P. Adams Sitney, a central chronicler and circulator of the histories and myths of American experimental cinema.
A frame capture from the prelude (1962) of Stan Brakhage’s classic experimental film, Dog Star Man (1962-1964).
A logo for the Film-maker’s Coop that shows its close association with the New American Cinema Group.
Poster for Film-maker’s Coop program, April 2010.
The Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater, an important New York institution for experimental screenings.
Poster art for Sonic Outlaws (1995) by Craig Baldwin, a microcinema pioneer partly influenced by the Situationists.
Signs of consecration: as filmmakers like Shirley Clarke became more recognized and decorated, they lost their currency as avant-garde figures.
Frame captures from The Production and Decay of Strange Particles (2008) by Jon Behrens, a homegrown experimentalist operating out of Seattle. [Images courtesy of Jon Behrens.]
But even before the first successes of this purist movement, major institutions like the academy and the art world had shown an interest in it, serving as intermediaries that lent it publicity and that helped legitimate some of its practitioners. These ties to cultural institutions were controversial within this cinema, for they seemed to betray its grassroots ethos—and again, institutional status might indicate the banalization of a filmmaker’s art. Nevertheless, because its practitioners had needs like anyone else—and because it is even more difficult to make movies without institutional resources than it is to make poems or paintings without them—more and more of those practitioners began to secure funding through these institutions, with the academy the most reliable option in this regard (just as it was, in the 1960s, already the leading consumer of coop rentals). [open endnotes in new window] As time passed, increasing numbers of these artists secured not only their publicity, funding, equipment, and employment through the university but also their training—for more and more film schools and art schools offered courses in experimental film production and scholarship. Consequently, as the movement reached its maturity, it contained
These distinctions were, of course, loose and pointedly relative, with mobility visible across all of these sectors. Furthermore, it is worth wondering how closely the homegrown filmmakers of the later periods truly resembled the earlier avant-gardists, since unlike their antecedents, the later artists had the benefit of looking back on more established traditions and benefited in many indirect ways from resources circulated by the academy and the art world, even if they were never personally part of either. That said, even if these divisions are, as constructions, too brittle to contain the full complexity and fluidity of this field, they are nevertheless divisions that have profoundly shaped the thinking and activity of experimentalists within the field.
Indeed, the perception of these divisions has activated a dynamic that is prevalent in many indie cinemas but that is particularly striking in coop cinemas. At the subcultural level, the coop avant-garde reserves much of its sanction for the least institutionalized artists and scenes, no matter how much cultural authority an individual or an institution seems to wield in the field. Thus, in Bourdieu’s terms, we might say that “authenticity” or “integrity” is in the avant-garde a symbolic form of subcultural capital that increases as a participant’s economic and cultural capital decreases. Trading it for distribution or for institutional funding can, then, leave its artists open to authenticity-based critiques (or to charges of socioaesthetic conservatism) within their original art-making subcultures.
The least institutionalized, most homegrown experimentalists seem to contrive this purely symbolic form of subcultural capital from thin air as a perverse form of compensation for their nonexistent economic capital and their equally nonexistent cultural capital. Thus, in the avant-garde, to have one’s subcultural status recognized is to jeopardize it, especially if that recognition is articulated in a more mainstream field. This indie dynamic makes avant-garde cinema open and inclusive, lending force to the egalitarian rhetorics wielded by its practitioners. Yet the anti-canonical ideology that results from these processes may also be linked to the purist snobbery that Bourdieu notes in The Rules of Art, which is a form condescension that assumes that any experimental work consecrated at the cultural level is passé, déclassé, and no longer capable of inspiring an authentic sense of “rupture” in the best-informed consumers. In this indie dynamic, the avant-garde seems both open and closed, at once purely populist and purely elitist.
Thus we have two fluidly interconnected avant-gardes, one of which is fairly non-institutional and one of which is relatively institutional, as supplemented by a fully hybrid third category whose members may identify with either of the two other poles, depending on their needs and circumstances. These two fully relative sectors have the same sort of reality, given that they are both defined by the heterogeneous movie forms that circulate through alternative distribution schemes. Clearly, these avant-gardes cannot be defined through given styles or given themes. The coop ethos that has united them has been too inclusive to sustain any form-based notion of authenticity, and the wider ethos of novelty-for-novelty’s sake has also made such notions patently unworkable. In theory, everything is permitted there, from narrative, animation, and politically motivated documentary to the widest range of abstraction. This is why, as Kleinhans notes, the art-historical model first circulated by P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film (1974) was a crucial intervention that helped establish U.S. avant-garde cinema as a “serious” art, but it was also a theory that could never offer the final word on coop cinema.
Making virtues of necessity
At this point, I want to backtrack to provide some of the historical details left out of the cultural model provided above. Once we have established those details, we will be better situated to understand the problems that are associated with this model (problems that I discuss in the second half of this section). The first major detail is the fact that the economic rhetoric of the avant-garde was codified in the New American Cinema’s most crucial documents, which tended to corroborate its sense of dispossession. For example, in his letters, Brakhage often made aesthetic virtues of the economic necessities thrust on his filmmaking by his chronically impoverished state; thus, he framed poverty as a path to pure cinema. Brakhage was so adept at this mythmaking that he even transformed the theft of his 16mm camera, which he could not afford to replace, into myth by depicting it as the necessary break to get back to basics, that is, to 8mm filmmaking. Later, when Brakhage explained his use of hand-scratched title- and credit-sequences, he linked the inexpensiveness of this technique to the modernist goal of prodding the audience into an encounter with the sensuous surface of the medium.
Using similar cues, Sitney’s book Visionary Film (which, as I have noted, helped consecrate the leading filmmakers of the New American Cinema at the cultural level) presented Brakhage as the U.S. avant-garde’s most crucial innovator. It turned the pathos of this maverick artist, whose avant-garde tactics were often just clever responses to economic austerities, into myths that seem to verify the aesthetic value of Brakhage’s improvisations. Sitney then proceeded to assign these myths to other filmmakers, other cinemas.
This romanticization of economic constraint was also apparent in the founding documents of the most important avant-garde institutions. “The First Statement By the New American Cinema Group” (1962), the manifesto of the New York Film-makers’ Coop (FMC), asserts,
For experimentalists like Mekas, having a low budget was not simply the economic consequence of working in a milieu devoted to free experiment; it was also a virtue that conferred pure autonomy, which had moral-aesthetic value. This anti-commercial rhetoric did not change much as avant-garde cinema became more institutionalized. It had a regular presence in Mekas’s journal Film Culture, which championed avant-garde films from 1954 on, as well as in the regular columns that he began writing for The Village Voice in 1958. And this rhetoric was just as often recycled to justify other institutions, such as the Millennium Film Workshop (and its journal) or the Anthology Film Archives (and its essential cinema list). Today, second-generation avant-gardists have continued this strategic rhetoric, making more virtues of necessity. Consider how Craig Baldwin (of Tribulation 99  and Sonic Outlaws  fame) has endorsed Bruce Conner’s “cinema povera” tradition.
But the anti-institutional embrace of avant-garde institutions created problems from the start. U.S. experimentalists like Baldwin have elevated themselves through their hostility to what James calls “the commodity culture of bourgeois society,” and this avant-garde posture has “almost axiomatically” entailed hostility to the mainstream. Yet, as James points out, “the relations between avant-garde film and its own institutions have hardly been more amicable or stable” than the relations between avant-garde film and mainstream institutions. Thus, even grass-roots institutions like the FMC have been susceptible to anti-institutional attacks from artists who have disagreed in principle with their centralization of policy and power. Mekas knew the best way to outflank critics of the FMC was to adopt an egalitarian policy as well as a professional style that seemed disorganized or “non-institutional.” But the New York FMC had so much subcultural success that it could not avoid all criticism. Indeed, many recognized figures, including luminaries like Brakhage and Jack Smith, railed against the coop system, regardless of its anti-institutional stylings. According to Arthur, Brakhage and Smith deemed the FMC a “parody” of Hollywood industrial filmmaking, with Smith characterizing the coop as too rigid, too commercialized, and insufficiently anarchic.
As suggested above, part of what made the FMC a success despite such criticism was its egalitarian policy. Perhaps the signal event in the development of this policy was the moment in 1962 when Mekas decided not to work with Cinema 16, the New York film society that exhibited and distributed alternative movies from 1947 to 1963. Mekas disliked this non-profit because its programming scheme in effect made its founder, Amos Vogel, “the sole arbiter of which avant-garde films were available and the primary arbiter of how they were presented.” Not only did the FMC cooperative model opt against selection criteria, distributing any film that followed its policies, it returned a higher percentage of fees to artists, thus ensuring its competitiveness. Within a few years, Vogel had transitioned in other directions, becoming affiliated with the New York Film Festival and selling his Cinema 16 catalogue to Barney Rosset at Grove Press; and soon thereafter, other distributors such as San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema and Toronto’s Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center had adopted the coop paradigm, whose policy of inclusiveness remained standard across the board. This egalitarianism still makes it possible for the most anti-institutional experimentalists to accept the coop as “authentic.” Thus, even homegrown avant-gardists like Seattle filmmaker Jon Behrens, whose work is distributed by Canyon, make distinctions between coop institutions and more centralized forums like museums, which receive “city or state money.”
Indeed, in a useful article, Todd Bayma has argued that the coops, in tandem with the “the small size of audiences, lack of wider recognition, and low financial return,” have served “to discourage individuals and organizations from setting themselves up as evaluative gatekeepers.” This has in turn encouraged the insider view that Bayma quotes, namely, that this avant-garde cinema is exceptionally open and deserves its indie reputation, for it is
Fed over time by the growing availability of quality video equipment, this inclusivist, communitarian spirit has given hope to students and graduates of film schools as well as to homegrown artists like Behrens without formal training to speak of.
But in the end, this egalitarian spirit could not dispel the avant-garde’s most basic quandaries and shortcomings. Because the avant-garde’s egalitarian logic, codified by its coop policies, seems to endorse an anti-hierarchical position, it is in continual state of revolt against institutions that would use any hierarchical canons—even the smallest, most rudimentary ones—as the basis for its programming choices. Indeed, as Ramey has noted, the selection of first-generation avant-gardists like Shirley Clarke and Ernie Gehr as canonized faculty members
Thus, Zryd has documented that in 1981 San Francisco Art Institute film students protested a screening of works by newly “official” artists like Gehr, Paul Sharits, and George Landow at the San Francisco Cinematheque, charging the Cinematheque with
The problem for the avant-garde establishment was clear. The air of permanent, collective revolt that animates the avant-garde—which is enshrined by its coop policies, and which is a major factor in its continuing appeal to student filmmakers and to homegrown artisans—was part of the coop ethos sanctioned by that establishment. This ethos was in turn related to the broader avant-garde ethos that Bourdieu discusses, the one that considers banalization a natural outcome of canonization insofar as canonization entailed the distribution of a work or a style along more mainstream pathways. U.S. avant-garde cinema was caught in a sticky, albeit predictable, authenticity problematic: as its more consecrated members tried to benefit from their various successes, its least institutionalized members could criticize them as “sell outs” untrue to core values.
What cannot be escaped in all this is the fact that the avant-garde has championed the most abstract, difficult forms. Many of these forms fall outside normative capacities for human enjoyment, meaning their appreciation can require a great deal of education or even “re-education.” Ergo, even the avant-garde’s most secure institutions have faced scarce funds that have created limited opportunities for exhibition. (Coop policies may be commendable in their egalitarianism, but they offer no guarantee that anyone will screen the movies.) That the avant-garde has found it difficult to accept the realities of scarcity is indicated by the fact that small-press journals like Spiral have continued to asked naïve questions like the one cited by Zryd:
The answer to this question should go beyond just “yes.” It should also include the fact that institutions cannot be blamed for these basic realities. Programmers in these institutions must anoint one filmmaker over another; unlike the coops, they haven’t the luxury of taking everyone. Indeed, programmers have had to choose among so many artists for such a limited number of screening opportunities that they have quite naturally tied their programming choices to their own institutional priorities.