Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon.

Pierre Vallières by Joyce Wieland.

Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or.

From the Criterion DVD, By Brakhage, curated by Fred Camper.

Fuses by Carolee Schneeman.

Kino's DVD collections.

Seven DVD set curated by Anthology Film Archives.

Rose Hobart by Joseph Cornell.

Sanctus by Barbara Hammer, distributed by Re-Voir

DVD set from National Film Preservation Foundation.

Fuji by Robert Breer.




studying the media avant-garde

by Chuck Kleinhans

The technological fact of digital copies and the ease of circulating such copies on the internet and DVDs drastically changes our potential understanding of and study of experimental film and video. In a survey article on books about avant-garde film that I wrote in 1975, I remarked:

“Living in Chicago last summer, I could read about the avant-garde a lot more easily than I could see avant-garde films. This says something: that few people on this continent except in Manhattan, and perhaps the San Francisco Bay area, have access to avant-garde films (or, if you prefer: underground, experimental, personal, lyrical, or specificities like New American Cinema, or structural film, or names from Deren to Wieland). Except for a few little pockets of aficionados who screen experimental films—often short lived groups—hardly anyone can readily or really see such films, study them, appreciate them.”
["Reading and Thinking about the Avant-garde," Jump Cut no. 6 (Mar.-Apr. 1975), pp. 21-25.]

Thus, I attributed the steady production of writing about the experimental media world as a compensation for being deprived of the loved object. At that time, both in classrooms and in self-education, few people who were interested in avant-garde media could regularly see any of it, and certainly almost no one had the chance to actually study individual films. Although the post war New American Cinema movement of independent artisan filmmaking achieved a certain status in the art world and in film academic study by the late 1960s, only those in large urban areas in the United States could experience experimental work on a weekly or even monthly basis. The establishment of a canon of significant work by major figures gradually took place with successive issues of Film Culture, attention to new work in annual festivals, the establishment of distribution coops such as Canyon Cinema and the New York Filmmakers Coop, and recognition of film as a valid art form in art schools and universities. This gave a tangible presence to experimental work in film, and then in its shadow, video.

However because film prints were rare and expensive (even if technically reproducible) artists and enthusiasts depended on attending screenings to see work, and then only seeing these formally complex and innovative works once. A few schools purchased a few prints of “classic” works that could be viewed more than once, but even then careful frame-by-frame analysis was a rare experience. This produced some anomalous situations. Those who had seen a lot automatically had the “cultural capital” to push their views and agendas. And the field was still small enough by 1975 or so, finite enough, that some people in key places (geographically such as New York City and San Francisco; programmers, reviewers, teachers, filmmakers, and other tastemakers and gatekeepers) could actually and honestly claim to have seen almost everything worth seeing. This also led to inadvertent, calculated, and deliberate exclusion. A boy’s club atmosphere often ignored women’s creative work. New York was often blind to filmmaking from the West Coast, the Midwest, and the South. Work from abroad was only recognized when the makers actually spent time residing in the United States or frequently visiting New York, in particular. And films were often erratically available, even for those who had cosmopolitan access. Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or existed in the United States as a print in the 1960s, but it was a single print owned by a collector who would show it only when paid not only for the rental but for him to travel with the print. Filmmakers could remove their prints from circulation (which Jack Smith did several times), or a print could be accidentally damaged beyond sensible repair and the maker could be strapped for funds to have another print struck. Since 16mm was the norm, regular 8mm and Super 8mm were dismissed by and large. And video was often ignored or overlooked or scorned as aesthetically, formally and technically inferior to film.

Often a filmmaker had only one print to circulate, and submission to festivals (important for gaining national recognition) meant sending that one print to a festival months in advance, during which time it was tied up. Then on to another festival. (It is only in the past few years that many film festivals have finally accepted the idea of pre-screening work sent in digital format.) The circulation of new work even among a coterie, except for the big name superstar makers, took several years. Even if a maker had a print they could travel with, they had to go from place to place as a visiting artist, trying to set up bookings in advance and typically getting a small fee. Crash pad accommodations were the norm, and travel was definitely not a way to make money, as essential as it was for building one’s reputation. On the other hand, this also fostered a bohemian camaraderie and chance to be the exotic visitor to small town college communities.

The change to digital copies and their wide circulation has forever changed the game. While it would be peculiar to claim this is as significant as the Gutenberg revolution, the parallels are significant. Just as the change from one-off manuscript copies to mass reproduced print materials allowed for the wide circulation of written materials, especially in book form, the possibility of video copies changed who had access to experimental media and how they could see it and study it. For students, aspiring media makers in particular, this opened vast possibilities. One could actually see, and repeatedly witness, the editing techniques of a Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage film. Details and textures, contrasts and repetitions became recognizable. Nuance and suggestion stood revealed under close study. You didn’t have to live in a cosmopolitan center to experience the range of experimental work and its history. This was a powerful addition to an artist’s knowledge and also democratically expanded access to the experimental world.

Of course there was resistance. Film purists (especially those who had already acquired their cultural capital) scorned video copies as technically vastly inferior and affirmed that only projected film was aesthetically valid. Even when people pointed out that the often color faded, damaged and distressed prints circulated by the co-ops, or ones well worn from years of classroom projection, were noticeably flawed compared to a nice video copy, the purists held to their positions. Even when Brakhage released some copies of his films on VHS, most purists ignored that. Other odd results of the format change included attempts in the co-ops to police video distribution, and curiosities such as Carolee Schneeman’s silent film Fuses being released on VHS video with a soundtrack (ocean waves) because “you can’t have silent video or people think their TV is broken.”

In the past decade we’ve seen a surge in the availability of “classic” avant-garde works as well as much more availability of individual artist’s works. One source is carefully made DVDs with a high technical standard (some examples follow below). Another is online distribution either by streaming (a relatively new and still developing practice) and web accessible videos. While online delivery is often deeply compromised in terms of quality, it does give some access to people around the world who would otherwise never have seen many works. And even if considered just a “sketch” or “reminder” or “promise” of what the actual theatrical filmic or HD video projection experience would be, it vastly expands the possibilities for understanding and appreciating the media avant-garde.

It is now possible to get a good self-education in avant-garde media by using DVD and internet resources, along with some useful survey books. I’d suggest starting with some of these books, and viewing the films as you read about them.

  • Rees, A. L. A History of Experimental Film and Video: From the Canonical Avant-Garde to Contemporary British Practice. London: British Film Institute, 1999. An accessible and clear survey of the major figures, trends, and styles. The later section of the book concentrates on the UK. The best starting point overview.
  • Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. (Third Edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides the more or less standard canon of US experimental film that many others have subsequently revised, critiqued, and elaborated since its first publication in the mid 1970s. The Third Edition tries to bring it up to the present, with slightly spotty results.
  • Horak, Jan-Christopher, ed. Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. An excellent survey of early US experimental film. [Full Disclosure: I have an essay in this book.]
  • Blaetz, Robin, ed. Women's Experimental Cinema. Durham NC Duke University Press, 2007. An superb addition to the field, offering a corrective to the often male dominated canon, written by some of the leading figures in studying experimental cinema. [Full disclosure: I have an essay in this book.]
  • MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, ff. MacDonald's interviews are models of careful preparation and thoughtful discussion. There are now 5 volumes in the series: 1 (1988), 2 (1992), 3 (1998), 4 (2005), 5 (2006). Many people find interviews especially informative about experimental work. In contrast to the all-to-often published puff pieces and log rolling for one’s friends found in avant-garde coteries, MacDonald’s interviews get to the deeper questions.

A full bibliography isn’t possible here, but the above titles will get anyone started. In a subsequent piece I will try to do justice to the experimental and artist’s video tradition.

Avant-garde on DVD

The relatively high quality image and sound of DVDs compared to VHS consumer format video was a game changer for the broader and more democratic distribution and exhibition of avant-garde films. In the United States, at least, right now anyone can get a good basic education in the history of the US avant-garde by watching DVDs which are often available by commercial sources such as Netflix and Blockbuster, or public and college library collections.

Kino Video (http://www.kino.com/video/index.php) offers three anthologies of experimental work. Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 30s, a two disk set, includes European silent era classics such as Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, Leger and Murphy’s Ballet Méchanique, and Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast, as well as work by US makers such as Strand and Sheeler’s Manhatta, Watson and Weber’s Lot in Sodom, and Man Ray’s Return to Reason.

Volume Two ranges from Maas, Geography of the Body, Menken’s Visual Variations on Noguchi, and Brakhage’s The Way to the Shadow Garden to a rare French work by the Lettrist leader Isou, inspiration for the Situationists, the feature length Venom and Eternity.

The third volume in the anthology series collects some newly restored films from George Eastman House such as the Bute-Nemeth Tarantella and Murphy’s Danse Macabre as well as Peterson’s The Lead Shoes and Maas’s early gay themed Image in the Snow.

Other essentials in the Kino series are Bunuel’s L’Age d’or and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.

Anthology Film Archives (http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/) helped sponsor a major touring retrospective of Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941 which was subsequently released on DVDs. Some purists criticized the massively inclusive collection for gaining quantity (19 hours, 155 films), at the expense of quality, but the expansiveness is justified by the need to actually gain a broad view of the territory. The collection ranges from Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) to Vorkapich montage sequences from Hollywood films, and includes Mary Ellen Bute’s light abstractions, Cornell’s appropriated footage films, and left wing experiments from the 1930s.

The National Film Preservation Foundation has collected an anthology of restored works in its box set Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986. Included are animation by Harry Smith and Robert Breer, Chick Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory, Frampton’s (nostalgia) and Maclaine’s The End.

The zenith of DVD experimental anthologies, Criterion Collection’s By Brakhage vol. 1 and vol. 2 gathers most of the key works by the prolific master of experimental film. The result is absolutely essential to knowing what shaped the field. And it is beautifully produced with DVD extras and notes that add immense value to the films themselves.

Some individual artists have supervised the transfer of their films to DVD, and these are often available with some searching around. For example, Canyon Cinema sells two collections of work by Bruce Baillie both to institutions and to individuals (at a lower rate for private viewing). Includes these classics (Quixote, Castro Street, Mass, Valentine de las Sierras, All My Life). It is sometimes possible to deal directly with film artists to see if they have DVD copies of their work to sell. Typically rates for institutions are much higher than for individuals. And some makers interpret all such inquiries as opportunities to sell to collectors, as the mainstream fine art world does, with corresponding high prices.

The French distributor Re-voir (http://re-voir.com/) sells a wide range of DVDs of European and North American filmmakers. Sales are in Euros, and the DVDs are in PAL format, requiring a multi-format DVD player.

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