Secret History of the Dividing Line

The relationship between the critical practice of the avant-garde and David Gatten’s Secret History films is not immediately apparent. Indeed, Gatten identifies his artistic practice as “making moving images,” and even the scholar must infer their investment in the historical development and crisis of the avant-garde briefly outlined above. I have, of course, raised this discussion of the avant-garde in the context of Gatten’s film Secret History of the Dividing Line because I believe the film explores the continued presence and potential of the critical practice of the avant-garde, and points to an innovative manner in which its crisis might be negotiated by contemporary filmmakers or artists interested in taking up its aims.

Twenty minutes long, silent, and filmed in black-and-white, Secret History of the Dividing Line revolves around two central concerns of the avant-garde: history and aesthetics. Specifically, the film deals with two historical accounts of a particular event, and uses formal devices to manipulate those accounts and encourage particular readings of them.[21] [open notes in new window] The film opens with a short sequence of unexposed film through which a vertical tear, resembling a deep scratch, runs erratically, splitting the predominantly black screen at the middle.

After several seconds of this black screen, and over the continued vertical tear, the film presents a series of dates that mark, at least those one is able to grasp, the development of civilization (predominantly Western civilization), from 15 000 BC up to the first half of the twentieth century.

Most of these dates are present on screen only briefly, spanning at most only a few frames of film making it difficult to read in the single screening in which the film is usually shown. This series of dates, however, comes to include dates that deal with the settlement of Virginia, and with the life of William Byrd II.

These dates are left on screen longer, and, as they progress, are increasingly focused on Byrd’s involvement in a 1728 expedition to survey the border between Virginia and North Carolina. This expedition culminated, these dates tell us, in the publication two separate accounts, both written by Byrd: his official account, titled The Official History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, and a personal account titled Secret History of the Line.[22]

Following the presentation of these dates, the film presents several sections of text from Byrd’s official account, offering a glimpse into its official and religious tone. The vertical tear, which had disappeared during the presentation of the dates pertaining to Byrd, then returns, disrupting the presentation of the text by splitting the frame in two and leaving half the screen black.

The tear then disappears again, and the film gives similar treatment of Byrd’s secret history, presenting several passage that reveal the satiric tone it adopts in contrast to the official account. When the vertical tear reappears yet another time over this secret account, rather than split the image between text and empty space, it splits the image between the two historical accounts, encouraging perception of them as intertwined.

Following its manipulation of these accounts, the film enters a formal investigation of the film splice nearly ten minutes in length. A central component of editing, and indeed of filmmaking itself, the splice is the physical splitting and rejoining of film stock. The Secret History of the Dividing Line may not contain shots in the conventional sense of live-action cinema, but it does rely on splitting and rejoining celluloid stock. The vertical tear itself is a form of splice, and the film moves between dates and textual passages by means of the traditional horizontal splice. In this ten minute section, the film uses optically printed splices—the effect of which is to extend the amount of time they are on screen—to produce a flicker effect that gradually slows in tempo. These are rough, and not seamless, and they appear as bright strips in contrast to the black film stock. This contrast produces the flicker effect that is initially disorienting, but then dissipates as the splices are left on screen for increasingly longer durations, ultimately the splices are present for seven to ten seconds.

After this substantial section, the film concludes reproducing cleanly, without splices or tears, text from an appendix to Byrd’s official account titled “The Distance Between Places,” which lists the distances between all the physical, environmental landmarks encountered on the expedition.

Evident in this lengthy description of Secret History of the Dividing Line is the film’s concern with both history and film aesthetics. The opening of the film, with almost a minute of sustained focus on the vertical tear, foregrounds a concern with engaging disruptive aesthetics, a concern that comes implicitly to link the film with the critical practice of the avant-garde. In the following series of dates, the film produces a teleological narrative of American history comprised of “cornerstones” of Western historical progress (e.g., as Marco Polo’s return from the Orient), which evokes the formation of the United States as the culmination of the development of Western civilization. However, the clear presentation of this narrative is frustrated through the aesthetic device of the splice as the series is edited too rapidly to grasp the bulk of dates it presents. To emphasize the direct role of editing in this presentation, the vertical tear, ultimately a vertical “splice” continues to run overtop of this presentation, splitting the physical dates from their descriptions, and implying the role of its formal presentation affecting the perception of its content.

Structuring this sequence in this way has two effects. First, by evoking a broad teleological history and undermining its clear presentation through aesthetics, the film is suggestive of the desire of the avant-garde to use aesthetics as a means of challenging the authority of history. Second, by denying a clear understanding of that narrative the film evokes a sense of its own position in a moment where such broad, overarching views of history are increasingly obscured. Read in response to these effects, the inclusion of the dates pertaining to Virginia and Byrd resonate not just as the film’s announced focus, but as an opportunity for focused historical understanding. When the dates pertaining to the settlement of Virginia are screened for a longer duration, it creates a smaller historical narrative, that of the settlement of a single state, which becomes an identifiable context in which the larger teleological narrative with which the film begins can be explored. Additionally, the dates pertaining to Byrd’s life, which are the culmination of the dates pertaining to Virginia, and which offer an exceptional level of detail, form a concrete access point through which that large narrative can be engaged and reconsidered. These dates effectively position Byrd’s involvement in the settlement of Virginia as what we can term a “microhistory.”

Historian Carlo Ginzburg traces the term “microhistory” to historian George R. Stewart who, in 1959, used it to discuss the involvement of the Confederate general George E. Pickett in the battle of Gettysburg during the American civil war.[23] For Stewart, the precise details of Pickett’s involvement in that battle reveal not only why it unfolded how it did, but also how it led to the defeat of the Confederate army and the resolution of the Civil war. Using Stewart’s reading of Pickett’s charge as an exemplar, Ginzburg articulates microhistories as smaller, localized histories that address broad or overarching historical periods, events, and narratives, but are not readily alluded to by those periods, events, or narratives.[24] Pickett’s charge offers great insight into Gettysburg and its ramifications, though narratives of Gettysburg themselves do not necessarily identify Pickett or his importance; Pickett is but a piece of history, but one that helps us understand it more clearly. Read this way, microhistories afford historians opportunities to explore such narratives through new access points, and to open them to greater clarity. Microhistory serves an additional purpose by addressing what Ginzburg calls “the acknowledgement of the limits of existence.”[25] Not only do they reveal moments in history with greater clarity, they also circumvent the potentially unmanageable scope of history, reducing the focus of our historical understanding to a degree of specificity that makes it tangible (15).

For this reduction in scale, Ginzburg places microhistory in opposition to history that is macroscopic, qualitative and linear, and in which he finds its significant contribution to historical understanding. Microhistory allows for a thorough understanding of historical phenomena, something possible only through the reconstruction of all its constituent elements.[26] Additionally, and crucial to this discussion, it addresses and offers to move beyond the fragmentation of history in postmodernism.[27] Specifically, the particularities of these localized, often personal histories can compel us to reconsider events and narratives of major historical significance.[28] Reading Secret History of the Dividing Line through Ginzburg lets us seethe life of William Byrd II and his survey expedition as a microhistory that intersects the larger historical narrative initially offered by the film, that which culminates with a teleological reading of the formation of the United States.[29] As such, though Byrd is not a paramount figure in the history or mythos of the United States, his localized history can push us to reconsider that overarching narrative.

            It is significant in this context of microhistory that the film shifts focus from history, the broad preoccupation of the avant-garde, to historiography, the writing of history, and a specific manner of engaging historical events. Indeed, Byrd’s historical accounts of the settlement of the border between Virginia and North Carolina are offered by the film as the culmination of Byrd’s microhistory, and the film’s presentation and manipulation of those accounts thus becomes an historical investigation its own right. When the film presents sections of Byrd’s accounts, it does so through a formal strategy designed to undermine their historical authority. For example, the film presents several sections of Byrd’s official account, offering a sense of how the rhetoric of the official document expounds the importance of the expedition to the establishment of Virginia. When the film later shows sections from Byrd’s secret history, Byrd’s satiric prose suggests that it was personal greed and not state interests that lay behind the expedition.[30] The contradiction between these two texts can be grasped by reading them, but Secret History of the Dividing Line uses a formal strategy to remind us of its role in bringing their incongruities to light. Over the official account, the vertical tear returns, drawing attention to the tear’s manipulation of the work. During the presentation of the secret history, this vertical tear contrasts both official and secret accounts, making evident the films formal work in bringing them together in this critical manner.

In this section, the film thematizes several issues circling the avant-garde and its crisis. Having positioned Byrd’s accounts as entry points to a larger teleological history, the film foregrounds its primary aesthetic device, the disruptive vertical tear that splits the image. In doing so, it forges a connection with avant-garde aesthetics and their urge to disrupt the authority of history, a connection previously established when the same tear renders illegible the series of historical dates. In what is essentially a visual metaphor, this device literally effaces history from the screen. However, as if enacting the loss of the efficacy of aesthetics to simply undermine history in and of themselves—though of course we might now question whether such efficacy was ever truly manifest—this device is ultimately invested within the film in an investigation of historiography. Whereas the vertical tear begins by challenging a presentation of history, it is redirected in this sequence as a challenge to the authority of historical documents, moving from what risks being a potentially empty attack on a historical narrative, to what is a revealing analysis of two documents representative of that narrative. And though the vertical tear might be nothing more than a formal element of the film, it is difficult to overlook the contrasting narratives provided by Byrd’s two writings.

The presentation of these two documents, following as they do the film’s complex presentation of historical dates, cues attention back to the critical project of the avant-garde, a project in which the film now appears embedded. It suggests that the use of aesthetics to undermine history, implicit in using the tear to obscure a historical narrative or an official account, is no longer an effective technique, working only to obscure fragments of a larger history that are, as the film itself enacts, impossible to grasp. However, in demonstrating the potential of aesthetics to mediate between historical accounts, the film asserts that this challenge can be recaptured in a historiographic process through which the validity of a larger history is questioned, and its authority shown to be based in rhetoric before fact.

The discussion between history, historiography, and aesthetics so far engendered is expanded in the section following Byrd’s accounts, that which presents the formal investigation of the splice, the central aesthetic device at work in the film. As noted earlier, this section begins with numerous splices optically printed in rapid succession. The white line that appears where the black film stock has been cut and glued back together is brightly visible along with the otherwise dark frame. As the film moves through the splices it appears and disappears, the contrast of black and white producing a flicker effect that is disruptive of the type of viewing so far solicited by the film, one dependent on reading segments of text, and very nearly disorienting in its strobe effect. Appearing here, after the negotiation of historical authority through an aesthetic device, the violence of this flicker calls forth the aesthetic extremism of the avant-garde, the disruption of forms of reception that the avant-garde hoped would undermine artistic tradition. But no sooner has the section elicited this connection than it begins to slow the duration for which each splice is on screen. Gradually, the flicker is replaced by still images of the splices themselves, lasting on screen for up to ten seconds, images that reveal the splices are nothing more torn edges of film stock, smears of glue, and pockets of air bubbles.

Reducing these splices to their physical forms is anti-climatic in the wake of the flicker they initially produce, and it develops the suggestion made in earlier sections of the film that the aesthetic lacks any inherent political efficacy. Indeed, strengthened here is the film’s additional suggestion that it is only the embedding of formal techniques within a specific context that gives them such efficacy, as well as the power to work against massive forces such as history and tradition. Of course, the avant-garde was aware that it was inserting its aesthetic extremism into the context of artistic tradition, a context in which it hoped that extremism would be shocking, disruptive, and subversive. The film, however, openly acknowledges that its aesthetic manipulations or decisions have little impact on their own, and that it is the historical investigation into which they are inserted that affords them their opportunity for subversion. The use of the vertical tear to obscure Byrd’s official account is just that, an obscuring of historical document; it forces no inherent social change, nor should it. However, when the tear is used to contrast Byrd’s official and unofficial accounts, the film uses this aesthetic device in a practice of historical negotiation that is akin to the historical negation sought by the avant-garde. There is an acknowledgment here that faced with changing understandings of history, and with the degrading political impact of radical aesthetics, aesthetics now need to be engaged within conceptual frameworks, such as historiography or microhistory, if they are to address successfully the anti-historical stance praised by the avant-garde during its flourishing.

The rejection of history and tradition by the avant-garde was done in hopes of creating an idealized future. This broadly-shaped directive is not adopted by Secret History of the Dividing Line, its negotiation of historical understanding and film aesthetics is more subtle and nuanced. However, the final section of the film draws attention to its contribution to historical understanding by presenting the text of “The Distance Between Places.” This section reveals to us the scope of the contribution of Byrd’s account of the survey expedition, presenting the measurements he took in mapping the border of that state, and thus reminding us that the expedition contributed to the official establishment Virginia’s borders and geography. With its focus on the measurable contribution of Byrd’s account, this section also reminds us that historiography, though potentially fraught with contradiction and biases, seeks to produce an understanding of the world. As a result, the film’s own investment in historiography, its examination of two historical accounts, is itself exposed as a process of understanding. It is invested in a historical project that can prove as useful to understanding narratives of national settlement and identity, narratives that can be as broad as the overarching narrative for which Byrd is offered as a microhistory. Yet, here focus is not on physical or definitive understanding, as is this final section of Byrd’s account, but rather on an understanding of the contradictions and biases of history.

Secret History of the Dividing Line enacts the crisis faced by the avant-garde, as well as one means of developing and pursuing its critical ethos. In its formal manipulation of a historical narrative, it evokes the desire of the avant-garde to resist the authority of history, and to do so through aesthetic strategies. Yet, in its effacing of a “macro history” in favor of both microhistory and historiography, the film acknowledges that fragmentation and shifting perceptions of history might render such grand gestures ineffectual. Ultimately, the film thematizes the context of its own aesthetic program, demonstrating that a shift in focus and application might be seen to afford that program an opportunity for the kind of subversion embraced by the avant-garde. In doing so, it integrates that particular impulse of the avant-garde into a new framework. And, by tackling the crisis of the historical avant-garde, and by reworking its impulse into a new, applicable context, the film dramatizes that the impulse to continue to hold weight, and that it can be extended into current artistic practice.   

Extensions of the avant-garde

To suggest that Secret History of the Dividing Line offers a means to extend the impulses of the historical avant-garde into contemporary artistic production raises additional questions, some common to many experiences of avant-garde (and experimental) cinema, others more specific. Though I have set aside issues of filmmaker David Gatten’s intentions, my reading of the film, and my inference of its connection to this historical movement, pushes us to consider what value its interrogation of the crisis, and continued influence, of the avant-garde’s anti-historical thrust. We might ask further whether this interrogation is a necessary outcome of the film, or its critical reception? And to what extent it is manifest in the film’s reception?

Such questions, particularly the latter, require different forms of research and are difficult to answer. Still, they point to the different cultural operations in which the film is invested, and why its engagement with the avant-garde can be read as fruitful and valuable with a range of contexts. When Scott MacDonald suggests that the films of Gatten’s Secret History series reflect on a century of avant-garde film production, his provocative comment that leads us to read elements of that series, such as the formal organization of Secret History of the Dividing Line in the grander context of avant-garde cinema, both in North America and abroad. Indeed, the formal organization of this film creates intertextual allusions to a range of avant-garde films and filmmaking techniques, implicitly positioning the film in a network of filmmaking practices. The flicker effect caused by the optical printing of the splices in the film’s fourth section, for example, is explicitly reminiscent of many structural films of the 1960s, such as The Flicker (Tony Conrad, 1965) or Ray Gun Virus (Paul Sharits, 1966). Likewise, the formal investigation of historical works evokes a range of avant-garde films such as Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (Ken Jacobs, 1969) or Marilyn Times Five (Bruce Connor, 1973). Some other connections formed by the film are latent, discernible only through reading about the film or listening to the filmmaker, but these connections are evident to most audiences who are aware of the history of avant-garde film.[31]

The intertextual connections thus come to invest this film in the broad history of avant-garde cinema, with its different, occasionally conflicting schools, and its lingering connection to the historical avant-garde, a connection that is both terminological and connected to the avant-garde’s aesthetic and political interests. MacDonald makes the implicit suggestion that Gatten’s Secret History series as about locating himself within a community, and a history, of avant-garde filmmakers. In doing so, he opens our consideration further to reading in these films an investigation of an artistic practice that shares impulses and concerns with the historical avant-garde itself, and does so in a more direct way than the broad tenets of avant-garde filmmaking I offered earlier. Ultimately, scholars must infer the degree to which Secret History of the Dividing Line negotiates the avant-garde and its crisis. Through such inference, however, the film’s historical inquiry becomes not only a “process of historical research,” as MacDonald suggests Gatten sees his own films, but also an investigation of the changing position of avant-garde filmmakers and artists at the outset of the twenty-first century.[32] Indeed, the film explores how as the overarching concepts through which the historical avant-garde defined itself are increasingly stripped away, the task of the avant-garde artist changes, and the types of intervention they undertake begin to shift.

Secret History of the Dividing Line showcases above all its historical intervention. It dramatizes its formal interference in a historical narrative as a means of reading history critically, and of reflecting on broad narratives of national identity as contradictory, biased, opaque, and misleading. This critical position is not new, but Secret History of the Dividing Line is not simplistic or repetitive of existing criticism or approaches. Rather, it feels innovative, exciting, organic, and compelling. It is here, in that experience, that I find its engagement of the avant-garde to be fruitful. The form of criticism it employs extends back through the historical avant-garde, has been negotiated and contested for decades, and has been argued by numerous theorists as now void. Still, within the proliferation of films and filmmakers identified as avant-garde, some continue to embrace its critical ethos.

Responding to the “death” of the avant-garde, Matei Calinescu claims that the continued ability of artists to identify and engage social crises produces a continued existence of the avant-garde as a form of social criticism.[33] His comment elides the historical specificity of the avant-garde, but reminds us of its continued influence. Indeed, numerous avant-garde filmmakers continue to speak to its ethos, albeit often in broad terms, despite its apparent ineffectiveness. Secret History of the Dividing Line offers a mediation between these difficult positions. It engages with the project of the historical avant-garde to reconfigure it, and to find its own avenue on which to pursue it. In doing so, the film points to the continued impulse of that project, but exposes new forms it can take, and highlights the active exploration by artists of techniques beyond the focus of the historical movement. Ultimately, this film speaks to us as scholars, filmmakers, and audiences interested or invested in the continued potential of avant-garde art. Indeed, the film both confirms the crisis of the historical avant-garde for us, as well as pushes past it, drawing attention to new avenues for those interested in an artistic practice that has already passed them by.