PRINT Summer 1978


Abstract Film and Beyond

Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press), 1977, 160 pages, illustrated.

A KEY FEATURE WHICH HAS quite radically distinguished the English film avant-garde from that in the United States has been its stress, over the past five or six years, on public and private debate and dialogue among filmmakers and between filmmakers and critics. That stress underlines the relationship between theory and practice, often in a political or quasi-political manner.

In contrast, in the United States there is a standard, years-old museum and showcase format in which filmmakers appear with their work, introduce it and answer a few questions—but usually provoking no real critical engagement. This procedure continues a traditional romanticism by which artist and work remain mystified before an admiring audience. Meanwhile, there has been little new work, and even fewer new directions, in the American film avant-garde over the last several years. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps also thanks to the example of English critical discourse, attempts are being made to set up public dialogue and debate in order to stimulate new directions and activate the connection between theory and practice.

In a related vein, it is not surprising—even if it is misplaced—that Malcolm Le Grice, in his Abstract Film and Beyond, when writing about recent formal developments in the avant-garde from 1966 on, claims:

It must be pointed out that most existing literature about the development of this aspect of cinema has a very misleading bias. Originating, as most of it does, in American books and magazines, written by American critics who have developed their critical approach from experience of the underground film in America, reference to European work in this field has been confined almost entirely to that of Peter Kubelka [a Viennese well known there] so that it would appear from all the best-known writing that this direction of cinema was almost exclusively an American phenomenon (p. 105).

This is misplaced because, apart from the debates and forums in England, there has been a considerable amount of critical and theoretical writing there and on the Continent, including that by filmmakers such as Le Grice himself and Peter Gidal, an American who has lived in London for many years and whose work is totally identified with the English. As for European writings which are not necessarily or exclusively on the post-1966 avant-garde, there are for instance: the German filmmaker Birgit Hein’s Film Im Underground, 1971; catalogues and texts from Italy such as Cinema Underground Oggi by Sirio Luginbühl, c. 1973, and Lo schermo negato, on the Italian independent film, by Luginbühl and Raffaelo Perrotta, c. 1976; and Une Histoire du cinéma, 1976, the large catalogue of the avant-garde collection at Beaubourg. From England are: David Curtis’ Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution, 1971; Peter Gidal’s Structural Film Anthology, 1976; and now Le Grice’s Abstract Film and Beyond. To this one can add an entire issue of Studio International (November/December 1975) called “Avant-Garde Film in England and Europe”; plus the London-based periodical Afterimage, focused on various kinds of avant-garde practices, which devoted an entire number to the English situation; plus the column Le Grice wrote in Studio International for a number of years; and catalogues for exhibitions at the I.C.A. as well as through the Arts Council of Great Britain, such as the 1977 Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film. Even the theoretical journal Screen, concerned with semiotics and psychoanalytical approaches, has begun to include the avant-garde. And of course there are larger art exhibitions with catalogues, in which film is included, such as “Documenta.”

While the European writing concerns both European and American work, Le Grice is correct in maintaining that the writing from here is only on the American avant-garde, plus Kubelka. The New American Cinema: A Critical Anthology, edited by Gregory Battcock, and An Introduction to the American Underground Film, by Sheldon Renan, were both published 1967; Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema is from 1970; Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal, 1972 (collected columns from the Village Voice from 1959 through 1971); Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde by P. Adams Sitney, 1974; and A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, a catalogue-anthology of essays compiled by John Hanhardt, 1976. There have been several catalogues, an issue of Artforum and other articles in Artforum, Film Culture and various small magazines. Besides, the greater part of the American writing covers pre-1966 figures and work. All told, as much has been written on the recent European avant-garde, especially the English, as on the related American work.

But it is not surprising that Le Grice makes his charge, because he believes that the work produced here has received too much, if not all, of the critical attention and acclaim. And his counter-tactic is to attempt to make a case that swings the balance of influence and importance for recent work to Europe and especially to England. He does this in Abstract Film and Beyond by starting from an historical account of the abstract film which then becomes the ground on which he attempts to plant a theoretical and critical position for the recent new formal film. This “new formal film” is the “Beyond” of his abstract film.

Le Grice gives a rundown of Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna, who wrote about and made abstract films, although none of the films is extant. Their projects date from 1910 to 1912. They, together with Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling beginning in the late ’teens and early 1920s, followed by Walter Ruttmann and Oscar Fischinger, all came to film from painting and used painterly, musical or architectural analogies in their film abstraction. Le Grice calls this work by the somewhat confusing label “concrete,” caught up in the act of nonreferential image-making. But another direction of abstraction is represented by Man Ray and Fernand Léger. This is the Man Ray of his first of four films, Retour à la raison of 1923, and Léger of his only completed film, made with Dudley Murphy, Le Ballet mécanique, 1924. Le Grice wants to make the case for the essentially cinematic nature of these two so that they can serve as paradigms for successive directions and developments.

Preferring as he does to underplay the Dadaist impulses in Retour à la raison, Le Grice tries to posit a concern on Man Ray’s part with the materiality of the media in which he worked, principally through his rayogram technique. While acknowledging that it is difficult to know to what extent Man Ray “‘understood’” this in his film, he then continues: “Rayograms draw attention to this materiality, particularly as in the original photographic plates the actual size of objects is maintained. They also show that Man Ray was concerned to work with techniques which displayed the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the medium” (p. 35). In the same passage he cites “a sequence of writing scratched ‘sideways’ along the film ‘a tirer 5 fois’ (which surely originated as an instruction to print a sequence five times). . . . It would be wrong to see the inclusion of this kind of material, and the film’s structure, simply as a result of Dada permissiveness” (pp. 35–36). Le Grice reasons that all of this must have been “‘intentional’” in one way or another, whether or not Man Ray was aware of the implications.

Man Ray made Retour à la raison literally overnight at the request of Tristram Tzara for the now famous Dada “Soirée du coeur à barbe.” When Ray protested that he had not enough shot footage available to assemble a film, Tzara suggested that he apply his photographic rayogram technique to motion picture stock. He did so, combining this with a few live action images, achieving the desired Dadaist effect in his five-minute work. The photogram or rayogram technique is a way of underlining an object’s indexical nature, and of taking objects out of context for mystery and pleasure. It is also a mode of automatism, a form of play in art that is compatible with Dada. As a practicing Dadaist Man Ray had no interest in questions of a medium’s essential nature. Thus it is quite a distortion to stress the “material” aspects of Retour à la raison as Le Grice goes about it. In fact Ray finally found the physical aspects of motion picture film so much trouble that, after three more short works, he turned down a generous offer of money for a feature-length film project from the Vicomte de Noailles (who had sponsored Man Ray’s fourth film, Les Mystères du Château du Dé, 1929). Noailles then gave the commission to Luis Buñuel for L’Age d’or and to Jean Cocteau for Le Sang d’un poète.

To talk about Léger’s concern with the medium is more legitimate. Two years after he made Ballet mécanique he published “A New Realism—The Object (its plastic and cinematic graphic value),” a short essay very much in the mainstream of modernist and formalist thinking, in the Little Review. The essay focused on the immediacy and presence of the art object or event and on radical changes in perception for the viewer through the “deformation” or abstraction of an object. Like Malevich and others, Léger used “realism” and a “new realism” to describe his own and other art involved in such processes. Léger was championing a film free of narrative restrictions and open to new structuring possibilities.

The close-up defamiliarizes, and the cut and its timing cause new associations of objects, images, directions and rhythms. Through its use of the close-up Ballet mécanique does share with the Man Ray film a defamiliarization through abstraction and a structuring based on “visual or kinetic relationships” rather than narrative conventions. But, once again, Le Grice laboriously singles out evidence for a consciousness of the essential nature of cinema and its materiality in Léger’s film, choosing the loop-printed image of a woman climbing stairs and the reflection of the cameraman glimpsed in a swinging mirrored glass ball.

Abstraction is not a withdrawal from the world, the author argues; it can be a critique of illusionism and representation, perceptually opening up the viewer to other experiences. In his chapter “Film Drama Is the Opium of the Masses” Le Grice shifts briefly into the politics of form, tying together Dziga Vertov’s radical political stance with his commitment to new forms of structuring, self-reflexivity and the stress on the procedures of making. Then he allies Léger and Man Ray with Vertov on the grounds that radical forms are needed for radical new ideas in the work of art and in order to approach the world at large through the art. It is a valuable argument, though not a new one, in validating abstraction and formal interests socially and politically.

But why the arguments and misemphases with Man Ray’s film, and why the academic and pedantic need to stress the loop and camera reflection in the Léger? Because it leads to the recent film, “which can be seen as an extension of the search initiated by Man Ray and Léger for a ‘cinematic’ basis of new formal concept in film” (p. 73). And Le Grice writes later that it “can be seen as part of the same tradition as ‘abstract’ cinema, but like the more recent developments in painting or sculpture, [is] aesthetically more advanced” (p. 85). By having introduced the politics of formal innovation earlier, he has paved the way for the inclusion of the new formal film as politically progressive work.

It seems then that “Beyond” means progress, work which is better than and more advanced. What is this new formal work “beyond” the abstract? In several rather confusing manipulations, Le Grice takes issue, as have so many others in the United States and abroad, with the term “structural film” introduced in an article of the same title by P. Adams Sitney in 1969. Sitney distinguishes “structural” from formal film, which he describes as having “a tight nexus of content, a shape designed to explore the facets of the material. . . . Recurrences, prolepses, antitheses, and overall rhythms are the rhetoric of the formal; in its highest form, the content of such films would be a mythic encounter.”1 On the other hand, according to Sitney, the structural film has a simplified shape and is characterized by one or all of the following: loop printed images; flicker; a single camera position; and/or refilming from the screen. Le Grice ignores Sitney’s definition of formal film as romantic, Symbolist and expressionistic, with Surrealist implications, and then reappropriates the term “formal,” including in it the structural category and adding a number of approaches such as “perceptual film,” which takes in the optical area of flicker; developing and printing; film as material; “duration as a ‘concrete’ dimension of cinema,” concentration on the projector and projection, and systems and procedures; along with the implied emphasis on reflexivity.

At this point in his argument Le Grice tries to distinguish European from the American work, saying that in the latter the formal inclination came as a reaction against the underground film, while in Europe, although influenced by the underground of America, the formal film came out of relations to the other arts, a social and political awareness of limitations, and the “continuation of the search for new form begun in the twenties, even though it was not a direct reaction to the films themselves which, like the American underground films, were not seen until the new movement was underway” (p. 88).

For Le Grice the formal film is that part of the avant-garde which is most international. It is seeking the essence of cinema and its internationalism, and its roots in the 1920s validate the rightness of that essentialist goal. And, according to Le Grice, it is Europe which has responded in a purer way to this aim than have formal activities coming initially out of reaction to the underground here.

Le Grice’s is an extremely limited version of formalism, part of an Anglo-American critical tradition that goes from Clive Bell and Roger Fry through Clement Greenberg. As much as Greenberg would detest his ideas being referred to in any connection with the cinema, Le Grice’s argument is a Greenbergian reductivism with a vengence—beyond Greenberg to a cul-de-sac. Disposing of narrative, repudiating illusionism, remaining conscious of process and materials, encouraging audience self-awareness, and eliminating myth and symbol are all part of the move toward greater cinematic progress in Le Grice’s view. Progress is the bane of any proto- or pseudo-art-theory. There is change; there are differences; and one period of art may be more interesting and significant than another: but progress is something quite different from the valuation of individual works of art and the particular critical and theoretical apparatus brought to bear contemporary with the work, as opposed to a later time in a changed cultural situation.

Together with the idea of a heritage in the past, progress is a way of legitimatizing Le Grice’s stance. Instead of describing a recent phenomenon, he has lionized it into the high point of film history. Instead of taking the valuable connections he sees with the other visual arts and describing the place of these formal tendencies within a late modernist tradition, he makes them into ends in themselves. Even while influencing an audience’s perceptions, the tendencies and the work become, as he treats them, not very fruitful esthetic ends in themselves.

Abstract Film and Beyond is a vehicle through which Le Grice can define, describe and carve out a place for the kind of film he makes and supports, and the book is structured to accommodate this. He valorizes certain insignificant work and makes movements where none ever existed. On the other hand, he ignores or severely underplays and criticizes certain other artists and their works because they do not match his prescriptions.

For instance, he spends excessive time on the post-World-War-II abstract film on the West Coast, proceeding as if there had been a movement and as if the Whitneys—John, James and sons—were still today vitally important. While taking the time to criticize Jordan Belson and Scott Bartlett, and to mention lesser-known and/or less interesting and significant American work within a heritage of Ruttmann and Fischinger’s ideas, as manifested in graphic and computer-generated animation, Le Grice manages to short-change the important work of recent figures working in the United States. He barely refers to Robert Breer, who clearly merits more space than do Belson and Bartlett. Neither the name nor the work of Ernie Gehr, who has been very important in this country within the formal film, is even listed. Frampton’s earlier and influential titles are barely mentioned, and then only to be criticized—as are those of Paul Sharits, George Landow and the Canadian Michael Snow. These are taken to task for not dealing with pure film but instead mixing preoccupations with materials together with semiotic, expressive, narrative, or less than systematic approaches. Le Grice sometimes counters these artists with examples of his own films, showing how a particular issue should be properly treated.

Among other films, Le Grice misdescribes Sharits’ N:O:T:H:I:N:G. He can dismiss Snow’s Wavelength, 1966–67, one of the early and most influential works of this period with—“However, its main confusion comes through a premature compromise between durational continuity in the Warhol manner, and illusory narrative time of a different order.” His entire criticism of the film reads along these pedantic lines. Later in that paragraph he complains of the lack of one-to-one continuity between shooting and projecting: “By utilizing a contrived continuity to parallel the implied time of its narrative, the film is in some ways a retrograde step in cinematic forms” (p. 120). And so on. . . .

As Le Grice construes it, narrative seems unredeemable and unredeeming. His antinarrative stand eliminates complex uses of abstraction within narrative and puts down the presence of narrative devices within recent formal cinema.2 Narrative elements in Snow’s Wavelength and his ⟷, 1968–69, bother him. He makes no reference to uses of abstraction in the narratives of Abel Gance, who was connected with the early French avant-garde. And it is strange that, while he mentions Germaine Dulac and connects her with the literary and narrative avant-garde, Le Grice forgets about the period of her work in the late 1920s when she made abstract films that were referred to then as cinema pur or integral cinema, and that, like the work of her artist colleagues in Paris, evoked analogies with music and the other visual arts.

That Le Grice begins his account with the Italian Futurists Corra and Ginna and their work from 1910–1912 does correct the common assumption that Eggeling and Richter were the first experimenters in film abstraction. Even though he does this, he fails to mention Picasso’s interest in making a film in 1912, or the extant drawings for an unrealized film to be called Le Rhythm coloré by Léopold Survage from 1913. It is odd that he speaks of the kinship of Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas to cinematic abstraction yet makes no reference to a collaborative film project discussed between Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg and later abandoned.3 This is not to be pedantic, but to question the book’s historical aims and thoroughness.

Abstract Film and Beyond is out of proportion. There is more to abstraction in film than the way it is characterized by Le Grice. And there is more to the formal film than the narrow manner in which he construes it as turning in on itself and sealing itself off. The broader implications of post-1966 film are yet to be adequately dealt with critically, and Le Grice’s book makes that even more obvious.

Between the Acts: perhaps that’s the best phrase to describe the present moment, artistically and critically. But Le Grice seems unaware of this. He seems unaware that the new formal film has had its influence and moved on within a post-modernist esthetic. As a postscript to Le Grice’s book Virginia Woolf’s lines seem especially fitting: “Surely it was time someone invented a new plot, or that the author came out from the bushes” (Between The Acts).

Regina Cornwell



1. Film Culture, No. 47 (Summer 1969), p.1. Also appearing, under the same title but in slightly revised form, in Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney, New York, 1970 and as the last chapter of Sitney’s Visionary Film, New York, 1974.

2. In spite of his book’s anti-narrative position and of his exclusion of uses of abstraction in narrative, in his recent film Le Grice has been working within critical and deconstructive modes in narrative forms. After Lumiere, 1974, L’Arrosseur Arrose and Blackbird Descending (Tense Alignment), 1977, are two such titles.

3. Most of the additional information on early film abstraction is from Standish Lawder’s The Cubist Cinema, New York, 1975.