "earthly delights" are not sinful sensual indulgences that must lead, in the end, to punishment; rather, the seeds, leaves, and other bits of vegetation that make up the film reflect Brakhage's delight in the simple beauties of God's Earth, envisioned (as it has so often been in American cultural history) as the original Eden. At the same time, the "garden" is not only Brakhage's Rocky Mountain surround but also the viewers' retinas, where the disparate imagery in the successive frames of The Garden of Earthly Delight combine to form imagery of vegetation that exists nowhere but in the viewers' consciousness. In this use of retinal collage, the film echoes Bosch's depiction of fantastic beings.
Perhaps the most elaborate new direction in the Brakhage films of the 1980s is represented by the re-visioning of the Faust story in Faustfilm: An Opera: Part I (1987), Faust's Other: An Idyll (1988), Faust 3: Candida Albacore (1988), and Faust 4 (1989). In collaboration with composer Rick Corrigan and actor and sound editor Joel Haertling, Brakhage dramatizes his version of Faust, using actors and actresses, as well as his own spoken narration. While the films are visually inventive in ways in keeping with Brakhage's career, the new mix of elements creates a set of experiences quite distinct from those familiar to most of Brakhage's audience.
While James Benning seemed to some observers to have peaked in the mid-1970s with his homages to midwestern cityscape and landscape (81/2 × 11 , 11 × 14 , and One Way Boogie Woogie, ), his most impressive features of the 1980s—American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986)—reveal a significant development of Benning's vision and a very different orientation from Brakhage's to the cinematic surround of the moment. While Brakhage has been relentless in articulating the cinematic vision that came to maturity in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and at least in his own work, ignoring a wide range of developments in avant-garde film (as well as in popular commercial film and documentary), Benning has always been alert to the artistic excitements of the moment and inventive about integrating them into his work. Benning's 1980s features incorporate several of the major trends of American (and international) avant-garde filmmaking of the 1970s, but in a move typical of the later decade, Benning redirects those earlier approaches into new, more ideologically specific directions.
American Dreams reveals considerable indebtedness to the body of work P. Adams Sitney called "structural film," and especially to Michael Snow, George Landow (Owen Land), and Hollis Frampton, whose death from cancer in 1984, at age forty-eight, was one of the crucial events of the 1980s.9 Like earlier structural films, American Dreams employs a rigorously designed formal structure. Throughout the film's fifty-eight minutes, the viewer's attention is split between the serial presentation of Benning's considerable collection of Hank Aaron memorabilia (baseball cards and the like), each item shown front and back in chronological order; and the handwritten text that scrolls from right to left across the bottom of the image.10 The use of "I" in this text is at first ambiguous (we assume we're reading Benning's diary), but at the end of American Dreams, Benning reveals, as a kind of punchline, that he has reproduced excerpts from the diary of fellow Milwaukee native Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace in Laurel, Maryland, in 1972. On the sound track, Benning regularly intercuts between excerpts from popular songs of the period beginning with Aaron's arrival in the Major Leagues in 1954 until his retirement from baseball in 1976, and excerpts from influential public statements of the period. The two narratives—Aaron's quest of Babe Ruth's record and Bremer's quest to kill a public figure (he stalked Richard Nixon before shooting Wallace)—come together at the film's auditory conclusion, when the sound of a gunshot is followed by a broadcast of Aaron's "shot" into the bleachers that surpassed Babe Ruth's home run record.
Benning's decision to focus on two quests—one the positive, the other the negative side of the American Dream—is reflected in his own relentlessly formal design: his film proceeds relentlessly to its final "shot" as well. While early structural film often explored material dimensions of cinema, American Dreams uses an organization typical of structural film to confront the issues of race and gender." Benning's admiration of Aaron's amazing career is implicitly a counterpoint to George Wallace's resistance to racial integration; and all three of the men whose obsessions structure American Dreams—Aaron, Bremer, Benning—deal with life in ways that in the 1980s were coming to seem fundamentally male.
If none of Benning's other films of the 1980s is as rigorously structured as American Dreams, his other features—Him and Me (1982), Landscape Suicide, and Used Innocence (1988)—reflect similar redirections of tendencies familiar from the 1970s. Even the fact that all three films are feature-length reflects Benning's implicit concern, shared by other filmmakers of the decade, with his economic future: as the infrastructure of avant-garde exhibition and distribution seemed to weaken, some compromises with the commercial infrastructure seemed increasingly sensible, both to filmmakers who had been or wanted to be identified with the earlier structuralists, and to filmmakers who saw themselves in rebellion against pretensions of formal "purity": Beth B and Scott B, for example. The "Bs," who made a name for themselves during the mid-1970s with their narratively oriented, Super 8 "no-wave" or "punk" melodramas, were also moving toward feature-length, first in later versions of The Offenders (at presented serially in rock clubs, then made into a single feature in 1979), and in The Trap Door (1980, seventy minutes) and Vortex (1983, ninety minutes), their final collaborations (while both remained active during the later 1980s, neither made films with the narrative power or visual interest of the films they made together).
If Benning's features of the 1980s are formally a long way from the New York punk films of the period, his frequent focus on crime in these films reflects the punk determination to move avant-garde filmmaking away from a focus on "essential" elements of cinema or on the sensibilities of artist filmmakers toward a full incorporation of nitty-gritty social realities. Landscape Suicide explores the place of two famous crimes: Ed Gein's murders and grave robbing in rural Plainfield, Wisconsin, and the 1984 "cheer-leader murder" in Orinda, California, a posh suburb of San Francisco; and Used Innocence focuses on the career of convicted Wisconsin murderer Lawrencia Bembenek. Even Him and Me, made soon after Benning moved to New York and into the punk scene, focuses on the sudden, mysterious death of the protagonist's boyfriend as he sleeps next to her.
On a formal level, Benning's films of the period and the Bs' punk shorts and features share an increasing commitment to the incorporation not only of sound but also of scripted melodrama that became characteristic of much 1980s work. Early in the decade, an issue of October (no. 17, summer 1981) was devoted to what it called "the New Talkies," signaling a compromise position between avant-garde and industry filmmaking that had been inconceivable when synch-sound recording was possible only on industry sound stages, and silence (as in Brakhage's films) or at least non-synch uses of sound were defiant, if economically necessitated, declarations of independence from the commercial.
Most filmmakers who had established their reputations in the 1960s and 1970s were not as prolific as Brakhage, or even Benning. But some made contributions that confirmed the visions established in earlier work. Andrew Noren contributed The Lighted Field (1987, discussed later). Jonas Mekas continued to produce new films using material shot during earlier decades. Mekas's He Stands in the Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (filmed in 1969, edited in 1985) is a feature-length series of sketches of the movers and shakers of the sixties art scene, including film artists representative of a wide range of approaches—Hans Richter, Alberto Cavalcanti, Roberto Rossellini, Marcel Hanoun, Peter Kubelka, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, Willard Van Dyke, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono—filmed in the lyric, free-form, gestural style Mekas had used in Walden (1969).12 Richard Myers continued to combine formalist invention, personal exploration, and a commitment to his local surround in Kent, Ohio, in Jungle Girl (1984) and Moving Pictures (1990). Larry Gottheim continued the inventive explorations of sound and image begun in his Elective Affinities series in the lovely Mnemosyne, Mother of Muses (1986). Ernie Gehr contributed Signal: Germany on the Air (1985), a complex visual-auditory evocation of modern (and Nazi) Berlin. Robert Huot continued to make diary films, though by the 1980s, he had switched from 16mm to Super 8 sound film. Yvonne Rainer also remained active and influential (she is discussed later).
Other filmmakers continued to work in, or near, animation, in ways characteristic of their earlier careers. There were regular contributions by Robert Breer, whose Swiss Army Knife with Rats and Pigeons (1981), Trial Balloons (1982), Bang! (1986), and A Frog on the Swing (1989) continued the frame-by-frame explorations of perceptual and intellectual space-time that established his reputation in the 1950s; and by Jordan Belson, who continued to create films that evoke the "inner imagery" he has discovered through meditation and the "outer imagery" he has conjectured on the basis of his interest in macrocosmic terrestrial and extra-terrestrial processes. Belson made a feature film's worth of 35mm imagery for Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983), and a series of short 16mm films in the tradition of his influential 1960s films, including Synchronicity Suite (1980: Pisces/Blues, Apollo's Lyre, Seapeace, Eleusis/Crotons), The Astronaut's Dream (1981), Moonlight (1981), Fireflies (1985), and Thoughtforms (1987). Gunvor Nelson explored the "space" between live action and animation in Frame Line (1983), Light Years (1987), and Light Years Expanding (1988). And Larry Jordan contributed Sophie's Place (1986), a feature-length animation in the tradition of Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic Feature (1960), focusing on the figure of St. Sophia—probably the most impressive longer American avant-garde animation of the decade.
The 1980s also served as a transformative moment for some moving-image makers. One type of transformation is evident in the work of J. J. Murphy, who established himself as a major "structural" filmmaker with Print Generation (1974) and continued to use approaches identified with avant-garde filmmaking through the 1970s; then, having proved he could make contributions to several avant-garde traditions, he decided to prove to himself that he could also make "movies," scripted melodramatic narratives. If none of Murphy's narrative films of the 1980s—The Night Belongs to the Police (1982), Terminal Disorder (1983), Frame of Mind (1985)—are as impressive Print Generation, Murphy's quest to prove himself that he could do something other than maintain his reputation as an avant-garde artist was, on a personal level, as "experimental" as the sensibilities of filmmakers whose 1980s films fit more precisely our expectations of avant-garde film and filmmakers.
Another transformation—more of a career "dissolve," perhaps—is evident in George Kuchar's increasing commitment to video. While Kuchar continued to produce the kinds of trashy melodrama that had established his reputation, both on his own (Cattle Mutilations , The X People ) and in collaboration with his students at the San Francisco Art Institute (Boulevard Kishka , The Oneers  Club Vatican , Motel Capri ), his primary focus was increasingly video. Indeed, by the end of the decade, Video Data Bank was publishing two catalogs: one for Kuchar's work, the other for everyone else.13 For Kuchar, the economy and flexibility of the camcorder represent less a change in medium than a return to what 8mm filmmaking and subsequently 16mm and Super 8 had offered independent makers: easy access to the regular production of moving-image art. Those who insisted that cinema was intrinsically superior to video had become, as Kuchar said later, exactly what in an earlier decade they had seemed to hate: after all, the commitment of so many in the American avant-garde to small-gauge film production had been seen by earlier critics as a choice of a less sophisticated medium; real movies, course, were made in 35mm or wider gauges.
Indeed, Kuchar's shift to video can be seen here as symbolic of the shift from film to video by a good many fledgling makers of the 1980s and 1990s, whose access to film production is constricted by the realities of economic class, but who have been able to develop careers as a result of the accessibility of video equipment. Since the 1980s, critiques of commercial film and television—especially those motivated by class and ethnicity—are far more likely to be produced in video than in film; video is now what film was, from the days of the socialist collective Nykino in the 1930s through the emergence of Newsreel (and Third World Newsreel) in the 1960s and 1970s: the logical medium for those who are economically disenfranchised but committed to the idea of producing social change through the use of moving-image polemic.14
While particular types of American avant-garde film are parts of international artistic traditions that have been developing for decades, avant-garde cinema in general is nevertheless directly connected to the commercial cinema: without a film industry, the equipment necessary for avant-garde film production and exhibition could not "trickle down" to individuals and small groups making films on tiny budgets; and without the business of 16mm distribution of commercial films to academic and other cultural venues, avant-garde filmmakers for whom 16mm is, by virtue of economic necessity, the "gauge of choice" would quickly find themselves without film-stock. Not only is avantgarde film history attached to the industry by a celluloid umbilical cord, but because most audiences for avant-garde film—and most filmmakers as well—have been trained as viewers by commercial film and television long before they become familiar with alternative cinema, the characteristic tendencies of avant-garde cinema at any one moment, and the experiences of particular films, are most easily understood in terms of how they depart from the commercial mainstream, how they critique the conventional assumptions of popular cinema and television.
During the 1980s, a good many filmmakers and films explicitly or implicitly critiqued the industry in one of two general ways: first, they expanded and deepened the range of "voices" available to filmgoers; second, they concentrated on particular elements of the film experience, exploring them to a degree impractical for commercial filmmakers. The centrifugal tendency is best exemplified by the development of a sophisticated, complex feminist cinema—and in many cases, a lesbian feminist cinema—in which the raw, confrontational tendencies of 1960s and 1970s feminist film became a part of the moredeveloped visions of women's lives and potentials. The centripetal tendency is evident in the explosion of "recycled cinema," in which moving-image artists often deconstructed particular moments in specific industrial films. While these two tendencies may, at first glance, seem opposed, the "broadening" tendency of feminist film and the "narrowing" tendency of recycled cinema both lead to the same end: a sustained critique of the ideological and formal limitations and compromises of commercial media.
In the United States, the 1980s were a remarkable decade for women filmmakers, not just in the number of films produced and the feminist passion expressed in many of these films, but in their inventiveness, complexity, and subtlety. This impressive productivity was accompanied by a good bit of written theory and criticism;15 Even in the area of distribution, there was good news for women: during the 1980s, Women Make Movies had considerable success in making available a range of avant-garde film and polemical documentary (and celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1997).
One of the most-discussed feminist films of the early 1980s was Lizzie Borden's feminist "sci-fi" feature Born in Flames (1983), in which events from a not-so-distant future are used to comment on the then-current status of women in American society.16 While it was as full of confrontational passion as any 1970s feminist polemic, its process of production seemed to break new ground. Most avant-garde films are produced by individuals or small groups, but Born in Flames represented something like a community effort, not simply in the sense that Borden collaborated with other filmmakers to make it, but also in the sense that the film represented a far broader range of women than most films and used the film production process as a means for energizing feminist multiethnic organization. In its formal rawness and its awareness of the nitty-gritty of urban life, Born in Flames was reminiscent of the Super 8 punk films Beth B and Scott B and Vivienne Dick; and in the disjunctiveness of its narrative, it recalls many earlier avantgarde films—but in its direct call to action and its determination to bridge ethnic and class distinctions in the name of a revolutionary repositioning of women within American media culture, it felt both fresh and feisty. Borden's other film of the 1980s, Working Girls (1986), a melodrama about the day-to-day working life of a middle-class prostitute, revealed Borden's determination to become a commercial director. Unlike Born in Flames, which used nonactors in part as a means for insuring new character-spectator relationships, Working Girls was scripted and acted by professionals. However, while it is less unconventional and was less celebrated than Born in Flames, Working Girls remains a remarkably open film, especially in its matter-of-fact awareness about women's (and men's) bodies and about sexual desire and fetishization; and while it seems less political than its openly revolutionary predecessor, Borden's awareness of and sympathy for the interlocking absurdity of women's and men's sexual roles in Western society allows for the development of a progressive cross-gender awareness.
While she had emerged as a filmmaker in the 1970s, Yvonne Rainer's contribution to 1980s avant-garde film and feminist discourse remained substantial. She began the decade with Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), her meditation on Berlin as metaphor for the divided psyche of the West and of modern filmmaking of all kinds.17 Like Born in Flames, Journeys from Berlin/1971 argues that the struggles of American women for political and economic power were and are part of a thoroughly multiethnic international struggle; and like Borden's film, Rainer's assembles viewpoints from a wide variety of sources; but Journeys from Berlin/1971 is more demanding of the viewer's patience, as a result of Rainer's extremely slow pacing and her decision to force viewers to read about revolutionary action, rather than to watch (however disjunctive) enactments of it. If the revolutionary form of Born in Flames was a product of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was quickly left behind as Borden moved in the direction of Hollywood, Rainer's film was in large measure about her own filmmaking practice, not in the sense that hers was a more politically progressive practice than Borden's, but in her recognition that she, like all of us (including Borden), is a divided self, even as a progressive filmmaker: after all, Rainer's critique of conventional cinema and established Western political power and organization was made possible by grants from the very social systems that Journeys from Berlin/1971 critiques.
Rainer's self-awareness was equally evident in The Man Who Envied Women (1985), another feature, this one more specifically focused, as the title suggests, on women; and in Privilege (1990), which focuses on women in a more fully interethnic context and with a growing consciousness of lesbianism as a personal issue (Rainer announced herself a lesbian soon after the film was complete). As the years pass, it is increasingly obvious that Rainer's films are time capsules of the particular moments during which they were shot and edited. While it offers no particular conclusions about, or solutions to, the set of social and aesthetic issues it raises, The Man Who Envied Women does provide a clear sense of the issues facing artists during the mid-1980s. The film's personae wrestle with the particular debates at the heart of the film: most obviously, the question of how one's "personal" concerns as artist or academic or as a partner in a relationship relate to political crises in other parts of the world (in particular, Central America) where people less privileged than Rainer and her characters are brutally, systematically murdered. The film dramatizes a variety of forms of social intercourse often relating to this issue: in a classroom, Jack Deller, a cultural theorist, lectures to a class; at a public hearing, members of the lower Manhattan art community and other downtown residents (many of them Hispanic immigrants) debate the merits of the city's providing financial assistance to artists threatened by gentrification; at a party, Deller (played in this instance by William Raymond; in other instances the same character is played by Larry Loonin) discusses the issue of power as it relates to gender with a former lover, Jackie (Jackie Raynal); and in several instances, we see Deller walking to work or eating in a restaurant while we hear brief, often witty interchanges between couples. In some instances, the length and pacing of particular sequences (the lecture, the party discussion) create just the sort of frustration that we often feel when trying to understand complex, difficult, new theoretical positions: as viewers we are annoyed at the characters' "overintellectualization" while recognizing that there is no easy way and little everyday language for dealing with the larger concerns that trouble us all.
At the heart of The Man Who Envied Women is a collage (we see it first in Deller's loft, though its location seems to change), which various characters discuss and sometimes rearrange, apparently at Rainer's suggestion (sometimes we hear her voice in the background). The collage includes a small color image of mutilated El Salvadorans (severed heads, tortured bodies); an advertising image for high-quality cigars, the focus of which is a handsome, successful white businessman; a New York Times magazine column in which a priest discusses the need for men to be able to express gentler emotions; a male-physician-directed advertisement for menopausal hormone supplements; an article, "How I Was Broken by the KGB"; and two posters: one for Born in Flames, the other produced by the "Artists' Call" against intervention in Central America. This collage—formally rough, conceptually dense—is Rainer's film in microcosm; and the voices that discuss the troubling continuities and gaps implied by the juxtapositions are a microcosm of the audience for her films. Like Journeys from Berlin/1971, The Man Who Envied Women is a metacollage that combines the elements described above with various forms of quotation. The characters often consciously or unconsciously quote writers who were much discussed during the 1980s (Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, Julia Kristeva, B. Ruby Rich), and Rainer provides visual quotations from a wide range of films, including Un Chien Andalou (1929; in this context, Buñuel's slicing of the woman's eye seems quite gender-conventional!), Hollis Frampton's Otherwise Unexplained Fires (1976; Rainer's film is dedicated "in memoriam" to Frampton, who was a great admirer of Rainer's work), Watermotor (1978, performed by Trisha Brown, filmed by Babette Mangolte), George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1967), Wavelength (1967) by Michael Snow, and several films noirs: John Cromwell's Dead Reckoning (1947), Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952), Max Ophul's Caught (1949), and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).18 In 1985, The Man Who Envied Women was a kind of cul-de-sac, a trap for anyone accustomed to using moviegoing as an escape: one exited the "real world" only to be relocated back into it. Seeing it more than a decade later, we are able to reenter a previous moment and a set of concerns and debates that made way for the moment we find ourselves in.
Privilege, which was finished in 1990, took as its central foci menopause and race. In her use of an alter ego, African-American Yvonne Washington (Novella Nelson), to confront protagonist Jenny's (Alice Spivak) psychoanalytic explanation of racial difference and the history of black oppression, Rainer dramatizes a much-discussed debate that now seems characteristic of the end of the decade: a debate about the representation of women of color in the primarily white, bourgeois-oriented history of feminist filmmaking and exhibition. Rainer herself (with Bérénice Reynaud) programmed the "Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentation" conference, held at the Collective for Living Cinema and the Dia Art Foundation in 1988, a flashpoint for this debate, which centered on the fact that these two (white, "bourgeois") women programmers were attempting to correct a racially exclusionary history, but at venues frequented almost exclusively by whites and devoted to forms of filmmaking that had privileged aesthetics and psychoanalysis and had seemed to undervalue more activist forms of avant-garde filmmaking.19
Clearly related to Rainer's approach in The Man Who Envied Women and Privilege was the approach used by Jill Godmilow in Far From Poland (1984), a feature focusing on her own attempts to come to grips with the development of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Widely known as a documentarian (her Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman had received an Academy Award nomination in 1975), Godmilow combined personal address to the camera about her own production process, documentation of her personal life (including her frustrating relationship with a male partner, Mark Magill), a dramatized version of an interview with Polish labor activist, Anna Walentynowicz, and some footage shot by members of Solidarity to explore the relationship between the personal and political, women and men, "near" and "far." Like so much of the feminist cinema of the 1980s, Far From Poland questions the conventional distinction between avant-garde film and documentary by working at the ambiguous "seam" between these two traditions.
While Borden, Rainer, and Godmilow were lifelong American citizens working "outward" to explore feminism as a multiethnic international issue, the Vietnamese-born American immigrant Trinh T. Minh-ha provided a look at particular traditions within American (and European) culture, informed by her experience as an outsider. Minh-ha's films, and especially Reassemblage (1982), provided a different kind of ideological flashpoint for the decade.20 Reassemblage is a forty-minute montage film that means to deconstruct and "reassemble" our understanding of how peoples from sectors of the world other than white North America and Europe are represented in the history of anthropology and, more specifically, in the history of ethnographic film, which (except for Margaret Mead) remained, as of 1982, as thoroughly white as any arena of cultural production. In Reassemblage, Minh-ha seemed to break all the "rules" of ethno-graphic filmmaking; indeed, some historians of ethnographic documentary (and some historians of avant-garde film) argued that she had no idea what she was doing.21 What she was doing was focusing on the day-to-day activities of women from various sectors of Senegal, but without presuming to have any codifiable "knowledge" about Senegal; indeed, she defiantly abjured pretensions to "objectivity" and "detachment." Further, Minh-ha's camera is consistently hand-held, her image and sound editing consistently abrupt, "awkward," but she was not using this gestural camerawork and disjunctive editing for purposes of personal self-expression, as had become conventional in much avant-garde film as a result of the gestural camera of Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas in the 1960s. Even her poetically arranged narration (in her Vietnameseaccented English) recalls the voice-of-god narrator of so many documentary films, only to reveal its cultural and masculine bias. Minh-ha made an influential place for herself in 1980s feminist cinema (she is discussed in more detail later) by working in the historical and ideological gap between two major film traditions, both of which had been defined and peopled largely by white European-American men.
Su Friedrich (also discussed in more detail later) has also worked between the histories of avant-garde film and documentary but from a position more in touch and in tune with the history of American avant-garde filmmaking and especially Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Hollis Frampton.22 Her The Ties That Bind (1984) used a then-unusual mixture of forms not to question how much we can know about cultural history, but to document and explore the ties that bind her own and her mother's personal histories to public events past and present. The central thread of The Ties That Bind, an auditory thread, is an interview with Friedrich's mother, Lore Friedrich, about her experiences growing up in an anti-Nazi German household during the 1930s, and during and after World War II, when she married Paul Friedrich (the filmmaker's father) and emigrated to the United States. As we listen to Lore Friedrich's answers to her daughters questions, which are directly scratched onto the filmstrip, we watch a heavily edited mixture of imagery, some documentary material by Friedrich (Super 8 imagery filmed in Germany; 16mm imagery recorded during a women's demonstration at the Seneca Army Depot in Central New York State; a silent portrait of Lore Friedrich swimming in Lake Michigan and working in an office), much of it found (archival material recorded in Germany during the war; home movies recorded soon after Lore Friedrich's emigration to Chicago; early American archival imagery of a young woman waving an American flag); some of it dramatized for the camera (Friedrich's alter ego taking a bath; hands assembling a plastic model of a traditional Bavarian house). Friedrich's editing of this diverse (all black-and-white) material into a single film provides a cinematic argument for the interconnection between the histories of German Nazism, the American arms buildup of the 1980s, women's struggles for equal employment, and Su Friedrich's personal quest to understand her mother. The hundreds of hours Friedrich labored to develop the intricate set of interconnections between her sound and image tracks result in an overriding formal metaphor for the ties that bind together the past and present, mothers and daughters, and cinematic traditions.
While I cannot here provide a thorough review of significant feminist contributions to 1980s filmmaking or of interesting films in which a feminist awareness is combined with other commitments, a number of other filmmakers must be mentioned. Among the more influential filmmakers of the period was Barbara Hammer, whose energy and persistence were an inspiration to a good many younger (and especially gay) filmmakers: Hammers ability to get film after film made demonstrated what a radical lesbian filmmaker can accomplish, even in a society willing to provide only limited support; and her engaging public persona enabled her to raise the issue of how a feminist sexual politic might find an appropriately radical form.23 Other significant 1980s contributors to the increasingly sophisticated representation of women include Abigail Child (Mutiny ; Child is discussed later), Leslie Thornton (Adynata ), Michelle Fleming (Tropical Depression , Left Handed Memories , Private Property (Public Domain)), Zeinabu irene Davis (Cycles , discussed later), Nina Fonaroff (Department of the Interior , A Knowledge They Cannot Lose ), and Greta Snider (Futility , Blood Story ).
If a new sensually aware, cinematically refined feminism was the most discussed ideological trend of the 1980s, what has come to be called recycled cinema (found footage film remains a popular term for it) was the most visible formal tendency of the decade.24 Recycled cinema has a long history beginning (perhaps) with Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) by the Russian filmmaker Esther Shub and in this country with Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart (1939) and subsequent films; it was popularized by Bruce Conner in the late 1950s (A Movie ) and early 1960s. If the option of recycling cinema was originally, at least in this country, a means for producing films with virtually no capital outlay—both Conner, in A Movie, and Raphael Montañez Ortiz in the contemporaneous but comparatively unknown Cowboy and "Indian" Film (1958) and Newsreel (1958) chose the approach because it offered the only entry into filmmaking they could afford—it quickly became a means for dealing with the accumulation of film history itself. And not surprisingly, as each new decade has passed, the option of recycling the ever-increasing cultural archive of film and television imagery (and in doing so, offering various forms of critique of this cultural archive) has seemed more and more attractive, not only because recycling imagery is generally less expensive than shooting new imagery (especially since virtually no avant-garde filmmakers pay for the rights to such material), but because there is an audience for the work that has a sense of the history of the approach.
The reuse of previously recorded film imagery is common in a wide variety of films. Most of the filmmakers discussed as feminists, for example, use earlier footage, either to reassess the cultural past that has done so much to fashion our sense of the genders or to come to grips with dimensions of their personal pasts. Here, however, I am discussing films or film experiences that are constructed entirely, or almost entirely, from earlier films. While Bruce Conner released only one film during the 1980s, America is Waiting (1982), that film and Standard Gauge (1984) by fellow Californian Morgan Fisher can suggest something of the considerable breadth in the ways recycled images were being used by this time. America is Waiting is a memorable instance of the method that had characterized Conner's work during the 1960s and 1970s: images from a variety of older films are choreographed to the David Byrne/Brian Eno composition "America Is Waiting." The sound track is used as a continuous thread that provides coherence for Conner's disjunctively edited commentary on American militarism. Over the years, Conner has explored a wide variety of relationships between sound and image: sometimes the juxtaposition between image and sound is ironic; sometimes it enforces parallels. In America is Waiting the attitudes implicit in Conner's recycling and in the Byrne/Eno song are roughly parallel, though the specific connections between the two tracks are subtle and complex.
Fisher's Standard Gauge could hardly be less like America is Waiting, though Fisher is an admirer of Conner's work and, indeed, makes reference to it in Standard Gauge when he tells the story of how, during some stock-footage work for a commercial feature, he discovered the execution by firing squad "that appears in Bruce Conner's film A Movie."25 But if Standard Gauge can be read in part as Fisher's tribute to Conner, it is a tribute that uses an entirely different approach. As in America is Waiting, in Fisher's film we see virtually nothing but found imagery; but while Conner—and most other "cinema recyclers"—present this imagery as it was originally seen (though, of course, within a new editing strategy), Fisher presents his found footage on a rewind as a series of 35mm filmstrips: that is, we see these cinematic memories as celluloid souvenirs Fisher has collected over the years; Fisher's sound track is his commentary on the individual strips of film. While Conner focuses on the way the history of film (the history of all kinds of film, especially educational films and television commercials) encodes America's problematic sense of itself, Fisher focuses on the surround of industrial, massmarket movie-making—on the history of those tens of thousands of marginalized, unnamed men and women whose labor makes Hollywood possible. It's a history Fisher has played a part in. Indeed, the strips of imagery he presents during Standard Gauge were collected during his years of working around the edges of the industry—"edges" both in a social and industrial sense (Fisher has done stock-footage research, he has been employed as an editor; friends have worked in the industry) and in the material sense: for this viewer, the fascination of Standard Gauge is in what Fisher reveals about the various levels of textual and other signification (information directed to labs, editors, and projectionists) that those of us who have taught film history have always seen, on film leader and on the edges of the filmstrip, without fully understanding. Ultimately, Fisher's stance toward the film industry is quite different from Conner's. While Conner's films reveal the surreality of much of what passes for "normal," Fisher's dramatize his ambivalence about Hollywood: he recognizes that the industry, whatever its failures and limitations, not only makes all film history possible, including the very imagery that avant-garde filmmakers deconstruct and satirize, but that the romance of the movies is what attracts most avant-garde filmmakers to the field. The filmstrips Fisher presents during Standard Gauge are relics in the religious sense: shards of an increasingly endangered history that Fisher both critiques and honors.26
Two of the decades most ambitious "recycling" projects are at opposite ends of a somewhat different axis from the one charted by Conner and Fisher. During the 1980s, Ken Jacobs was developing a series of works using what he calls "the Nervous System." Developed during the 1970s, the Nervous System is a pair of interlocking, analytic 16mm projectors that allow Jacobs to superimpose two nearly identical projected film images and, by interrupting the projector beams with one of a number of propeller devices he has devised, to create a range of visual (and with his sound system, auditory) effects.27
Nineteen eighty was a watershed year for the Nervous System work, beginning with Hell Breaks Loose (chapter 3 of the series called The Impossible—a reference in part to the ability to create "impossible" effects with this unusual apparatus), in which Jacobs reexplored the 1905 Biograph film Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, which had been the focus of his own Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969, revised 1971). Hell Breaks Loose was followed by chapters 4 and 5 of The Impossible: Schilling (1980) and The Wrong Laurel (1980); and by xcxhxexrxrxixexsx ("Cherries"—the Xs are a joke on the triple xxx of porn films; 1980), which recycles a bit of French pornography from the 1920s; by Ken Jacobs' Theater of Unconscionable Stupidity Presents Camera Thrills of the War (1981), The Whole Shebang (1982), and Making Light of History: The Philippines Adventure (1983); and at the end of the decade, by Two Wrenching Departures (1989), a tribute to the passing of Jack Smith and Bob Fleischner (two of Jacobs's early collaborators) in which Jacobs recycles bits of his own Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (1957) and Star Spangled to Death (1958-60). In some cases, the Nervous System pieces were performed in various versions throughout the decade and into the 1990s.
Jacobs's performances with the Nervous System apparatus are meant to evoke nineteenth-century precinematic magical events, but his use of the apparatus also looks back to a more recent moment in the history of art: Jacobs was trained as a painter (he studied with Hans Hoffmann) and American abstract expressionism remains important to him. For Jacobs, the Nervous System is a cinematic tool with which he can express himself in relation to the celluloid artifacts he collects, abstracting from them a wide range of visual and emotional effects, including (in xcxhxexrxrxixexsx) 3-D and (in Two Wrenching Departures) a sense of human motion that verges on the operatic. He conceives of himself as an "action filmmaker," in the sense that Jackson Pollock was an "action painter"; each Nervous System performance is meant to place the viewer within a perceptual and conceptual environment where a work of art is being created as the audience watches and listens. While Jacobs has strong feelings about many political issues, he is most passionate about the importance of art as a creative space in which the artist expresses the frustrations, the terror, and the ecstasies of particular historical moments. Indeed, Jacobs's loyalty to the idea of art has, in recent years, rendered his work controversial and problematic, especially for those who do not trust this artist's ability to deal with the real issues of his moment in the rarefied ("elitist") space of the avantgarde screening room.28 But for those less cynical about the implications of art and artist, Jacobs's Nervous System performances are distinctive, memorable excursions that lie somewhere between a visit to a gallery of modern painting and an amusement park ride.
While Jacobs's Nervous System performances are novel cinematic experiences that look backward for their inspiration, Raphael Montañez Ortiz's digital/laser/video works recycle moments from classic film history, using an apparatus that seems the very embodiment of the technological present and future. Having begun his artistic career as a cine-recycler the same year as Bruce Conner, Ortiz explored a variety of performanceoriented, "destructivist" approaches to art making;29 Then, in the mid-1980s, he developed an apparatus for carefully deconstructing problematic moments from the history of cinema: using laserdisc versions of such films as Citizen Kane (1941), King Kong (1933), Grand Illusion (1937), and Body and Soul (1947), his Apple computer, and a simple sound effects generator, Ortiz began to reorganize passages of film within which various forms of brutality are hidden and the expression of honest sexuality is repressed, and to record the results on video.30 For Ortiz, his apparatus is a way of defying the tendency of the history of cinema to move relentlessly toward the illusion of resolution and social harmony—a one-way directionality that is encoded within the movie projector, which nearly always moves forward at a predetermined speed toward the production of financial profit. The goal of Ortiz's revisions of classic cinema, and of his use of what he sees as a more fully holistic apparatus for confronting cinema history, is the spiritual serenity that develops through the release of what even the best of conventional cinema represses. As a Puerto Rican—American (with some Native American roots), Ortiz's quest is to reveal how traditional cinema has conspired in the disenfranchisement of many North Americans and to ritually expose repressed elements (in even the best films) that mitigate against a healthy expression of individual psyches and a healthy social diversity—before we carry our damaged spirits into a new millennium.
Between 1985 and 1990, Ortiz produced twenty-five digital/laser/videos, in which he developed the characteristic elements of his approach. In The Kiss (1985), for example, Ortiz reorganizes a conventional moment from Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, during which the protagonists, a prizefighter (John Garfield) and an artist (Lili Palmer), kiss good-bye after the boxer's visit to the artist's apartment. For Ortiz, this good-bye kiss represented the repression of the obvious sexual attraction of the two characters, a repression demanded not by the characters themselves but by the Hollywood Code. Ortiz's response was to rearrange the frames of the passage and repeat them in a rhythmic manner that releases the erotic repressed by the kiss: the characters seem lost in a wild sexual encounter. In Dance No. 1 (1985), Ortiz rearranges the moment from Citizen Kane when Kane, Jedediah Leland, and Mr. Bernstein arrive at the Inquirer office to take control of the newspaper. For Ortiz, this amusing scene, in which Mr. Carter, the current editor of the paper, must turn over his office to Kane, represses Kane's arrogant, classist demonstration of power—a power he has in no way earned. Ortiz's response is to transform the scene into a dance spectacle, revealing the "dance" elements originally built into this cinematic moment for what they are: a repression of Mr. Carter's public humiliation so that the audience can enjoy Carter's pain without being conscious of Kane's, and their, meanness.
By the 1980s, recycled cinema had become the most pervasive formal trend in avantgarde film. On the one hand, the popularity of the approach may have been a result of a paradox: while reusing imagery produced by the film industry without obtaining permission may have seemed risky, it was a risk without appreciable danger, since no one was ever charged with any crime. Of course, the industry's lack of interest in those pilfering its history in the service of their own careers was a function of the comparatively impoverished state of the avant-garde scene: since no one was making any money, no matter how ingenious and provocative the films were, why would the industry bother to track down those intent on turning industrial products against the industry that produced them? On the other hand, the pervasiveness of recycled cinema was a function of the wealth and diversity of the material available for recycling, which included not only commercial features the industry seemed uninterested in protecting from avant-gardists but also all manner of outdated educational and scientific films, outdated television commercials shot on film, and the huge reservoir of home movie and personal travel material that had been accumulating for generations.
Having experimented with a variety of conceptualist and minimalist approaches in the 1970s, Alan Berliner began to finish noteworthy short films made almost entirely of recycled imagery and sound in the early 1980s, including City Edition (1980), Myth in the Electric Age (1981), Natural History (1983), and Everywhere at Once (1985). In each of these films, Berliner, who is something of an obsessive collector of old imagery and sound (he has won Emmies for his sound work for television), would choose a general theme and construct a complex sound-image montage that explored that theme. For example, the theme of City Edition is the newspaper, which Berliner evokes not only by framing the film's elaborate montage within recycled imagery of newspapers being printed, but by juxtaposing images and sounds in a manner that reiterates the bizarre juxtapositions of news stories on any given newspaper page and the overall organizations of material characteristic of newspapers. The staccato energy of Berliner's editing is an avant-garde version of the dramatic energy of Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940). The most notable formal accomplishment of Berliner's early recycled films is his considerable awareness of the myriad possibilities for creating a sense of synchronization between images and sounds that come from very different sectors of the culture and clearly "don't belong" to each other.31
If City Edition and Everywhere at Once (discussed briefly later) are Berliner's most successful early contributions to recycled cinema, the hour-long The Family Album (1986) is his most accomplished film of the 1980s, as well as an obvious premonition of his impressive films of the 1990s: Intimate Stranger (1991) and Nobody's Business (1996). The "theme" of The Family Album is the tradition of domestic documentation and celebration of family life in 16mm home movies during the past several generations. Structured as a cycle of life, beginning with imagery of babies and moving through various conventional phases of family life up to the funerals of elderly members of families, The Family Album simultaneously honors the considerable skill and luck of those who have brought cameras into the family circle and provides a bittersweet sense of the American family in the mid-twentieth century—bittersweet because it becomes clear, as the film proceeds, that the essential function of home movie making has been to create happy visual memories of families, regardless of how dysfunctional those families may have been. Indeed, The Family Album represents a very different relationship between image and sound from that developed in Berliner's earlier recycled films. Here, sound functions as a counterpoint to the film's often exquisite and poignant recycling of family imagery, suggesting a basic pattern in American family life: the relentless performance of continuity and coherence despite the reality of pervasive personal frustration, disappointment, and loss.
During the 1980s, recycled cinema produced a wide range of articulations, too many to detail here. Phil Solomon developed a variety of procedures for chemically treating filmed imagery, producing a series of evocative, exquisitely textured films, including The Secret Garden (1988), The Exquisite Hour (1989), and Remains to be Seen (1989). Lewis Klahr was combining Super 8 imagery from abbreviated versions of Hollywood features and cartoons to create his Picture Books for Adults (1983-85). Craig Baldwin was developing his reputation as a "media pirate" in RocketKitKongoKit (1986), and in the remarkable Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1990), his pseudo-documentary send-up of cold war-era paranoia and propaganda. Also memorable are Michael Wallen's Decodings (1983), William Farley's Tribute (1986), and Heather McAdams's Scratchman II (1982). A very different sense of "found" material was evident in Leslie Thornton's Peggy and Fred in Hell (Prologue) (1984) and in the Peggy and Fred films that followed. Instead of recycling actual film material, Thornton recycled the gestures that, as children, we internalize as a result of our immersion in a thoroughly mediated society. Thornton's work was important for a good many younger filmmakers and is related to the work of Abigail Child (discussed later), whose films often mimick the gestures of commercial films noirs. Each of these filmmakers is worthy of extended analysis and discussion.32
The 1980s also saw a developing interest in the global or the transnational, the flip side of which was an increasing fascination with particular places, conceived either as geographic regions or as ethnic communities. During a decade that, as a result of the availability of inexpensive air travel, saw the development of a network of international film festivals serving a wide range of films, as well as of the Internet and the World Wide Web, it was perhaps inevitable that avant-garde filmmakers would explore forms of cinema that recognize the increasing internationality of everyday experience, while avoiding (at least to some degree) the commercial trope of the Western adventurer (James Bond, Indiana Jones) who visits a variety of international locales in the process of maintaining the World-Wide economic and sociopolitical status quo. Of course, like virtually all trends in alternative cinema, this urge toward the global has roots in earlier decades: Peter Kubelka's Unsere Afrikareise (1966) is one prototype, Warren Sonbert's The Carriage Trade (1972), another. In each of these films, the filmmaker's journey—in Kubelka's case, a particular journey with a group of wealthy Austrians through various African locales to a big-game hunting safari, which Kubelka reveals as the quintessential colonialist activity; in Sonbert's case, an ongoing journey from one continent to another—is presented not as a single, obvious adventure narrative but as a complex montage within which various places and issues intersect. In fact, the reliance on montage in these films is their fundamental metaphor for the world, which is seen not as a set of locations some of which are "naturally" at the service of others, but as a huge interlocking organism in which every place and people coexists with and impinges on all others.
In American avant-garde film, Sonbert was the preeminent "globalist" (he died of AIDS in 1995). The Carriage Trade revealed the approach that was to characterize the series of films he finished during the 1980s—A Woman's Touch (1983), The Cup and the Lip (1986), Honor and Obey (1988), and Friendly Witness (1989)—films that, fittingly, were popular at international film festivals.33 With the exception of Friendly Witness, which was constructed from outtakes from earlier Sonbert films, each of these films was the result of two separate processes. First, Sonbert recorded informal, handheld travel imagery during his journeys (though based in San Francisco, Sonbert was an inveterate global traveler). In many cases, this was conventional travel imagery (images of landmarks, including those that draw tourists), though in other instances the footage was more personal: images of friends and of events interesting or important to Sonbert. Having collected imagery over a period of months, Sonbert would study it carefully, becoming aware of every visual and conceptual nuance of every image he decided to use, and then would construct an immense montage experience in which each image and each intersection of one image with another functions as a nexus of visual and conceptual motifs. In a general sense, the motifs within any particular film address specific issues, though the experience of each film's montage tends to open up a variety of possibilities, rather than to direct the viewer in a particular ideological direction, as do, for example, the montages in the Russian revolutionary films of the 1920s (of which Sonbert was always conscious). Indeed, each of Sonbert's mature films provides a complex meditation on a set of themes that simultaneously expresses Sonbert's concerns while providing viewers with a complex perceptual and conceptual field that the eye and mind can explore, viewing after viewing. While all of Sonbert's films from The Carriage Trade through Honor and Obey are silent, in his final film of the 1980s (and in the final film released before his death, Short Fuse ) Sonbert returned to sound, developing a complex network of interconnections not only between image and image but also between image and sound.
The energy of Sonbert's films is a function of what at first may seem a paradox between the consistent informality of his handheld imagery and the nearly obsessive awareness evident "underneath" this apparent informality. But in fact, there is no paradox here: each of these two dimensions of Sonbert's films reflects a different aspect of an essentially democratic, egalitarian spirit. On the one hand, the informality of Sonbert's camerawork, along with his willingness to record popular touristic locations and his personal interactions with friends, declares Sonbert's relationship to the tradition of home movies and informal documentations of travel. On the other hand, the complex visual and auditory awareness revealed by a careful exploration of any given passage of the finished films is a way of demonstrating that it is the artist's responsibility to be aware that every place, every moment, all peoples and each person, are deserving of perceptual and conceptual commitment. Indeed, when particular moments in Sonbert's films remind us of the militaristic and fascistic elements of one or another of the societies through which Sonbert travels, we understand these elements as an implicit danger to Sonbert's unpretentious social mobility and the personal freedom it represents.
Related approaches to the transnational are evident in Holly Fisher's Soft Shoe (1987) and in Alan Berliner's aptly titled Everywhere at Once. For Soft Shoe, Fisher used her considerable dexterity with the optical printer to construct a Muybridge-inspired cine-kaleidoscope of imagery filmed in Romania, Germany, and France, in both rural areas and in cities. Like Sonbert, Fisher films from within everyday events and subsequently formalizes her imagery during the editing and printing process. Soft Shoe is both a frequently stunning personal evocation of a journey and a premonition of the end of the cold war. In Everywhere at Once, each simple cut from one image to another is capable of moving the viewer either across town or around the world. Of course, since Berliner's films recycle imagery recorded by others and only collected and edited by Berliner, they are more fully postmodern than the Sonbert films, which are records of the filmmaker's personal explorations in the world.
A very different approach to the transnational is evident in two films made outside of what is usually considered avant-garde history: Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1987) and Ron Fricke's Chronos (1988). Reggio's 35mm feature—the second part of the proposed qatsi trilogy (qatsi is a Hopi word for life) that had begun with the widely seen Koyaanisqatsi (1984), which was shot by Fricke—was made possible by "angel financing" and, while "presented" by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, has more in common with Sonbert's films and other avant-garde explorations of the transnational than with Hollywood commercial features. Powaqqatsi is a homage primarily to Third World laboring people. Sequences were filmed in multiple locations within Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Nepal, and Peru, as well as in the cities of Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Berlin, and Chartres. While Koyaanisqatsi relies on time-lapse imagery, Powaqqatsi relies on slow motion, which transforms the movements of the working people Reggio films into cine-ballet (both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi were made as collaborations with composer Philip Glass).34 While Reggio's feature, like the Sonbert and Berliner films, seems to take us everywhere at once, Reggio does provide a general organization that suggests the attitudes underlying the project: after a prelude that depicts men carrying dirt out of a huge open mine (Reggio's imagery suggests both the Sisyphus myth and, near the end of the passage, as an exhausted or dead worker is carried up the side of the mine, the Pietá), the film moves from labor within various rural settings to men and women struggling to sustain themselves in crowded cities. The implication seems to be that, as grueling as rural labor is, it allows for the maintenance of more human dignity than life in urban centers. Powaqqatsi concludes with the definition of its title: "pow waq qat si (from the Hopi language, powaq sorcerer + qatsi life) n. an entity, a way of life, that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life." For Reggio, the sorcerer seems to be no particular political system, but rather the increasing desire to consume in all modern societies.
Compared to the obsessive rigor of Sonbert's films, Powaqqatsi is loosely organized (though the production process necessary to get the film made required considerable organization of hundreds of people in locations across the globe) and underconceptualized: Reggio's imagery is often impressive and moving, though some viewers complain that Powaqqatsi is pretentious kitsch, little more than an extended advertisement that provides no means for digesting the painful realities it exploits. What Reggio and his collaborators are able to accomplish, however, is a modern audience-pleasing version of the essential fascination with human movement that inspired Eadweard Muybridge's motion study photographs and the Lumière brothers' earliest photographs-in-motion. Whatever its limitations, Powaqqatsi proves that modern audiences can be enthralled by nonnarrative imagery of the everyday and the exotic, including forms of physical labor the commercial cinema ignores entirely.
When the Reggio/Fricke collaboration that produced Koyaanisqatsi came to an end, Fricke began making his own global cinematic excursions. His Chronos (1985) is an IMAX journey to impressive sites in Europe, North Africa, and the United States, filmed in time-lapse and accompanied by music composed by Michael Stearns that seems meant to create the same response to the magnificent diversity of the world that the Philip Glass sound track is meant to provide for Powaqqatsi. Fricke focuses on famous, awe-inspiring locations—the Grand Canyon, the pyramids of Giza, the Acropolis at Athens, the Vatican, Venice, Luxor (Egypt)—and seems uninterested in providing much beyond a generalized sense of awe, though Fricke's subsequent first feature, Baraka (1993), a global excursion to major spiritual sites, is somewhat more specifically focused.
More intellectually sophisticated explorations of the global are evident in Yvonne Rainer's Journeys from Berlin/1971 and Su Friedrich's The Ties That Bind (both discussed earlier); in Trinh T. Minh-ha's Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985, discussed later); and in the Peter Watkins megafilm The Journey (1987), which was produced in fourteen different nations, including the United States, during 1984-85. Watkins, who has conventionally been labeled a documentarian, may seem out of place in this chapter; but he is, and has always been, as much an avant-garde filmmaker as a documentarian: in general, his work has provided ongoing critiques of both the commercial narrative industry and the history of documentary—and this seems particularly true of The Journey.35
The Journey began as an attempt to mobilize the network of screening venues that had developed for exhibiting alternative cinema for the production of a globally collaborative film experiment that would critique conventional media systems while modeling more progressive possibilities. The 141/2-hour epic was produced by a network of community-based "support groups" that assisted in financing the film, provided their labor during the production, and added their voices to the discussions of such issues as the escalating arms race and world hunger (and the failure of media and educational organizations to deal seriously with such issues), as well as to a series of community psychodramatizations of social crises. These community-based elements were supplemented by the reminiscences of survivors of the World War II bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Hamburg; by films, photographs, and other contributions by other (professional and amateur) artists; and by various frequently experimental uses of image, sound, and on-screen text.
The finished film is an immense weave of motifs that is divided into nineteen serially organized episodes that can be programmed individually or in various groupings—or, of course, presented in its entirety. While Watkins's commitment to the family discussions of social issues was considerable—these conversations are left as complete and unedited as Watkins's film technology allowed (Watkins was to calculate later that the average length of a shot in The Journey was 45.9 seconds)—his overall editing strategy continually shifts viewers from one section of the world to another and in a great many instances locates viewers in several sectors of the Earth simultaneously: during the title sequence near the beginning of The Journey, for example, we see the words "The Journey" in many different languages scroll through the frame from right to left, while we hear three different layers of sound, each recorded at a different time and in a different country.
Watkins's combination of respect for individuals (including the "everyday" people the commercial media tends to ignore or patronize) and his continually expanding global consciousness—both of which are integrated formally into the texture of The Journey (the respect, in Watkins's slow, careful pacing; the global consciousness, in the montage structure)—provide a double-leveled critique of virtually all contemporary media making, including most avant-garde film, in which formal choices tend to obscure social problems, if such problems are even suggested, rather than model forms of personal action, social and political interaction, and cinematic form that might assist in ameliorating these problems by reconstituting world political and media organizations. Despite its considerable achievements, however, The Journey was not widely seen: its experimental structure kept it out of most theaters and with few exceptions off television; it seemed too much a documentary for avant-garde screening spaces and was too experimental and unwieldly for most documentary programmers. Watkins hoped that the global network he developed for producing The Journey would function as an ongoing political organization that would use the film for progressive action. In the end, however, The Journey seems to have become, at most, a potential conceptual inspiration for the transnationally inclined—akin perhaps to the conceptual inspiration the ever-so-slow Warhol films of the 1960s provided for a generation of avant-garde filmmakers reacting against media overload.
Representations of Ethnicity
While the increasing accessibility of international travel and the advent of on-line technologies were internationalizing the 1980s, suggesting to filmmakers that on some level we are "everywhere at once," and further, that every domestic political issue is, equally, a transnational issue, other filmmakers were responding to internationalization and postmodernization by focusing on the particulars of place. This interest in place was not new, even for some of the filmmakers who need to be recognized here, but it does seem a dimension of avant-garde film destined for increased recognition, especially because the social force of globalization and its potential for international cultural homogenization are sure to become more powerful in the coming years.
Two different aspects of the idea of place require some comment: "place" as in ethnic community and "place" meaning landscape and cityscape. The 1980s certainly saw an increasing contribution to film history by ethnic communities traditionally marginalized by mainstream cinema: particularly, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics. Not surprisingly, filmmakers coming from these communities (or really these clusters of communities) tended to set their sights on commercial success either as feature directors or as documentarians: while some European-American avant-garde filmmakers may have enjoyed, even fetishized, cultural marginalization (Hollis Frampton once said, "Nothing is more wonderful than to have no one pay the slightest attention to what you are doing; if you're going to grow, you can grow at your own speed"), filmmakers from sectors of society that had had virtually no access to film production, much less to popular audiences, were not likely to hunger for the "advantages" of invisibility.36
For African-American filmmakers, and for filmmakers from other ethnically marginalized groups as well, the simple presentation of nonstereotypical characters in narrative melodrama and documentary was avant-garde, even if the films were formally conventional. Indeed, most viewers' ease in understanding commercial or semicommercial films with more progressive depictions of ethnicity seemed to make them more fully "avant-garde," at least in a political sense, than what was usually called the film avant-garde. The fact that avant-garde film had never really achieved more than a marginal recognition in the larger culture, even among dedicated moviegoers, rendered its tactics suspect, at best, among those interested in using film to affect the political and cinematic status of marginalized groups. And this was especially true because the "avant-garde" had paid no more attention to the issue of ethnicity than the commercial cinema had. As a result, many filmmakers attempted to move into the neighborhood of conventional cinema, bringing their own ethnic histories and personal challenges with them, rather than to produce radical approaches to cinematic form in an invisible underground.
One flashpoint for ethnically progressive cinema was UCLA, where the desire for alternatives to Hollywood's imaging of ethnic groups produced a spirited group of African-American filmmakers who have come to be known as "the L.A. Rebellion," as well as comparable groups of Asian-American and Chicano filmmakers.37 Perhaps the most important figures to emerge from the L.A. Rebellion are Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. Burnett, whose thesis film at UCLA was the remarkable Killer of Sheep (1977), was active throughout the 1980s, finishing two films on African-American family life—My Brother's Wedding (1983) and To Sleep with Anger (1990)—and working on films by others: he was cinematographer for Alile Sharon Larkin's A Different Image (1981) and for Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) and contributed to many other films.38 Dash's best-known film of the 1980s was Illusions (1983), a short narrative about an African-American film executive who is able to pass as white and a young African-American singer who provides the singing voice for a white star. By the end of the 1980s, Dash had finished principal shooting for her first 35mm feature, the period piece Daughters of the Dust (1992).39 While Dash focused on African-American history, Burnett, Woodberry, and Larkin focused on the day-to-day lives of African-American men and women. This focus on people too "normal" for Hollywood melodrama also characterizes other noteworthy contributions by African-Americans, including Kathleen Collins, whose Losing Ground (1982) depicts two young African-American professionals (a college professor and a painter) trying to integrate their creative lives with their personal relationship.
Some films did attempt to incorporate avant-garde tactics into narrative melodrama, presumably on the widely held assumption among avant-gardists that radical film content requires, or at least profits from, radical film form. Three films from 1989 suggest the range of such experiments. While many avant-garde filmmakers of the 1960s through the 1980s returned to the beginnings of cinema (and especially to Eadweard Muybridge's motion photography and the Lumière brothers' single-shot films) for inspiration, Charles Lane returned to the great silent comedy directors and actors, especially Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon. Using an approach he had developed in A Place in Time (1977), Lane directed and starred in Sidewalk Stories (1989), a "silent comedy" (the action is accompanied by music, and at the very end by a bit of dialogue) about an underdog sketch artist who takes care of a young child when her father is mugged and murdered. While Chaplin's The Kid (1921) was a mainstream success, Lane's use of a Chaplinesque approach in an era when synch sound had come to seem inevitable was a radical departure from the mainstream, and apparently as a result, Sidewalk Stories found its way to few audiences: indeed, Lane's failure to achieve a popular audience for this lovely, accomplished feature seems one of the remarkable events of the 1980s.
For Cycles, Zeinabu irene Davis not only used a variety of approaches identified with avant-garde film but also used them in an experimental narrative about a topic normally considered taboo in conventional media, except for purposes of humor: menstruation. Davis's protagonist is waiting the arrival of her period, which she and Davis recognize as a natural and holy cycle that unites her with her ancestors. Ritualistically she cleans her apartment and her body—the ritual quality of these activities is emphasized by Davis's use of unusual angles and extreme close-ups—then sleeps a dream-filled sleep and awakes to find she has begun to menstruate. The film's mini-events are punctuated with allusions to elements of African diasporic tradition and by comments by a chorus of women whose accents suggest the broad range of diasporic sisterhood.
The most influential 1980s film that uses avant-garde form as a means for exploring ethnicity is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), which combines a narrative melodrama about an ethnically diverse group of characters highly unusual in an American commercial film with an overall structure reminiscent of the avant-garde documentary tradition of the "city symphony." Like the European masterworks of the genre—Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (Walther Ruttmann, 1927), The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), Nothing but the Hours (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926)—Lee's film charts the trajectory of a single day in the life of a city. While the European city symphonies focus on the commercial and industrial centers of the capital cities they depict, Do the Right Thing implicitly argues that the real energy of New York (and by implication, any modern city) rests in the ethnic diversity of its neighborhoods, which is most obvious not on a workday but on a summer weekend. Lee's film has generally been understood as an unusual, abrasive commercial narrative; but it is also this nation's most remarkable city symphony (remarkable in part because of its commercial success)—especially in Lee's use of his production process to demonstrate the efficacy of the interethnic collaboration his characters are not able to maintain on the hottest day of the summer in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.40
Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1981) was to Asian-American independent media what Killer of Sheep was to African-American independent media: as Burnett critiques American clichés about ghetto life, Wang's feature critiques the commercial distortions of the Chinese epitomized by Charlie Chan. Wang was an inspiration to the generation of Asian-American filmmakers who came of age in the 1980s. Two noteworthy figures in the emergence of Asian-American cinema are Christine Choy, who arrived in the United States in 1967, became involved with Newsreel in the 1970s, helped to found Third World Newsreel, and developed as a documentarian and polemicist in the 1970s; and Renee Tajima, a native-born Japanese-American who became politically active as an adolescent in Los Angeles and a media activist while at Harvard. Choy was prolific in the 1980s, though her two most impressive films were made as collaborations with others. For Mississippi Triangle (1984), Choy, Allan Siegel, and Worth Long devised a production process that echoed the ethnic triangularity that was the focus of the film: Choy shot the sections of the film dealing with the Mississippi Delta Chinese-American community, Worth Long shot the sections dealing with African-Americans in the Delta (Charles Burnett, who did contribute to the film, was originally scheduled to film these sections), and Allan Siegel shot the Delta European-Americans.41 Choy's other major film of the 1980s was a collaboration with Tajima: the two worked together to document the Vincent Chin case (Chin was murdered by Ronald Ebens in Detroit when Ebens mistook Chin for Japanese; the case had become a major focus of the Chinese-American community nationwide), and to use the case as a way of exploring the complexity of American ethnicity. Choy and Tajima continued to work together until 1990. Their final work on American ethnicity, Yellow Tale Blues: Two American Families, explored their own families as two aspects of Asian-American reality: Chinese and Japanese, immigrant and native born.
Roughly parallel developments were taking place within various Hispanic communities, though the immense variety of cultural connections identified by Hispanic and the underexploration of Latin American art making by scholars makes generalizations difficult. On the East Coast, Raphael Montañftez was making digital/laser/videos. In San Francisco and in El Paso, Texas, Willie Varela (who moved to the Bay Area from West Texas in the early 1980s and returned near the end of the decade) continued to make highly visual explorations of his personal surround in Super 8. And in San Francisco, Susana Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo made Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza del Mayo (1985) and La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead (1988) and worked to develop a network of Chicana and Mexican women filmmakers: a conference she instigated, "Cruzando Fronteras Escuentreo de Mujeres Cineastas y Videoastas Latinas" ("Across the Border: Conference of Latin Film and Video Makers"), was held in November 1990 in Tijuana, Mexico.42
A very different approach to dealing with ethnicity—one that, like Do the Right Thing, models a filmmaking practice that crosses ethnic "barriers" while honoring the traditions of ethnic community—is Lynne Sachs's Sermons and Sacred Pictures (1989), which samples and recycles 16mm films (and photography and sound recording) made by the Reverend L. O. Taylor during the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Taylor, a black Baptist preacher from Memphis, used his filmmaking as a means of confirming the feeling of community among his parishioners; screenings were exciting local events, not only because individuals might see themselves on screen from within the excitement of a community gathering, but because Taylor was a capable filmmaker: his imagery of outdoor baptisms, for example, is impressive. For her film, Sachs (who is white) returned to her native Memphis and visited what had been Taylor's parish, interviewing people and filming them at a screening of Taylor's films. Sachs's film invites viewers into the evolution of this community: as we sit in our audience watching excerpts from Taylor's films over the heads of 1987 Memphis Baptists, our level of identification and difference measures the progress we feel we've made, or have failed to make, in coming to terms with the history of ethnicity in America.
Landscape and Cityscape
In exploring film's ability to come to terms with the other sense of American place—the physical "place" of American countryside and American towns and cities—avant-garde filmmakers have taken a wide variety of different tacks. Few filmmakers have dedicated as much time to recording American place as Rudy Burckhardt, who made his first American films in 1937, soon after he emigrated to New York from Switzerland.43 Burckhardt's most memorable early films are unpretentious New York city symphonies—The Climate of New York (1948), for example, and Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1953)—and his fascination with New York has remained consistent ever since, accounting for such 1980s films as All Major Credit Cards (1982), Central Park in the Dark (1985), and Zipper (1987). All of these films are records of Burckhardt's excursions around New York City and, to a lesser degree, other American locales, including rural Maine, where he has spent time during the summers. Burckhardt's films are strictly observational; we learn little about him, except that he has maintained a commitment to recording New York spaces and faces at street level, in those areas of the city where its diversity and energy seem most apparent: in Cental Park, for example, and on Fourteenth Street. Burckhardt's most elaborate place-oriented film of the 1980s is the compilation piece Around the World in Thirty Years (1983), which includes his interpretations of various places during various decades: Manhattan in 1966; Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1976; Naples, Italy, in 1951; Peru in 1975; Tokyo in 1982; and rural Maine in 1981. Close in spirit to Sonbert's transnational montages, Around the World in Thirty Years also reveals the remarkable consistency in Burckhardt's studies of place over the past half-century.
The most impressive place-centered films of the 1980s are probably Nathaniel Dorsky's Hours for Jerome (shot from 1966 to 1970, edited from 1980 to 1982); Peter Hutton's New York Portrait, Part II (1980) and Part III (1990; he had begun his series of New York City Portraits in the 1970s, with New York Near Sleep for Saskia  and New York Portrait, Part I ) his homage to Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, Landscape (For Manon) (1987); and Andrew Noren's The Lighted Field (1987). Dorsky and Hutton are discussed later. Noren, who established himself as a major figure, especially in what came to be called "diary film," in the 1960s, continued to refine his dexterity with the 16mm camera during the 1970s in the series of films he calls The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse. In 1987 he completed the fifth part of the series, The Lighted Field. The Lighted Field is a sixty-one-minute, black-and-white, silent exploration of Noren's domestic environment in New Jersey and of various sectors of Manhattan, where Noren works as a news archivist for Sherman Grinberg (The Lighted Field includes some imagery from the archive that Noren rescued from decay).44 For Noren, the camera is analogous to a musical instrument; with it he can "play" light and shadow with remarkable subtlety and ingenuity, sometimes recording exquisite domestic moments—portraits of his spouse, his children, pets, the backyard—at others using single-framing to rocket viewers along New York streets or creating dizzying kaleidoscopic experiences by turning the camera over and over. All in all, The Lighted Field is a kind of high-energy prayer of thanksgiving that embodies Noren's painstaking observation of the everyday visual worlds he moves through, condensing endless hours of attention into a film experience of remarkable density and power.
Also noteworthy for their depictions of place are Michael Rudnick's lovely, good-humored time-lapse portrait of San Francisco, Panorama (1982); Koyannisqatsi, the feature directed by Godfrey Reggio and shot by Ron Fricke, which begins with spectacular images of Monument Valley and other natural wonders of the American Southwest, and then uses time-lapse to explore American cities, especially Los Angeles and New York; and Peter von Ziegesar's time-lapse portrait of Manhattan, Concern for the City (1986).
Other filmmakers have attempted to produce what might be called filmic essays on place. Distinguished instances include Babette Mangolte's The Sky on Location (1983) and Marjorie Keller's The Answering Furrow (1985). Mangolte's feature is an exploration of the American West. Made at a moment when beautiful images of landscape seemed at best old-fashioned and at worst outré, at least for an independent woman filmmaker, The Sky on LoCATION seems increasingly prescient of the developing interest in place as a nexus of geography and history that, in the 1990s, is fueling the fields of American studies and environmental studies. By the time she made The Sky on Location, Mangolte had established herself as a talented cinematographer with her contributions to a series of landmark feminist films of the 1970s and early 1980s: Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Performers (1972) and Film About a Woman Who… (1974), Chantai Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1983), and Sally Potter's The Gold Diggers (1983).45 Nowhere are her abilities as cinematographer more evident, however, than in The Sky on Location, a visual record of a series of automobile trips Mangolte took through the Far West during 1980-81 (Mangolte estimates that she and her assistant drove twenty-thousand miles), arranged roughly into a seasonal cycle. Inspired by Nature and Culture, Barbara Novak's landmark study of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, Mangolte attempts to convey something of what seeing the remarkable vistas of the West must have felt like to the first generations of European-American explorers.46 While her visuals pay homage to pristine Western landscapes, her experimental sound track provides a context that problematizes the beauty of the spaces she films. Mangolte uses three narrators. She herself comments on her experiences (in her French-accented English); two other narrators—a woman, Honora Ferguson, and a man, Bruce Boston—provide historical and theoretical observations. By interweaving her stunning imagery and her own personal, engaged responses to the landscapes with Ferguson's and Boston's rather detached comments (they were recorded in a studio space in New York), Mangolte communicates that mixture of awe and cynicism that inevitably characterizes our modern sense of the West: a remarkably beautiful place with a history of now-embarrassing moral and political compromises and environmental atrocities.
While Mangolte's focus is on classic American landscape, the focus of Marjorie Keller's The Answering Furrow (1985) is the relationship of her father's gardening and the classic Roman idea of the pastoral, as represented in particular by Virgil's Georgics. Divided into a series of four "georgics," The Answering Furrow begins with imagery of Keller's father's newly planted garden in spring (she images the filmstrip as a furrow). "Georgic II" provides a classic context for this activity with imagery recorded during trips to France, Italy, and Greece: gardening is seen as a spiritual activity that unites ancients and moderns, fathers and daughters. "Georgic III" depicts "the old man in autumn," seeing to the maintenance of his garden. And in the brief "Georgic IV" we see Keller herself at season's end, preparing the compost for future gardens. Subtle and evocative, The Answering Furrow is both informal (in Keller's use of handheld camera and in her acceptance of imagery that by conventional standards seems underlit or overexposed) and rigorously conceived as a filmic statement on the sources of her own art making. The film is now rendered all the more poignant by Keller's sudden death in 1994, a significant loss to the field: Keller was not only a productive filmmaker but also an editor (of the journal Motion Picture), a writer (her The Untutored Eye: Childhood in the Films of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage was published by Associated University Presses in 1986), and a teacher and programmer.
A final and particularly elaborate instance of the 1980s tendency to study American place—finished, interestingly, the same year as Spike Lee's great city symphony—is Water And Power (1989) by Pat O'Neill, who established himself as a master of the optical printer in the 1970s in a series of surreal tours-de-force. At fifty-seven minutes, Water And Power was O'Neill's magnum opus (to that date); its focus, Los Angeles and the rural Owens Valley landscape that was drained by the city's on-going development.47 As in his earlier films, in Water And Power O'Neill creates a series of surreal tableaux: in this case, color imagery of Los Angeles and environs, filmed in time-lapse, is combined with time-lapsed, black-and-white imagery of men and women performing a variety of activities—climbing a ladder, strumming a guitar—reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographs, and with imagery and sound from a variety of big-budget and independent movies and television shows. Water and Power, which has much in common both philosophically and technically with Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, simultaneously evokes the city symphony form and critiques the most fundamental convention of the form: the assumption that the urban can be separated from the rural. In Water and Power, O'Neill often layers imagery of urban Los Angeles with imagery recorded in the Owens Valley, suggesting what is particularly obvious in Southern California: that the urban and the rural are two parts of a single reality, and that, in this particular case, the life of Los Angeles captured in O'Neill's high-energy compositions is developed at the cost of what, for American nature writer Mary Austin (The Land of Little Rain, 1903), was one of American's most beautiful regions.
While particular trends seem to characterize particular moments in the history of art and literature, any given era is also memorable because of the maturation of individual careers and the appearance of particular works, whether these careers and works exemplify the characteristic trends or not. In the history of American fiction, the 1930s can be characterized as the decade during which the economic ravages of the Great Depression instigated direct tough-guy approaches to storytelling and style, many of them affirmations of Marxist-inspired forms of social organization; and yet the most distinguished career to emerge from that decade is surely William Faulkner's. For this commentator, the 1980s are memorable, not simply because of the several trends I've discussed, but also because the decade saw the emergence of a variety of noteworthy careers. For purposes of this chapter, I have chosen to focus on Abigail Child, Nathaniel Dorsky, Su Friedrich, Peter Hutton, Elias Merhige, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Peter Rose, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. Of course, I am under no illusion that these are the only careers worth discussing at length. The eight brief discussions are presented alphabetically.
During any productive moment of film history, our awareness of particular contributions is likely to include not only filmmakers and films we have explored in some detail but also those we are still coming to grips with. And especially in the history of avant-garde film, the speed with which we come to understand what a filmmaker is doing, fully enough to articulate this understanding in words, has virtually no relationship to the quality of the work. Indeed, some of the more interesting films of any given period may seem at first quite opaque. Given the range of demands on our attention, even those of us committed to an exploration of avant-garde film may avoid writing about particular films that provide special challenges. One obvious instance is Ken Jacobs's Nervous System pieces, each of which exists only during Jacobs's performance of it and changes during every performance: how can one take useful notes on such evanescent work, much less write with any precision about it? Even when films exist as prints, certain qualities may tend to defy precise analysis. Abigail Child's staccato montages of the 1980s are a particularly obvious instance. Child edits sound and image so densely that, even though her films are not terribly long, a scholar interested in pursuing a thorough analysis is likely to be dumbfounded, at least at first. For me, Child's work poses one of the challenges of the moment. I do not feel I have come to understand her films, but I feel compelled to do so—though it is already clear to me that the process will take longer to accomplish than time for this chapter allows.
Most of Child's 1980s films are sections of a metafilm she calls Is This What You Were Born For? The eight sections of this piece were not completed in the order of their final numbering, which has itself evolved: the series includes Prefaces (1981; part 1), Mutiny (1983; part 3), Covert Action (1984; part 5), Perils (1986; part 6), Mayhem (1987; part 7), Both 2 (1988; part 4), Both 1 (1989; part 2), and mercy (1989; part 8). While the connections between some parts are relatively clear—Perils and Mayhem use the same actors and characters, and much the same sense of design—other connections are not at all obvious, though throughout this body of work Child's particular approach to editing sound and image is consistent and distinctive. In each film, Child combines a wide range of materials (usually both found footage and imagery she shoots herself) so that we are fully aware of the precision of her editing, especially her coordination of sound and image and her construction of continuing visual and auditory motion from bits of originally unrelated movements. The result is an exquisite jaggedness, a coherent cacophony.
Each of the films in Is This What You Were BOrn For? stakes out a specific territory that Child explores using a motif structure. Mutiny, for example, is a kind of documentary mosaic of women's activities in which the activities of young suburban women (imagery Child originally recorded for a more conventional documentary) are juxtaposed with images of experimental performance art in downtown Manhattan (performers include a street musician who makes scratch music with a violin and a woman who makes bizarre sounds with her mouth), as well as with women debating issues and a found-footage performance by a Latin singer. Child's barrage editing—her mutiny against easy coherence—creates a sense of the ethnic diversity and artistic energy of the downtown scene and, in particular, a sense of women mutinying against culturally main-stream definitions of femininity. Covert Action relies more fully on found-footage material to explore the idea of representing the couple—man and woman, woman and woman, child and child—within a period of intense debate about the politics of the body. Mayhem uses a more equal mixture of enacted fiction and found footage to evoke the tradition of film noir, especially the genres mystery and sexuality and its formal reliance on chiaroscuro.
The long history of avant-garde filmmaking is made up of many kinds of careers. In some cases, filmmakers have seen themselves on the cutting edge of new, progressive attitudes, and their films as models of progressive filmmaking practice: Su Friedrich and Trinh T. Minh-ha are noteworthy 1980s instances. In other cases, filmmakers have understood their work as functioning outside the particular sociopolitical developments of the moment, a personal spiritual quest leading them through the essences of cinema toward a heightened awareness. Nathaniel Dorsky is such a filmmaker. Dorsky established himself in the 1960s with a trilogy of short films depicting his emergence from adolescence (Ingreen, 1964; A Fall Trip Home, Summerwind, 1965), and then seemed almost to disappear until the 1980s—though he was shooting material for films that wouldn't be completed until later and working on films by other filmmakers (for example, he edited three of Ralph Steiner's "Joy of Seeing" films: A Look at Laundry , Beyond Niagara ; and Look Park ). In terms of completed films, the 1980s were Dorsky's most productive period to date. The decade began with his editing one of American avant-garde cinema's preeminent homages to temperate-zone seasonality, Hours for Jerome (the imagery was shot from 1966 to 1970, edited from 1980 to 1982, and culminated with two remarkable explorations of cinematic texture: Pneuma  and Alaya ).
Hours for Jerome refers to the medieval Book of Hours, the medieval prayer book that was produced in many versions throughout Europe from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries. Each version of The Book of Hours included a set of prayers and other information useful for Roman Catholics and extensive "illumination"—paintings representing important scenes from the history of Christianity. Saint Jerome was sometimes a subject of these paintings, though the literal Jerome in Hoursfor Jerome is Jerome Hiler, Dorsky's partner and personal "saint" since the 1960s. Hours for Jerome is a silent, fifty-minute depiction of the seasonal cycle as Dorsky experienced it in New York City and in rural northern New Jersey, beginning in spring and ending in winter (Hours for Jerome divides into two parts: part 1 covers spring and summer, part 2, fall and winter). Dorsky uses a range of techniques—time lapse, slow motion, color and black and white, long continuous shots, heavily edited montages—to create consistently stunning imagery that asks that the viewers respect the everyday realities of life and the visual subtleties of cinematic art by developing their sensitivity to nuances of color, chiaroscuro, and rhythm.
Pneuma and alaya explore texture itself, as seen in two different forms. For Pneuma, Dorsky processed a variety of out-of-date, discontinued film stocks without exposing the film, and subsequently chose from the results (in some instances, rephotographing them). In the finished film, we experience a wide range of cinematic textures. Each film stock reveals a different density of grain and a different range of color. At times, the textures create three-dimensional illusions; at other times, they draw attention to the filmstrip moving through the projector. Alaya creates a related range of effects using sand: sometimes we see, or seem to see, vast desertscapes, and sometimes the film frame marks off a simple, flat, textured space. Often the granularity of the sand merges with the grain of the emulsion, blurring the distinction between what is represented and the process of representation.
Both films posit a viewer willing to enjoy the act of seeing itself, though, as Dorsky's titles suggest, this act of perception means to move the viewer through the material to something beyond: pneuma means soul or divine inspiration; alaya is a Sanskrit word that means "accumulation," though in Buddhist thought it suggests the primordial individuality that underlies our social context, or, as Dorsky put it to me in conversation, "If you considered yourself A Movie projector, alaya would be the projector bulb."48 While some viewers may see Dorsky's work as a throwback to the 1960s and early 1970s and the era of formalist "art for art's sake" filmmaking, Pneuma and Alaya are as fully a response to postmodern American culture as the most virulent anticapitalist polemic. By asking viewers not just to consume endless representations of "reality," but to meditate on the essence, the "soul," of cinematic representation, Dorsky transforms the textures of film stock and of sand into emblems of the spirit: he breathes life into the "dust" of cinema. Like so much of the formalist avant-garde, Dorsky's filmmaking is ultimately an elegy to a disappearing medium—an elegy that, at least for a moment, means to transcend the physical limitations of the medium and, by implication, of human life itself.
Su Friedrich's first films were made in the late 1970s and were much influenced by what British filmmaker and theoretician Laura Mulvey has called "scorched earth" feminist filmmaking: that is, filmmaking that found unacceptable any capitulation to the history of commercial film and television's exploitation of women's bodies and sexuality for the pleasure of male-centered audiences.49 But by the time she made Gently Down the Stream (1981), Friedrich had begun to move away from the scorched earth approach. In Gently Down the Stream and even more fully in the three longer films she produced during the decade—The Ties That Bind, Damned If You Don't (1987), and Sink or Swim (1990)—Friedrich found ways of providing a variety of forms of pleasure, including sensual pleasure, without compromising her feminist and lesbian politics. The results went well beyond the production of her own memorable films: in the 1990s, it is commonplace to see films by emerging film and videomakers that seem inspired by Friedrich's work.
While the generally grim mood of Gently Down the Stream is much of a piece with the despair and anger evident in Friedrich's "scorched earth" films, Scar Tissue (1979) and Cool Hands, Warm Heart (1979), it is a remarkably energetic film because of its unusual combination of means. Having documented her dreams in a dream journal for several years, Friedrich decided to use the most interesting and provocative as a script for a film—in this case, "script" in the literal sense. Having edited the dreams into condensed poetic form, she scratched them, word by word, onto the filmstrip, so that viewers must reconstruct the syntax of these dreams as they watch and, by doing so, are "sutured" into the film. These often-startling texts (e.g., "I/make/a/second/vagina/beside/my/first/one/I/look/in/surprise/Which/is/the/original?") are the visual and psychic fore-ground of Gently Down the Stream, while the photographed visuals—imagery of a woman swimming in an indoor pool and working out on a rowing machine, of Madonnas in Catholic churches—provide implicit context and metaphor.50 While on the one hand, the jittery scratched texts and the background imagery seem, by conventional standards, informal and unprofessional, Friedrich's obvious care with the timing of her visual texts and with the interplay of text and image makes clear her commitment to the film and to the viewer and dramatizes her determination to construct an energetic experience out of the shards of a troubled period of her life, characterized in particular by her attempt to integrate her Roman Catholic upbringing and her lesbianism.
Friedrich's seemingly eclectic combination of influences in Gently Down the Stream—a no-nonsense radical feminism obvious in her selection of dreams and an approach to visual text that, in this case, is virtually an homage to the hand-scratched titles and signatures in Stan Brakhage's films—became the distinguishing dimension of her 1980s films, though in each film the particulars of Friedrich's syntheses were different. The combination of past and present, visual text and tape-recorded interview, dramatized imagery and found footage, in The Ties That Bind was discussed earlier in this chapter; but the combination of elements in Damned If You Don't was equally inventive and, in some senses, even more cinematically radical. Damned If You Don't is simultaneously a dramatized narrative that evokes the tradition of "trance film," delineated by P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film, and a documentary.51 In the narrative sequences, one woman, an artist (Ela Troyano), is attracted to another, a nun (Peggy Healey), and pursues her until in the film's final scene we see them making love in the artist's apartment. In the documentary sequences, Friedrich records imagery of nuns and interviews a friend who recalls her conjectures about and desires for some of the sisters who taught her in Catholic school. While there is no scratched text in the film, other forms of text supplement the narrative and documentary elements: these include a reading of excerpts from Judith C. Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and a narrated deconstruction of the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger feature Black Narcissus (1947), which the artist-protagonist of the film watches on television (Friedrich films excerpts of Black Narcissus off a television set, carefully incorporating the interference bars into her editing rhythm). These varied sources of story and information are supplemented by sensuous imagery—by the time of Damned If You Don't Friedrich had refined her ability to work with the subtleties of chiaroscuro—of swans, snakes, and white whales.
As was true in The Ties That Bind, Friedrich uses her skill as editor to interweave the film's diverse strands into a thoroughly coherent fabric, which goes further than either telling an interesting story or documenting the sexual ambiguities around life as a nun: when the artist undresses the nun at the conclusion of Damned If You Don't their coming together suggests a synthesis of the sensual and the spiritual that answers both the "scorched earth" feminists of the 1970s and those in the tradition of avantgarde film who have been suspicious of the use of cinema to engage political issues. For Friedrich, women (and especially lesbians) are damned by society if they openly express their sensual selves, but are equally damned if they suppress this crucial emotional reality. Since they are "damned if they do, damned if they don't," there is no point in avoiding the sensual, either in our lives, or in filmmaking. In Black Narcissus (and in Damned If You Don't), Mr. Dean, the male protagonist, sings, defiantly, "No, I cannot be a nun, since I am so fond of pleasure," a line we also hear Friedrich herself sing during her film. As filmmaker Friedrich cannot be a "nun": she cannot refuse either the pleasure of narrative, or the fascination of exploring forbidden topics, or the formal excitements of precise editing and chiaroscuro. Damned If You Don't is a 1980s declaration that while it is important to deconstruct film's past—both the past of the commercial industry and the pasts of alternative forms of cinema—it is even more important to use the many accomplishments of cinema's complex history in new formal and ideological syntheses that can sing the ongoing potential of film to instigate a more progressive and more sensual future.
Sink or Swim, the last Friedrich film made during the 1980s, confirms many of the tendencies evident in The Ties That Bind and Damned If You Don't; indeed, it can easily be seen as a companion piece to her film about her mother. Sink or Swim is the story of the breakup of her parents' marriage and the effect of their divorce on Friedrich and her siblings. Arranged as a series of stories narrated by a young girl (Jessica Lynn), with visual titles arranged in reverse alphabetical order ("Zygote," "Y chromosome," "X chromosome," "Witness," "Virgin," "Utopia" …)—a reference to her father, anthropologist and linguist Paul Friedrich—Friedrich's film takes viewers from the innocent obliviousness of childhood to her mature acceptance of her personal history as an adult. As in Gently Down the Stream, the (in this case, spoken) text of the stories is the film's foreground; the photographed imagery provides context and metaphor. As is true in The Ties That Bind and Damned If You Don't, the film's visuals reveal a wide range of sources—material shot by Friedrich herself is combined with home movies (both of her and her sister as children, and of her father's generation as children) and with other recycled material—all edited together so as to interconnect with the narration (and other sounds) in a wide range of obvious and subtle ways. The more formal, alphabetical organization of Sink of Swim can be read not only as Su Friedrich's response to her physical father but also as a simultaneous homage and response to structural film, as epitomized by "father" Hollis Frampton's Zorns Lemma (1970). While Frampton's film charts the stages we go through in coming to understand the world around us, Friedrich's film critiques Frampton's apparent assumption that the process of coming to understand is genderless: for Friedrich, maturation was full of both gender-neutral intellectual challenges and the psychic shocks caused by her father's dealing with his daughter in gender-problematic ways that were often typical of men of his generation. As is true in all of Friedrich's longer films of the decade, the filmmaker's precise, subtle editing in Sink or Swim—of both disparate visuals and of generally nonsynched visuals and sounds—models the construction of an adult personality (and a progressive film practice) by means of the synthesizing of differences and oppositions into an overriding coherence.
By the 1980s, Peter Hutton had developed a distinctive visual aesthetic (all his films are silent) that suggests a return to the origins of cinema. In general, each Hutton film presents a series of individual images, collected over a considerable time and presented one by one, often separated by moments of black leader. The energy of the imagery and of the finished films is a function of Hutton's serene pace and his mastery of subtleties of composition and especially chiaroscuro (all Hutton's films to date are black and white). Like a number of filmmakers who began making films in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hutton sees himself in the tradition of the Lumière brothers, whose one-shot-equals-one-film approach represented a simplicity and a directness that seemed the diametric opposite of the media overload propagated, increasingly, by commercial television in the 1960s and by a commercial film industry trying desperately to compete with its younger electronic sibling. If this view of the Lumières as noncommercial artists now seems naive, the irony is that Hutton's films have become—at least within the still economically marginal world of avant-garde exhibition—among the most popular of avant-garde films: current audiences seem to find in these films precisely what Hutton hopes they'll find.52
Unlike most filmmakers who have celebrated urban spaces, Hutton's focus in his portraits of New York—and the same is true in his depictions of Budapest and of Moscow and Leningrad (Lenin Portrait, 1983)—is not the city's high-energy modernity but its moments of quiet and the subtle visual mysteries that are visible only to those who venture onto the streets during "off hours." Even when Hutton does focus on moments when large numbers of people are present, he tends to see these events from a distance that recognizes their energy for those involved but suggests an almost spiritual detachment. In New York Portrait, Part II, for example, Hutton includes imagery of New York harbor shot during the Bicentennial celebration (imagery of fireboats with hoses arcing water, of crowds of people watching, of dirigibles flying overhead) yet the resulting film experience feels virtually the opposite of the original event because of Hutton's use of long-shot, which reduces the boats, dirigibles, and crowds to exquisite miniatures. New York Portrait, Part II ends with a sequence of shots of a downpour in Manhattan, filmed from an apartment window several stories up. In the final shot (it's thirty-seven seconds long), a man wades out into a flooded intersection and clears the street grate; as the water drains from the intersection, light hits the ripples in such a way that the image becomes a mandala, quite close in its effect to the meditative animations of the Whitney brothers and Jordan Belson.
While Hutton's films are conscious evocations of early cinema, they are also full of allusions to several histories of the representation of rural and urban spaces. The New York portraits are often reminiscent of the history of photography and of particular images by Eugene Atget, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Alfred Stieglitz. On the other hand, Hutton's "landscape film" Landscape (for Manon), the first of what has become a series of films documenting the Hudson River Valley, is an evocation of Thomas Cole's paintings of the Catskill Mountains, not only in the sense that the images in Landscape (for Manon) document some of the exact spaces Cole painted but also in its implicit attitude toward nature. While Frederic Church and other painters inspired by Cole tended to emphasize the exciting potential of American landscape for economic development, Cole's paintings are implicitly warnings: they reveal Cole's concern that the on-going exploitation of American "wilderness" threatens the distinctiveness of America itself.53 Cole tended to paint mountain landscapes the way they should look, the way they did look before development had transformed them. Similarly, Landscape (for Manon) tends to create the illusion of pristine nature, and its arrangement of images implies a Cole-esque "backward look." While Hutton's editing is always quietly paced, the trajectory of his editing in this film reverses a conventional tendency of modern film and television editing. During Landscape (for Manon), Hutton's editing begins serenely and then slows down—some of the shots near the middle of the film are nearly a minute long. Near the conclusion of the film the pace speeds up to the original serene pacing. Hutton asks of film viewers that they forgo their expectations of excitement and romance and enjoy the gradual evolutions of individual images. Hutton's films are a form of visual training that offers "new" options: the pleasures of visual subtlety, of taking time to see.
In The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968), a book that had considerable influence on those of us who were to become the academic film "establishment" of the 1980s, Andrew Sarris devised a series of imprecise but valuable categories for sorting out the auteurist dimensions of American directorial careers. Of these categories, the one that lists the largest number of directors is "Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers" (included are such diverse directors as Lindsay Anderson, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, Mike Nichols, and Peter Watkins). Certainly, a similar category is useful for avant-garde film, which some consider nothing but a collection of oddities; but even within the diverse and often bizarre world of alternative cinema, there are particular works that seem to come out of nowhere and to fit no comfortable historical niche. A perfect instance is Elias Merhige's feature Begotten (1989), which premiered in New York, garnered a good bit of attention, and then did not find a distributor until the mid-1990s.54
Begotten does have precedents—Merhige claims Georges Franju's Sang de bÊtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) and Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) as inspirations—yet the particular mixture of elements in Begotten feels virtually unprecedented.55 The film hovers between allegory and abstraction. Its narrative line, which is always at the edge of perceptibility, begins with God killing himself as he gives birth to Mother Nature, who is subsequently raped by a group of hooded beings; she survives the rape and struggles through a barren landscape, until near the end of the film we see farmers growing strange crops. God's suicide and the rape of nature are both visceral and ambiguous, largely because of Merhige's impressive exploration of texture and chiaroscuro: indeed, the film's gritty textures provide a second visceral dimension, one that demonstrates a level of commitment to the project on Merhige's part that reflects nature's tortuous journey through the bleak landscape.
If the film's plot line roughly suggests a central trajectory of Western cultural history during the past few centuries, the look of the imagery suggests the deeper and earlier roots of all "civilized" cultural enterprise. Indeed, for Merhige the film is meant to work as a kind of cinematic Rorschach test that can tease the repressed dimensions of conventional filmgoing back into consciousness. Fundamentally, Begotten is a memorable and suggestive, if peculiar, film experience (in the sense that Ken Jacobs's Nervous System pieces are experiences). Whether it will remain not only an "oddity" but a "one-shot," or whether it is simply the first important evidence of a "newcomer" (Merhige spent the 1990s attempting to develop projects in Hollywood), remains to be seen.
Anne Charlotte Robertson
While the overt intimacy of what came to be called "diary film" seems more characteristic of late 1960s and 1970s avant-garde cinema, the diaristic urge was the source of one of the most unusual film projects of the 1980s: Anne Robertson's Diary and the various excerpts she has distributed under separate titles. Working consistently in Super 8, Robertson had made several films in the late 1970s, before beginning the diary on 3 November 1981—"which, it turns out, is Saul Levine's birthday. Sort of a psychic tribute there. He was one of the people who encouraged me to continue making films."56 Having begun filming her experience and recording sound on tape, Robertson became relentless in her quest to represent her life on film. By 1990, when I interviewed her, the Diary had grown well beyond twenty-four hours (the real length of the Diary at any given moment is difficult to determine, since Robertson's ever-growing magnum opus is sometimes revised; for example, when she began to have doubts about her inclusion of nude footage of herself, she revised portions of the Diary by removing this imagery). The length of the Diary, of course, insures that it is rarely screened in total, and by the 1990s, Robertson began to transfer sections of the film to video for more convenient distribution and exhibition. But from time to time, exhibitors have had the courage to offer more extended access to the Diary. In 1988, for example, David Schwartz arranged for Robertson to present the complete diary at the American Museum of Moving Image, as part of his admirably inclusive "Independent America: New Film, 1978—1988." Robertson's diary was presented in a small screening room, decorated by Robertson herself (she included furniture, pictures, keepsakes from her home bedroom in Framingham, Massachusetts), where, for eight days spread over two October weekends, she lived during the hours the museum was open and presented reels of the Diary as home movies, accompanied by taped sound and in-person narration.
The Diary itself is at times amusing, at times grim, sometimes visually unexceptional, sometimes startling and exquisite, as, for example, when her time-lapsing causes her to seem like a frenzied spirit within her everyday surround. The emotional trajectory of the Diary is determined in large measure by the ebb and flow of bipolar syndrome, with which Robertson wrestles. Alternately lucid and delusional, Robertson uses filmmaking as a way of maintaining psychic coherence and contact with the world. In his film Walden (1969), Jonas Mekas claims, "I make home movies, therefore I live," and while this claim is certainly important to Mekas's sense of himself, it fits Robertson's project more precisely (as Mekas has recently told Robertson).57 The endless strip of Super 8 film on which Robertson's physical and psychic movements are recorded is Robertsons lifeline. Indeed, making particular films has, according to Robertson, been her means of taking control of serious psychic disorders: her making Suicide (1979) silenced internal voices that for three years had tried to convince her to kill herself, and her depiction of herself as the ultimate consumer in Magazine Mouth (1983) allowed her to take control of her binging.
Within the Diary, Robertson deals with a wide variety of topics, many of which seem representative of the 1980s. Her battles with her weight—in some passages of the film we see her obsessively measuring her weight gains and losses—reflect the paradoxical American obsessions with overconsumption and correct physical appearance. Her longing for romance (which sometimes takes the form of an obsession with Tom Baker, who played Dr. Who on the television series of the same name), is both typical and, in its endless frustration, poignant. And her battle with the drugs pervasive in American daily life (coffee, cigarettes) and with those her doctors prescribe as a means of controlling her psychic disturbances (drugs that sometimes render her unable to make film) reflect the paradox of the pervasiveness of mind-altering substances in a society that is obsessed with the idea that drugs are evil. In the end, however, it is the combination of Robertson's relentless openness about her life, in all its limitations and frustrations and psychic fragility, and her considerable gifts for making visually arresting imagery that render her Diary so compelling. Having fought both her own demons and the limited opportunities for small-gauge exhibition, however, the 1990s find Robertson facing a new, poignant reality: just as her films are becoming more widely recognized, Kodak has announced that the availability of Super 8 film is coming to an end.
The 1980s saw the normalization of film studies in colleges and universities across the country, along with a developing fascination with new theoretical approaches to film history and practice. This academicizing of cinema was in many ways good news, especially for those with a serious interest in studying film history and current practice; but it was a mixed blessing for avant-garde cinema. Since a good many academic cinephiles had come to film from literary studies and had brought with them a dedication to communicating about cinema in writing, those avant-gardists who saw their own filmmaking as a theoretical enterprise and who saw the theater space as the medium for communicating with film viewers about fundamental theoretical issues suddenly seemed marginal to film history in a new way. Of course, avant-garde film has always been economically marginal; but now even the most astute filmmakers often found their work ignored by academics, whose interest in theory usually tended to return them to the commercial cinema with new tools for exploring the conventions of entertainment. Even the most theoretically interesting avant-garde films were widely ignored, and as a result, the always fragile economics of avant-garde filmmaking seemed as precarious as ever.
The new excitement about film studies in the academy produced a flood of theoretically inspired books and essays. On the one hand, the function of this writing was to illuminate the history of motion pictures, but within the academic structure itself there was also a need to demonstrate to more established academic fields (fields, after all, fighting for the same financial resources as film studies was fighting for) that studying cinema was indeed a serious intellectual pursuit. In a good many cases, this need tended to produce a serious-sounding prose that was virtually indecipherable to anyone not intimately engaged in film studies. For some, this limiting of communication may have seemed an unfortunate but inevitable result of trying to be precise about a complex social phenomenon: those of us who have not studied economics or quantum physics are usually mystified by the discourses within these fields.
For some avant-garde filmmakers, however, the advent of professional film studies, and the frequently obscurantist prose that seemed to come with it, represented a troubling gap between filmmakers, now positioned as intellectual naifs in need of theoretical analysis, and academic sophisticates. For mediamaker, Peter Rose, this increasingly obvious pattern became a subject for film (and video and multimedia performance). Like many avant-garde film- and videomakers, Rose had long been interested in using visual text as part of cinematic experience. But few filmmakers have been as ingenious with text as Rose, first in a portion of his The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough (1981), where a self-reflexive text, superimposed over imagery of a landscape filmed from a moving car, initiates a highly formal personal reminiscence; and subsequently in the remarkable "Introduction to Pleasures of the Text" (Pleasures of the Text is a multimedia performance work), in which Rose presents a lecture about language that becomes increasingly obscure, the more precise he tries to be, until the lecture degenerates into indecipherable gibberish. An early version of this send-up of theoretically inspired academic prose appeared in the Downtown Review, a short-lived publication by and for the New York avant-garde film community; later versions were performed by Rose, who also recorded the piece on video, and on audiotape for Spiral, another valuable but short-lived publication, edited by Terry Cannon in Los Angeles.
Pleasures of the Text also included Rose's most elaborate filmic exploration of language, Secondary Currents (1983), which uses no conventional photographic imagery at all, but combines a complex visual text presented in white against a black background and a sound track to explore several major dimensions of film history's use of text.58 The earliest section of Secondary Currents is an amusing excursion into the tradition of subtitling. Rose's subtitles propose to translate the nonsense language we hear him speaking on the sound track; during the opening section of the film, Rose's nonsense narration sounds like an amalgam of the languages American filmgoers of the 1960s were hearing, as "foreign film" arrived in the United States. Rose's burlesque recalls American viewers' experiences hearing Swedish, Japanese, and Italian and confronting the frustrating reality that what we heard was not adequately represented by the subtitles: in one instance Rose "translates" an extended passage of narration as a single word.
A second area Rose explores is the relationship between the "space" of the narration and the spaces of the film frame and the theater. At one point, the "narrator" leaves the microphone he's speaking into and talks himself out of the room into a natural setting (the subtitles continue to translate his commentary) and then, after a moment when the "narrator" is "beyond the film," inaudible, and therefore untranslatable, he returns to the mike, bumping into things on his trip back through the room. During the final section of Secondary Currents, two other textual issues are explored. As in "Introduction," Rose burlesques the increasing complexity of academic writing about film: "an unrepentant dilution of constructed meaning whose meandering lucubrations foretold the essential entropy of euphostolic processes and peregrinations"; and as in "Introduction," Rose's translated commentary becomes increasingly indecipherable, especially because the extended sentences must be presented only a phrase at a time in the subtitles. The viewer quickly loses the ability to apprehend the text, and by the end of the film, Rose's narration and its visual correlative have degenerated into a set of incoherent sounds and graphic signs that match the state of the viewer's noncomprehension.
The entropy of the "narration" is visualized in a culmination of Rose's exploration of cinematic text as image. All through Secondary Currents, Rose plays with the viewer's assumptions about how subtitles will be organized. At first, he presents the "translations" across the bottom of the image in conventional subtitle form. But as the text continues, he varies the format, sometimes arranging several lines one above the other in formations very unusual for subtitling. As the viewer's ability to apprehend the text dissipates near the end of the film, the text moves out from the bottom, ultimately covering the entire frame with increasingly dense graphic signs that, finally are animated in various kinds of motion. This proliferation of signs across the space of the frame culminates when the letters and numbers so completely cover the space that they become a moving field within which a series of much larger words are formed: "i fear/i dissolve/my voice/exploding/meaning." The sound of an explosion, juxtaposed with a dark, empty screen, follows.
What happens during the final moments of the film varies depending on the version Rose is showing. The most elaborate of the several versions concludes with the viewer's becoming aware of a text written on the celluloid strip. This text cannot be read during projection; it signifies only that a text is available should the viewer have access to the actual film, as opposed to the theatrical projection of it. This final text plays with the viewer's assumptions about the relationship of various kinds of text and the end of a movie: at some screenings of conventional films we experience various levels of ending, each signaled by a different form of text. The rolling credits may conclude the viewer's experience of film-as-perspectival-illusion, but—especially at 16mm screenings—this ending is often followed by the end leaders (with various kinds of language printed or written on them) that signal the conclusion of the film's material journey through the projector. Normally, the viewer's awareness of end-of-film leader is a function of the somewhat less rigorous expectations of 16mm projectionists (we rarely see leader at professional screenings of 35mm films). But Rose provides a reward for those viewers energetic enough to wonder if the text they see on the leader merely encodes the standard information common on film leader or adds to a film that has continually surprised our expectations—one final text: "I sense a luminous transparency, a limitless linear aperture of indecipherable articulate intelligence—I sense arising, a silent perpendicular emissary unfolding from the invisible. It is becoming vast, provotic, spectral. All is clear now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" And when we've read this last text on the filmstrip, we realize it describes precisely the experience that led us to examine the intriguing marks on the strip of (clear) celluloid.
The final text of Secondary Currents foreshadows Spirit Matters (1984), an extended exploration of the potentials and implications of writing directly on the celluloid strip. Other investigations of language, spoken as well as visual, followed, including the videos Digital Speech (1984), Babel (1987), and Genesis (1988).
Trinh T. Minh-ha
Trinh T. Minh-ha's major films of the 1980s—Reassemblage (discussed earlier), Naked Spaces: Living Is Round (1985), and Surname ViÊt Given Name Nam (1989)—like Friedrich's films of the same period, reveal a filmmaker working "between" conventional film categories, though the particular approaches explored by Minh-ha were quite different from Friedrich's approaches—and more controversial, as well. This difference was a function of Minh-ha's background as a Vietnamese who grew up in Vietnam and subsequently lived in France, Senegal, and the United States. Coming from a cultural heritage quite distant from those that have produced the film industry and the traditional critiques of it, Minh-ha never seems to have felt any particular obligation to replicate, or even respect, Western categories or approaches to cinema. Reassemblage is neither a conventional documentary (since it does not pretend to present information about its subject) nor an avant-garde film of any recognizable form, though Minh-ha's gestural camerawork and abrupt editing seems as close to avant-garde filmmaking as to any other major cinematic tradition. Indeed, as her title suggests, Reassemblage means to reassemble conventional cinematic categories.
Minh-ha's first feature, Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, is also an amalgam of traditional approaches, though a different amalgam from the one evident in Reassemblage. Naked Spaces: Living Is Round is a study of dwellings in a particular region, and it is a transnational travel film: Minh-ha shot imagery in various sections of Senegal, Mauritania, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Benin. And yet it conforms to neither of these categories. Ethnographic filmmakers complained that Minh-ha's "poetic license" with imagery and sound created unacceptable representational inaccuracies: we may be looking at dwellings from one region while we hear sounds from another region. And if Naked Spaces is a travel film, it is hardly the personal record of a journey that we usually expect from the form: like Babette Mangolte's The Sky on Location (see discussion earlier), Naked Spaces is narrated by three narrators, each of whom seems to have a somewhat different sense of history and geography. While she herself is one of these narrators, Minh-ha does not privilege her recollections, but implicitly recognizes that whatever we come to understand about a culture is a combination of our personal experiences and what others, from this culture and from other cultures, have helped us to understand or misunderstand about it. While Naked Spaces is a visually beautiful film about a fascinating topic, Minh-ha's style mitigates against an easy gaze at the exotic spaces she films. As in Reassemblage, she edits abruptly, often in the middle of gestures. Her consistently unsmooth camera movements are less expressive of her personal reactions to the people and places she sees than of her desire to interrupt the tradition of documentary (initiated by Robert Flaherty) of allowing us easy, sensual enjoyment of the "exotic."
With Surname ViÊt Given Name Nam (1989), Minh-ha appeared to return to her Vietnamese roots, but this movement into her personal ethnic heritage was simultaneously an expansion into the more diverse sense of contemporary geography and culture that she had developed through working and traveling in Europe, Africa, and North America. Of course, Minh-ha's awareness of the importance of her Vietnamese heritage is evident throughout her filmmaking, even in her African films. Her decision to narrate Reassemblage in her own Vietnamese-accented English, and to include herself as one of the three narrators in Naked Spaces, is evidence of her concern that we not forget that these depictions of African cultures are not presented from an exclusively Western—or African—point of view. At the same time, however, the fact that she speaks in a Vietnamese-accented English makes consistently clear that her sense of her own ethnicity is conditioned by her experiences as a transnational citizen of the world.
In Naked Spaces, Minh-ha provides visual correlatives to this simultaneous sense of the ethnic and the transnational: those moments in rural Senegalese dwellings, seemingly quite far from urban centers where European and North American influences on indigenous African cultures are more obvious, when our seeing a blue plastic bucket or a yellow plastic tub forces us to consider that the ethnic "purity" that is often implicit in our concept of "the indigenous" is as fully an illusion as Hollywood's assumption that certain forms of film entertainment are accessible to "everyone." What we define as "indigenous" may be a complex interaction of particular, native cultural groups that, given our cultural and historical distance, we cannot perceive. And even if we were to imagine a cultural group that has had no contact whatsoever with any other cultural group throughout its entire history, this group could be conceived only in contradistinction to other, different cultural groups, and could conceive itself only by defining cultural distinctions within the group.
In Surname ViÊt, the impossibility of the pure indigenous is less the issue, however, than the remarkable complexity of the transnational. Even Minh-ha's title suggests this complexity. Minh-ha's family (and family name, Trinh) may be indigenous to the region of Southeast Asia we call Vietnam, but the French spelling of the "surname" ViÊt reminds us of the long-term French involvement in this part of the world and its inevitable effect on a Vietnamese sense of history and culture, an effect made even more complex and mysterious by the subsequent arrival of the American military, who gave the region the nickname "Nam."
In Surname ViÊt Given Name Nam, our interest in the exotic—hearing women discuss the experience of living in postwar Communist Vietnam—allows us to believe what the film's various Vietnamese spokeswomen tell us. We may wonder that Minh-ha was able to return to Communist Vietnam and get access to these women, several of whom offer telling critiques of life under communist rule, but their extremely accented English (so accented that Minh-ha superimposes textual translations of their comments over the imagery of the women speaking) tends to convince us of the reality of what we think we see. Since we virtually always understand everything everyone in a commercial film or television show says, we may assume that our language difficulties in Surname ViÊt result from Minh-ha's inability to find women who speak better English and that, therefore, we are seeing candidly filmed reality. During the second half of the film, however, we discover that these spokeswomen are dramatized by Vietnamese-American women, who themselves have been "translated" from Vietnam to the United States; and we have the opportunity to realize the superficiality of our original assumptions and the dangers of the pervasive media training that teaches us to expect easy translations of difficult cultural issues.59