PRINT March 2017


On the Eve of the Future

MIT PRESS has just published On the Eve of the Future, a collection of essays on film written by scholar Annette Michelson over the course of three decades. Art historian Rachel Churner, the editor of the volume, spoke with Michelson to reflect on the development of this body of writing, from Michelson’s early encounters with avant-garde cinema in Paris in the 1950s and ’60s to her pioneering work establishing film as a subject of criticism and scholarship in America, first at Artforum and then as a founding editor of October.

Spread from Artforum, June 1973. Annette Michelson, “Rose Hobart and Monsieur Phot: Early Films from Utopia Parkway.”

RACHEL CHURNER: On the Eve of the Future is a collection of essays about film written over a period of thirty years, starting in the 1970s. Since several of these texts—among your earliest on cinema—were first published in Artforum, shall we begin by talking about how you came to write for the magazine?

ANNETTE MICHELSON: Well, I had just returned from Paris, where I had been living for almost sixteen years, writing for Arts Magazine and Art International and doing art criticism for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. I found myself in Los Angeles, and a number of people in the art world—some of whom had actually read my stuff—suggested that I pay a visit to Philip Leider, the remarkable editor of a rather new review called Artforum. So I did. And he asked me to write for him. It was about that time that the magazine moved, on the advice of Clement Greenberg, I think, from California to New York, where—as they say—the action was. Of course, I discovered considerable action in LA as well.

RC: You started writing for the magazine in 1966?

AM: Yes. My initial pieces for the publication were exhibition reviews on Agnes Martin and others. When the first volume of André Bazin’s extremely important critical essays on film were published in English in 1967, it seemed to me that this particular form of visual expression could and should find a place in Artforum. So I wrote an article about his work [“What Is Cinema? By André Bazin,” Artforum, Summer 1968]. That, to my knowledge, was among the initial appearances of film criticism and film history in the magazine. I went on to do much more writing.

RC: You guest-edited an issue, in September 1971, which was completely devoted to film.

AM: I was even able to design the layout of that issue, which is always great fun. I had a wonderful time in those years. I was able to bring in other contributors I respected—for example, the extraordinary Manny Farber, who for me had set the standard of originality and attentiveness for film criticism and whom I had read as a teenager. I was also able to welcome some of my brilliant graduate students to the magazine’s pages. And when I decided to expand coverage to the intensifying climate of performance, Noël Carroll initiated our coverage of that scene. Somewhere toward the close of the ’60s, I met Rosalind Krauss and found in her a writer of great interest and an instant friend. While it took a bit of time to establish Artforum as a venue for film criticism and theory, I remain grateful for the openness that Phil—whom I have always regarded as an extraordinary editor—showed to these initiatives. Later, when John Coplans was the editor, Rosalind and I left the magazine. Together we then founded the journal October, and it is largely there that you find the seeds of what I have been writing about for the past several decades.

RC: Could you talk a little bit about how you conceived of the book? Your title, of course, signals that it is about the relationship between film and the body—in particular, the female body.

AM: Yes. The title, On the Eve of the Future, carries a double reference: On the one hand, it reproduces the title of one of the major works of Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, L’Ève future [1886], the stunning science-fiction novel about the creation of the perfect woman as a mechanically designed creature; that is to say, it suggested to me the cinema as refracted through the image of an automated woman.

The other reference is more historical. I’m writing about the work produced by a generation of independent filmmakers over a period of about twenty years, from the mid-’50s to the ’70s. They all worked with 16 mm, and their films were created on the eve of the future, which is video.

As to the question of film and the body, the writing does, I suppose, also have to do with a more general question of eroticism, which was posed by many films of the time—for example, Stan Brakhage’s major work Dog Star Man [1961–64] or Warhol’s Chelsea Girls [1966]. What I saw in Brakhage’s work in general, from his earliest to his most mature work, was a celebration of the body; in certain ways, it attempted to literalize some of Robert Whitman’s work on the body and sensuality. Chelsea Girls, in contrast, is shot with rage and disgust; it is not celebratory at all. By the way, I was brought in as an expert witness in a case against a theater in Boston that had shown Chelsea Girls.

RC: Had the movie theater been charged with obscenity for screening it?

AM: Yes, and they lost. There was a trial, and Leo Castelli sent me to defend the film. It was a very amusing session. The theater manager lost the case, although the judge actually complimented me on my defense in his statement.

RC: It was often their treatment of the body as subject matter that made such films so controversial at the time, but in your writing you also address the body as a site of reception. In the book, you often describe the viewing experience, whether of Chelsea Girls or Duchamp’s Anémic cinéma [1926], as recoded through the body. I wonder if the sensual way you write comes in part from your earliest viewing experiences. Do you remember the first films you saw as a child?

AM: Vividly. But I’ve never really thought about the relation between my earliest experiences of films and my later reactions to them. My first encounters with cinema were quite disturbing. I remember the wonderful Chaplin film City Lights [1931], which I was taken to see when I was about nine years old. It terrified me! The humor was completely lost on me. When I saw the film again years later in Paris, I realized what I had found so frightening. It wasn’t the film itself—although all film was very new to me then, and I reacted to the size of the image, the intense contrast between black and white, and the incongruity that resulted from some of the cuts. What really scared me was a sequence in which Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, is taken home by a wealthy man and they both get drunk. They start pouring alcohol all over the place and on each other, and it becomes a fight that sprawls across the living room, with liquid flying through the air. The whole movement seemed to me very brutal and violent.

RC: When you got to Paris in the early ’50s, did you see films often? You stayed in Paris for many years, throughout the height of the New Wave, and this must have had a significant effect on your understanding of film production.

AM: Of course: Paris is where you can see almost anything that is worth seeing—and a lot of things that aren’t worth seeing. I saw films all the time. It was extraordinary to live in a city that was the center of film production. You know, there is a saying in French, Paris bouffe tout—Paris devours everything. And it certainly devoured the film industry. We had the feeling of being surrounded by film. It was not a foreign product, made thousands of miles away; it was part of the culture in which we lived.

Robert Breer, Jamestown Baloos, 1957, 16 mm, color, sound, 5 minutes.

RC: What early filmmakers did you see? Were there American filmmakers living in Paris?

AM: There were a few. Robert Breer was one, and for me the most interesting. He was a painter, and thus had a very sophisticated visual sense. He had also grown up with a feeling for the mechanical because his father was an important automobile designer and engineer in Detroit. He had a wonderfully intelligent eye. To look at things with him was interesting. To talk with him was interesting. He had a terrific art-historical background, which a lot of people didn’t. Among the Americans living there, he was, I think, the most original and the most gifted. He brought a sense of form and sophistication to animated film that I had not seen elsewhere.

Kenneth Anger was also there. I first saw his films on the wall of someone’s apartment. And I was definitely impressed. The early films—like Fireworks [1947]—were wonderful for their energy and for the amount of film culture that they contained. His work was also courageous; it was an open discourse on homoeroticism, which was practically nonexistent at that time. There was something both sophisticated and naive about his desire to assimilate everything that he saw into his work. It involved stealing from Cocteau—really stealing—but also allowed him to discover the formal cinematic devices that propelled his films. There were other people whose work I saw in Paris, of course, but Breer and Anger were the two outstanding ones—two very opposite but complementary sensibilities.

RC: Your essays from this period capture a sustained and pivotal moment not just in avant-garde cinema but also in performance. Was that mainly a result of your time in New York?

AM: Yes. I returned every five years to spend a little time in New York. And when I made the trip in 1965, I found that all kinds of interesting things were happening here. Ileana Sonnabend, who had opened a gallery in Paris, told me about Judson Memorial Church, and I went as soon as I got to New York. I was amazed at what I saw. I became a Judsonite! Almost immediately, I got to know Bob Morris and Yvonne Rainer—at that time they were together—and I wrote about Morris in a catalogue essay, “Robert Morris—An Aesthetics of Transgression,” for his 1969–70 retrospective, which was one of the first things I published on my return. Morris was no longer performing with Rainer—I had missed that—but I became fascinated by her work. I wrote a long essay about it, published in two parts in Artforum in 1974 [“The Dancer and the Dance” in January and “Lives of Performers” in February], which I have not actually included in On the Eve of the Future. That was probably a mistake, but when I was putting the book together I felt that so much has been written about her since—and she herself has published so much—that my early impressions were perhaps old news.

RC: You have witnessed an enormous range of cinematic production—and sea changes in the technology of the moving image.Are there other topics that you thought about including but didn’t? For example, did you consider “Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge’” [Artforum, February 1969], your essay on 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]?

AM: That was one of my most widely read and republished essays, but after rereading it when preparing this volume, I congratulated myself on not having included it. [Laughter.] It was written with an enthusiasm that I still think was justified, and I still believe that what I had to say about the film was correct, but the tone and the number of literary and philosophical references seem youthfully excessive. MGM’s man in Manhattan saw the essay and learned from the ticket office that a mad creature had been coming in all year and had purchased twenty-three single tickets with a request for the same seat (third row, middle of the theater space). He brought me an invitation from [Stanley] Kubrick to observe the filming of his next project, Napoléon, to be shot in Yugoslavia. However, the box office figures on 2001 that first year were so low that the project was canceled, and thus Kubrick entered the ranks of the cinematic avant-garde. I considered writing an essay called “The Work of Two Stanleys,” in which I would regard Kubrick and Brakhage side by side. You could not have two more disparate modes of production than those of the two Stanleys, both of them insistent on independence, though of sharply distinct economies.

RC: Are there other subjects that you wish you had written on? You mentioned how much you enjoyed the films of Breer, but you never wrote about them, did you?

AM: The great regret of my life is that I never wrote on Breer. I respected his work, and he was a dear friend. There are one or two things in my life that I just kept inside me, and Breer is one. And I have no real explanation for it.

There are others. For example, I never wrote on the theater of Richard Foreman, which I think was important in the history of theater and in the history of my relation to theater. Breer and Foreman—when I think of them now—were both making deeply original work that changed the nature of film and theater. And recently, after receiving a very interesting volume on Bruce Conner, Looking for Bruce Conner [2012] by Kevin Hatch, I was reminded of my fascinating first encounters with Conner’s work and my regret that I had never written on him.

RC: I would imagine it’s both gratifying and challenging to see the volume come out—to see your life’s work in print.

AM: It is. [Laughter.] I think everybody who knows me knows that it should have been out quite some time ago.