Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall, Argument, 1978, HD restoration of 16-mm film, color, sound, 84 mins.


IN SEPTEMBER 1977, Anthony McCall teamed with journalist Andrew Tyndall to make a narrative feature. A transplant to TriBeCa from London, McCall was then best known for his “solid light” films: tracings of simple geometries in space by the projector’s beam, here treated not as a conduit for images but as a haptic material in its own right. Positing film as a matter of light, movement, and time, the series, culminating in June 1975’s Long Film for Ambient Light, transposed Minimalist sculpture’s concern with durational, “primary” experience into cinema, literalizing the former’s inherent “theatricality” while upholding its interdicts on illusion and language. For McCall and Tyndall to then declare, in their “Sixteen Working Statements” of December 1977, “the photographic image; written text on the screen; [and] words on the sound-track” as “three of the essential cinematic modes” was its own sort of heresy.

The product of McCall and Tyndall’s collaboration, Argument, screens July 2 at Light Industry in Brooklyn. Shot on 16 mm, the feature cemented McCall’s defection from the London Co-op line which, at its most extreme, enclosed cinema in an echo chamber, able to comment only on its own apparatus. Inspired by his engagement in the SoHo-based collective Artists Meeting for Cultural Change and the hard-edged radicalism of friends Joseph Kosuth and Sarah Charlesworth, McCall abjured his “solid light” series as an effete exercise in self-reflexivity. His newfound Marxism drew on the militancy of Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1972 Letter to Jane, codirected with Jean-Pierre Gorin, was a touchstone. Rejecting the severe formalism of Co-op aesthetics and the esotericism of so-called visionary cinema, McCall and Tyndall called for a film whose radical politics found real-world grounding. Screened first in Edinburgh and London, then in a small seminar settings in the East Village and TriBeCa, Argument, the duo averred, would exploit the “ghettoization of the art community” to furnish the theoretic, social, and economic grounds for a “non-idealist and politically useful avant-garde.”

Such expansive ambitions make it difficult to distill what, exactly, Argument argues. Its knotted politics are underscored by its transparent construction. The film divides into fourteen segments, all roughly five minutes in length and involving some composite of image, text, and sound. In each, strategies specific to television and advertising, such as the moving “ticker” and superimposed text, meld with the static framing typical of structuralist film.

A glossy spread of a faceless male model, clad in blue cable-knit and arranged atop the Arts & Leisure and Business & Finance sections of the New York Times, furnishes Argument’s opening shot. Photographs of fellatio, Walter Cronkite, and a corpse-strewn field cut in and out. Now and then, a statement in white Courier type fills the screen as a male voice reads its converse. “The effectiveness of a work is measured by the number of people who see it,” the text declares; “The effectiveness of a work is measured by the way people use it,” the voice simultaneously intones. Such disjunctures between text and sound, coupled with the abruptness of the montage, serve to hold conflicting meanings in tension. The irresolution between the three registers begets a distracted sort of spectatorship—one can either look, read, or listen, but not all at once—that forecloses a fixed understanding of the film’s salvo of assertions.

Argument’s subject, broadly construed, is bourgeois ideology, and it tasks itself with a thoroughgoing deconstruction: a splitting open of the ostensibly natural unity of mass cultural signs. The film’s debt to critical Marxism of the French variety is marked, with voice-overs and on-screen texts parroted from a twining of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies with Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. “Symbolic environment,” “co-optation,” “avant-gardist spectacle,” “monolithic,” “mystifies,” and “multinational capitalism” buffet the screen like so many theoretical readymades, while an alternating cast of male narrators decry the “supermarket shelves of the art world” and brand aestheticism “a tool of depoliticization.” Such cynical quips—the stuff of sober scholarly tomes—flank excerpts from advertisements (“Individual imagination / Individual creativity / Individual innovativeness… A business necessity. – ad for Philip Morris Jasper Johns exhibition” is a repeated slogan) and fragments of news reports on such topics as erstwhile CIA director Richard Helms and the union row with textile giant J.P. Stevens & Co. Adding to the jumble is the inclusion of ironic in-jokes—a scrim of text in the film’s opening segment recounts the indiscretions of one “Jean-Pierre Nouvelle Vague”—that cloud the line between fact and fiction.

Formalist art criticism, radical chic, and middle-class apathy are among the film’s other targets. Both strident in tone and insistently unsettled, Argument mounts its case in multiple, incongruous lines whose failure to persuade in any one direction is precisely the point. The labor of sense-making thus falls to the viewer who performs this (often exhausting) task collectively, in intimate, focused discussions following the film’s run. Tuesday’s screening at Light Industry maintains the workshop style of Argument’s initial showings in the fall and winter of 1978, where a select group of filmmakers, artists, and critics (Yvonne Rainer, Hans Haacke, Richard Serra, J. Hoberman, and Amy Taubin among them) gathered, armed with a staple-bound collection of critical texts. A discussion—or, better yet, an argument—with McCall and Tyndall is set to unfold after the film’s close, with reprints of the original Argument booklet available to peruse.

“Films in themselves do not change anything,” the duo contend in their essay “Against the Numbers Theory,” the booklet’s third. “The film is not only what is on the celluloid, but also how, where, and to whom it is shown.” At once slippery and didactic, structural and narrative, Argument alights somewhere in between, much like the experiments in “solid light” that McCall so hastily renounced, suspended as they were among projection, sculpture, and environment. Still trenchant over thirty years on, Argument is a rare, provocative prototype for a cinema where context becomes content.

Courtney Fiske

Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall’s Argument plays Tuesday, July 2 at 7:30 PM at Light Industry in Brooklyn, New York.