PRINT January 2019



Annette Michelson and P. Adams Sitney, New York, 1976. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

EARLY IN 1969, an article in Artforum opened a door for me—and, as I soon learned, not only for me—onto a conception of cinema much larger and more intellectually stimulating than any I had until then imagined. I had only recently embarked on my training for an academic career in twentieth-century art history, even while quietly questioning whether I would ever have anything new or important to say about Picasso or Pop art. Given my already-kindled enthusiasm for movies, I was not sure I cared if I did. 

I was familiar with the first academic essays about such European auteurs as Antonioni and Bergman in some of the “little magazines” of the time, as well as with the debates about a recent French import, “auteurist” criticism, whose advocates argued that American studio filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Hawks, along with renegades like Welles, should be considered important artists exploring unique personal visions. But these writings were of little use to me as I tried to engage with an essay about a science-fiction feature most of my peers had enthusiastically recommended I “watch stoned.” I found the text, its sections featuring epigraphs from Saint Augustine, Zeno, Friedrich Schiller, and The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, among others, to be as heady as its ostensible subject: Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. To say that the essay radically shook my intellectual world would be an understatement. The unfamiliar author—Annette Michelson—proposed an utterly different, more expansive, and more intensive way to think and write about film. The essay was only the first of the many unique texts she would eventually contribute to the emerging field of cinema studies.

Annette’s writings and lectures were rooted in a carefully curated theoretical eclecticism; she was temperamentally incapable of constraining her thinking to fit the terms demanded by any one theoretical vogue.

From then on, I eagerly perused each new issue of Artforum, hoping to find more of her articles. The months stretched into years and then decades, and her writings continued to appear, first in Artforum, then primarily in October, the journal she cofounded with Rosalind Krauss in 1976. She illuminated a historic filmic avant-garde, already more than a half-century old, in tandem with brilliant accounts of contemporary film-makers’ work, persuasively claiming them all as vital contributors to the enlarged conception of modernism that she championed. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) had languished, misunderstood and even maligned, until Annette’s splendid reading of its Marxist epistemological ambitions. Little was known about Joseph Cornell’s films until she penned her reflections on these mysterious, lapidary works after her visits to his home on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Who had ever written more revealingly about Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926) or Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928)? The range of Annette’s references and the astuteness of her formal insights were equally in evidence in her pathbreaking essays on Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958), and Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972), films that extended expectations about what was possible in the medium. Other critics, especially those of us who became her students, eventually attempted to follow her lead, but they—we, I—rarely wrote with her grace and sophistication.

Annette’s prose was utterly different from that of the daily reviewers of Hollywood movies, as well as from the punchier, popular style of critics such as Pauline Kael. As she ruefully, even somewhat apologetically, acknowledged in a letter to Leo Steinberg in 1979, the often heavy cadence of her sentences was indebted to one of the authors she most admired: Henry James. When I first heard her speak, at a conference at Yale University in the spring of 1971, it was clear that James’s highly rhetorical, occasionally pompous diction and tone were also an essential dimension of her manner of speaking; as the years passed, I learned that the way she spoke was a deliberate, cultivated aspect of her public presentation of self.

Few professors proved more intimidating, more anxiety inducing, than Annette to the growing cadre of graduate students who enrolled in her lectures and seminars at New York University, where she taught between 1967 and 2003. One found out the hard way that she suffered badly those who were unprepared or content merely to ride fashionable theoretical hobbyhorses. She demanded clarity of argument and, above all, precise descriptions of the formal and technical strategies filmmakers employed: How did a filmmaker’s combinations of images and sounds work, and toward what end? Why did filmmakers decide to edit in a particular way, or to use long takes? Coming to grips with these basic material facts of a film was the necessary foundation for understanding how filmmakers used the “philosophical toy” (she took the term from Baudelaire) to articulate ideas or social concerns in original ways that exploited the capabilities of the medium.

Her insistence on the significance of the medium’s special capabilities clearly paralleled the work of contemporaries such as Clement Greenberg, Krauss, and Michael Fried, then at the cutting edge of advanced modernist art criticism. In retrospect, her sensibility and interests were perhaps closest to Greenberg’s pre-formalist work, represented, say, by his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Annette always remained alert to a film’s political contexts and implications. When she wrote about films made during what she referred to as “the heroic period of Soviet cinema” in the 1920s or its tragic aftermath, she stressed their imbrication in contemporary political and economic debates, and the consequences of those debates for art. She was also a canny reader of Marx, and borrowed his concept of the “artisanal” mode of production to evoke the practices of the American and European vanguard filmmakers whose achievements she was among the first to recognize.

Indeed, a kind of marxisant orientation remained a constant in her thinking even as successive theoretical discourses—semiotics, psychoanalytic semiotics, Lacanianism, feminism, apparatus theory, and post-structuralism—flooded the still-shallow landscape of academic film studies. She was certainly aware of the newer approaches, especially those imported from France; in fact, she was among the first to bring them to the attention of film scholars in her seminars and in the books whose publication she did much to encourage. But for the most part, she resisted jargon. Her writings and lectures were rooted in a carefully curated theoretical eclecticism; she was temperamentally incapable of constraining her thinking to fit the terms demanded by any one theoretical vogue.

As the years went by, she began to let her guard down, and many of her students were privileged to get to know another side of Annette. She was a passionate, demanding melomane whose generous invitations to the Metropolitan Opera for performances of Tristan und Isolde or Doktor Faustus were never not accepted. The offer to accompany her on a day trip to Washington, DC, for the National Gallery of Art’s El Greco retrospective, or to attend Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, was rarely refused. There was always the promise of serious conversation over a late meal afterward. Conversations often turned personal, too. I came to prize her recollections, which became more frequent as she aged. Did I know that David Smith introduced her to Thelonious Monk? Did I want to know how she managed to meet Vertov’s younger and at times estranged brother, the director Mikhail Kaufman, the only surviving member of the “Council of Three,” in Moscow? And of course she often spoke about Paris, where she lived from 1950 to 1965, working for Éditions du Seuil and eventually serving as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune. There she had watched rehearsals for Roger Blin’s premiere production of Waiting for Godot and avidly attended performances of Pierre Boulez’s new Domaine Musical Ensemble and, of course, continued her enchantment with the cinema. Only now did I understand that she would assign Merleau-Ponty’s “Eye and Mind” (1964) or Sartre’s L’imaginaire (1940) or Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist essays as required reading in seminars not simply because of these works’ clear significance, but because she had attended the authors’ lectures in Paris and had even translated some of their texts. 

Her massive library and dazzling collections of records, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs testified to the scope and breadth of her taste and erudition. One of the guilty but always renewed pleasures of visiting Annette’s various apartments—first on Wooster Street in SoHo, later in a loft on Thirtieth Street near the Morgan Library—was to stroll past the immense array of books, shelved and piled (an essential feature of the decor), in many languages, on what seemed an infi nite variety of subjects. It was clear that the vast majority were intensively worked through, layered with colored Post-its. Most of us read this extraordinary ensemble as a definitive, tangible sign of the kind of passionate intellectual that many of us aspired to be. I am sure I speak for the majority of her former students, friends, and colleagues when I say that I—we—will miss the wealth of her knowledge and insights, the rigor of her thinking, the vigor of her conversation, and, not least, the inspiration of her friendship.

Stuart Liebman is Professor Emeritus of Film Ftudies at Queens College and of the Ph.D. Program in Art History and Theater at the CUNY Graduate Center.