Thanks to the friends who offered their help as I wrote this article. These friends include three filmmakers, Robert Zverina, Jon Behrens, and Charissa King-O’Brien, as well as the founder of the Aurora Picture Show, Andrea Grover. They also include three colleagues, Michael Zryd, Kathryn Ramey, and Amy Beste. I am particularly grateful to Chuck Kleinhans, whose insights and correctives have guided me throughout. As always, I should also thank my wife, Christine Andrews, for her sharp proofreading and sharper comments.
1. Peter Wollen, "The Two Avant-Gardes," Studio International vol. 190, no. 978 (November/December 1975), pp. 171–175. [return to page 1 of essay]
2. For a description of one set of hipster scenes, see David James, “L.A.’s Hipster Cinema,” Film Quarterly 63.1 (Fall 2009), pp. 56-67. The term “university made” is Kathryn Ramey’s. See Kathryn Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia: The Fragile Balancing Act of the Avant-Garde Film Community,” Visual Anthropology Review 18.1-2 (2002), p. 26.
3. To understand the progressions glossed here, see Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics” (1956), in Morris Weitz (ed.), Problems in Aesthetics (1959; New York: Macmillan, 1963), pp. 145-156; George Dickie, The Art Circle (1984; Evanston: Chicago Spectrum Press, 1997); Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999); Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1999); and Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
4. See, for example, Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pp. xv, 153.
5. Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” p. 171.
6. Jeffrey Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 93.
7. See Robin Blaetz, “Introduction: Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks,” Women’s Experimental Cinema, ed. Robin Blaetz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 1. Commentators like Jonas Mekas and Michael Zryd have claimed that in the United States the term “experimental” was more apt than “avant-garde” until 1970, when critics familiar with European traditions began referring to it in that way. Still, if we credit Peter Bürger, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) defines the avant-garde in terms of its resistance to institutions, the pre-1970 period was the period when U.S. experimental cinema had the most authenticity as an avant-garde. See Jonas Mekas, “Independence for independents,” in Chris Holmlund and Justin Wyatt (eds.), Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 35-36; Michael Zryd, “Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America,” in Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (eds.), Inventing Film Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 182-185.
8. This comes with a significant caveat, though: terms like “underground” have at times referred to popular avant-garde cults, such as the New York Underground of the 1960s.
9. A.L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video: From the Canonical Avant-Garde to Contemporary British Practice (London: BFI, 1999),pp. 30-31, 33. To see recent examples of crossover critics who refer to both avant-garde film and video art as forms of “art cinema,” see Paul Young and Paul Duncan (eds.), Art Cinema (Cologne: Taschen, 2009), pp. 9-10.
10. For a thorough review of this topic, see Steve Neale, “Art Cinema as Institution,” Screen 22.1 (Spring 1981), pp. 11-39; and Barbara Wilinsky, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 33-40.
11. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 8.
12. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 31.
13. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 51.
14. Still, even before these necessities emerged, the impetus toward political content had forced much of the narrative avant-garde in more “normative directions,” as Rees puts it. Rees, History of Experimental Film and Video, p. 51.
15. David James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 20-38.
16. In an unpublished work-in-progress that draws on the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, Chuck Kleinhans refers to the largely forgotten U.S. experimental films made between 1921 and 1947 that film historian Lewis Jacobs cited in “Experimental Cinema in America: 1921-1947” (1947). These films include some fifteen films that Jacobs claimed were directly influenced by Dziga Vertov. Chuck Kleinhans, “Producing the Field of Experimental Film/Video, 2.7,” unpublished work-in-progress, pp. 4-5. Kleinhans wishes to acknowledge the contributions of B. Ruby Rich to an earlier formulation of this piece, which was presented as “Avant Garde and Radical Political Film in the U.S.” at the Society for Cinema Studies conference in March 1980 and subsequently published in the French journal Cinémaction. Chuck Kleinhans and B. Ruby Rich,“Le Cinéma d'avant-garde et ses rapports avec le cinéma militant,” trans. Katerina Thomadeki, Cinémaction, no. 10-11 (Spring/Summer 1980), pp. 55-68.
17. Mekas, “Independence,” p. 35.
18. See Pauline Kael, “Movies, the Desperate Art” (1956), in Daniel Talbot (ed.), Film: An Anthology (1959; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 70.
19. See Arthur, Line of Sight, p. xv.
20. See Haidee Wasson, Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) as well as the MOMA’s informational pages at
21. Though this interconnected history is increasingly covered by institutional histories such as Film and Video Art, ed. Stuart Comer (New York: Tate, 2009).
22. For more on this subject, see Scott MacDonald, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
23. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 205.
24. Kathryn Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” pp. 26-27.
25. See, e.g., Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); the avant-garde’s anti-institutional bearing is central to this book. Bourdieu explains this resistance as a desire “at any price to avoid assimilation to bourgeois and the effect of social ageing it determines,” which leads in turn to the refusal of “the social signs of consecration—decoration, prizes, academies and all kinds of honours.” Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1992), trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 123.
26. Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” p. 171.
27. Ibid., p. 172. [return to page 2]
28. Ibid., pp. 172-173.
29. Ibid., p. 173.
31. Ibid., p. 175.
33. Of course, context makes a difference, since Godard films were not always shown in the same venues as Antonioni films. For example, in France, the films that Godard made between 1968 and 1972 were shown in relatively “funky” art-and-essay theaters, while Antonioni films of the same period were shown in the boulevard movie theaters. My gratitude to Chuck Kleinhans for pointing this out.
34. For evidence of this influence, see the Frameworks archive at
35. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” p. 22.
37. Ibid.,” pp. 26-27.
38. Ibid.,” p. 23.
39. Ibid.,” p. 35.
40. See Michael Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance,”
41. I don’t mean that Zryd is intentionally updating Ramey; after all, he cites a different piece by Ramey, and only just once. Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 24. And besides that, there is no necessary disjunction between these two essays. Ramey stresses the motivations and status games of individuals in experimental cinema while also theorizing the larger field. By contrast, Zryd concentrates on that larger field while simultaneously taking a more jaundiced view of the naïve and uncompromising avant-garde rhetoric articulated at the individual level. To me, it is no surprise when a cultural field seems neurotic in that it is culturally and economically secure as a whole, as Zryd demonstrates, even as its individual members live in a continual state of professional insecurity, as Ramey demonstrates. After all, much the same can be said of many families, some businesses, even entire countries.
42. Ibid., pp. 27-28.
43. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 251.
44. Ibid., p. 253.
45. Ibid., pp. 123, 254.
46. This is not to suggest that these filmmakers didn’t often utilize the training and skill of others in their works; a perfect example is Deren’s collaboration with Hammid, who was an experienced photographer and filmmaker in Czechoslovakia before immigrating to the United States in 1938.
47. Kathryn Ramey, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 26, 2009), p. 2.
48. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 242-243. As Bourdieu notes here, the “reason the field has a directed and cumulative history is because the very intention of surpassing which properly defines the avant-garde is itself the result of a whole history, and because it is inevitably situated in relation to what it aims to surpass, that is, in relation to all the activities of surpassing which have occurred in the very structure of the field and in the space of possibles it imposes on new entrants.” Bourdieu’s italics.
49. Zryd, 'The Academy and the Avant-Garde,' pp. 28-29.
50. Avant-garde authenticity works at two subcultural levels, i.e., in the avant-garde as a whole and in the world of high art (including art cinema), which are the only two subcultures in which the claims to such authenticity are likely to be recognized and understood. But though this kind of status claim is legitimate (i.e., supported by a range of accredited institutions), it does not have a broader cultural power, as more traditional art cinemas do, for it is rarely understood by wider audiences. This is why avant-garde fads, like cult fads, are often labeled “undergrounds”: though one cinema is legitimate and the other illegitimate, these distinctions are seldom obvious to mainstream audiences. Hence, avant-garde cinema often requires an expert from a more broadly understood quarter, like the academy, the art world, or the festival circuit, to corroborate that it has legitimacy and value in high-culture subcultures.
51. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, pp. 253-254.
52. Kleinhans, “Producing the Field,” p. 3. For the way in which Sitney created the “dominant model” for looking at the New American Cinema—one that “is essentially an internal art history approach to the avant-garde”—see ibid., pp. 3-4.
53. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (1974; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 209. For more of this mythmaking in action, see the extended Brakhage homage, Stan Brakhage: Correspondences, that dominates a special double issue of The Chicago Review 47.4 and 48.1 (Winter 2001/Spring 2002).
54. Colin Still, dir., “Brakhage on Brakhage I” (1996), documentary extra, By Brakhage: An Anthology, Disc 1 (Criterion Collection, 2004). Brakhage frequently ties his poverty to his purity and artistic focus in the four documentary segments included with this anthology of his works.
55. Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 155.
56. Sitney, Visionary Film, pp. 174, 209.
57. See Jonas Mekas, “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” September 30, 1962, Film-Makers’ Coop webpage.
58. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 203.
60. Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 27. See also the “Let’s Remain Disorganizedly Organized” section of the first chapter of Paul Arthur’s A Line of Sight, pp. 6-16.
61. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 14-16.
62. See Scott MacDonald, “Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society,” Wide Angle 19.1 (January 1997), pp. 28-30. See also Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 6-16, and Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” p. 25.
63. MacDonald, “Cinema 16,” p. 28.
64. Jon Behrens, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 14, 2009), p. 1.
65. Todd Bayma, "Art World Culture and Institutional Choices: The Case of Experimental Film," The Sociological Quarterly 36.1 (December 1995), p. 84.
66. Quoted in ibid.
67. Jon Behrens, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 15, 2009), p. 1. See also Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” pp. 26-27.
68. I have heard experimentalists express similar sentiments on many occasions, one example of which I have in writing (though its author wishes to remain anonymous). Anonymous, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (April 25, 2009), p. 1. Somewhat less often, I have come across evidence of various gatekeepers reacting against the peculiar venom that often greets their decisions in this field. (See, e.g., the thread on this subject in the Frameworks archive at
69. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry and Academia,” p. 25.
70. Quoted in Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 36, n. 13.
71. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 254.
72. For more, see Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” pp. 25-26, 30-31, and Bayma, “Art World Culture and Institutional Choices,” pp. 79-95. See also Bourdieu, Rules of the Game, pp. 122-123.
73. Denis Dutton speculates that a broad, random group of adult human beings cannot accept modern art in its avant-garde phases (which, in his terms, means its abstract or conceptual phases) no matter how institutionalized it has managed to become. As a population, people don’t have the built-in capacities for such forms, which deviate too far from the tastes and tolerances of human nature. Instead, the taste for avant-garde art varies according to non-heritable factors like education. This taste has to be re-learned with each new generation, rather than being passed on through reproduction. See Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), pp. 36-38.
74. Quoted in Zryd, “The Academy and the Avant-Garde,” p. 24. For details of Spiral’s brief existence in the Los Angeles of the 1980s, see James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, p. 247.
75. See, for example, Craig Fischer, “Experimental Film: The Contemporary Scene,” accessed April 13, 2009.
76. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 156-160; p. 158.
77. This anti-institutional posture can have different outcomes, as a brief glance at the websites of Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema (http://www.othercinema.com/)
78. For example, in a telephone interview conducted on April 22, 2009, Andrea Grover of the Aurora Picture Show noted that her microcinema is devoted first to the artists, whom it has supported financially and around whom it has built a community, complete with outreach programs. She also indicated her intent to foment an anti-institutional atmosphere. Nevertheless, despite its user-friendliness and artist-friendliness, Aurora has been carefully programmed, complete with guest curation and in-house curation and an awards night that has honored high-profile experimentalists like William Wegman, Isaac Julien, Miranda July, and Steina and Woody Vasulka. For more, see the Aurora website, available at <http://www.aurorapictureshow.org>.
79. As Grover explains, private foundations have fewer mandates have thus “represented Aurora's largest contributors to date”; by contrast, for “government funding, there are incentives to meet audience numbers in terms of diversity, tourists, seniors, and youth served, which means some programming has to have wide appeal.” Government funding has also raised censorship concerns for Aurora. Andrea Grover, “Re: images and permission,” personal e-mail to the author (January 1, 2010), p. 1.
80. Zryd, “Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America,” p. 200.
81. Ramey, “Between Art, Industry, and Academia,” p. 31.
82. Ramey has noted that experimental filmmakers in fine-art positions can be forced by tenure pressures into making their art more conservative so as to win the particular institutional validations (e.g., at festivals “of a certain caliber”) required by their tenure committees—a pressure that is only reinforced when their committees refuse to consider a candidate’s scholarship, however penetrating it may be. Kathryn Ramey, “Re: experimental cinema,” personal e-mail to the author (December 21, 2009), p. 2. That said, if the avant-gardist’s insider status is based on a critical role (as in the case of Sitney or Arthur) rather than an artistic role (see Ramey), such obstacles might be easier to circumvent. That said, we should not underestimate the subtle difficulties that critic-scholars face when assimilating academic values.
83. See Danny Birchall, “The Avant-Garde Archive Online,” Film Quarterly 63.1 (Fall 2009), pp. 12-14. Of course, there have always been commercial distributors who have tried to circulate avant-garde films on a broader scale—e.g., see Freude Bartlett’s Serious Business Company, which expired in 1983 after twelve years of specializing in avant-garde films, feminist films, and animation—but the Internet seems to have opened the avant-garde to a new and more commercial range of viewers in a more permanent way than has ever seemed possible before. For more on Bartlett, see John Hess and Chuck Kleinhans, “Doing Serious Business,” Freud Bartlett inter., Jump Cut 31 (March 1986), pp. 30-34.
84. See Arthur, A Line of Sight, pp. 111-131, and James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, pp. 320-336.
85. Arthur, A Line of Sight, p. 113.