THE MYTH OF THE AVANT-GARDE FILM
I was not a movie fan as a kid. At 15, in 1963, perhaps a bit pretentious, I was excited by my discoveries of poetry and classical music. A friend invited me to a screening of an “experimental” film he had just seen and loved, Gregory J. Markopoulos’s Twice a Man. Unlike several young men around my age who discovered this film at around the same time and wrote about this discovery decades later, its gay theme was, while noticeable and interesting, far from the main point for me. Rather, as I remember thinking at the time, “this is a film that organizes its colors and shapes with the integrity that sounds are organized in classical music.” Soon I was viewing films by Ron Rice and Stan Brakhage, and also discovering Alfred Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, John Ford, and soon after, D. W. Griffith, F. W. Murnau, Roberto Rossellini, and Kenji Mizoguchi. My “classical music” standard remained the same for all films, and in one way or another the ones I loved almost all met it, even if with many flaws.
I found that some blockbusters could mildly entertain me even while seeming aesthetically worthless, while others left me repelled, but neither experience seemed important compared to the expressive and finally transcendent power of real art. Just as Paul Strand, writing in 1923, when photography was hardly taken seriously by anyone in the art world, stated that the test of a photograph should be “whether you think you could hang it on the same wall with a Dürer woodcut, a painting by Rubens or even Corot, without the photograph falling to pieces,” so I applied what I later came to call my “Bach test” to movies. To be sure, there are outliers that are interesting on their own without necessarily inviting any direct comparison to classical music – Spencer Williams’s technically crude but truly heartfelt The Blood of Jesus or Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda or Susie K. Benally’s unusual use of film technique in A Navajo Weaver come to mind. Then there are films that seemingly don’t depend on the visual at all, such as Michael Snow’s all-text So Is This, yet Snow, premiering a major work, La région centrale, in New York more than four decades ago, spoke of a shorter film he was also showing a bit disparagingly by comparison while mentioning that he allowed himself to think of La région centrale in relation to Bach. But the Hollywood films that I love I defend, unlike most auteurists, almost entirely in terms of form. Where another sees Raoul Walsh as a “born storyteller,” I see a poet of space.
This issue is not, I would argue, some kind of question of personal tastes – one person likes Bach, another romantic comedies; one prioritizes stories, another images. I also wish to deny no one non-aesthetic pleasures; no one need spend all their time appreciating the highest art. I don’t. Yet at the same time I would argue that everything is at stake in the difference. The notion that we each have our likes and dislikes and that all are equally valid leads many to dull rather than develop their minds by wallowing in the escapist involvements of immersive TV at the expense of too much else. We react to the lives of the fictional characters in such shows in terms of raw emotion, rather than from an awareness of their place in a form. One of the many dangers of letting subjective responses to media-created “humans” dominate one’s life can be found in the degraded nature of politics today, where instead of using facts and reason to try to decide which candidate offers the best programs for all our futures, most voters make choices based on the most superficial of likes and dislikes, including gut responses to candidates based on little evidence, even choosing candidates who were movie or TV stars mostly on that basis, with potentially disastrous consequences for nations and for the whole world. Works of art are, to be sure, not based on facts and reason either, but their complex structures do, if fully engaged with, cause the viewer to think, to rethink, to evaluate, and ultimately to become more, rather than less, aware of why she reacts to each as she does.
Back in my teens, I started to notice a pattern among many film lovers, a split between those who primarily advocated for avant-garde or experimental film and those who advocated for classical Hollywood. The two might agree about an early Lang, or an “art house” feature, but they generally tended to advocate different aesthetics, and often had different tastes in literature, the narrativists preferring prose fiction and the avant-gardists, poetry. Narrative advocate tended to talk of characters, and actors, and the emotional effects of stories, indicating an escapist involvement that, for the perceptive among them, could be enhanced by consistently expressive compositions or a stunning camera movement or other aspects of the direction.
The avant-gardists had an argument against all of this that I respect very much. Often stated as dogma rather than fully argued, it can be found as early as the manifestoes of Dziga Vertov in the early 1920s. The often-unstated beliefs that informed these attitudes went something like this: Conventional narrative filmmaking is derivative of nineteenth century literature, resulting in films becoming like illustrated picture books in which the style, such as it is, is subservient to the story, illustrating it rather than possessing any formal integrity of its own. Designed to immerse the viewer in a world of escapist emotions, such films are aesthetically empty and politically regressive, their enticing dreams and character-based fantasies cutting the viewer off from the world as it is, denying them true understanding and genuinely complex thought and thus allowing the evil forces in society to act for their own profit. It is only truly “advanced” cinema that can engage the viewer meaningfully, and, by helping each of us lead more aware lives, perhaps hope to make the world a little better.
The funny thing is, I pretty much agree with this analysis when applied to the vast majority of narrative films. It still describes most viewing in the world today. In aesthetically empty commercial films, images seem to be chosen either with little intelligence at all beyond finding a pleasing picture to display the action, or with a conscious style so mannered and annoying (at least to me, if not to others!) that it never gets beyond its superficial choices to reach any kind of genuine expression. This description certainly seems to apply even more strongly to what little I have seen of multi-episode television. The best narratives in literature, by contrast, are told with a profound artistry that uses language to encase them in a universe of their own, a presentation of vision that gives the “story” a meaning so profound that no full summary is possible. The greatest narrative films function similarly with regard to film style. Thus for me, the reduction of cinema to storytelling in the majority of moving-image works seems a genuine tragedy.
The impoverished manner in which many, critics included, appear to be seeing most films can be demonstrated by applying what I call the “radio test.” Imagine that a film under discussion, whether by mainstream critics or on a movie blog or in conversation among movie-goers, was actually a radio play that consisted of the film’s sound track with occasional interjections needed to describe major action not mentioned in the dialogue, such as “the ship is starting to sink.” Then ask if the critical discussion of the movie would have to be changed, and by how much. So often, no change would be needed, because the “discussion,” such as it is, is either mere plot synopsis, or a plot synopsis plus a brief statement of some emotions or ideas, as if the way the plot is presented in images is irrelevant – which, sad to say, it often is. Do we as both intelligent and sentient creatures grow at all from having ourselves manipulated by formless illustrations sequenced formlessly that simply enhance the emotions of a less than profound story? (I am not, however, advocating for film adaptations of great literature, which, stripping the story of its prose, will, if they lack a style of their own, register with me as worthless, or nearly so.)
Yet I cannot join my avant-garde-advocating colleagues in a condemnation of commercial narrative filmmaking, because there are numerous exceptions to this pattern. I have already named several of them. There is also Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Bresson, Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, and many, many more. Seeing beyond the story in such films can require a developed sensibility, which means that for mainstream audiences they might have seemed indistinguishable from the films I am calling aesthetically empty, with all the consequent socially negative effects already mentioned, but for the aware viewer they share the complexity of great art.
In order to argue against the blanket condemnation of commercial narrative by advocates of the avant-garde, I wish to establish a general principle, one that applies not only to discussions and analyses of cinema but to all visual art. While discussion of art can never have the positive provability of mathematical propositions or the experimental verifiability of physics, I would nonetheless propose something that I think comes rather close to a demonstrable theorem. It concerns the type of argument for art I have engaged in for most of my life: describe an art work, or a part of an art work, as precisely as possible, and then offer an interpretation of its effect, or use the description as a justification for a claim for its greatness. Sometimes such descriptions seem trivially true, as when the cut to a close-up in a dramatic scene seems to involve us in the emotions of a particular character. Nicholas Ray, describing the use of high-angle helicopter shots in his first film, They Live by Night, said they suggested “fate,” and yes, high-angle shots often tend to dwarf characters, making them seem tiny players in a much larger drama that is far beyond their control. As Scottie walks Madeleine out of his apartment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the oddly compressed high angle shot depicting this is appropriate to the coming disaster – as is the overhead shot of the car that immediately follows.
These points seem obvious, but are they? I remember an early edition of a standard film textbook claiming that the vast majority of camera movements expressed the instability of the universe. Actually, what they usually “express” is that a character is walking down the street, as many of the stylistic choices in narrative filmmaking can be accounted for, at least in part, by the necessity of showing the action. No cinematic technique has a predictable effect, because its describable characteristics, as well as those of the moment when it is used and its place in the whole film, have, as a scientist might say, an almost infinite number of variables. The lighting, the movement, the editing rhythm, the script, the acting, the sound design, the focal length of the lens used, and the larger cinematic context of the interrelationships perceived by the viewer, even subconsciously, between all these elements can easily give any device additional, sometimes non-standard and counter-intuitive, meanings. Indeed, the move up to a high angle of the two protagonists at the end of Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle conveys not oppressive fate or impending doom, but weightless immateriality and the two characters’ newly-found freedom.
In visual art, both Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt produced grids. The grid is said to express the machine age, geometry, alienation from nature. LeWitt photographed grids on city streets, and in his art he drew grids that refer to geometry and create a feeling of precision, of confirming their own forms, all this confirming the standard interpretation. Martin’s grids are gentle, emotional, supple, evocative, poetic, seem to lead the viewer out of themselves, and reflect deep inspiration from nature.
One of Jacques Rivette’s greatest films, Noroît, is some kind of pirate melodrama. Every so often, images are separated by a totally black screen, with numbers that take the form of, for example, IV/3, 4, 5. As I first began to identify them as act and scene numbers (and they do refer to the play that is the film’s source), they began to produce a somber, somewhat mysterious, expansive “meta” effect not unlike similar effects in his other films, such as the intercutting of 16mm theater footage and 35mm drama in the overwhelmingly powerful L’amour fou. To anyone who knows Rivette’s films well, my interpretation of these numbers should seem plausible even without having seen Noroît, as Rivette frequently accompanies his dramas with effects that seem to invoke awarenesses, or spaces, outside of their immediate moment. Yet my description omitted three important aspects of these numbers. First, I did not describe the font used. As it happens, it is a plain one. But suppose the numbers had appeared in an ornate, gothic font, or a goofy, child-like, humorous one (indeed, there is even a font named “kids”). The effect of these numbers would now be completely different. Second, I did not describe their position on the screen, which is to the upper left. If placed in the center, they would have had a completely different function, likely a far less expansive one, seeming to name the images that follow rather than refer to them. I also did not describe their color, which is white. To take an unlikely counter-example, they could have been pink with purple polka-dots. Rivette would have made a film by changing any or all of these elements, and it might have been a film just as great, but its meanings would have been different. This example alone should prove that one can never draw conclusions from the physical description of the elements of a film; that even a seemingly small change can be transformative. This can be proven with the seemingly simple example of numbers on an otherwise-empty screen; my case should be even stronger for an all singing, all dancing, multi-character movie with detail-filled compositions that change with the editing. All a critic who uses the descriptive method can do is try to guide the viewer through that critic’s experience of the work, offering one response and one approach.
I hope to have demonstrated, even proven, a theorem: No verbal description of a cinematic moment, however detailed, can be said with certainty to lead to the interpretation that follows. Or, a nearly equivalent formulation: for every description of a whole film, or a moment in a film, followed by an interpretation, an alternative film can be constructed that will match the description perfectly but have an effect or meaning different from, or even opposite to, that offered in the interpretation. I would like to believe in, though cannot really cite, an utterly escapist melodrama with a seemingly “invisible” style that has many of the effects of an avant-garde film. I cannot cite such, because I do not consider Douglas Sirk’s style “invisible,” but for those who do, I might offer his cinema, or at least certain key moments in it, as a step in the avant-garde direction.
If we have learned anything from the art of the last century, from LeWitt and Martin and so many more, it should be that there are no rules, that anything can be great, and that a description of an art work can tell us little about its effect, ethos, or meaning. Yet some still persist in assuming that all films that share certain features – made for commercial profit, with paid actors speaking in lip-sync and images that serve to tell a story – will have similar effects, and can be spoken of as a group, with most in that group unseen. To begin to understand any film, one must first of all see it, and also see it anew, not without the knowledge of past cinema or culture on which films often draw, but without any assumptions as to what the film itself will become, how it will function, what it will mean.
Similarly, one’s subjective perception of every moment of a film depends on every other moment of that film, an effect that grows stronger on second and later viewings; I would hope the reader agrees that one cannot claim to understand a film seen only once. There are famous instances of how everyone’s reaction to a narrative changes on a second viewing, as with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho. Surely it is impossible to view Ophüls’s Lola Montès a second time without the memory of the devastating tracking shot with which it concludes. Have a look, sometime, at Robert Mulligan’s much-reviled but quite wonderful Clara’s Heart. Then have another look, and I hope you will notice how the gaze in the final shot echoes the opening image, two looks across space that encompass the growth and change of the protagonist and the deeper connection he has established with another, very different, person, in a way that is quite different from the standard way that close-ups of a face bring us closer to its emotions. The memory of the connection between the two gazes that frame the entire film will color your subsequent viewings of it, even help you respond to related moments in it more deeply. There are also, of course, many possible subtle effects, close-ups that echo other close-ups, close-ups that both echo and contrast with long shots, interpretive interdependencies that can be found almost every film put together with a care that considers where and how each image belongs.
Individual viewer subjectivity also plays a role in determining responses. One viewer is different from the next; one viewer can also be different from day to day. A viewer changes as she sees more films, and more films by a single director. Viewing conditions also can play a role. A film seen on one’s phone, or on a TV with noisy friends who are talking about and laughing at it, a film comedy seen with the audience laughing with it, the same comedy seen alone, a film seen in a faded or worn print or a poor video transfer, an avant-garde film seen with the filmmaker introducing it in which one’s response will be colored by that introduction, a film seen alone in a pristine 35mm print in a private screening – all these viewing conditions play a role in one’s response. The equation on which the anti-commercial-narrative position rests, that particular elements of style determine a particular response, is false for more than one reason: one can never enumerate a style’s elements adequately in words; viewers are different from each other; viewers themselves change; viewing conditions vary.
If there can be no formulaic connection between any aspect of a work of visual art and its effect or meaning, then the avant-gardist case against classical narrative filmmaking must be cast out with the rubbish. A film in which the camera seems to slavishly follow the action can also be poetic, and can in fact express a meaning opposite the one that would be suggested by the action. On the other side, there are films with out-of-focus, scratching and painting on film, wildly disjunctive editing, and constantly disorienting imagery, that seem to be almost totally derivative of earlier works, offering nothing more than the most escapist illusionistic narrative.
One other negative aspect of our film culture relevant here is the prevalence of “best movies” lists. I have contributed to a few of these myself, most recently the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. First I construct my current list of best directors, and then try to choose the “best” film of each. Because these lists do get attention, the chance to advocate for under-appreciated films that I find sublime is too enticing to pass up. The problem with such enterprises is the emphasis on individual films, carried over from popular film mass-culture. This emphasis fits all too neatly into the rampant consumerism of our present age: best restaurants, best hotels, best dentists, best movies. But the greatest films are often difficult to appreciate without a knowledge of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The viewer wanting to “sample” Brakhage who chooses my “favorite,” Egyptian Series, might be rather baffled. The viewer who has never seen a John Ford film and decides to start with my best, The Sun Shines Bright, might not quite know what to make of it; this is one of Ford’s more compressed, even hermetic, and hence less accessible films, best seen by someone more familiar with his tropes. The larger point is that each great filmmaker reinvents cinema, and establishes, over a career, a unique cinematic language, using imagery, editing, rhythm, and elements such as story selection and acting in the case of a narrative filmmaker, to establish a unique vision. The viewer who has seen a number of a filmmaker’s films with a sensitivity to their use of visual space will have learned the unique language in which the films speak, and will thus far better understand them, entering, with the work of the best filmmakers, into a reimagining of the world that is almost magically ecstatic, a vision not seen before. This description is just as true of the greatest narrative filmmakers as it is of the greatest avant-gardists. The serious film viewer needs to move away from the idea that film viewing consists of consuming particular films, and toward the notion of filmmaking as one of entering and exploring alternative worlds, whether those of Stan Brakhage or of John Ford. An imperative dictated by this notion is to see everything one can of a filmmaker’s work, many films multiple times, in the best versions possible. And those are not always, sad to say, on celluloid; every print I have seen in the U.S. of The Sun Shines Bright is missing nine minutes removed from Ford’s cut that have been restored to the Blu-ray release.
Consider the opening image of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It shows a subject that opens many films: a car is driving. The camera is looking down a road, a bit above the level of the car, and pans with it as it drives toward us. As the car moves to facing the camera directly, the camera follows it down the road at the same speed, but then, after a few moments, the car starts to move out of frame, and the camera pans left to follow it as it moves away into the distance. Any one of these three parts alone might seem unremarkable, the kinds of images seen in countless films, but the shift between them changes the space, and our expectations for the shot, twice, the car moving toward and away from us having the effect of “stretching” the middle, head-on portion, an expansive effect characteristic of Preminger, though he creates it in many different ways. Space is rendered here as malleable, open, vast, and prone to what I like to think of as Preminger’s sideways transformations, though diagonal transformations would be as accurate.
I didn’t notice anything special about this shot when I first saw this film decades ago, even though I had seen and liked other Preminger films by that time. Today, it seems like a précis of his style. Direct movements in or out, or head-on followings, are relatively rare, used only at special moments, and the space is always being modified by more ambiguous and expansive effects. Take a look at the opening long take of the masterpiece In Harm’s Way, from five years later, for one of many examples. In editing, too, Preminger often surprises with cuts to different locales, different aspects of a story. These devices are the visual parallels to the famous ambiguity of his dramas, much remarked on by analysts of his films. Preminger most often avoids taking sides, and shows no simple right and wrong, with a film’s often-unstable ethical balance shifting in surprising ways. Anatomy of a Murder is indeed a great example. But “getting” Preminger visually can, as with any of the greatest auteurs, take a while, multiple films seen often multiple times with an eye to their visual elements. Images juxtaposed in time in a narrative film can certainly tell a story, but they can also, in the best of films, make a space, that is, combine to create a visual world unlike either our daily one or the bland and incoherent stream of pictures in the average narrative film, with its own sense of texture, its own kinds of lines and curves, its own angles, and its own feeling for the quality of space that both separates and unites its objects. There is, then, an “abstract” element present in the work of many of the best Hollywood filmmakers, one that doesn’t depend on storytelling, even if it is closely connected with the story.
The myth that I wish to debunk is that only avant-garde cinema, which at it best does express ways of seeing and thinking not expressed before, thus changing the viewer’s consciousness, is the only cinema that rises to this highest level. The other, much more prevalent myth I also wish to debunk is that cinema is a hybrid art, and that a great narrative film depends on a good script, good acting, good art direction, and so on, the “restaurant menu” model for films. If cinema is to be, as Strand wished for photography, an art worthy of the others, then it should use that quality which is unique to cinema: the ability to engage the viewer in light patterns occupying a pre-determined flat space and precisely controlled in time. This might sound like a description of a completely abstract film, of which there are many great examples, but it can also describe an Otto Preminger film, and the films of many other narrative auteurs, even if it fails to mention elements that can also be important, such as the sound track. Understanding Preminger’s uses of space across many of his films is as demanding as understanding the best avant-garde work, and produces an active thinking and seeing that opens new possibilities for thinking about actual space, and the relationships between different parts of our world.
A narrative film can have three major aspects to its style. The first is the functional aspect, which every narrative film I have seen displays. The camera shows the action. Even in the most incompetently directed commercial films, the principal characters are on the screen most of the time, and the camera frames the images to show what’s going on. The camera and editing follows character movements. Indeed, most compositional, movement, lighting, and editing choices can be explained by the need to show what’s happening. There is nothing inherently artful to any of this, but the mistake of those who critique all Hollywood cinema is to assume that a camera movement that follows a character cannot be doing other things as well, as I have tried to show for the opening shot of Anatomy of a Murder.
Second is what might be called the expressive aspect. Many well-made films have this, at least from Hollywood’s classical period. Here, cinematic techniques heighten or add to the meaning of the narrative. We have Nicholas Ray’s high angle, or Fritz Lang’s wonderful match cut in M linking the arm movements of a crime boss and a police boss, or the moment near the end of John Ford’s The Last Hurrah when a cardinal who has come to visit the dying mayor pauses in his doorway to make the sign of the cross, and Ford stays in long shot rather than choosing the more obvious cut to a close-up. Here, as throughout his work, Ford uses the long shot to evoke the sense that an individual exists as part of a community, and in relation to the observance of traditions, and the effect here also depends on the expectation, established by other films, of a close-up. Ford’s vision then grows richer with a close-up of the suddenly self-assertive dying mayor even nearer the film’s end.
Such moments are often most noticeable when the camera deviates from the most obvious way of showing the action, as in Ford’s refusal of a close-up. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, just after young Charlie uncovers a frightening truth in the library, the camera cranes up to the ceiling as she exits, creating a sense of oppressive weight. There is no “functional” reason for the camera to do this; we could have seen her exit and felt her presence more clearly in an eye-level pan.
There are also a few wonderful moments in this category that use techniques that one might connect more directly with avant-garde cinema. Near the end of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, Al Roberts, under shock and stress, narrates his dilemma as the camera moves from one object to another in a room, with the objects also going out of and into focus, evoking Roberts’s disconnectness from the world he inhabits. Near the end of Douglas Sirk’s The First Legion, a miracle is preceded by two frightening out-of-focus shots of a church altar, again using out of focus to evoke irrationality, or extra-rationality. But of course, out-of-focus can also be used to soften, to render more gentle, as in the nostalgic flashback. Anyone who thinks classical Hollywood’s cartoons are as artless as its features should take a look at Chuck Jones’s sublimely deconstructive Duck Amuck, and then view how its disorientations are echoed more subtly in some of Jones’s other finest cartoons, for example Mouse Wreckers.
The third aspect, found in the best of films, might be called “deep style,” and usually characterized by an overall and unique sense of space. Preminger’s films have already provided one example. Howard Hawks created a character-based cinema in which his subtle use of eye-level perspective and almost invisible cutting, a subtlety that partly depends upon what he does not do, such as the expressive devices he mostly avoids, creates a mysterious aura around the physicality of his actors, as they seem to blend in with objects in the background and the light of the whole composition. When Dude pours liquor back into the bottle in Rio Bravo, his hand movement seems to bring to every part of the composition, every previous and subsequent movement, a new life. Nicholas Ray’s cinema is characterized by instability connected to the emotional states of characters. There is an over-obvious example in the extreme camera rotation used to convey Jim’s disorientation in Rebel Without a Cause, but subtler forms of disorientation characterize Ray’s best films. The compositions cut between often do not flow smoothly into one another, the cuts revealing small disparities or disconnections that produce a cumulative effect over the course of a film.
There can also be a way in which second-aspect effects combine to produce the third, a unique sense of space. Hitchcock’s films are particularly dense in expressive moments. The camera move up in Shadow of a Doubt has already been mentioned. More significantly, that movement surprisingly far up is mirrored by the camera movement in on Uncle Charlie’s face as he makes a speech justifying his murders; here, the camera keeps moving in long after one might have expected it to stop, filling the frame with his evil visage just as the frame was “filled” earlier with the darkened and empty library. Early in the film shots of Uncle Charlie lying on a bed are echoed in both a similar and a mirror-reversed shot of young Charlie, a pattern noticed decades ago by a young François Truffaut. The long movement across a room and in on a ring, a key piece of evidence, similarly echoes the move in on Uncle Charlie’s face. Dissolves to higher and higher shots as young Charlie futilely phones for help echo the earlier move up. Many have remarked on patterns of twos throughout the film, echoing the two Charlies. All of these things combine with Hitchcock’s characteristically tight, almost airless compositions and precisely choreographed movements – see the way the camera pulls back as young Charlie falls on the back stairs – to give a sense of the film’s world as a metal trap threating to snap shut on its victims. These connections may be noticed by viewers subconsciously on first viewing, but even alert viewers will need to see the film many times, and in the context of many other Hitchcocks, to get its full resonance.
I had developed the ideas above early in my film viewing career, by the end of the 1960s, even if I didn’t always have the words to express them. By that time, one veteran Hollywood filmmaker, King Vidor, had made his own avant-garde film, Truth and Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics. I contacted Vidor, in 1970 or 1971, and he rented a 16mm print of it to a film society I was running. We showed it, and I saw it several times. Though others’ opinions in subsequent decades have not matched my judgement, I thought it was his greatest film. (I have so far been reluctant to pollute my memory of the crisp Kodachrome colors of the print by reseeing it in online versions.) It also confirmed my thesis that there is a complex visual expressiveness at the core of the greatest Hollywood cinema. Vidor’s earlier films are characterized by subtle visual instabilities, in some ways different from Ray’s in that they are, dare one say it, epistemological rather than psychological. Characters can seem curiously cut off from each other, as if locked in their own worlds. Or, when they come together, as in the closing montage in Our Daily Bread, they seem to come together with the group rather than an individual forming a subjective world, creating an effect opposite that of the more objective montage of Dziga Vertov.
I could cite small examples from a very early, admittedly minor, Vidor, The Sky Pilot. Early in the film, one character leads a minister outdoors, convincing him that he is going to help while planning an attack, and signaling this by winking to the crowd they are walking away from. This common narrative device, one character knowing something the one by his side does not, is echoed in the physical arrangement of the composition and the backward-looking wink. Much later in the film, two close-ups are rather striking in the way that, instead of being integrated into the film’s visual space, as begins to occur starting with Griffith, as for example with a cut from a medium shot to a close-up within the same composition, they appear abruptly and oddly framed. In one, the minister sits disconsolate in front of a river in a slightly “off” composition which doesn’t connect smoothly to the shots around it, mirroring the way he has become isolated from the community he has sought to serve. Effects like these are carried to an extreme in Truth and Illusion, with a theme of subjectivity leading to solipsism announced in the narration, and with richly colored compositions that often seem wildly disjunct, visually and spatially, from each other. Most of the images directly illustrate the words of the narration, which could lead someone who dislikes this film to compare it to the anonymously-made instructional films of the period, and my argument for it, without looking back to the film for specific examples that according to my postulate would not prove my point anyway, is that the particular way that the images combine in space and time recalls the milder instabilities of Vidor’s features, offering a profoundly expressive vision of a world in which objects and ideas exist in a magnificent, even frightening, isolation.
Around 1971, Nicholas Ray began work on We Can’t Go Home Again, a film that combines images from multiple film gauges (35mm and smaller) using optical printing. It was initially shown in several incomplete forms. I attended a midnight screening in New York in the mid-1970s. Ray was present, along with his friends from the old days, John Houseman and Elia Kazan. The event was somewhat of a mess; the film didn’t start for an hour or more, and then there were breaks. But it was wonderful. The images-within-images and other techniques produced more radical dislocations than found in his commercial features, but, as with Vidor, the film appeared to me to offer another version, one disconnected from conventional narrative, of the kind of space that characterized masterpieces such as Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life. Both films helped further convince me that what I love most about Hollywood films does not depend on their narratives, or even on their being narrative films.
In the November 1973 issue of Artforum there appeared the first of a two-part article by John W. Locke, “Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale.” Locke compares the monumental camera movements of Snow’s three-hour landscape masterpiece, which contains no humans, to what he calls the “space pans,” camera movements that do not follow “the movement of a person or thing,” in films by Orson Welles and Raoul Walsh. Part of Locke’s point is that seeing one film can enhance one’s appreciation of the others, and in particular that Snow’s massive study of camera movement can cause one to notice and take pleasure in the Hollywood space pans that might have previously been missed.
I would like to think that there is another reason that Locke chose Welles and Walsh. More than most other filmmakers, they are truly poets of space. Welles has been discussed in many different ways, but rarely have I seen mention of the way his images, particularly in the films other than the movies I take to be his weakest, Citizen Kane, and strongest, F for Fake, seem to almost scour the rooms and exteriors they depict. Whether through camera movements or in deep-focus long takes, the eye is led over surfaces, from foreground to background to midground and around again, the tactility of surfaces made visible, until it seems the space is exhausted by his presentation of it.
Raoul Walsh, a filmmaker from Hollywood’s first “classical” period, is far less appreciated than Welles. An actor in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, he began his career as a silent director and ended it with his masterpiece, A Distant Trumpet, in 1964. A glance at his autobiography will suggest that he is far from a conscious artist, as the audience embarrassed by the very unfunny dirty jokes he told at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), when he made an appearance introducing his 1974 retrospective, will also attest. And yet, at least in his sound films, as early as his wonderfully strange and magnificent The Big Trail, and up to his last, the best of his films creates a strange, haunting feeling of hovering weight, of an odd neutrality of both space and matter as they become at once physical and immaterial. Unlike most Hollywood directors, there are few connections between this deep style and the narrative. Even if some of his films’ stories, such as that of The Tall Men, seem thoroughly appropriate to his style, others, such as The Revolt of Mamie Stover, do not. And yet, through all, there is Walsh’s peculiar space, hovering between immense mass and emptiness, often more explicitly visible in his space pans, moving past solid things, than elsewhere. It is the paradoxical vibration between mass and void that forms the essence of his art.
It took me six whole films before I “got” Walsh. I didn’t like the first five, though I kept trying. That it took me six also gave me my “rule of six,” that you cannot dismiss a director without seeing at least than many, just as learning a new language takes a while. I may not want to take the time to see six films from many filmmakers whose work I have not liked, but that’s a different problem, and if I stay true to my rule I’m not going to write any articles denouncing them. When I saw my sixth, A Distant Trumpet, in a theater in 35mm, I was familiar enough with his films that when I realized early on that I loved it, I also, seeing resemblances to the five I had not liked, knew that I would probably love them on repeat viewings too. I did. The kind of, perhaps some will call it mysticism, that I am espousing here will no doubt be ridiculed. It certainly goes against the grain of academic film studies, which wants to pretend to verifiability. But it is this kind of claim that will I hope help lead others to what I see in Walsh, and in much of cinema, by suggesting ways of approaching the films without giving examples and performing analysis, as I customarily do, that pretend to offer a logical defense for their conclusions when they are really only offering metaphors for viewing. My claims for Walsh try to get at the ultimate seriousness of the best art, that it offers a unique vision that in the end can neither be translated nor demonstrated. In a way, this last statement should be tautological. What would be the point of a visual art whose experience you could fully, or even mostly, capture in words?
I do not wish to leave the reader with the suggestion that I think avant-garde film is superfluous because it is all contained in the best Hollywood cinema. It is not. Each film, and each type of cinema, offers unique experiences and unique perspectives on existence. It is hard to imagine a Hollywood film that could parallel Ernie Gehr’s sui generis investigations into the ways in which the process of seeing affect the whole of a viewer’s psychology, stepping back from the usual emotional or even aesthetic effects of visual art to give the viewer a sense that a point of light, or a cut, is activating all one’s synapses, making one more aware of what it means to be alive. It is hard to imagine a Hollywood animation that would parallel the ecstatic effects of Robert Breer’s later films, in which photographed images, images rotoscoped from them, and colorful abstractions combine at or near the frame rate of film projection to both place the viewer in a state of moment-to-moment ecstasy while at the same time revivifying one’s seeing of the actual world, now reimaginable in terms of colors and lines and shapes as well as solid objects. It would be hard to imagine a commercial narrative of any type that would even hint at the investigations of light, rhythm, and all forms of sight that Stan Brakhage conducted over his 51 years of filmmaking, producing a cinema that places the viewer on a perceptual knife-edge of continual surprise and offering a paradoxical combination of knowing and unknowing. And, to return to my early example of a critic of “the MOON of the new six-reel feature,” Dziga Vertov, I know of no other film save his own that masterfully combines diverse images stripped of the artist’s emotional response to them in an attempt to understand the larger world. There is a reason that the best avant-garde filmmakers started making the films that they did. There is also a reason John Ford made the films he did, borrowing heavily from Griffith and then gradually discovering, and articulating, his own vision.
2016/2021 – Foco