Das frühe Kino und die Avantgarde
Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde

Wien / Vienna 8. - 13. 3. 2002


Sixpack Film,
Filmarchiv Austria,


Tom Gunning | Jan-Christopher Horak | Joachim Paech |
Claudia Preschl
| Bart Testa | William C. Wees |









Taking Another Look: Early Cinema and Recent Avant-Garde Film






William C. Wees

Abb: John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum (GB 1976)


(Much of this essay will appear in the Toronto-based journal, Public, under the title "The Changing of the Garde(s)." That version, however, does not include references to early cinema; nor, with one exception, does it refer to the films discussed in the final section of the present essay.)

In the pioneering work on early cinema and avant-garde film carried out in the 1980s by scholars like Regina Cornwell, Noël Carrol, Tom Gunning and Bart Testa, the avant-garde films most frequently cited belonged to the Structural and/or Materialist Film Movements that flourished from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Consequently, the significant changes avant-garde film was undergoing—at least in North America—during the eighties were not taken into account. One can ask, therefore, are comparisons between early cinema and avant-garde film still relevant? Complicating the issue is the absence of a generally-accepted definition of avant-garde film—not only in commentaries on early cinema and the avant-garde, but in most histories and critical writing on avant-garde film generally. Missing, in other words, is a theory of avant-garde film that draws upon, and is responsive to, theoretical discourses involving other forms of avant-garde art.

My goal, therefore, is three-fold: first, to review new developments in North American avant-garde filmmaking in the eighties and after; second, to propose a definition of avant-garde film that draws upon Peter Bürger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde and subsequent efforts to modify and adapt his theoretical arguments to particular movements in the literary and visual arts; third, to apply theory to practice by commenting—albeit briefly—on the films screened under the title "Looking Back, Looking Forward: North American Avant-Garde Film Since the Eighties." That screening was designed to highlight some elements of recent avant-garde film that have counterparts in early cinema, and therefore to show that comparisons of early cinema and post-Structuralist/Materialist avant-garde film are still possible and, indeed, useful in efforts to specify what it is that makes a film avant-garde in the first place.


"The Avant-Garde is Dead; Long Live the Avant-Garde"

In the 1980s a significant number of younger film artists (whom I will call, for convenience’s sake, the "Eighties Generation") contributed to a new avant-garde film discourse that differed significantly from the discourse produced by and designed for the avant-garde of the preceding decades (going back at least as far as Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon [1943]). Leslie Thornton (whose on-going film cycle, Peggy and Fred in Hell, is one of the crowning achievements of the post-1980 avant-garde) could be speaking for most of her contemporaries in avant-garde filmmaking when she says, "I think if it’s important now to have a critical perspective as a cultural producer, it’s just as important to pursue forms of address that we call aesthetics. You can’t just cut one off and say it’s...questionable, bourgeois, corrupt or whatever. It all goes together, and the work that’s going to last is art" (Wees 1993, 99).

While an emphasis on art and aesthetics has been part of the discourse surrounding avant-garde film for a long time, the same cannot be said of Thornton’s identification of the artist as a "cultural producer" with "a critical perspective," or her reference to works of art as "forms of address." Such phrases reflect a recognition and acceptance of the artist’s responsibility to engage in cultural debates, to exploit, in other words, the active, critical, even political, roles artists and their works of art play in contemporary culture—in the broadest sense of that term. Of course there are individual exceptions on both sides of the chronological/generational divide, and the new discourse did not reject everything upheld by the old one (as Thornton’s affirmation of art and aesthetics indicates), but during the Eighties it became increasing apparent that a fundamental reorientation of theory and practice (what I have called elsewhere a "paradigm shift" [2001, 70]) was taking place within the ranks of younger avant-garde filmmakers and their supporters. The result was a new discourse composed of new films and new ways of thinking, talking, and writing about them.1

Before proceeding, I should make it clear that I regards all avant-garde films as participants in, not simply objects of, or excuses for, a critical/theoretical discourse, no matter what the conscious intentions of the filmmaker might have been. At the same time, it is obvious that some films are more openly "discursive" than others (notable examples have come from the Lettrists and Situationists, as well as Fluxus and the structural/materialist film movements), and I think it is fair to say that, in contrast to previous avant-garde films, the work of the Eighties Generation is notable for its engagement in a self-conscious, politicized discourse concerned with the cinematic apparatus (in its mechanical, perceptual, psychological, institutional and ideological senses), as well as a broad range of other issues involving sex, gender, patriarchy, race, class, nation, neo-colonialism, globalization, corporate media, and the commodification of culture.

A defining moment in the development of the new avant-garde film discourse came with the publication of an Open Letter attacking the International Experimental Film Congress held in Toronto in the Spring of 1989.2 Signed by many (mostly American) members of the Eighties Generation, the letter charged that the Congress was dominated by the work of older filmmakers who may have been avant-garde at one time but did not seem so in the context of late-Twentieth Century social, political and aesthetic concerns. Actually, the Toronto Congress was more open to new work than the Open Letter claimed, but it is also true that, with a few exceptions, the filmmakers invited to present workshops and appear on panels (e.g. Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Pat O’Neil, Carolee Schneemann, Brigit Hein, Joyce Wieland, David Rimmer) were a generation older than the most of the signers of the Open Letter. Moreover, the Congress opened with a Jack Chambers retrospective and closed with a Hollis Frampton retrospective, thus book-ending the week-long event with the work of two dead white males, as one critic of the Congress accurately, if insensitively, noted (Dargis 1989, 92).

While the Open Letter was only partially accurate in its charges against the Congress (it was written before the event took place and was based on advance announcements—and gossip—that circulated in the avant-garde film community), it expressed in forceful terms, the frame of mind of the Eighties Generation. After declaring that the Congress is clearly intended to promote "the official history" of avant-garde film, it proclaims, "The time is long overdue to unwrite the Institutional Canon of Masterworks of the Avant-Garde. It is time to shift focus from the History of Film to the position of film within the construction of history." Complaining that the work to be shown at the Congress was "chosen to minimize linguistic, sexual, and cultural differences, typically to conform to the model of the ‘universal language of form’ so dear to Institutional esperantists," the letter goes on to insist that there is, in reality, "a spirit of mind which continues to challenge the hegemony of industry, of government, of bureaucracy," but it is not represented by the Congress.

Significantly, the Open Letter does not attack particular films or filmmakers, but rather the critical agendas and institutional practices that perpetuate an avant-garde canon based on a-historical values that privilege formal perfection and a presumed universality of meaning. In the view of the letter’s authors, truly avant-garde films are the result of an engagement with social and aesthetic issues grounded in the particular time and place of their making:

The revolutionary frame of mind pervading activity in film in the Teens and Twenties and again in the Fifties and Sixties—which seemed to die in the Seventies—continues to thrive, but only where it has shifted and migrated according to changing historical conditions. The issues which galvanized the Cinema Avant-Garde of earlier decades arose from different conditions than those which confront us today.

Hence the letter’s defiant conclusion: "The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde."

To an unsympathetic observer, the Open Letter might seem to be little more than an outburst of Oedipal envy, the predictable consequence of a "generational rift" (Dargis 1989, 92), or a petulant response of hurt egos ("How come we weren’t invited to the party?"), or simply another example of the pugnaciousness that has been endemic to the avant-garde since the Italian Futurists began issuing manifestoes and picking fights in the years prior to World War I. All of the above may be partially true, at least as far as the tone of the letter is concerned, but in its substance the letter reflects real and carefully considered issues that go beyond objections to the Congress per se. It addresses a larger critical bias that perpetuates "the Institutional Canon of Masterworks of the Avant-Garde" and consequently is unable to account for or appreciate newer, non-canonical works or engage constructively in the new avant-garde film discourse.

A prime example of this bias is Fred Camper’s essay, "The End of the Avant-Garde," published in the Millennium Film Journal two years before the Congress took place. Much-discussed at the time (and a direct influence on the planning of the Toronto Congress3), the essay is best known for arguing fervently that the work of the younger generation of avant-garde filmmakers does not measure up to the standards set by the older avant-garde "masters" (a position also taken by Jim Hoberman in a review of the Whitney Biennial published a few months earlier in the Village Voice [Hoberman1991, 174]). But more illuminating for my present purpose are the criteria Camper proposes for evaluating a film’s worth:

...first of all a coherent cinematic expression in which each image has a reason for being where it is and a reason for following the previous image; its filmic form is connected to some kind of meaning, however untranslatable that meaning may seem: the work as a whole affects me strongly, ecstatically; it seems ambiguous and complete enough to offer, in its totality, not merely self-expression or a personality but also some sense of a whole lived life, an entire consciousness, a whole form of thinking, a different possibility for being (1986-87, 99-100).

In his emphasis on formal rigour, on organic unity, on ambiguity, on powerful affect, and on art as an expression of "an entire consciousness," Camper effectively summarizes the Romantic Modernism characteristic of the avant-garde film discourse that endorsed the canon of "masterworks" critiqued in the Open Letter. The most thorough and influential exposition of this discourse in scholarly-critical terms is P. Adam Sitney’s Visionary Film; its fullest expression in personal-creative terms is the complete oeuvre--writings, lectures, films—of Stan Brakhage; its most concrete embodiment in public-institutional terms is the "Essential Cinema" collection of Anthology Film Archives.4 But, of course, it is also a version of the larger Modernist project that dominated all the arts during much of the Twentieth Century. The key elements of this project are familiar but worth summarizing in order to highlight what is at stake in supplanting them with new ones.

First and foremost is the autonomy of art. Grounded philosophically in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and aesthetically in Nineteenth Century aestheticism and doctrines of l’art pour l’art, the concept of autonomy presumes that art should be absolutely distinct from the economic, social, political and ethical dimensions of life, that it need not, indeed should not, be "relevant" or "engaged," otherwise it risks sinking to the level of mere propaganda. A corollary is that art is not only separate from, but superior to, popular, mass culture, and consequently offers an antidote to the culture industry’s alienating effect on society. Indicative of Modernist art’s distance from popular culture is a preponderance of new, "experimental" techniques employed by artists working in all art forms and media. These techniques are expected to serve the organic unity of the work as a whole and, at the same time, foreground the distinct, "essential" properties of the medium in which the work is conceived. And while the work will undoubtedly reflect one or more aspects of modernity, it must also carry "universal" meaning drawn from "timeless" myths, symbols, and archetypes.

The artist is understood to be a creator of unique, original works expressing her or his special sensitivity ( "a whole lived life, an entire consciousness," in Camper’s terms ): the more deeply felt and "personal" the work, the more "universal" it will be. Furthermore, the artist is "driven" to create by some ineffable force (rather than by the conscious decision to deal with social, economic, and political issues of the day), and is totally dedicated to the work—to perfecting the art of his or her art.

The audience for this art is expected to be knowledgeable, aesthetically sophisticated, skilled in interpretation, and open to the formal experimentation that makes Modernist works "difficult." And, if not always affected "ecstatically" (like Camper), the audience should at least be capable finding intellectual and emotional fulfillment through a serious and introspective engagement with the work of art. For all these reasons, such audiences are frequently called "elite."

If, for the sake of brevity, I have produced something of a caricature of Modernist art, artists and their audience, it is not to ridicule them (I recognize myself in that audience and have shared many of its assumptions about artists and their art). Rather, it is to indicate how they interlock and reinforce each other to produce the powerful set of premises about the nature and function of art that shaped avant-garde film discourse—in North America, at least—until the Eighties Generation came along. It helps to explain, on the one hand, the collective assumptions and evaluations that produced a canon of avant-garde "Masterworks" and, on the other hand, the critique of the canon in the Open Letter and in such assessments of American avant-garde film as Paul Arthur’s: "For nearly thirty years [circa 1950-1980] it was the unspoken desire of the American avant-garde to exist outside of history in an aesthetic preserve sealed by social and economic marginality, formal alterity to dominant cinema, and adherence to the self-validating criteria of Romantic consciousness" (1991, 18). If that "desire" was not as "unspoken" as Arthur claims (Jonas Mekas’ "Movie Journal" in the Village Voice, for instance, frequently expressed such desires), he is right in contending that it was firmly embedded in North American avant-garde film discourse until the 1980s.

At this point, it is useful to take a step back and view the conflicting discourses of avant-garde films in the larger context of theories of avant-garde art. By doing so, one can get beyond personal and generational allegiances and rivalries, individual critics’ preferences, the success or failure of individual filmmakers to satisfy those preferences, as well as ad hoc definitions of "avant-garde," "experimental," "underground," "alternative," "fringe," and other labels for films that fall outside the parameters of dominant, commercial cinema and conventional cinematic techniques. I have already begun to do this, in fact, by attempting to summarize the principal characteristics of Modernist aesthetics, some of which are rejected, while others are retained, in recent theories of the avant-garde.


Avant-Garde In Theory

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger argues that a genuine avant-garde displays three fundamental features. The first is a rejection of the doctrine of artistic autonomy, in which, as Bürger puts it, "[Art] is conceived as a social realm that is set apart from the mean-ends rationality of daily bourgeois existence" (1984, 10). Autonomy, he says, may allow art to "criticize such an existence," but renders it "‘functionless’ because it can no longer be hoped that art will provoke change" (1984, 11).

The second feature, which is closely related to the first, takes the form of an attack on what Bürger calls "the institution of art." Referring to Marcuse’s analysis of bourgeois culture in "The Affirmative Character of Culture," Bürger writes, "[His] model provides the important theoretical insight that works of art are not received as single entities, but within institutional frameworks and conditions that largely determine the function of the a given society or in certain strata or classes of a society" (1984, 12). Such "institutional frameworks and conditions" include museums and galleries, art dealers and buyers, the educational system (including art schools), scholarly, critical and journalistic writing on art: the complete social, cultural, and economic apparatus that determines what is "art"and what is not, as well as where, how and by whom art is made, supported, evaluated, distributed and received.

The third feature is, in a sense, the "positive" result of the "negative" effects of undermining artistic autonomy and attacking the institution of art. It involves integrating—or re-integrating—art and life, which, ironically, requires jettisoning the category "work of art" altogether. Recognizing that this is "a profoundly contradictory endeavor" for the avant-garde, Bürger confirms that, "An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize it, along with its distance [from it]" (1984, 50). In fact, "When art and the praxis of life are one, when the praxis is aesthetic and art is practical, art’s purpose can no longer be discovered..." (1984, 51). Consequently, "Instead of speaking of the avant-gardiste work, we will speak of avant-gardiste manifestation. A dadaist manifestation does not have work character but is nonetheless an authentic manifestation of the artistic avant-garde" (1984, 50). Citing such dadaist provocations as Duchamp’s "ready-mades," Bürger writes, "But what is involved in these manifestations is far more than the liquidation of the category ‘work’: it is the liquidation of art as an activity that is split off from the praxis of life that is intended" (1984, 56).

Here is where Bürger’s theory becomes most problematic. At a theoretical level, the "liquidation of art" implies also the liquidation of the avant-garde, since there would no longer be institutions of art or artistic autonomy to expose and subvert with avant-garde "manifestations." Art as a distinct contribution to culture and the avant-garde as a radical critique of art’s cultural function—or what Bürger calls "the avant-garde as the self-criticism of art in bourgeois society" (1984, 20)—would perforce disappear. Moreover, at a concrete, historical level, Bürger’s specific examples of avant-garde manifestations are limited to the "historical avant-garde," particularly Dadaism, and still more particularly Duchamp’s "ready-mades." In fact, one sometimes feels that Bürger’s theory rests precariously on one example of an avant-garde manifestation: the upside-down urinal entitled Fountain and signed by "R. Mutt," which Duchamp submitted to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists (where it was rejected).

The problem, then, is how to make use of a theory of the avant-garde that seems relevant only to a small number of works produced during a limited period in the history of Twentieth Century art, and that proposes a "sublation of art in the praxis of life" (1984, 51) that not only spells the end of the avant-garde, but creates a situation in which, as Richard Wollin writes, "art degenerates to the status of merely a ‘thing among things’" (1984-85, 16). While Wollin is sympathetic to much of Bürger’s argument, he is not willing to surrender the category of "work of art." Consequently, he objects to Bürger’s privileging of Dadaist "ready-mades" and provocations because, he argues, their impact is ephemeral. For Wollin, avant-garde works should continue to be challenging and relevant beyond the immediate circumstances of their production and presentation to the public. Therefore, he proposes an avant-garde art that does not sacrifice all distinctions between art and life praxis, what he calls "de-aestheticized autonomous art." This is an art in which the avant-garde "self-consciously divests itself of the beautiful illusion, the aura of reconciliation, projected by art for art’s sake, while at the same time refusing to overstep the boundaries of aesthetic autonomy..." (1984-85, 16). And for Wollin the best examples of avant-grade "de-aestheticized autonomous art" are to be found in the work of the Surrealists.

For Richard Murphy, who advances arguments similar to Wollin’s, the best examples are offered by German Expressionism. The issue here is not whether Expressionism or Surrealism—or, for that matter, Dadaism, Futurism, Constructivism or any other Twentieth Century avant-garde movement—is the most thoroughly avant-garde. Rather it is how Wollin and Murphy attempt to come to terms with the avant-garde’s "profoundly contradictory endeavor" to integrate art and life praxis. If a total integration of art and life were to take place, Murphy suggests, it would appear in one of two forms: "utopian" (elevating life to the status of art) or "cynical" (bringing art down to the level of everyday life—"to the status of merely a ‘thing among things,’" in Wollin’s formulation).

In the "utopian" alternative, artistic values like balance, harmony, proportion, and order would be translated into equivalent social relationships, such as equality, justice, tolerance, high-

minded idealism, and orderly progress. This view, in fact, informed the earliest application of the military term "avant-garde" to the arts. Envisioning a union of socially and artistically progressive forces leading to a Socialist Utopia, the Saint-Simonian Olinde Rodriguez wrote in 1825 (in the persona of an artist in dialogue with a scientist and an industrialist), "We, the artists, will serve you as avant-garde.... We will see the result of our work when egoism, the bastard child of civilization, will have been pushed back to its last stronghold: when literature and the fine arts will have placed themselves at the head of the movement and will have finally roused society for its own good...." (Hadjinicolaou 1981, 41). This ringing declaration continues to echo in Bürger’s more pessimistic assessment of the relationship of art to life: "All those needs that cannot be satisfied in every-day life, because the principle of competition pervades all spheres, can find a home in art, because art is removed from the praxis of life. Values such as humanity, joy, truth, solidarity are extruded from life as it were, and preserved in art" (1984, 50).

Were it not for "the principle of competition" (or in Rodriguez’s view, "egotism"), the sort of integration of art and life praxis Murphy labels "utopian" might—in theory—become a reality. That it has not come about is one reason for postulating an opposite possibility: the "cynical" union of art and life which, in Murphy’s view, would bring "art down to the banal level of reality, fragmenting artistic form, dismantling the syntax of poetic language and destroying any lingering sense of aesthetic harmony and organic structuring, so that the work of art...descends to the disjointed world of modernity" (1999, 34). And of course in both the "cynical"and the "utopian" integration of art and life, art disappears, or at least loses all vestiges of autonomy, and the institutional contexts that sustain it disappear as well, which means that the avant-garde loses its raison d’être.

Murphy wants to salvage some of art’s autonomy by proposing an equivalent to Wollin’s "de-aestheticized autonomous art." At the same time, he continues to regard the avant-garde text as an "oppositional discourse" that can bring about

what Marcuse calls a ‘revolution in perception.’ In other words, it uses the cognitive power of art to defamiliarize a very specific set of institutional conventions: those modes of seeing that have been canonized by the power of the dominant social discourse and the pervasive institution of art. Thus, the program of de-aestheticization produces an art form whose central function involves questioning both the ‘affirmative’ functions of traditional culture, and the inherent institutionally-conditioned ideological effects associated with it (1999, 40).

In the context of post-1980s avant-garde film, Murphy’s program for the avant-garde is succinctly summarized in a remark by Keith Sanborn (an outspoken member of the Eighties Generation and principal author of the Open Letter): "The politics of seeing is a more key issue than the art of vision" (Wees 1993, 91).5

In other words, one way of understanding the accomplishments of the Eighties Generation is to place them in the context of theories that conceive of avant-garde art as an "oppositional discourse" designed to "defamiliarize...modes of seeing that have been canonized by the power of the dominant social discourse and the pervasive institution of art," while at the same time maintaining a distinction between art and "the disjointed world of modernity." This would be an art that, as Wollin puts it, "negate[s] the aura of affirmation characteristic of art for art’s sake while remaining consistent with the ‘modern’ requirement of aesthetic autonomy" (1984-85, 16).

This, it seems to me, is what Leslie Thornton is talking about when she links "a critical perspective as a cultural producer" with "forms of address that we call aesthetics." The former leads to a rejection of the "aura of affirmation" and the artistic autonomy of art for art’s sake. The latter indicates an acceptance of "the ‘modern’ requirement of aesthetic autonomy" and the rejection of a "cynical" synthesis of art and life praxis. Thornton’s comment also implies a refusal to make absolute aesthetic distinctions between art and popular culture, art and mass media, art and life. It suggests a need to negotiate between these spheres in the production of works of avant-garde art. This, in turn, challenges assumptions about art as a privileged realm of timeless, universal truths—especially when such claims are made for avant-garde art. The Open Letter makes the same point in its reference to the avant-garde’s "revolutionary frame of mind" which changes "according to changing historical conditions." In the Eighties these conditions included feminism, lesbian and gay activism, multiculturalism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, the saturation of society by mass media, especially television, and—specifically for the filmmakers themselves—exposure to earlier avant-garde films.


Avant-Garde In Practice

To relate contemporary avant-garde film to early cinema, I will pay particular attention to the avant-garde’s foregrounding of the cinematic apparatus and the specific effects of mechanical reproduction. In discussing early cinema and avant-garde film, Tom Gunning refers to Walter Benjamin’s well-known essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and notes that early cinema’s emphasis on mechanical reproduction was a way of "shattering" traditions of visual representation: "[T]hese films restructure both traditional representations of space and the relation of spectacle to audience..."(Gunning, 1983, 356). And in his "Cinema of Attractions" essay, Gunning also emphasizes the fact that early cinema "directly solicits spectator’s attention, including visual curiosity," which may be accomplished by presenting "exciting spectacle...of interest in itself" or by performing various cinematic tricks (Gunning, 1990, 58). In other words, the film presents itself as spectacle: it both shows and shows off. Mechanical reproduction as a source of spectacle and as a means of "directly solicit[ing] spectators’ attention" is also at the heart of some recent American and Canadian avant-garde films and videos.

Keith Sanborn’s video, The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin as Told to Keith Sanborn © 1936 Jayne Austen (USA, 1996), is made up entirely of the warnings about copyright violations that precede movies on video (and, now, on DVD). Formally, Sanborn’s video is a study in theme and variation; thematically, it is a commentary on owning media images and policing their use. Given its title and content, the work can be seen as an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s assumption that mechanical reproduction—and movies in particular—replace an image’s "cult value" with "exhibition value," thereby making it more readily available for public consumption and more suited to democratic, modern society. In Sanborn’s video, the endlessly repeated legalistic claims to copyright and warnings about F.B.I investigations and fines for violating copyright laws can be taken as an ironic comment on Benjamin’s optimism about the democratizing effects of mechanical reproduction. But if, on one level, the incessant claims to copyright can be read as symbolic of the movie industry’s obsession with owning and controlling the use of its products, on another level they suggest a crisis in that very effort at ownership and control. For, 35mm movies have "escaped" from movie theatres (where their consumption is under the control of the industy) to another medium and alternative forms of distribution and consumption that are, in fact, more "democratic," because more integrated in ordinary people’s everyday lives. Watching a movie at home with a machine that permits stopping and starting, skipping and replaying according to the whims of the viewer, is more empowering than watching it from a seat in a movie theatre. Sanborn’s video thus suggests that in the post-modern age of mechanical-photochemical-electronic-digital reproduction, attempts to impose outdated ideas about the ownership and control of cultural property are doomed to failure.

Sanborn’s other video, The Zapruder Footage: Investigation of Consensual Hallucination (USA, 1999) offers a different view of film’s place in the public sphere. As its title implies, the video’s source is Abraham Zapruder’s home movie footage of the Kennedy assassination, about which Sanborn has written, "This footage is both notorious and invisible; seldom actually seen, it is very well known; when seen it remains opaque" (Sanborn 1999, n.p.). In his approach to this highly charged film document, Sanborn combines two traits of early cinema: the presentation of a public spectacle, and the use of camera tricks (or, more precisely, video editing tricks). The depiction of one of the most traumatic events in twentieth century American history is repeated many times: forward and backward, right side up and upside down, and step printed to slow down the events and, at times, to make each individual frame distinguishable. These devices prompt us to ponder how one should (or even can) look at that fatal moment caught on film. How (or can) the film be made to reveal more than it seems to show? How can it become less "opaque," less mythical ("hallucinatory"), and more informative?

Both of Sanborn’s videos reveal the influence of Structural films that use re-photographed images, repetition and the foregrounding of specific properties of the medium. But those interests, which were aimed inwards, so to speak, toward the structural and material elements of the medium, are combined in Sanborn’s work with interests aimed outwards, toward social and political issues—issues that are absent from most Structural films, but very much present in many post-Structural films of the Eighties Generation.

While the Zapruder footage is a home movie, it has, for obvious reasons, achieved a unique historical status. Home movies of a more common sort are the principal source of Abigail Child’s found footage film, Covert Action (USA, 1984). It is worth noting that home movies have perpetuated some major traits of early cinema, such as direct address to the camera and performances that are often self-consciously naive. These elements are present in the home movies Child found, in which two men (possibly brothers) are seen on holiday with different women at different times. With exceedingly skillful editing and a sharp eye for telling details, Child exposes the aggression, submission, resistance—even a possible lesbian subtext—in the gender and power relationships "naively" captured by the home movie camera. Her film is a good example of how a work of avant-garde art does not become "a thing among things" even when it is derived from, and directly addresses, ordinary life praxis. It also shows how a specific filmmaking process—in this case, montage—can be the source of cinematic spectacle.

In Frank’s Cock (Canada, 1993), Mike Hoolboom turns the rectangle of the projected image into spectacle by dividing it into four separate sites of images from a science film, a pornographic film, a Madonna video, and a monologue by a gay man about his life with, and the approaching death of, his lover, Frank, possessor of the cock in the film’s title. The screen is like a "four-ring circus," with each "ring" vying for our attention—though the one offering a narrative of sex, love and death commands the most attention (which suggests the power that "human interest" and narrative continuity can exert over "experimental," avant-garde techniques, if given the chance). Nevertheless, because of the conflicting demands on our attention, spectatorship itself becomes one of the principal concerns of the film.

Turning screen space into spectacle is also accomplished by Gariné Torrosian in Sparklehorse (Canada, 1999), but by means quite different from Hoolboom’s. Through a direct, hands-on approach to filmmaking, Torrosian emphasizes the physical, tactile qualities of the actual strip of film. She splits, slices and chops the film into individual frames, then rejoins the celluloid shards in sequences of disjointed images that are also scratched and painted. These effects are intensified by complex visual rhythms, rich colours and strong contrasts of light and dark. We are permitted only brief glimpses of photographed images, such as the skulls and skeletons that make up the film’s most obvious visual motif. Sparklehorse is a film collage, and collage, it has been widely argued, is the avant-garde’s most radical challenge to the formal unity and autonomy of traditional works of art.

Spectacle and foregrounding the apparatus take still another form in Leslie Thornton’s Dung Smoke Enters the Palace (USA, 1989), a work requiring simultaneous, side-by-side presentation of film and video images.6 The only film in the "Looking Back, Looking Forward" program to recycle early cinema footage, Dung Smoke also includes NASA footage of a simulated moon-landing and scenes with the children, Peggy and Fred, the protagonists of Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell: The First Cycle (USA, 1985-1996). While two screens and two media demand our (divided) attention, we are also confronted with older and newer archival footage that raises the question, what is spectacle, anyway? Is it early Edison footage of a foundry, or NASA images of a moon shot? Or both--but at different times and in different contexts? Moreover, the dual projection suggests an association of the machinery of cinema with machines of the industrial revolution, and the machinery of video presentation with machines of the space age.

If Dung Smoke Enters the Palace straddles two media and two historical eras, Peggy Ahwesh’s video She Puppet (USA, 2001), with its appropriation of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider video games, seems firmly planted in the post-industrial, post-modern world of digital images and the Internet. Yet, in a comment on this work, Ahwesh connects it with early cinema: "Like early magical entertainments that generated new technological visions of the human body, such as late 19th c. trick films (magicians transforming women into butterflies, skeletons or angels, etc.), Lara Croft, busty superstar of the video game Tomb Raiders, is the girl-doll of the late 20th century gaming world" (Ahwesh 2001a, n.p.). As a recycling of images from a video game, She Puppet is a prime example of the avant-garde’s ability to appropriate elements of popular culture, without either condemning or uncritically (or "cynically") embracing it. In Tomb Raider’s mise-en-scene, Ahwesh finds and exploits Cubist/Constructivist configurations of space, such as shifting and ambiguous markers of distance and perspective, and in the image of its central character, Ahwesh sees "a collection of cones and cylinders"(Ahwesh 2001b, 77).

In thematic terms, Lara Croft embodies "post-feminist fantasies of adventure, sex and violence without consequences" (Ahwesh, 2001a, n.p,). Removed from her video game environment, she is no longer under the control of the (presumably) young, male game player; yet, as she resolutely negotiates unpredictable modulations of space and time and equally unpredictable confrontations with a myriad of hostile forces, she still seems propelled by forces only partially under her control. By eliminating the original game’s "narratives," Ahwesh turns Lara’s movements into surreal episodes of pursuit, conflict and (temporary) resolution. In some ways, both the mise-en-scene and action of She Puppet are reminiscent of P. Adams Sitney’s category of "trance film," of which Meshes of the Afternoon is the best, and best-known, example. If the differences between Meshes of the Afternoon and She Puppet, are as great as the similarities, perhaps that is simply another reason for declaring, "The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde."




1. A notable early example of the new discourse was a series of screenings in the Netherlands during the fall of 1990 and the subsequent publication of A Passage Illuminated: The American Avant-Garde Film 1980-1990 (Amsterdam: Foundation Mecano, January 1991), with insightful essays on the younger generation of filmmakers written by Paul Arthur, Manohla Dargis, and Tom Gunning (who also discusses some films the "old masters"—Gunning’s term—made during the 1980s).

2. "Open Letter to the Experimental Film Congress" [May 1989]; with seventy-six signatures, the Open Letter was distributed shortly before the International Experimental Film Congress opened in Toronto on 28 May 1989. It has been reprinted, along with several other documents related to the Congress, in Wees (2000, 103-104).

3. Camper’s influence on the Congress organizers is explained at some length in the introduction to the Congress catalogue reprinted in Wees (2000, 109-111).

4. Its last institutional bastion might have been the Toronto Congress, but the "Views From the Avant-Garde" programs curated by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith for the New York Film Festival since 1997, show that it still has its champions and an appreciative audience.

5. Although speaking generally, Sanborn is also alluding directly to Stan Brakhage’s magnum opus, The Art of Vision (1961-65).

6. Dung Smoke Enters the Palace was scheduled for the "Looking Back, Looking Forward" screenings but was not shown, due to the failure of the distributor to send the video portion of the work.


Ahwesh, Peggy. 2001. "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider"(review), Film Comment 37.4, p. 77.

_____. 2002. Email to the author (1 February 2002).

Arthur, Paul.1991. "Lost and Found: American Avant-Garde Film in the Eighties," in A Passage Illuminated. Amsterdam: Foundation Mecano, pp. 15-29.

Burch, Noël. 1986. "Primitivism and the Avant-Garde: A Dialectical Approach," in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, Philip Rosen, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, pp 483-506.

Bürger, Peter. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; originally published as Theorie der Avantgarde. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974..

Camper, Fred. 1986-87. "The End of Avant-Garde Film," Millenium Film Journal 16-17-18, pp. 99-1

Cornwell, Regina. 1980. "Progress-Discontinuous," Artforum 18, pp. 60-67.

Dargis, Manohla. 1989. "The Brood," Village Voice, 20 June 1989, p. 92.

Gunning, Tom. 1983. "An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film," in Film Before Griffith, John L. Fell, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 355-366.

_____. 1990. "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, Thomas Elsaesser, ed.. London: BFI, pp. 56-62.

Hadjinicolaou, Nicos. 1981. "On the Ideology of Avant-Gardism," Praxis 6, pp.38-70.

Hoberman, J. 1991. "Fear and Trembling at the Whitney Biennial," in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 173-184; originally published in the Village Voice, 18 June 1987.

Murphy, Richard. 1999. Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sanborn, Keith. 1999. "Four Digital Video Works for the End of the Century" (program notes).

Sitney, P. Adams. 1979. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Testa, Bart. 1992. Back and Forth: Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario.

Wees, William C. 1993. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films. New York: Anthology Film Archives.

_____. 2000. "‘Let’s Set the Record Straight’: The International Experimental Film Congress Toronto 1989," Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques, 9.1, pp. 101-116.

_____. 2001. "Carrying On: Leslie Thornton, Su Friedrich, Abigail Child and American Avant-Garde Film of the Eighties," Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques, 10.1, pp. 70-95.

Wollin, Richard. 1984-84. "Modernism vs. Postmodernism," Telos 62, pp. 9-29.