Frame capture from Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Chantal Akerman’s classic experimental feminist feature.

Greta Garbo as Sphinx. Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), by Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, is an important experimental feature film.

Frame capture from The Production and Decay of Strange Particles (2008) by Jon Behrens, a homegrown experimentalist operating out of Seattle. [Image courtesy of Jon Behrens.]

Stan Brakhage, mythologist of the movie camera.

DIY screening in Chicago of four movies by Ivan Ross, whose work oscillates between “homegrown” and “university-made.” [Photo by David Andrews.]

2009 lecture at the Opportunity Shop in Chicago, a traveling, multi-use, ad hoc space that sometimes hosts 16mm screenings. [Photo by David Andrews.]

Homegrown and homemade: stenciled artwork on a reused DVD box for Robert Zverina’s self-distributed, microdocumentary compendium, 666 Short Films (2008). [Image courtesy of Robert Zverina]

DIY promotion for an experimental screening in Seattle (2006). [Image courtesy of Robert Zverina.]


Wollen’s mixed fruit

One of the most obvious strengths of Wollen’s article is its simplified schema, which splits the European scene into two understandable tribes. It is to his credit that Wollen never pretends that all experimentalists fit neatly into these groups. Indeed, if his methods have any value, it comes from the comparative way that he deploys them to follow these avant-gardes through time and space, charting them as cultural positions. As a result, Wollen shows his readers not only what has divided these two avant-gardes but what has united them. For instance, in the avant-garde perspective that Wollen clearly shares, the commercial Hollywood film is equivalent to the commercial art film of the “Antonioni or Fellini or Truffaut” variety, which aspires to the “narrative fiction 35mm film-making” that is Hollywood’s specialty.[27] [open endnotes in new window] Hence, Wollen traces the developments of the cinematic avant-garde primarily through the developments of the painters, poets, and musicians who had previously pushed for anti-commercial innovations, both political and aesthetic, within the confines of the art world. And Wollen notes the conflicts that always arose from the political bearing of the avant-garde, whose art-world context also included its spiritual opposite within modernism, art for art’s sake.[28]

To me, the strongest aspect of Wollen’s article is the way that it depicts European avant-gardists as specific cultural agents who are inevitably stuck between one position and another. For instance, the militant, Godard-type avant-gardist—who, in Wollen’s view, emerged through the example of Sergei Eisenstein—tends to differentiate himself or herself from the coop avant-gardist by presenting the latter as a “mere” formalist, which is to say, as an artist whose interest in stylistic experiment resembles that of the aesthete artist, who would never deign to inspire the masses. But the Godard-type artist must also guard against “vulgar” Marxists (who depict all formal innovation as “mere” formalism) by claiming the Maoist justification of “scientific experiment.”[29] For such an auteur, revolutionary form must not be merely political at the level of theme and story; it must also represent a radical “break with bourgeois norms of diegesis.”[30] But, as Wollen rightly notes, the problem with this Brechtian position is that

“unless it is thought through carefully or stopped arbitrarily at some safe point, [it] leads inevitably straight into the positions of the other avant-garde.”

For cooperative avant-gardists also consider themselves political. The difference is that they often place a much greater stress on formal experiment than auteurs of the Godard-type, so they must reconcile themselves to their “minority status” and the public alienation it yields.

But Wollen’s essay leaves its reader with questions and contradictions. The author notes in closing that, if he went further, he would discuss

“the institutional and economic framework in which filmmakers find themselves.”[31]

Indeed, had he delved these topics, Wollen might have discussed the price that auteurs like Godard had to pay to take part “in the commercial system,” with its stars and budgets—and its isolation from art collectives and their sense of community.[32] The coop system’s “artisanal production” could yield formalism, but its egalitarian collaboration could yield solidarity, too. If these filmmakers lost touch with the masses, they had grassroots communities to fall back on. Viewed from this perspective, it is difficult to believe that a cinema made in the hierarchical auteur system of the commercial art cinema could ever be revolutionary. Wouldn’t this cinema have to “dilute” its themes and its forms to make itself accessible to broader audiences, trading revolutionary effects for populist appeal, somewhat in the manner of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part indie film Che (2008)?

Or is it the other way around—would this cinema have do those things in order to have revolutionary populist effects, meaning that Godard was occupying the right cultural position but making the wrong bets in ratcheting up his experimentation in mid-career works like Le gai savoir (1968)? On the other hand, could a grassroots community that disavowed popular distribution ever hope to be truly revolutionary? Granted, it would have the freedom to take many risks or none at all. But could it ever reach, let alone inspire, a mass audience if distributed non-commercially? Quandaries like these cannot be resolved. But if Wollen had posed them in this manner—rather than spending time on the formal and political minutiae—he might have been able to frame his avant-gardes more clearly as cultural fields.

This thought leads to my major concern. Assuming that they occupy the same systems of production and distribution,[33] could the Godardian auteur really be objectively distinguished from the ostensibly less experimental Antonioni-type? Wollen pretends that this distinction is clear-cut, but I think this idea of the avant-garde comes down to notions of value and authenticity. By contrast, Wollen frames the coop avant-gardes by way of distribution alone. This means that coop avant-gardists did not have to qualify as avant-garde through evaluative or art-historical means. Rather, they submitted a film to a coop and followed its policies, which were egalitarian and inclusive. (They could also qualify as avant-garde in this sense, I believe, even if they did not use the coops—so long as they used the other networks of distribution and exhibition also favored by coop filmmakers, especially the grassroots spaces and media arts centers of urban centers like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.)

The disparities between these approaches should be clear. For one thing, the institutional method legitimates more avant-gardists. Whereas Wollen can offer only a few examples of the Godard-type, he notes that in 1975 the coop field already included many practitioners in Britain alone. Because the Godardian auteur occupies an avant-garde extreme of the art-film field, the critic must decide which art-film auteurs don’t make the cut, basing that decision on form and politics—a practice that leads to a subjective method that looks elitist, regardless of its justifications. Hence, from Wollen’s perspective, not many art-film auteurs deserve the avant-garde label; he even excludes Michelangelo Antonioni, who arguably had all the right credentials. Today, after the cinema has encountered many similar experimental auteurs—including Godard, Straub-Huillet, Marker, Sontag, Cassavetes, Greenaway, Lynch, Alain Resnais, Joyce Wieland, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akerman, Derek Jarman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Wollen himself (along with his co-director, Laura Mulvey), to cite only a few—it is still difficult to know which experimentalists “deserve” the label.

Must these artists have shared Godard’s Brechtian methods and Mao-inflected consciousness? Must they, in other words, have made intellectual think pieces that scorned the social realisms of their time and the bourgeois values that they appeared to uphold? Or must they simply have made exceptionally experimental art films in any of a number of art-historical categories—films like Resnais’s L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961), Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), Greenaway’s 8 ½ Women (1999), or even Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006)?

Wollen complains in his article about the scant attention given this second avant-garde relative to all the notice paid the coop avant-garde. But I think this disparity just reflects the fact that his second avant-garde was a subjective tradition, an art-historical tradition, not an institutional reality like the coop avant-garde. His comparison of those fields seems to have been a critical intervention that lent his chosen style of filmmaking greater traction as he prepared to make that kind of experimental film along with Mulvey. But even though the Brechtian products of their collaboration, including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), have left their mark on experimental communities,[34] their status in those fields does not mean that this school of experimental filmmaking can be held up as truly comparable to a full-blown institution like coop cinema. In the end, Wollen’s two avant-gardes seem even less comparable than apples and oranges.

Reconceptualizing U.S. avant-garde cinema

Though we should probably dispense with Wollen’s mixed approach to the avant-garde, we should not necessarily dispense with his idea of seeing this cinema through its division. Indeed, such divisions have existed within the U.S. coop cinemas since the 1960s. How might we go about theorizing these internal splits? First, we must learn from the best scholars available. We must also apply what we have learned from Wollen: that it is imperative that we divide the avant-garde into comparable areas. Finally, we must draw on cultural theorists like Bourdieu, who combines an understanding of art history with a broad understanding of sociology and ethnography.

When it comes to describing the field’s institutional splits, the scholars I think of most readily are Ramey and Zryd. In “Between Art, Industry and Academia: The Fragile Balancing Act of the Avant-Garde Film Community,” Ramey approaches coop cinema along an ethnographic path. Like Wollen, Ramey is an avant-garde filmmaker; however, this vocation does not impair her objectivity. Instead, she manipulates her insider status to academic benefit, using other “[a]vant-garde filmmakers” as her “primary informants,” as supplemented by interviews with curators, technicians, and professors.[35] She begins by describing the intentions of individual participants in this field (“to critique, subvert and provide an alternative to dominant, mainstream media production”), by tracing its history as a field, and by analyzing how its idea of “the avant-garde artisan” has been produced and reproduced.[36] Ramey then outlines the institutional structure of this experimental cinema by positioning individual participants within, between, and across subcultures and industries. She neither analyzes any avant-garde films nor evaluates them; instead, she observes how avant-garde subgroups make value claims based on forms, politics, and subcultural positions. Through terms such as these, Ramey differentiates “homegrown” experimentalists from “university-made” artisans.[37] And throughout her essay, she shows avant-gardists struggling

“with institutionalization and legitimization by the dominant film, art and university industries.”[38]

Ramey concludes her article by arguing that avant-garde

“communities are supported by the art, film and university industries but are also threatened by their efforts to standardize and legitimate them.”[39]

Zryd’s essay “The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance” focuses on one part of Ramey’s institutional triad, i.e., the academy. But as its title indicates, the article’s premise is similar to Ramey’s conclusion: the U.S. avant-garde has long been conflicted, often resisting its own supporting institutions. What distinguishes Zryd is his use of historical methods to trace and contextualize the avant-garde’s flimsy anti-institutional rhetoric—all as a prelude to collapsing that rhetoric by presenting contrary evidence in sections like “There Have Always Been Avant-Garde Institutions” and “The Academy Was There in the 1960s Too.”[40] Zryd is making an economic argument that updates Ramey’s account of a conflicted field.[41] He wants to argue that the avant-garde’s conflicted state has, at the level of the field, been a virtual smoke screen that has never interfered with its growth, which has been steady, sustained by a university system with which it shares interests, like the commitment to freedom of expression. The avant-garde’s dependency has, then, culminated in a field of production more stable than its individual poor-mouthing suggests.[42] 

These arguments can be framed usefully if we look at the way in which Bourdieu talks about the avant-garde in The Rules of Art (1996). Though Bourdieu wrote this book mainly in reference to developments in nineteenth-century French literature, he intended it to have larger application and even in one passage implies its relevance to “‘experimental’ cinema.”[43] As in his other books, Bourdieu construes the avant-garde as occupying the pure-art sector of the field of cultural production. By that he means that the avant-garde is defined by its small-scale production and its low economic capital, the compensation for which is its relatively rich cultural and symbolic capital. Bourdieu also defines the avant-garde as a field of art that is stridently opposed to the “banalization” of art despite the fact that its own processes seem to accelerate that outcome.[44] As producers, avant-gardists judge each other through their ability to impart an authentic sense of “rupture” in “the best informed consumers,” namely themselves, their competitors, and critics who are savvy to what has been accomplished through the history of their field. Ergo, in this milieu, artists struggle to resist “the social signs of consecration—decoration, prizes, academies and all kinds of honours”—because these signs of institutional status seem to indicate that their works of art have aged, socially speaking, “through diffusion . . . in the process of canonization among a more and more extended clientele,” with the result that those works of art can at most create a sense of rupture only in “simple lay people.”[45]

If we put Ramey and Zryd together with Bourdieu, we can create a conceptual model that makes sense of the U.S. avant-garde as an anti-institutional institution. Historically, coop cinema has had a marginal presence in cultural institutions like the art world and the academy. Though this marginalization has been an ecomomic burden, it is in accord with the larger history of the avant-garde, which has been defined in terms of a purist rhetoric that has had anti-commercial, anti-institutional, and egalitarian inflections. Marginalization has thus been crucial to the identity and symbolic capital of this field—in part because, as Bourdieu has indicated, broader recognition signifies banalization in the avant-garde. At first, the movement lived up to this sense of dispossession, for its early practitioners, including Brakhage, Deren, and Gregory Markopoulos, were impoverished, homegrown filmmakers without much formal training.[46] But as this avant-garde gained more adherents and ironic visibility as an “underground,” it became far more organized.

Its key innovation was a coop system that distributed works without violating its own purist values—though, predictably, its “purest” adherents rebelled even against this self-consciously scruffy, egalitarian, grassroots institution. In the end, the cooperatives helped circulate art movies and also served as a kind of anchor that encouraged the formation of new communities that flaunted their DIY sensibilities. Though their use has changed over the years—according to Ramey, coops are now “agents of history” that serve mainly as archives for older filmmakers, with younger filmmakers opting to self-distribute works on DVD—coops still have a stablilizing centrality in this sector, holding it together by preserving its history.[47]  After all, the field’s history must be knowable if new generations of artist are to “surpass” that history in Bourdieu’s sense.[48]

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