PRINT January 2006


IN THE FALL OF 2005 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York mounted three remarkable retrospectives of avant-garde filmmakers of the same artistic generation: All three—Robert Beavers, Owen Land (born George Landow), and Morgan Fisher—began making films in the 1960s, and all three won considerable recognition while still quite young (Beavers and Land were teenagers when they screened their first films; Fisher was in his midtwenties). In October, the Whitney’s assistant curator of film and video, Henriette Huldisch, brought together the most comprehensive program of Beavers’s films ever shown. The Land program, organized by independent curator Mark Webber for LUX in London, came to the Whitney the next month. And currently on view (following its debut at Tate Modern, London) is “Standard Gauge: Film Works by Morgan Fisher, 1968–2003,” organized by Whitney curator Chrissie Iles. An advocate for the incorporation of film pieces in gallery spaces, Iles included one of Fisher’s installations to complement this nine-film retrospective, although it was not in place in time for this review. However, none of the “Aspect Ratio” sculpture or “edge-and-corner” paintings are to be shown. Although the films of artists known primarily as painters and sculptors are regularly exhibited in connection with their major museum exhibitions, the reverse is hardly ever ventured.

Together these three retrospectives remind us of the vigor with which young artists in the ’60s empowered themselves as filmmakers. The exuberance, self-confidence, even cockiness of the earliest films in these shows reveal the aesthetic optimism of a fledgling American avant-garde forty years ago. Yet even within the narrow span of these artists’ moments of entry there were significant gradations in how their initial films were greeted and in how the filmmakers subsequently progressed. In 1964, Jonas Mekas showed Land’s first 16-mm film, the silent Fleming Faloon (1963–64), at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque and then included it in the International Exhibition of the New American Cinema traveling through Europe that same year. By 1967, Land had released two more silent 16-mm films, and in 1968 and 1969, he released two more with sound, firmly establishing his reputation as one of the most promising young avant-garde filmmakers of the day and winning him a full-time teaching position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (He made all of his films as George Landow, not changing his name to Owen Land until the early ’80s, when he was no longer active as a filmmaker.) At seventeen, Robert Beavers completed Spiracle (1966), which he showed a year later at the Experimental Film Competition in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium. By then he had moved to Europe, where he has lived and worked ever since, seldom showing his films in public, except when European cinematheques purchased prints of them. Devoted enthusiasts of his work had to make their way to the Temenos screenings held in central Greece nearly every summer in the 1980s if they wanted to be sure of seeing one of his films. In the late ’90s he began to present some of his work in Europe and the US, but the Whitney retrospective provided the first occasion for it to be seen en masse.

At sixty-three Fisher is two years older than Land and seven years older than Beavers, but he was the last to start his career. Two early films, The Director and His Actor Look at Footage Showing Preparations for an Unmade Film (2) and Phi Phenomenon (both 1968), attracted attention within a year after they were made, at the film festivals of St. Lawrence College (presented in New York at Hunter College by Ken Jacobs) and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, respectively. Within six years Fisher had completed another eight films. The early ’70s was a period of intense cinematic productivity for Fisher’s strongest peers; in that company, his films earned him a respectable but modest reputation. A transitional work, Projection Instructions (1976), called for the intervention of a projectionist (following printed instructions) in the screening of an otherwise conventionally exhibited film. Subsequently, Fisher turned his attention to film installations twenty years before museums and galleries would embrace such work, making and exhibiting Southern Exposure (1977); North Light and Passing Time (both 1979); and Color Balance (1980/2002; to be shown at the Whitney). Returning to filmmaking in 1984, he completed his longest and most impressive film, the thirty-five-minute Standard Gauge. Then, after an extraordinary pause of nineteen years, he followed it with ( ) (2003), a brilliant twenty-one-minute film sometimes informally called “Parenthesis.”

While Land and Beavers were making their first films, Fisher was at school; first at Harvard, where he majored in art history (1960–64), then at the film school of the University of Southern California (1964–65), and, finally, at the film school at UCLA (1965–66). Land and Beavers were autodidacts, shaped by the avant-garde films they saw in their teens; they may have been the last of many masters of the American avant-garde cinema who either avoided college or dropped out, among them Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken, Larry Jordan, Harry Smith, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopoulos, Hollis Frampton, and Jonas Mekas.

Fisher’s formal education and his decision, after 1970, to remain working in the commercial film industry in Los Angeles profoundly affected the character of his art. He seems to have moved into avant-garde cinema as a consequence of his disaffection with the limitations of conventional narratives; very quickly he became the most academically reductive practitioner of the minimalist filmmaking I delineated at the time in an essay titled “Structural Film” (a term and a historical construction much contested in the years following the publication of that article in the Summer 1969 issue of Film Culture). Yet “structural film” was largely a New York (and London) phenomenon, molded and enlivened by the friendships and rivalries of like-minded filmmakers. In Southern California, Fisher was radically isolated and, perhaps for that reason, fascinated by the theory and criticism of the visual arts. For most of the other North American makers of “structural” films, long duration and repetitive, minimalized imagery were means to achieve versions of the sublime. Fisher, however, steadfastly resisted the sublime. Instead, he invented cinematic paradoxes, pitting montage against very long takes. In the academy this would have been seen as standing in pointed opposition to the film theories of Sergey Eisenstein and André Bazin, but in avant-garde practice the antinomy of the extreme long takes of Andy Warhol with the montage practice of Peter Kubelka and Bruce Conner was closer to his sights. He seems to have been an avid reader of Film Culture, Artforum, and later October; in his occasional writings on his films he has cited Michael Fried and Rosalind E. Krauss—both of whom attended Harvard while he was there—as well as Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Fisher’s relative isolation and intellectual intensity contributed to the rigorous and hermetic, almost agoraphobic, character of his early films. Apart from the very first one he made, they were all shot indoors, in stripped-down studios, in which the dominant human presence, when there is one, is the filmmaker himself. Land, who once used Fisher in a film (On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? [1977–79]), described his screen persona as that of a milquetoast professor-poet. That earnest, somewhat timid demeanor stages his deadpan wit, often making his ironic “explanations” for the camera very funny.

The process of filmmaking, its tools, and its jargon have been Fisher’s subjects for forty years. Seeing his first film from the perspective of the Whitney retrospective, we can find all of his central strategies in place from the very start. The Director and His Actor. . . is a film in two parts. In the first, we see a barren room with a young man sitting behind a tape recorder. Another man, played by Fisher himself, busily enters; he tests the recording machine and eventually goes into a back room, which, when illuminated, turns out to be a projection booth. The film he projects will be the whole second part of this work. It, in turn, is divided into six parts. Through all of them we hear the offhand comments of the two young men as they watch the rushes of their film. In principle, the film they watch is a single long take of a screen on which many shorter shots are projected: First there are sixty-one very short shots, presumably edited in-camera, of the two men taking still photographs of a residential neighborhood, empty lots, and each other; then, from a single camera setup in a sequence of eighteen jump cuts, we see Fisher develop the rolls of 35-mm still film and, in three more, hang them to dry in another corner of the darkroom. Next, there is a long take from behind of Fisher meticulously laying out a title card and twenty photographs corresponding to images we saw him shooting earlier, followed by the silent film he made of them. Finally, his actor repeats the process; first, he messily assembles his twenty photographs at the same table, from the same angle; then we see his film of stills, which includes images of Fisher shooting him and of the two previously unacknowledged crew members who filmed both the director and his actor.

The two films-within-the-film-in-progress-within-the-film are closer in spirit to Chris Marker’s science-fiction masterpiece in stills, La Jetée (1962), and Agnès Varda’s documentary Salut les cubains (1963) than to the later, aggressive structural films made with stills by Michael Snow (One Second in Montreal [1969]) and Hollis Frampton (Hapax Legomena: [nostalgia] [1971]). Poised between dramatic and apodictic forms immanent in his initial effort, Fisher quickly opted for the latter. His Phi Phenomenon of 1968 (not included in the Whitney retrospective) stares at a wall clock without a second hand. The title refers to the illusion of movement generated by the rapid substitution of proximate images—say, two lights on a marquee. It is central to all cinematic perception, but Fisher makes us sweat out eleven minutes vainly trying to catch the minute hand in motion. His minimalism would never again be so niggardly. That same year he filmed a naked woman with a tape recorder (Documentary Footage; also not to be shown at the Whitney this season), first asking a series of questions about her body, then answering them. If the ascetic Phi Phenomenon atones for the prurient wit of Documentary Footage, more significantly, it initiates the depletion of connotation typical of his rejection of the sublime in his subsequent films of the ’70s. Fisher tempers this ascesis with an obsessive fondness for the film equipment he photographs.

Production Stills (1970), a refinement of the employment of still photographs, is a perfectly enclosed narrative of its own production: The image is one long take of a wall on which a hand sequentially pins a number of Polaroids, one after the other, again for eleven minutes (the running time of a four-hundred-foot roll of 16-mm film). The Polaroids depict the crew making the film; the synchronous sound allows us to hear without interruption, in “real time,” their chatter and the hum of the still camera, so that we can anticipate the photos and assign faces to the voices we hear. In a similar vein, Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) and Cue Rolls (1974) explore respectively the parameters of synchronous sound and A- and B-roll editing as ironically didactic demonstrations. The tension between a very long take and montage operates in different registers in each of these films. Yet it achieves its most elaborate form in Standard Gauge, which is an uninterrupted tour-de-force performance lasting thirty-two minutes, the maximum length of a 16-mm shot. (An explanatory text at the beginning of the film and credits at the end account for the work’s thirty-five-minute running time.) Warhol had utilized this duration repeatedly in the mid-’60s with nearly static subjects, but Fisher composed his long take of a series of roughly thirty strips of film unwound, with individual frames repeatedly held for scrutiny under the unblinking gaze of his camera.

Turning his formidable self-deprecating irony on his obsessions, Fisher commented offscreen on this collection of 35-mm (which is to say, standard-gauge) film snippets he assembled over the years. In so doing he tangentially elaborated his antisublime theory of the beauty of cinematic ephemera and articulated his autobiography as a filmmaker, as Hollis Frampton had done showing and talking about his still photographs in Hapax Legomena. Whereas Frampton crammed his film with images and stories about the art-world celebrities with whom he worked (Carl Andre, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Larry Poons, Michael Snow), Fisher stresses the marginal situation of his friends and himself—making ends meet by editing low budget films, subtitling, researching stock footage, playing bit roles that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Frampton talked himself into the drama of an unexplained uncanny event that made him give up still photography; Fisher lets his film peter out with, as he puts it, “some pieces of film that I think are interesting to look at.” For him the uncanny moment came earlier, when a lab technician handed him a decomposing clip of camera original from a newsreel Bruce Conner had used prominently in A Movie (1958), the most influential film in the genre of Standard Gauge.

Yet Frampton’s sensibility, not Conner’s, would be the closest to Fisher’s among the major American avant-garde filmmakers. They both presented themselves as intellectually sophisticated, severe ironists, meticulous craftsmen, and philosophically inclined didactic professionals meting out insider information. Of the two, Frampton was by far the more prolific and expansive artist—and the more caustic satirist. They began to exhibit films at the same moment: Frampton’s breakthrough film, Surface Tension (1968), drew attention and prizes at the same two festivals where I and many others first saw Fisher’s work. But Frampton quickly won a degree of critical recognition that came to Fisher only after he released Standard Gauge. Film historians Scott MacDonald and Paul Arthur have written well on Fisher, and he is one of the heroes of David E. James’s splendid new book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2005).

Fisher’s most recent film, ( ), succeeds astonishingly where Frampton’s parallel effort, Hapax Legomena: Remote Control (1972) failed; it uses aleatory methods to release the narrative unconscious of a set of randomly selected films. ( ) is made up entirely of “inserts” from feature films organized according to Oulipian principles. Inserts were usually shot by assistants when star actors, large crews, or expensive sets were not needed. These include details of weapons, wounds, letters, signs, tombstones, machinery, games of chance, timepieces, money, and even intimate caresses. Fisher culled the inserts from a number of films he collected for that purpose and edited them together under constraints he does not fully reveal; he places the inserts from a given film in the order in which they appeared in that film, but two inserts from the same film never follow each other directly in his assemblage. Alternating among them we catch glimpses of violence, intrigue, high-stakes gambling, and sexual adventure.

Fisher has not been utterly solitary in his isolation. He credits his longtime friend and sometime collaborator Thom Andersen with the inspiration for ( ). In 1966–67 Andersen edited — ——— (commonly called “Short Line, Long Line” or “The Rock ’n’ Roll Film”), a montage of rock-music images in which each pair of shots contains a short shot followed by a longer one; the first shot of the following pair is longer than the short one of the previous set but shorter than the long one; the second is longer than the previous long shot. A system of color patterns and another of movements interacts with the short-long pairs. Within such constraints chance determined which images would fill out the metrical pattern. Malcolm Brodwick designed the sound track on the basis of the pattern without seeing the edited film. “I consider Thom and Malcolm’s film to be groundbreaking in its brilliant demonstration of the power of a rule in constructing a film that is made of shots taken at different times and places,” Fisher wrote in a 2003 statement about ( ). “It refuses the power of montage as that idea has been conventionally understood, only to rediscover its power in a different form, on a new plane.”

Fisher’s own montage of nearly four hundred insert shots reveals the beauty and mystery of images otherwise veiled by the banality of commercial movie plots and trite psychology. A little more than halfway through the film, we see a hand unwinding a reel of 35-mm film, out of which fall packets of drugs. Emblematic of the “power in a different form” Fisher has persistently sought in his films, the shot reveals a dangerous secret smuggled into the ordinary paraphernalia of cinema.

P. Adams Sitney, professor of visual art at Princeton University, is the author of Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000, 3rd Ed. (Oxford University Press, 2002).

“Standard Gauge: Film Works by Morgan Fisher, 1968–2003” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through February 12.