PRINT April 1980


RECENTLY I CAME ACROSS A statement that Leo Steinberg made in the late ’60s. In effect it’s a thought that comments on its own time: “The legitimacy of retrojecting from our immediate experience to remote fields of study touches on the issue of relevance. No one imagines that relevance attaches to particular subject matter. Making things relevant is a mode of seeing.”2 Very simply, for Steinberg, nothing is naturally relevant. We make something to be so; it is a way of seeing, pointing to, underlining, calling attention to. We find issues from the past and what might be considered recondite and create links between them and our immediate concerns and experiences for all sorts of sundry and special reasons. The past may help us understand the present as well as the future; the present may assist us with the past; or we may even visualize the relevance between past and present in the shape of a Möbius strip as we come to terms with such relationships. What is relevant is really relative, and what’s relevant is also about seeing, actually and metaphorically.

For almost a decade I have been interested in the relation between recent American film avant-garde, by which I mean the period from the 1965 to 1973 or 1974, and primitive film, that is from film’s beginnings in 1895 to 1906 or so. But the relevances I began thinking about, and which excited me then, turn out to be somewhat different from what I see as important today, that is the relationship of the two concepts progress and discontinuity to modernism, the primitive film and the recent avant-garde. Progress is a central tenet of a broadly defined cultural modernism—that product of the rise of the middle classes; while discontinuity is a major characteristic of a particular modernism—esthetic or artistic modernism. The machinery of film came out of the push for progress, while the artistic leanings of an avant-garde are in opposition to, and disruptive of, notions of progress in art.

In 1964 Jonas Mekas, poet, filmmaker, and principal publicist of what was then called the New American Cinema, gave Film Culture magazine’s Sixth Independent Film Award to Andy Warhol for Sleep, Haircut, Eat, Kiss and Empire. The previous year’s award had gone to Jack Smith for Flaming Creatures, and the one before that to Stan Brakhage for The Dead and Prelude.

In the award citation Mekas mused about Warhol’s place in the cinema:

Andy Warhol is taking cinema back to its origins, to the days of Lumière, for a rejuvenation and a cleansing. In his work, he has abandoned all the “cinematic” form and subject adornments that cinema had gathered around itself until now. He has focused his lens on the plainest images possible in the plainest manner possible. With his artist’s intuition as his only guide, he records, almost obsessively, man’s daily activities, the things he sees around him.

A strange thing occurs. The world becomes transposed, intensified, electrified. We see it sharper than before. Not in dramatic, rearranged contexts and meanings, not in the service of something else but as pure as it is in itself: eating as eating, sleeping as sleeping, haircut as haircut.

Mekas went on to say that because of Warhol’s work we were going to see films of simple objects and events like trees and sunsets, each shot differently, each by a different artist. “Some of them will be bad,” he wrote, “some good, some mediocre, like any other movie—and somebody will make a masterpiece.”3

Mekas’ words about the period of the film avant-garde immediately following Warhol—from 1965 to 1973 or 1974—have proven to be prophetic. Consider Michael Snow’s major films from Wavelength, 1966–67, through “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen, 1972–74;
Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, 1970; George Landow’s A Film In Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Etc., 1965–66, his The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter, 1968, and his Institutional Quality, 1969; Paul Sharits’ early films, including Ray Gun Virus 1966; and several of Ernie Gehr’s works such as Morning, and Wait, 1968, Reverberation, 1969, and Serene Velocity, 1970. Because of their prescience and clarity, I’ve employed Mekas’ words about Warhol in describing the recent avant-garde on a number of occasions. The first time I quoted Mekas on Warhol was in 1971 in a review I did of the late Parker Tyler’s Underground Film: A Critical History (1969), a book which I scrutinized with analytical passion and found more than wanting. In fact I found it quite reprehensible.

While Mekas finds in Warhol a return to origins—in effect a renaissance occurring outside of the traditional dramatic film helping us to see things again on film that we had forgotten how to see because of conventions and trappings—it was quite the contrary with Parker Tyler. He had been a spokesman for earlier avant-gardes, especially of the ’40s and ’50s, discovering connections to Dada and Surrealism; but he perceived the period of Warhol and many of those who followed him into the 1960s as infantile and escapist. He seemed unable to analyze the work nor could he see important issues present in it. His chapter called “Underground Film is Primitive Film” is anything but a recapitulation of Mekas’ position. Tyler uses a kind of washed-out psychological vocabulary to attack Warhol and others, equating primitive with childhood, the “playroom,” and the libido. While Mekas draws together the primitive with the recent avant-garde and finds relevance in these connections, Tyler condemns Warhol and post-Warhol work as decadent, regressive art without moral fiber and commitment. He searched for a set of humanist concerns in film but couldn’t locate them in that quarter. The apparent discontinuity distressed him terribly but discontinuity is an essential part of artistic modernism.

Mekas seems to be giving us, from his point of view, a cycle of birth, development, decay and rebirth or revolution, while Tyler sees a direction of development ending in decay. Both lines of argument contain organic metaphors about art and film. I have presented them to underline the significant polarization in their attitudes and the kinds of issues that they suggest, about not only origins, purity, renaissance and decadence, but also perception, discontinuity and modernism.

Modernism. I believe that Tyler is uncomfortable with the discontinuity of modernism. While he dealt with and championed earlier avant-garde work, he often chose those aspects in it which hark back to another esthetic and to a humanist framework. He tended toward work less involved with abstraction and formal issues and more engaged with the narrative and/or the highly symbolic. Finally, he was perhaps less interested in a modernist esthetic and more involved in a bourgeois modernism tied to a humanism which pits him against the Warhol and post-Warhol periods.

Modernism. It is one of those words that so often is left undefined. Its meaning is assumed but shouldn’t be because it is used in so many varied ways for so many varied arguments. In fact it should be pluralized in order to distinguish between the two modernisms already referred to, always a crucial distinction, but particularly so when one brings both of them to bear on the mechanistic medium of film as a broad social and cultural presence and as an art form, itself a product of the late modernist era.

Modernism “as a stage in the history of Western civilization”4 is tied to the development of the bourgeois class and of bourgeois society from the time of the Renaissance and Humanism. Utterly central to bourgeois modernism is the concept of time as unrepeatable and linear as opposed to the ancient notion of the repeatable and the unchangeable. Connected to time as linear and unrepeatable are change and relativity. Such ideas make history possible and within that history is the sense of immanence rather than of transcendence; the consciousness of the present in which the individual acts in his or her own time; the breaks or disruptions and discontinuities from one period or era to another. Progress is a result of these concepts of time and history and progress is also associated with beliefs in the rational and the objective and the possibilities offered by science and developing technologies. In fact time itself becomes objective. Matei Calinescu writes of “the socially measurable time of capitalist civilization.” Time becomes marketable under modernism.5

Bourgeois modernism is sometimes described as an adversary and a crisis culture but perhaps it is esthetic or artistic modernism that becomes the true crisis and adversary culture and force in reaction to its father, its principal enemy. It split off and began to come into conflict with bourgeois modernism in the first half of the 19th century, during the romantic period. In its adversary role it opposed the principles of bourgeois modernism—rationalism, an optimistic belief in science and progress—for what they had become; in a word, it rejected the values of middle class philistinism. Its other major enemy was tradition in esthetics.6

While bourgeois modernism grasps time as objective, measurable and marketable, artistic modernism relies on the subjective time of the imagination, opposing the mimesis and prescription of classicism and neo-classicism. The individual is the product of bourgeois modernism, and esthetic modernism borrows this so that the personality of the individual artist is seen as the source of subjectivity and the imagination.7 This adversary culture shares with its father a concern with change and the relative. But the sense of the consciousness of the present time, of acting for one’s self in history now shifts to a self-consciousness about the art itself, combined with the sense of the immanence and presentness of the art object. And the discontinuities and ruptures occurring in historic time are translated, and refocused, and now underlined, as an essential element of esthetic modernism present both within art objects and vis-à-vis other traditions, movements, and attitudes. Partly the result of the various kinds of discontinuities, it became the art of the minority and not the majority, emphatically not a popular art.

Nineteenth-century movements of so-called “art for art’s sake” were often really artistic expressions against the growing philistinism exemplified by the spread of middle-class values. Within this atmosphere, asserting the immanence of a work of art became a radical gesture. More and more the moment, the present, the imagination as the only valid source for artistic creation, the new and ever new and different were important in the 19th century.8

During the romantic movement artistic modernism was often synonymous with it. In turn the avant-garde was equated with romanticism and modernism. What is avant-garde will be modernist, but not all esthetic modernity is avant-garde, though in America the two are often equated.

Unfortunately, particularly today in the visual arts, modernism is often equated only and specifically with formalism, so that modernism is formalism and post-modernism is beyond formalism. But formalism is not one simply defined phenomenon reduced to one meaning. It is a part of modernism at different times, in the development of different arguments and positions, and it means different things at different times.

The term avant-garde, as is well known, comes out of a military vocabulary. About 1825 it was used in conjunction with romantic utopianism, though it had been used somewhat earlier in conjunction with left politics in general. Finally, by the 1870s, the label was applied to groups of advanced artists and writers. While it means work and ideas that are in advance of other work and ideas, it also suggests a position more radical and less flexible, more extreme and less tolerant than its progenitor, artistic modernism, at the same time being more in opposition to bourgeois culture, to the general public. It is elite in the art it promotes, yet it is paradoxically anti-elite at the same time: after all. the avant-garde came out of the time of modern democracy, and the tenets of bourgeois democracy made it possible. Much energy was shifted from the political arena and social forms to that of artistic forms with the accompanying belief that revolution in art would revolutionize life and society.9 We can see something of its effects as interpreted by Ortega y Gasset in 1925 in “The Dehumanization of Art” when he spoke of the avant-garde deforming and derealizing; in fact he found it dehumanizing through its practices. He went on to say that it was an art that was not only not popular, it was quite distinctly unpopular. It was this kind of abstraction, this moving away from identification with the real in the 19th century which was antibourgeois in its directions.

The 19th century: progress with invention and spectacle; 1825 and the left political avant-garde and idealism; 1825, circa the discovery of the persistence of vision, and the development of the stroboscope, and, a bit before, the zoetrope, the Daguerreotype and Fox Talbot’s registration of the first photographic negative at Lacock Abbey—it was the beginning of “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” to use that well worn Benjamin descriptor.

By the 1870s when the term avant-garde was finally applied to the radical segment of artistic modernism and its productions, the industrial revolution was long since underway and the split between bourgeois and artistic modernism long since accomplished. In 1877 Thomas Edison, inventor and entrepreneur, patented the phonograph, and fourteen years later he patented the kinetoscope, a viewing device which he thought of as merely an accompaniment to the phonograph. So in the last quarter of the 19th century, at a time when the artistic avant-garde could begin to be identified, film entered the world, and was recognized publicly in 1895 and 1896 in screenings organized by the Lumière brothers, Edison and others; but it was certainly no part of any avant-garde.

What was it? It was a machine; another product of the industrial revolution; a small business for entrepreneurs. It was a product of bourgeois modernism which initially fascinated the working classes and finally seduced the middle classes. It was an entertainment and a business that borrowed from the popular forms of the 19th century and assimilated them. It took from the magic lantern in its various forms, including narrative, and from variety or vaudeville it took the tableau and the spectacle and comedy and humor. The chemical inventions and optical toys came together in film and the film camera; as a medium, film united with other forms of entertainment. It was for a brief time an extension of vaudeville, being incorporated into it as one of the varieties or spectacles. Early methods were simple; the authors were usually anonymous as were the players—when they were called for. In the first ten years it was an industry of individuals and small businesses.

After that cinema expanded significantly into big business. Film is a product of bourgeois modernism and the machinery of capitalist enterprise. Film and the institution of the cinema are the results of, as well as instruments of, progress. In fact, one might recall the thoughts of the eloquent but conservative French critic André Bazin, who saw the film as an esthetic advance over older art forms, capable of fulfilling our psychological cravings for greater and greater realism, and doing so automatically, without the intervention of man’s hand. This was progress, so he seemed to think. But if it was progress, film in its beginnings had no relationship to the discontinuity present in the work of the artistic avant-garde.

In the 1950s Arnold Toynbee first used the term postmodern and dated its start in the last quarter of the 19th century.10 Others speak of the postmodern period, as I myself do, as beginning in the late 1960s. These dates and their relationships to the origins of film and the recent avant-garde are significant. Does postmodernism originate at the same time as the invention of film as a popular entertainment form and a means of mechanical reproduction, or has postmodernism begun very recently amidst avant-garde activity in the 1960s, spelling the end of both modernisms?

The 1960s: Pop art and happenings; post-painterly abstraction and Minimal art, followed by the various manifestations which fall under the rubric of what Robert Pincus-Witten first called post-Minimalism—including process, conceptual and performance art. In film in the late ’50s there were various calls for and claims to new cinemas in Europe and the U.S. At the time the development of lightweight cinema-vérité equipment seemed to make a number of those new cinemas possible. In 1959 Jonas Mekas called for a new generation of filmmakers, which in 1960 he referred to as the New American Cinema. A continuation of this was the underground film in the early 60s, including Warhol; Jack Smith, author of the infamous Flaming Creatures, 1963, of Supreme Court notoriety; and related to Smith’s works, the sensuous Chumlum, 1964, made by Ron Rice, whose premature death in Mexico made him something of a heroic cult figure. This was followed in the mid and late ’60s with tendencies in the avant-garde that were somewhat analogous to Minimalism in sculpture, and that mixed with other concerns that are suggested in the prescriptions, rhetoric and descriptions of Clement Greenberg about modernist painting.

The underground—specifically that of Warhol and Smith and some Rice—the decadence which Parker Tyler wrote against, had a crude primitive simplicity about it: washed out and underexposed images, long awkward takes, and a self-conscious naiveté on the part of the players and in terms of how the camera was used. They were quite different from the films of Brakhage, who was also at that time categorized and shown in the underground. Like the primitive film, the viewing conditions for these works were often extremely crude. But they were also underground for economic reasons or because of content considered pornographic or salacious and the possible object of legal scrutiny and attack, of which Flaming Creatures is the best known example.

An early Warhol, Eat or Sleep, next to a poetic study by Brakhage, such as Anticipation of the Night, of 1958, or Cat’s Cradle, of 1959, had to look simple, primitive, and unnecessarily discursive. When Brakhage used splice marks, scratches, over- and underexposures—plays revealing film’s materials—they were gestures, metaphors about physical or metaphysical seeing and vision. In Warhol the end-roll dots and flashes, the imperfect exposures, the static, cramped frame were simple statements about what would be left in. No metaphors. The film is what it is and what it represents and nothing more. It shows without revealing. It re-embraces the broad premise, espoused by the very first cameramen, that anything on film is bound to engage. Of course they were talking about a half minute or one or two minutes, while Warhol is provoking and exaggerating through his use of extended time and his removed, distanced role, his fixation or fetishization of thing or event—a refinement, an act of sophistication brought to bear on the naive, primitive film event—into an object on film. As Mekas pointed out, nothing else like Warhol’s work was going on at that time, 1963–64: not in Godard’s, not in anyone’s in Europe, nor in the U.S. Some were outraged by Warhol’s films; some tried to simply dismiss them as inconsequential; others were influenced by this direct, undramatic, nonnarrative work with a lack, often times, even of spectacle. Was it decadence, or was it a recycling to the beginnings, a kind of revolution which was about, as are all revolutions, a purification?

Perhaps Clement Greenberg’s name has been referred to too much in too many contexts, but it is useful in constructing connections with this recent film. In his “Modernist Painting” of 1960, he spoke of the modernist sense of self-criticism in all areas and fields. He interpreted that sense in painting to mean an emphasis on paint and canvas rather than on representation or imitation, foregrounding the painting itself—line, color, flatness, etc.—as subject which expresses that self-consciousness about the medium. At the same time he described the irreducible elements of the medium of painting: paint and flatness, he said. This kind of reductivism causes many problems, the primary one being: where does one go from here? Finally, good painting came down to quality, but quality became a kind of artisanship which one would know and understand if one had good taste—thereby able to distinguish it from mediocre and bad artisanship. There is some kind of an ineluctable balance between paint and self-questioning and self-definition in “quality” painting of this sort.

Anyone totally on the outside might think that Minimal or ABC art, as it was also called, would perfectly answer Greenberg’s prescriptions. But on the contrary, it went too far—beyond the ineluctable balance of an esthetic ideal quality opening other esthetic questions. Minimalism, a movement probably more of sculpture than of painting, stressed materials, especially industrial materials and industrial working procedures; holistic and unitary structures, as opposed to hierarchically organized ones; repetition through series or serialization; and a move from the subjectively hand-crafted into the a priori structuring of the objective, detached and distanced work of art. The idea of the object was hyperbolized, as in a Donald Judd box. A stress was placed on perception, and in contrast to post-painterly abstraction, it is highly intellectualized work. Minimal art takes the self-consciousness of modernism and the idea of the immanence of a work of art and hyperbolizes both. The object becomes part of a state described as “objecthood” by Michael Fried. And the object, it was claimed, was neutral, in a neutral environment.

In Greenberg’s sense, this object-quality really got out of hand. And together with it so did the situation for the viewer who, faced with those Judd steel boxes, was forced into an active role—perceptually and intellectually—either accepting and engaging or withdrawing. But there was no simple passivity. This work had a set of demands to make and was, in a peculiar way, quietly aggressive. Less is more is the now old cliché about it—simple forms, reduced elements, holistic structures, raw materials, a move away from illusion. The object is what it is; it is about itself and nothing more; it bears no transcendent illusions. Minimal art suggests in its grand and aggressive and dramatic posture the exaggeration of so many of modernism’s tenets—discontinuity, self-consciousness, immanence. Minimalism marks, I believe, through its self-hyperbolization, the real break-up and end of modernism in the visual arts.

To return to the recent film avant-garde and its connections to Greenberg and Minimalism, after the much publicized early Warhol work in film and the burst of extra-esthetic interest in the underground, came the Minimalist related work that began in the mid-’60s and is spoken of as structural film.11

Included are the films of Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, George Landow, Paul Sharits and Michael Snow. Played out in these works is the self-questioning of the art form as well as a self-consciousness about it, a reductivism and a concern with the object and the idea of the self-enclosed object. Particular techniques and preoccupations characterize these works: exact repetition through use of the loop-printed image in Landow’s A Film in Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Etc., 1965–66; rephotography from a screen in Reverberation, 1969, by Gehr; Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, 1969, by Jacobs, with a resulting emphasis on grain or emulsion; a single camera position as in Gehr’s Still, 1970; and the frame as a color field, or the reduction of a film into simple elements of color or black-and-white frames, sometimes in the form of the flicker film, which itself exaggerates the operation of the film machinery, as with Sharits’s Ray Gun Virus and Conrad’s The Flicker, both of 1966. These reductivist means call attention to the materials, to the filmmaking process, to the filmmaker.

There were attempts to reconsider narrative and illusion, to deconstruct both, or to simply do away with them in the course of fashioning the film as a self-enclosed object. Unlike Minimal art, the imperfections were often shown and the paradox of object and process were exhibited at one and the same time. But like Minimal art, while maintaining that object-aspect, this film also demanded a great deal from its viewers, both perceptually and intellectually.

There is sometimes a fine line between, on the one side, questioning conventions and reducing apparent complexity in order to begin again, and, on the other side, reducing to a dead end, as happens with Greenberg. His is an ontological reductivism which attempts to fix its definition forever. Paul Sharits had at first optimistically written about researching a language of cinema based on structuralist methods, looking to the single frame rather than the shot as the smallest cinematic unit, but in his practice he ended up in an extreme reductivism. But there was with Sharits, as with others at that time, and as is always the case with an avant-garde, an attempt to find new forms and to experiment in the best sense. And the choices made by Sharits and his colleagues in the recent avant-garde were simple methods and means, rejecting traditions and conventions, in order to hone down.

There were those in the film avant-garde who expressed an active interest in both simple means and in film’s beginnings. In an article published in Artforum in September 1971 called “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses,” Hollis Frampton begins with that famous and now seemingly quaint quote of Louis Lumière, father of the cinema: “The cinematograph [his camera, printer, projector in one] is an invention without a future.” Later Frampton uses early film footage in a work of his own; and in still another one he makes references to the photographer Eadweard Muybridge who in 1880 had invented a sort of magic lantern proto-projector, an animating photograph machine, the Zoopraxiscope. But earlier, in the late 1960s, Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs were already both interested in primitive film and saw, and even purchased, some of the restored works from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection. Using one of these, Jacobs made Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son in 1969. In another example, in 1974, using primitive footage of San Francisco, Gehr made Eureka. A film of Gehr’s of 1970 is entitled History and, through its simplicity, it conjures up fantasies about early film—allusions to what might have been, and what historically couldn’t have been done or made then as opposed to what is possible now. History is a film of its own moment. It is an oscillating field of black-and-white emulsion in which colors appear as after-images, and illusions of objects and patterns suggest themselves to the willing and open viewer. By its title, through its means, all that it omits, and its silence, it forces one to think and to think back.

But what is the relevance of primitive film? We know that in modern art there has been intense interest in the primitive on the part of the Cubists as well as those involved in other forms of abstraction. As Meyer Schapiro points out, modern artists were among the first to appreciate primitive work “as true art.” The primitive brought new insights to form in modern work. “But,” Schapiro writes, “with all the obvious resemblances, modern paintings and sculptures differ from the primitive in structure and content. What in primitive art belongs to an established world of collective beliefs and symbols arises in modern art as an individual expression, bearing the marks of a free, experimental attitude to forms.” And he goes on to say that there is a sense of kinship felt between the two.12

Of course in film one is talking about 65 to 75 years apart rather than the thousands that Schapiro is speaking of. But the issues of form, perception, and that curious and interesting point about collective beliefs and symbols in the primitive as opposed to individual expression in the modern are relevant here. Can we talk about collective beliefs for those who made early films? Perhaps we can consider them as that body of forms from popular culture of the 19th century—types of spectacle and tableaux from the magic lantern and vaudeville. And they were employed by the artists and/or small businessmen working with a few people or alone. Artists of the avant-garde working today may deal with form for altogether other reasons and from other points of view, but they may share visual-stylistic kinship with the cinema of the primitives.

The individual has a place in both films: the avant-garde artist today and the entrepreneur of the 19th century. The machine used by both is a product of the industrial revolution. Early machines were simple. The machinery, meaning the whole apparatus of the cinema, took over to create a complex business and industrial situation—a collective form and a mass enterprise beyond that of the individual artist and the entrepreneur. But the artist of the avant-garde, working alone, still using the basically and comparatively simple machine, stands against the large scale cinema, opting for forms which are disruptive and discontinuous with the mainstream and choosing the freedom of his or her own expression.

So there is a kinship in working procedures and a sympathy for the construction of early film that carries into the recent avant-garde. But one could say that about the kinships of the working procedures of the earlier avant-gardes as well. But unlike the Dada and Surrealist related work of the ’20s and the films of the ’40s and ’50s, the recent work expresses those interests in starting over again, in deconstructing existing forms and replacing them with simpler ones. As Mekas said about Warhol, a certain kind of simplicity forces one to look and to begin to see all over again. The less is more of recent film helps create the attraction to and an affection for early work, an affinity between the naive and the sophisticated.

The marvel of early films, particularly multiple-shot fiction works, is often the look of discontinuity, of anarchy, and of the strange and the bizarre. But were they discontinuous for their own time? Did audiences expect full causal narratives? Did they expect narratives at all? What did they see? We can’t exactly and entirely answer the last question, though we do know, of course, that they brought other assumptions and expectations than those that we bring to the theatre, and they probably saw in a radically different way based on their cultural data and conditioning. The cinema was a novelty. Possibilities were being tested in nonfiction and fiction. When one saw short movies at the end of a vaudeville routine one thought in terms of variety and spectacle, farce and humor. It is more than likely that when a plot or inchoate narrative was subsumed by humor, slapstick and spectacles of all kinds, the disruption or discontinuity was something already assimilated through the experience of other forms. A string of events, a lack of causality, a reconstruction and repetition of events from several points of view were probably digested without questioning. The anarchy, seeming destruction, bizarre plots and characters were no surprise, but were part of popular lore from other forms.

However, from afar it becomes relevant,for we can see these films as discontinuous, as radical from our point of view—from the point of view of someone interested in the avant-garde. We can and do read them for and to our own purposes: the disruption; the deconstruction of narrative; the mismatches, the events unrelated to causality organized paratactically; and spectacle—in and of itself, seemingly a tool to foreground narrative, with humor in its various forms of slapstick and grotesquery as a type of spectacle—an exploding discontinuity. Of course what also becomes relevant are the use of a static or stationary camera over, and more than, camera movement; the long take; the far shot and the kinds of compositions created with overall movement in the frame; use of diagonals in which we discover extraordinary compositions that substitute for camera movement as well as an amazing wealth of detail. Sometimes the overall movement within the frame becomes abstract—abstracts the action and distracts from the action.13

There is a delight in this, a practical one for the filmmaker/viewer and a theoretical one for the critic. We read the work to suit our needs and interests even while we may know that such work was not necessarily radical for its time, in its form, although the machine itself was new, and in that sense, perhaps in itself radical. There is, as Schapiro suggests, a difference in structure and content between primitive and modern art. Thus, when older work is literally and physically used by recent filmmakers, it is transformed. Jacobs shows us a triptych, with the original Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son at beginning and end, and his new Tom, Tom, a rephotographed manipulation of the time and space of the early work in between. When we arrive at the original again at the end it simply looks different. In the example of Eureka, Gehr manipulates the time of the early work in remaking his own. Both have concentrated on form in their films in ways not possible and unthought of by either Billy Bitzer, maker of Tom, Tom and later a cameraman for D.W. Griffith, or by the anonymous cameraperson who shot the footage of the San Francisco tram.

It may indeed be the American avant-garde film’s longstanding and general unease with narrative, its condemnation, avoidance, and transformation of it that creates an interest in and suggests parallels to the early fiction as well as the nonfiction. It may appear a relief to some that film is not and has not been automatically and naturally narrative from its inception but was shaped into such as a dominant form. A relief that earlier audiences knew how to read the paratactical forms and the overlaps, could follow what to us today seem curious and static chases, totally unmotivated and gratuitous happenings or incidents. Their formal relevance is seen as something totally other than what it actually was at that time. It is our contemporary way of seeing, of shaping, and it is totally relative to our interests.These forms, as we see them and make them relevant, serve as interesting models and supports by way of the simplicity of going back to the beginning, by starting over again, by a kind of revolution in seeing-not through symbols and metaphors but through the literal, simple and literal shapes and forms and by simple technical procedures. The adversary role of the avant-garde is played through (or out) by going back to beginnings, didactically starting over, examining and researching, in its own products, new and ever new forms.

E.H. Gombrich once said in a lecture he gave at Cooper Union (Spring, 1971), called “The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art” that “It is only an apparent paradox that the more a critic will deny the idea that art can progress the more he will feel progressive.”

But film is an invention along a line in time in bourgeois modernism, a medium of exchange and of information, a mechanical device for progress in the ways that we can communicate. But as far as art goes, as I mentioned earlier, André Bazin does see the cinema as a mode of progress in representation, moving toward greater and greater realism, fulfilling our psychological need and esthetic need for realism. It doesn’t substitute for reality, as do other forms for art, but according to Bazin it transfers reality like a fingerprint or a shroud. Sound, color and wide screen continue to enhance this realism. Cinema thus becomes a form of continuity and of progress in the world. In Bazin’s frame of reference, it is continuous rather than discontinuous and like a form in nature. Bourgeois realism is enhanced by smoothing away or ignoring the discontinuities in the form.

I want to return full circle to Mekas and Tyler—to the positive pole of renaissance and revolution which Mekas suggests that Warhol heralds—a new era of making and perception, and to Tyler’s opposition. For him, clearly, the classical avant-garde had passed and all that followed was only downhill, a decay.

Tyler points to a demise in the line of development, while Mekas suggests a return, in order to begin again. At any rate there is a period of time which can be bracketed off: the 85 years from the first projections until today. Film, a mechanical product of the age of the industrial revolution, developed at the time of the coalescing of the artistic avant-garde, and, today, the period of film we speak of occurs in conjunction with Minimalism and the apparent breakup of modernism (and perhaps also the end of the linear notion of progress). But if we reject Toynbee’s placement of the start of the postmodern at the end of the 19th century, and look at it as born only yesterday, we have no longer a bracketing off but a total closure on that 85 year period.

In itself, postmodernism is still being defined. It is heralded by some and accepted with reluctance by others. It is characterized most often as anti-intellectual, populist, a move toward a mass culture, less middle-class and more working-class, and altogether more relative in values. In art, specifically and significantly, it is a move away from immanence.

If it is the end of modernism, if we locate the beginnings of postmodernism at this time, then what about the age of mechanical reproduction? Postmodernism does unseat or overthrow the mechanical age and install very firmly the electronic age. The costs of mechanical technology continue to increase, while electronics decrease in cost, and the various electronic technologies steadily improve, superseding the mechanical. And we certainly know that this is true with cinema, film, television, and video costs and technological developments (speaking, of course, only of economics and technology and not of esthetics). But then, where is film? Perhaps Mekas’ notion of a rejuvenation and a cleansing really cycles back and closes the era of an art form. “Progress— –Discontinuous”—perhaps progress discontinued is more appropriate. Louis Lumière’s statement which has been laughed at for decades now turns out to be prophetic, for perhaps, after all, “The cinematograph is an invention without a future.”

Regina Cornwell is a New York based critic whose first book, Snow Seen: the Films and Photographs of Michael Snow, was published in March by Peter Martin Associates, Toronto.



1. This is a revised version of what was originally presented as a lecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art on November 14, 1979, as part of a series program called “Researches and Investigations Into Film: Its Origins and the Avant-Garde.” I would like to thank Jon Gartenberg, Bob Summers and Charles Silver of the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art for making numerous primitive films and the facilities to view them available to me.

2. “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,” Other Criteria, New York, 1979, p. 317.

3. Film Culture, No. 33 (Summer 1964), p. 1.

4. Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Bloomington, 1977, p. 41. Calinescu is the single most valuable source I have found on the subject of modernism. He speaks at length of the two modernisms. For the definitions and discussions of the two modernisms in what follows I have relied heavily on Calinescu as well as for part of my discussion of the historic avant-garde.

5. Ibid., p. 5. See also pages 3–46.

6. Ibid., p. 10 and p. 41.

7. Ibid., p. 5.

8. Ibid., p. 45.

9. Ibid., pp. 95–112.

10. Ibid., pp, 133–134.

11. See P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” Film Culture, No. 47 (Summer 1969), pp. 1–10, and my critique of the concept in “Structural Film: Ten Years Later,” The Drama Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (September 1979), pp. 77–92.

12. “Style,” reprinted in Aesthetics Today, ed. M. Philipson, New York, 1961, p. 87.

13. See papers from “The Brighton Symposium on Fiction Film: 1900–1906” sponsored by FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) held in Brighton, England, Spring, 1978, on deposit at the Museum of Modern Art, and now published in French in Cahiers de la Cinematheque, No. 29 (January 1980) and to be published in English by the National Film Archives in London. Especially valuable to my concerns here are the papers of Eileen Bowser, Tom Gunning, John Fell and Charles Musser.