PRINT September 1971

Foreword in Three Letters

In a remarkably wrongheaded piece, Annette Michelson, in the June Artforum asserts, with reference to Michael Snow’s film, Wavelength, “Snow has redefined filmic space as that of action.” Now even the most simpleminded film goer such as myself knows and feels, intuitively (and rationally, if ratio is needed) that space has always been defined in terms of action (inner and outer). What else is a western, gangster film, situation comedy, etc? “The object of Farber’s delight, the narrative integrity of those comedies and westerns,” is nothing but a reactionary, model-oriented mode of film-making indulged in by just about everyone in the commercial cinema, and certainly not indulged in by Mike Snow. The basis of Miss Michelson’s hypothesis is blatently and patently incorrect. Other, smaller assumptions seem to get carried along in the tide of shallow insight and intellectualization: “Snow, in re-introducing expectation as the core of film form,” is distinguished from “the stare of Warhol.” Expectation is inextricably bound to action within a defined space, whether in commercial, experimental, or any other sort of film. And nothing increases expectation more than Warhol’s stare, which, in structuralist film terms, was to some extent an important basis for Snow’s exploration and esthetic. It is sad that the most important filmmaker currently working (Warhol has long given up to his untalented assistants) receives much-needed and honestly-held critical attention through the dubious intelligence and esthetically backward critical approach of Annette Michelson in Artforum. But the cover was beautiful. And at least she tried. Which is more than one can say for most ART critics.

—Peter Gidal

Dear Mr. Gidal:
You could not, of course, suspect that your letter addressed to the Editor would reach, in fact, that hybrid of Contributor and Guest Editor for this special film issue of Artforum, myself. But then, I could not know that the very same mail would bring me your brief article on Snow, published in Cinema, no. 8. Since chance has focused your views in this unexpected emphasis of superimposition, I’m allowing us the luxury of direct communication, setting aside the convention which has Correspondent and Writer talking to one another through the fictive mediation of the Editor. I do this not because I want to parry or return your thrusts at my own essay, but because your letter does raise, ultimately and implicitly if not directly, a question which deserves reply.

First things first, however. Your own text on Snow begins with the remark that Wavelength “is considered by many filmmakers, a seminal, perhaps great film and is also somehow the test of an audience; if you can let yourself get into Wavelength you’re at least not on the opposite end of the dialectic.” And yet, to judge from the tenor and tone of your letter, despite our mutual enthusiasm for the film (you are, I observe, somewhat more cautious in your judgment, advancing the opinions of “many filmmakers” rather than your own as to its being “perhaps” a great film), despite our agreement upon its importance, you seem to feel, at the very least, that you and I do indeed inhabit “opposite ends” of that “dialectic” whose terms remain undefined in your article as in your letter, but whose character and range one can begin to deduce.

Trying to account for this contradiction and for the tone of your letter, I do entertain the possibility of that passionate dissent common in the context of shared tastes. But it becomes obvious that I’ve been drastically misread. The “narrative integrity of those comedies and westerns” is a descriptive phrase, in no way normatively intended; it refers to the quality of being whole or entire, and thus to that spatio-temporal continuity which is the formal postulate of those genre films, and its use should hardly have elicited from an attentive reader the judgment of my own position as “backward.” The notion is familiar, I should imagine, to yourself as to any fiIm critic, as one element in that conservative Bazinian esthetic spontaneously anticipated in the critical work of Farber, the most original and distinguished American exponent of the tradition of cinematic “realism.” You will, by the way, find this postulate examined in some critical detail in an essay of mine on Bazin, published in the June, 1967 issue of Artforum, a copy of which is on its way to you, for it alludes to the special implications of Warhol’s work when seen in that particular theoretical context.

As to Snow’s redefinition of “filmic space as that of action,” surely you might have perceived that the object of discussion was precisely that: the manner and importance of that redefinition of action as the movement of the camera itself. This kind of redefinition, neither so drearily obvious nor so byzantine in its perversity as you suggest, is made by major artists in almost any medium one could name. Drawing, however, upon art-historical precedents, one might see Michael Snow’s work with regard to the dynamics of expectation, contingent upon the playing out of spatio-temporal données as analogous to Jasper Johns’ redefinition of pictorial space as compounded of actualization and representation.

While I do agree with you as to the seminal importance of Warhol’s work (discussed, as I’m sure you will be pleased to find, with clarity and rare sophistication by Stephen Koch elsewhere in this issue), I imagine that upon reflection you might agree that the initial installment of an extensive presentation of a major artist could not examine its context in entirety. (Did you really not notice that the published text was marked “Part One,” thereby informing the reader of more to come?) It seemed preferable, then, in that installment, to situate Snow historically, stylistically, between the radically antithetical formal options provided by Brakhage and Warhol, developing them in order.

A similar reply must be offered to your observations on my discussion of the nature and role of expectation and its transmutation in Wavelength. This is, admittedly, a complex matter hardly clarified by your impatient claim that “nothing increases expectation more than Warhol’s stare which in structuralist terms (italics mine) was to some extent an important basis for Snow’s exploration and esthetic.” To my own mind, limited perhaps by formation in the Paris of the ’60s, “structuralist terms” simply cannot suggest themselves with any clarity or relevance in the context of our particular discussion. I am, you see, unwilling to impute to anyone not yet demonstrably guilty, the sophomoric misappropriation of structuralist vocabulary current in precisely those Anglo-American critical circles concerned with “model-oriented” modes of film-making which you so distrust. I am assuming that you, of all people, are not suggesting imposition of those analytical grills now applied to the narrative work of Hawks, Ford, Truffaut, and Fuller in that élan of academic euphoria which has succeeded the provincial bewilderment attendant upon the belated discovery of la politique des auteurs.

No, I suspect instead an allusion to the seminal article on structural film (another matter entirely), published in the Summer, 1969 issue of Film Culture and now reprinted in The Film Culture Reader, published by Praeger in 1970, in which both Snow and Warhol are discussed. I am thus led to suspect as well that your haste in reading is equaled only by your haste in writing, and that these, rather than “knowledge and intuition as a film goer, however simpleminded,” are responsible for the curiously exacerbated tone and contradictions of your attack, since as such it must be finally acknowledged.

For you are, of course, by no means a “simpleminded film goer”; you are, in fact, as you elaborately explained to your readers in Cinema, a filmmaker, and you are, as well, the author of a monograph on Warhol. Yet Critic and Artist have chosen the guise of ‘simplemindedness’ and the strategy of hasty and inaccurate attack, disdaining to consider the reasons for which critics with allegiances so dissimilar as those of Farber and myself could unite in our enthusiasm for this particular master work. I now invite you to consider how it is that writers of such obvious temperamental differences as yourself and myself should care so passionately for the same film. The answer, explicitly given as one main focus of my essay, lies of course in Snow’s transcendence of those antinomies and contradictions revived in the rhetoric of your letter.

It is true that my conviction as to the nature and importance of that transcendence and its redefining function is grounded in an interest in critical traditions richer than that of film—in the history and criticism of art and music, in certain methodological options offered by contemporary philosophy. And, since one is, in situations of this sort, grateful for small mercies, I’m not inclined to reject the concession that “at least she tried. Which is more than one can say for most ART critics.” (Given the claim to ‘simplemindedness’ that concession is understandably reluctant.) I’m even less tempted to claim the dubious prestige of the ‘real’ FILM critic, though instances of film-critical activity are scattered throughout a few other periodicals.

For, if most ART critics have not been ‘trying’ very hard, most FlLM critics now at work are simply not, nor ever will be, equipped for the critical task on the level which the present flowering of cinema in this country demands. This present issue of Artforum is, then, designed to evoke—largely through the work of younger critics—for some of the artists, critics, and their audiences, who compose a visually literate public here and abroad, the urgency of recognition for an achievement whose importance will eventually be seen as comparable to that of American painting in the 1950s and on wards.

That achievement is radically indebted to the disciplined energy, the generosity and prescience of men like Jonas Mekas—a statement which is no sooner made than it forces remembrance that there is indeed none quite like him. That achievement is, moreover, amply and cogently set forth in the collection of New York’s newest film museum and research center, the Anthology Film Archives, for whose assistance every contributor to this film issue is grateful.

Advanced film-making in this country demands to be studied in relation to the growing constriction of pictorial and sculptural energies and the inflation of an economy which has reactivated, through the desperate polarity of ‘conceptual’ and ‘body’ art, the esthetic syndrome of that ancient obstinate malady, philosophical dualism.

The existence of Anthology is a radical critical gesture, the nature of its critical function described below in Mekas’ letter which I recommend for its firmness and openness. It has made accessible a corpus of advanced filmic art set in a rich, if incomplete, context, and in projection conditions—those of an “Invisible Cinema”—superior to those of any institution in this city.

It therefore now seems possible that the kind of training in perception and in the techniques of description gained through art-critical experience, that the kinds of models or working methods offered by the very rich tradition of Anglo-American criticism (to cite only one possible source), when made available to a new generation of film goers, may altogether translate the level of discourse on film.

The critical task is going to be redefined by those for whom both reading and writing serve the medium, by those, above all, in whom cinematic consciousness has been heightened by the disciplined readjustment of the perceptive processes which film requires of artist and audience. New critics are demanding a situation in which that cinematic consciousness can develop with a rigor not totally disjoined from generosity. It is time for a transvaluation of values; only then will conventions perpetuated in the disingenuous rhetoric of intellectual pathos and personal coquetry be dissolved.

—Annette Michelson
New York City

Dear Annette:
You asked me, last night, how the Film Selection Committee (of Anthology Film Archives) was chosen. We rambled around that question, last night. Today, I thought, I’ll make an attempt to put it down on paper. It’s still a ramble. Because there was no clear plan, at the beginning. The plan emerged as we went. It is still in the process of emergence, even today. Because our Selection Committee is not a finite committee; it’s a committee in process.

And so is Anthology Film Archives: it’s a process of defining or, rather, discovering what cinema is. It’s a tool. It was clear, from the very beginning, that there wasn’t and couldn’t be an agreed yardstick about what Film Art is, or was, or will be. The best thing we could do was to select a few people who, we felt, had experience, vision, and passion to see the achievements of the past and to admit the achievements of the present, in all their variety. Practically, it came down to a certain few key names, such as Lumière, Dziga Vertov, Feuillade, Dreyer, Brakhage, Warhol. We felt there were certain key artists on whom one had to agree a priori, otherwise there could be no serious talk about the art of cinema. And as we went through most of the names of candidates for the Committee, names of established film critics, historians, and filmmakers, we kept crossing them out because of their narrowness. So that the Committee became a young committee, in a sense. All three of us, on whose heads all the early decisions rested—P. Adams Sitney, Jerome Hill, and myself—felt that at this point it was more important to choose the right direction than to achieve Instant Perfection. We knew that our Committee would lack knowledge in certain areas. But that, we knew, we could balance and correct during our coming meetings, as time went on, by inviting authorities in the neglected or less known areas to assist us.

So that the activity of the Selection Committee has to be looked at as a process of investigation into cinema. The selections themselves represent an indication of some of the possibilities of cinema—not selected according to some predetermined rules of what Film Art is, but according to the intuitions of some of the best minds making films and writing on cinema today. Very often during our meetings and sessions this became only a question of passion, not knowledge at all. Despite all our elaborations, knowledge, and precisions, this thing that we called passion, this thing kept coming in, as we proceeded with our selection work. It kept coming back and gaining a special meaning, becoming almost a criterion. Whenever, now, we have a serious doubt about a film and get tired arguing, very often we drop into a deep silence and one of us says: “OK, is anyone of us willing to defend this fi Im with a real passion?” Or: “Is there anyone here who is passionately for this film?” And if there is one, we know there is something there that we shouldn’t dismiss too easily.

So that now, when yesterday you said that you spoke with P. Adams Sitney and you read the brochure, and you have the impression that we go by some predetermined though undefined ideas of “art” and “avant-garde”—and I know there is an obvious stress on those words in our brochure—then the only way of looking at it is something like this: even the statements and stresses in our brochure are part of the process of discovering the art of cinema. The historical approach to cinema in all the film museums and cinematheques has been so overdone that the exaggerated stance that we are taking for the art of cinema is correct. Correct as vision and as passion, not as a formula. We arrived at it by way of passion. As vague as that. If you have the impression, from the brochure or from talking to us, that we are more fixed than that, then it’s not true. Because, although our results are precise and unwavering and almost academic, the way we arrive at them is through a process, and that process defies all rules. The way I see it, even you are part of that process, we have used even you as part of that passion without your knowing it—you have helped us and are helping us continuously to keep our passion for the art of cinema alive, to grope towards the direction of a possibility of an anthology of cinema not as a dead body of closed works but as an art of cinema in process. If we manage to establish these Anthology Film Archives as an idea and a process, then it won’t matter that much if, because of some “wrong” member of the Selection Committee, a few “wrong” films get voted into the Anthology, and our standards dip “down.” Some day a young Duchamp from Florida or Missouri will come and he’ll set it all “straight” again.

—Jonas Mekas
New York City