by P. Adams Sitney

It should be no surprise that one of the most prevalent desires and aspirations of independent film-makers is to be original, and, even beyond being original, to be unique. If one has read the criticism of Jonas Mekas, the leading polemicist for the avant-garde film in our times, one has a sense of the tremendous upsurge that occurred in the avant-garde cinema in the later 1950s, an upsurge attended by an absolute anarchy, a revolt against all the old forms, to be replaced with something new, and, in the case of every film-maker, with something different from the other. Coming to film as I did in the late 50s, I witnessed in the avant-garde film an overwhelming onslaught of diverse tactics, a plethora of forms; it made the head spin. Each film seemed completely different from the one before it, and every year saw apparently new forms. For someone committed to the avant-garde cinema, this is exciting; to an audience not necessarily committed to it, it might be confusing.

It is not a film-maker, but a great American composer, Charles Ives, whose experience reveals the same spirit. There was a situation once where a pianist somehow got into Ives’ house which was more or less isolated (Ives was retired), and said, “I want to learn how to play the Concord Sonata.” Ives said, “Oh, nobody’s interested in that; it’s complicated, it’s not worth it.” But the pianist insisted; he was young and talented and ambitious and he convinced Ives to allow two pianos to be placed in his house. The pianist studied the score for a long time, and finally the day came when they sat down for the first lesson. They would play through the score together. Ives opened up his score; the pianist opened up his, and they both began to play rather slowly together from the first movement of the Concord Piano Sonata. They played along well, and Ives picked up a little speed; so the pianist picked up a little speed. Ives picked up more and more speed until the pianist realized he couldn’t keep up with him. Nevertheless it was a great experience for him because he had never heard this piece, which he had studied and loved so much; so he just sat back and followed the score as Ives played. Ives got more and more enthused and more and more excited; the pianist found himself unable to follow the score, and he kept on turning the pages quicker and quicker and quicker. Finally, he realized that what Ives was playing could not be found in the score, and after about ten minutes of watching Ives, greatly inspired, he got up enough courage to interrupt him, saying, “Mr. Ives, excuse me, but what you’re playing isn’t in the score.” Ives stopped for an instant and said, “It’s every man for himself now,” and went back on playing.

To a very great extent, the spirit of that story, be it apocryphal or real, characterizes much of American art, especially the American avant-garde cinema. Yet in these four lectures I am not going to tell you that it’s impossible to develop a coherent theory of this cinema, but rather the opposite. Despite the very great difficulties and the unique personalities presented in the work of these diverse people, if we take a sufficiently general view, and suspend for an hour or two our specific reservations about how that film fits in or how this film-maker fits in, and start looking at the totality of the works, we begin, perhaps, to outline a general theory of the avant-garde film. The basic problem involves form. What are forms? The theme of this lecture is whether or not we can find a systematic morphology, that is, a paradigm of forms, within the avant-garde cinema.

There are several approaches I would like to try. The first approach is a comparison of the American avant-garde film in the late 40s with its European predecessors, primarily from the 20s. I would like to start out with two films: the first is an excerpt from Un chien andalou, by Luis Buñuel with the collaboration of Salvador Dalí. The second, Meshes of the Afternoon, by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, will be shown in its entirety.

Before going into these films, I’d like to back-track and raise some theoretical matters. In Russia, at the time of the Revolution, there emerged a truly revolutionary view of literary criticism: formalism. I refer immediately to literary criticism, as I’ll refer later to art history, because these are the two modes we have for approaching film seriously. Unfortunately, there exists neither a vocabulary nor an intellectual framework in which film as film can be seen; the only tools are literary and art historical, and by a careful juxtapositioning and balancing of the two, it may be possible to begin to approximate a vocabulary of cinematic criticism. In Russia, the formalists developed a basically new approach to looking at the history of literature and to analyzing its works. I’d like to quote from a paraphrase of one of the leading formalists, Tynyanov, by Victor Erlich; Erlich writes:

This is, the Formalist critic implies, how literary change comes about. The old is presented, as it were, in a new key. The obsolete device is not thrown over-board, but repeated in a new incongruous context, and this is either rendered absurd through the agency of mechanization or made ‘perceptible’ again. In other words, a new art is not an antithesis of the preceding one, but a reorganization, a ‘regrouping of old elements.’[1]

He puts ‘perceptible’ in quotations, since the formalists believed that the reorientation of old materials made it possible to bring them alive in a startling new way and to make them perceptible, visible, rather than automatic.

Another formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, says this:

The work of art arises from a background of other works and through association with them. The form of a work of art is defined by its relation to other works of art, to forms existing prior to it... Not only parody, but also any kind of work of art, is created parallel to and opposed to some kind of form. The purpose of the new form is not to express new content, but to change the old form which has lost its aesthetic quality.[2]

I take this credo as most useful in dealing with the history of cinema. The question formulates itself as: What did Hammid and Deren get from Buñuel and Dalí? I’m particularly fond of this formulation because both Deren and Hammid claim not to have seen the film before they made theirs. Undoubtedly, this is true. Nevertheless, there was something in the air; the film was well known; there’s a certain aesthetic process going on that makes it all more relevant, when the question of simple imitation is removed. What do these two films have in common? Obviously, they both owe a tremendous amount to Sigmund Freud, to the dream experience. The ellipses in time and space which you saw in Meshes of the Afternoon, and which the process of excerpting minimalized in Un chien andalou, are certainly part of this. In the remainder of Un chien andalou, one sees rapid changes of place and time and the use of titles such as “Seven years before,” or “Six years after,” emphasizing the basic discontinuities. In both films, there is a formal use of violence.

But there is an obvious difference between them. In the first place, in Un chien andalou, there is a delirium, there is a madness, there is a pure and basic eruption of the subconscious; and there are chance operations. According to the notes left by both Buñuel and Dalí, they decided to make a film in which no two images would have anything to do with one another. If they could figure out any logical or meaningful connection between any two images, they discarded them. This becomes amusing in our context because, obviously, by such a process of elimination, what they created was not a haphazard work, or a random work at all, but a work rigidly adherent to certain situations presented by the subconscious.

The ambience of avant-garde film-making which preceded the exposition of the films in America was more widely discussed than the films themselves. Audiences knew that riots frequently attended their exhibition in the past; they did their best at first to continue this tradition of response. This ambience quickly died out. By the 50s there had been a complete change of atmosphere; the whole social purpose of the avant-garde film had been transformed. Films were no longer made to attack the bourgeoisie and provincial audiences; the nature of artistic vision had changed so that the audience sophisticated itself and responded differently. To a great extent, the whole context of avant-garde film-making had reached another stage of evolution; most of the artists who made avant-garde film in the 20s had made one or two films and then returned to painting or poetry, or else they had used that film-making experience to break into the industry. (There are a few films from René Clair before he became a very intelligent, but nevertheless, commercial, film-maker; Léger made one, Man Ray three, before they returned to their arts.) In America, on the other hand, there grew up a generation of people who came to make independent films as their major activity. That is another part of the transformation.

In Un chien andalou, there’s unquestionably a pursuit of madness, an evocation of sadism, and a general tendency to show the subconscious in eruption. In Meshes of the Afternoon, on the other hand, what he has is primarily a highly complicated and paradoxical quest for the self. Chance does not operate here; we see six very carefully controlled stories. Each of these stories follows the same plot outline. At the beginning of the film, we think we are more or less in the realm of reality: we see the objects of the room from the point of view of the woman who enters; we do follow her movements until she falls asleep, or so we’re led to believe. In four successive cycles, we see the same action recurring, with a progressive intensity of symbolism. But in the later cycle in which she is awakened, there is also a blend of symbolism and actuality. After five variations blending the highly symbolic and the apparently real, we are led to question the final cycle and to ask whether or not she has truly killed herself, or whether this is simply another form of the mixture of reality and illusion. Meshes of the Afternoon draws its sources from the oneiric cinema of the 1920s, but instead of using the dream as an explosion, an internal bomb, it tries to fashion out of the dream a form, and, in that form, certain very interesting things happen. One of the most unconscious, curiously enough (from the testimony of her writings in the 40s), is the use of the film-makers as actors. The only reason she gave for their appearance in the film was that she could not afford to hire actors; she seems to have been unaware of the autobiographical texture of the film. In this film, we have two people, who in actuality were married, Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, playing themselves, or playing the man and the woman. Nevertheless, this situation can be called psychodrama: an attempt at a form of psychotherapy in which a person acts out his fantasies in a quest for the Self.

I find this film to be a bridge between the avant-garde of the 20s and its American revival of the 40s. It’s a film made by two people; one, a Russian born, American educated girl, daughter of an eminent psychologist; someone who had, interestingly enough, just finished writing a thesis at Smith College for a Masters Degree on symbolism in French and English poetry; and an émigré from Czechoslovakia, a very talented cinematographer aware of the avant-garde tradition in Europe. Their collaboration bridges the two cinemas. It crystallizes a form. That form is the Trance Film. The basic characteristics of the Trance Film is a somnambulistic character, a somnambulistic hero, wandering through an imposing landscape. This form dominated the early American avant-garde cinema.

Here we see Kenneth Anger in his own films, Fireworks. It is a dream film. It begins with an image of him sleeping. He rises; there is a great deal of erotic imagery; he goes out into the night, passes through a kind of expressionistic men’s room; he is attacked by a group of sailors, beaten, bloodied; a sailor opens his fly, and out pops a Roman Candle, which is lit and explodes on him. He reappears in the original room with a great phallic Christmas tree on his head; it is burning at the end, and, in the final images of the film, we see him sleeping again. The whole film is, in essence, a dream. Paraphrase does not do justice to the original work. Made in 1947 by a 17-year-old man, it was a revolutionary work. It had the white heat, the intensity of a poem by Rimbaud. It was a film in an area, in which, at the time, no one dared make any statements. It was a highly personal work.

Next, we see a still from a film made in 1950 by Gregory Markopoulos called Swain. A young man, again played by the film-maker himself, wanders through a strange landscape, visiting a strange house; his uniform is constantly changing; he is pursued by a woman in various costumes, including a wedding dress, through a number of landscapes, constantly intercut with little flashes of images that suggest that the entire film is either a reverie of a figure looking in the mirror, or else the memory of a man either locked in a room or incarcerated within an insane asylum. This, then, coheres to the basic outline of what is called the Trance Film. The Trance Film was the dominant form of creative film-making in America from 1947 until the early 50s.

Another interesting parallel summarizes the hyphen between Un chien andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon. There’s an image in Meshes of the Afternoon, often repeated in stills, a very famous one, of Maya Deren standing at the window, her hands against it. It is a reflective image; it is a calm image. It is practically an icon of a person looking into himself. Compare this image with the face of Pierre Batcheff in Un chien andalou looking out the window at the girl with the disembodied hand as she is run over by the car. Between these two images, we have, in essence, between the Surrealists and the psychodramatic cinema. The Surrealist cinema was based upon the power of the cinema to evoke mad voyeurism. The psychodramatic cinema depends upon the capability of the medium to create reflective experience, a dialogue between eroticism and consciousness, rather than the open explosion of the erotic of the unconscious. The sexuality of Un chien andalou is comic and exuberant; in fact, all Surrealism is basically dependent upon comic effect, but with such an intensity and with such a suddenness that Surrealism brings into question the whole nature of comedy itself. Surrealism might be posited, in fact, as an aesthetic critique of the bases of comedy. Since by showing us the functioning of the irrational and relation between absolute terror and absolute hilarity, between blasphemy and horror, Surrealism created a kind of ambivalence tantamount to a critical dialogue on the nature of comedy. The early psychodramatic films of the American avant-garde are certainly not comic; there’s hardly a laugh in them; they are deadly serious. They are filled with images of mirrors, with images of haunted, (basically young) people seeking a kind of revelation of their own sexuality. The revelation, never, in these early films, posits itself in the exuberant and orgasmic sexuality that we have in Surrealism, either hinted at or actually seen, but in a sexuality that is involved with a process of definition rather than of satisfaction.

Another transformation of the materials of Surrealism, specifically of Un chien andalou, in the cinema of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, as exemplary as the comparison of the two window scenes, would be a comparison of the instrument of sexual conflict in each film. In both, there is an obvious sexual conflict, an aggression of the male upon the female. In the Buñuel film, how does the female protagonist react to being caressed by the man? She runs, comically, over the bed and grabs a tennis racket off the wall—an irrational comic surrealistic image. In the other film, the instrument is a knife, a knife which, significantly, is also a mirror. When used in attack, that knife destroys the mirror image of the man. Therefore we can see a clear transformation of the irrational hero into the reflective.

Another example of this dialogue between Eros and consciousness is the early cinema of Stan Brakhage. Brakhage came a slight bit later than Anger and Markopoulos and Curtis Harrington and certainly quite a bit later than Maya Deren, the originators of psychodramatic film, but he quickly made up for his late start with a tremendously prolific output. Almost every one of Brakhage’s early films describes a sexual agony similar to that of Fireworks, but in heterosexual terms. Given the Trance Film as the basis, and the origins of the American avant-garde cinema, it seems to me the best way to establish a diachronic morphology would be to take two works by the same man, an early work and a later work, and to compare them. I’ll show you, first, two parts of a tri-part film by Stan Brakhage called Reflections on Black, made in 1955, and then the whole of Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, made in 1961. By a comparison of these two films we can begin to build up a historical morphology.

Let us summarize a moment. So far, I’ve tried to insist that basically the history of any art is predicated upon a perpetual machine of change. This is especially true of contemporary art. Furthermore, one work of art reacts in a very specific way to its immediate history. If one accepts these premises, then Brakhage’s film, Reflections on Black, can be described as aspiring to something new, or constantly striving for a new form that has not yet been born. The structure of the film is basically as follows: a blind man, apparently having met and left a prostitute, climbs three stories, and at each store, he sees a visionary scene, where fantasy, imagination and sight are mingled together. The three different events are all related by thematic structure.

One point I should like to make here is that often in discussing these images, one talks about a dialogue between illusion and reality which is, in itself, illusory; the American avant-garde film-maker does not posit the question, is it real or not; rather the entire cinema is cast into the imagination. The imagination is the highest function of art and the camera is conceived as an imaginative tool. Therefore, the realm in which we see things is the imagination and the imagination in that realm is elevated beyond questions of actuality or illusion. Apparently, Brakhage was trying to extend the personal quest into a general statement by comparing three quests. He is reaching out for form more synthetic than the Trance Film. In Reflections on Black we find the initial hints of statements on aesthetics which come to dominate his later films, where the physical material of the film itself is used complexly. For instance, we see the blind man intercut with flashes, film flares, white and black, the kind of thing that comes out of the camera at the end of a reel because of exposure to the light. Anyone who handles film knows this. Brakhage takes these flares as “metaphors on vision,” to quote the title of his book. For emphasis, we see white lines scratched over the blind man’s eyes, simultaneously metaphors for his blindness and his visionary experience. By attacking the surface of the film and by using basically cinematically generated materials, Brakhage is beginning to affirm an equation we will see more and more clearly established in his work. That triple equation unites the aesthetic experience with the process of making film and with the search for consciousness. Formally, Reflections on Black follows literary traditions. One character who sees three different episodes is a standard thematic literary form.

In the film Brakhage made virtually at the same time, The Way to Shadow Garden, he shows us a young man in some kind of spiritual, sexual agony, come home, wander around his room, try to read, smoke a cigarette, until eventually he breaks a glass and blinds himself, in an image that is clearly referential to the classic mask of Oedipus which gives us a clue to the particular nature of his agony. Then we see him with blood streaming down his face. Suddenly, the film flashes into negative; his face is black, the blood is white, and he wanders out into a night garden, where flowers are white and the atmosphere is black, and there the film ends. This resolutely visionary image is one which is completely dependent upon the very reflectiveness built into cinematic and photographic negative and positive, which is ultimately, though on a very crude level, an echo of spiritual concern that we find in late 19th Century poetry, when poetry begins to become conscious that words are its materials and when the poet begins to think of himself as what Mallarmé calls “the custodian of words of the tribe.” For Mallarmé is the primary example of the poet of physical words rather than of the illusion of words.

Cinema, more than any other art, is haunted by realism; the avant-garde cinema, especially in America, has had a reverse haunting. Oppressed by realism, it has been driven to the idea of absolute objectivity in the presentation of the screen as an object.

Thus between 1955 (Reflections on Black) and 1961 (Thigh Line Lyre Triangular), we see a significant transformation of space. The space which the somnambulist wanders through in Brakhage’s early films, which is ultimately the realistic space that he inherited from Lumière, that long diagonal, disappears. (Oh, in Maya Deren there was a different kind of space, a subjective space. In a state of intense internalization she climbed the stairs, and the camera moved in such a way as to make the walls bounce against her. But that state was literalistically subjective. One senses that when the camera moves subjectively or when there is superimposition in the early films of Deren, Anger, and Markopoulos, this interior space is somehow unreal. There lingers over the psychodramatic Trance Film a persistent and insidious sense of traditional cinematic space.) In Thigh Line Lyre Triangular we see a radically new space. Passages of black screen, white screen, and hand painting on top of the film transform our sense of depth. The film begins with a painted smear, a wipe, at the top of the film, and out of these painted fields, a depth is made up of images. These are not just random images, but of an incredibly intense experience: The viewing of a birth.

The paint itself provides a matrix for transformation in which the birds blend into haunting images of animals. Brakhage’s films from 1958 to the early 60s constitute what may be called the lyrical cinema; the cinema or direct seeing, which postulates a film-maker behind the camera. We no longer have the meditation of character in the film; instead of a protagonist, we have a screen filled with movement which expresses the idea of a man looking at something. It is an intense experience of seeing. Brakhage informs us and we can believe him that he literally saw the colors, and had the flashing recurrent mental images of the animals which we see in Thigh Line Lyre Triangular while he was watching the birth of his second child. So for him the film is nothing more than an absolute documentary of his visual experience at that moment.

Brakhage merges cinematic space with the space that we’ve come to understand in 20 years of looking at Abstract Expressionism. We see here, in fact, a coincidence of planes in photographic depth, cinematic illusion and painted surface recalling the blend of photography and paint in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Brakhage did not invent the lyric cinema; it too had its origins. Marie Menken filmed her flowers and filmed little unpretentious things. Working alone, in the 1940s, at that time, she made a cinema which was way ahead of its time. Brakhage was one of the few who cared for it. He watched her; and as he grew out of the period of intense searching for himself, out of his Freudian period, he took from Marie Menken the sense of the free camera and its metaphor as a sensual eye. He also took from Ian Hugo, who made Bells of Atlantis, a way of creating and flattening space through superimpositions. These early works of the 50s by Ian Hugo, (Bells of Atlantis and some of his other films, and by Marie Menken, such as Glimpse of the Garden) originated a new form, which may be called the lyrical cinema. It is the poetic postulation of the I, the first person; as the trance film must clearly be a postulation of the traditional third person in cinema.

It is interesting to compare Reflections on Black and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular to Window Water Baby Moving, the record of the birth of Brakhage’s first child. In the earlier film there is a dialogue between seeing the birth and the drama of the birth. The spectator awaits the birth of a child with the joyous expectations of the film-maker/father. The film-maker seems to be on the edge of transferring a dramatic experience into a visionary one. In Thigh Line Lyre Triangular the entire scene dissolves into a visual experience blending photographic reality, painting and mental images.

Early in the ‘60’s, Brakhage began to change direction. He started making Dog Star Man, an epic film based on the cycles of the seasons and he began to find a new kind of dramatic form without tension, in which he could combine thematic material forming the outline of a story with the lyrical cinema. The subject matter of Dog Star Man became a general myth about birth, death, sex and the aesthetics of the basic cinematic situation. Comparing Reflections on Black with Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, we see a transition in Brakhage’s case from the trance film to the lyrical film.

Similarly, we might compare two films of Kenneth Anger. Fireworks is a linear film. We see this young man go through his erotic encounter of self-discovery. It ends where it began: in a dream. By skipping a couple of films our case can be made more clear. Here is an excerpt from Scorpio Rising.

Obviously, a real transformation has taken place between Fireworks and Scorpio Rising. Gone is the rigid unity of space in which a somnambulistic character walks. Gone too is the somnambulistic character. Instead we see the chief motorcyclist in his room. The room itself is a vast metaphor. The wall behind him is virtually a graph of his unconscious. He has tacked upon it everything that means anything to him. It is an iconographic space, marked by James Dean, Marlon Brando, a Nazi swastika, etc. The room has a television, which functions in this film as an aesthetic reactor. Looking into the television one confronts simultaneously the aesthetic experience of illusion, and a series of metaphors for the contemporary life. In a tremendous image of Romantic liberation, Anger combines the ironic use of the song “Heat Wave” with an image on a television of birds escaping from a cage and a photograph of a monster (a gaudy, pasty, purple image), in essentially two seconds of Byronic ecstasy, invoking a high Romantic myth. This paradoxical montage is constantly ironic: it speaks of liberation and limitation: the liberation of its own exuberant enthusiasm; and the limitation of the counterfeit. The entire film is structured that way. A series of mythographic parallels between various heroes (the motorcycle hero; Marlon Brando whom we see on the television in The Wild One; Jesus Christ, not directly, but through the second degree of an old Cecil B. DeMille movie). The space changes between the colored space of Anger’s photography and the unreal space of the Hollywood movie and the flat space of the intercuts. The montage compares Scorpio walking through the streets with Christ; and we also have a statement about what he would do if he were Christ; that is, if the beggar were there, he’d kick him, as he kicked the motorcycle wheel; he would free the beggar, not by a magical tough and the will of God, no, but by showing him a dirty picture; so we get a single frame of a dirty picture. And then we get the most consummate image of the sequence: when this repentant, freed, cured beggar goes down on his knees before Christ, what does Scorpio offer him—a stiff penis.

This is an incredibly complex film. It’s a mythographic film, a comparison of the myth of the motorcyclist with that of Christ, with the myth of the movie star (the dead movie star, James Dean; the living movie star, Marlon Brando), with the quite ambiguous Nietzschean sense of power that comes from Nazi images. The hero is not a Nazi, nor a Christian, nor a star; all of these parallels exist in an area of simultaneity without the assigning of a specific hierarchy of moral values that would make us comfortable. The structure of the film is much more sophisticated than that of Fireworks, as one might expect; it is a series of schematic episodes, emphasized by the use of a different song for each, and the total film is at once a day in the life of a motorcycle leader, and a kind of stations of the cross of a motorcyclist as he goes through archetypical experiences, constantly confronting death and meeting images of absolute freedom. It is also a completely new version of the erotic dialogue; no longer a search for the self, but a presentation, at one time, of the contraries of the self as major forces. Based on the theme of apotheosis, Scorpio Rising virtually compares its hero to the most powerful figures in the world today (Fidel Castro finds his way in there), of the past, (for the most demonic single figure in the history of men is Adolf Hitler for the contemporary mind) and with God, as Christ.

Now this transformation from trance film to mythographic film is Anger’s invention. At the same time, Brakhage made Dog Star Man, a film about the seasons and about a primitive man’s quest to climb a mountain, his fall, his rebirth. Anger didn’t get the form from Brakhage, and Brakhage didn’t get it from Anger; it was a simultaneous process. At the same time, Gregory Markopoulos, who had made a psychodrama, Swain, was now making Twice a Man, a film about rebirth, once as a man, once as a god; a film with four characters and interlocking personalities. It’s a film in which we see the hero born in the heavens, just as, at the end of Dog Star Man, we see a man transported into the heavens to become a constellation, and just as there’s the constant image of apotheosis hanging over Scorpio Rising. All were completed at the same time, around 1963 or 1964. In Brakhage’s film we have microphotography; microscopy of tremendous magnitudes; capillary veins are seen. We jump from capillary veins to bursts of explosions on the sun, to images of the Dog Star Man and his climb, to images of his wife, his family, of the trees, of mountains, sudden variations in space and scale. In Anger, we have a different kind of space again, a space reconstructed out of illusion. In Markopoulos’ film, we find a space defined primarily by simultaneity, by the injection of single frame images from a different place and a different time, so that the film proceeding along with a musical rhythm, suddenly bursts into explosions of remembrance. In other films there was the same shift: Ron Rice who made a kind of beat trance film called The Flower Thief, suddenly makes The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man; he’s using the same people but the structure of the film has changed; it’s raised to the level of popular mythology. Ed Emshwiller, who made a personal vision of a psychic tension, Thanatopsis, in the early 60s, was then making Relativity, a film of general scientific and subjetivistic view of the world, that jumps between the stars and the individual man. Harry Smith, at this time, was making his epic animated film, Heaven and Earth Magic, a film of truly Dantean scope, a great mythopoetic work. Not all the films are mythographic; most of them are what we would call mythopoetic. A mythopoetic film does not refer to a specific myth; it does not compare traditional myths, but assumes the mythic structure, attempts to create a mythic image, to make an old myth new, or to make a completely new myth.

Markopoulos’ The Illiac Passion is one of the later mythopoetic films. In a way, it marks the end of that development of the cinema. Now, formally speaking, in mythopoeia, we have moved from a linear film, that leads towards one strong or enigmatic conclusion, to a film that is what Ken Kelman has called the total techtonic, a totally architectured film of many parts where all the elements built up in great swarms and descend in rhythmic movements, a kind of symphonic work. Another film of this same period, curiously also mythopoetic, is Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, a film which out of a mythology, that of Hollywood, out of 1001 Arabian Nights and Maria Montez films, fashions a vision of a liberated world of monsters and beasts, demi-gods and gods. Markopoulos explicitly names the characters in The Illiac Passion after gods; but his film is about contraries, the dialogue of the self. In psychological terms one would say there has been a transformation from basically a Freudian point of view to what might be called the Jungian point of view; from an interest in the discovery of the self, to an interest in the cinematic representation of the collective unconscious. I’m not saying this to indicate that film-makers all read Freud, and then read Jung.

This historical morphology describes a general tendency. I’ve described in one place this transformation as from the episodic to the total techtonic. Since all of these films that we’re speaking of are apocalyptic, they return to the theme of the imagination from the psychodramas. The earlier apocalyptic films are episodic, such as Christopher Maclaine’s The End, where we see several people on the last day of their lives, which may also be the last day of the world. The film attempts to find some cohesion, but it falls into episodes. What took place between 1950 and 1960 was the growth of a form which could contain many simultaneous characters, episodes, and fantastic changes of space; a comparative cinema, with symphonic organization of parts into a grand, mythopoetic whole. I’ve called this elsewhere the exchange from a cinema of conjunction to a cinema of metaphor. I’ll make that clearer. There’s an Austrian film-maker whose career is quite parallel to the American avant-garde, and who has become a part of it, Peter Kubelka. Peter Kubelka’s first film, made about 1951, is called Mosaic in Confidence, and his most recent film, finished in 1967, is called Our Trip to Africa. Mosaic in Confidence is very well titled because it is a mosaic, a bunch of little episodes taken to give a certain sense of simultaneity around Vienna. It is much more ironic, crueler, than the early American avant-garde films, but nevertheless, it shares with these a quest for sexual identification. In any case, the move from a mosaic film to Our Trip to Africa, which is a continuous fluid view of an African safari with sound intercut with picture in a way that has never been done before or again, is from fragmentation to metaphor. Our Trip to Africa is a complex film in which we are led from one fact to the other in a totally architectured way; and this feeling of total architecture if characteristic, although not absolutely, of the mythopoetic film, of the creation of a new myth.

It’s wrong to think, as I thought in 1964, of simple evolution. Looking back now, I see a permanent achievement in the cinema of the late 1940s. And looking over what has happened since 1964, it’s quite clear that we can’t talk in art historical terms of “improvements;” we can only talk reasonably of changes. So the question that arises is what has happened since then? We’ve described an evolution, quite schematically, in the late 1940s and early ‘50s to the middle ‘60s. What happened later? I call the next stage the structural film. These are films that are organized quite explicitly around aesthetic devices: the fixed camera; shooting a film and then re-photographing it off the screen so you lose the depth of space; the loop film where images are repeated, one after the other; and the flicker film. In a structural film, the total form is apparent. After one minute, you know what’s going to happen. After having seen Scorpio Rising, the total shape is not necessarily immediately apparent; after seeing Flaming Creatures, one can not draw an outline of the shape. In the structural film, the first and foremost impression we get, the minute the film is over, is of a total shape we have seen. In certain ways, although the comparison cannot be driven too strongly, it’s akin to what has been called minimal art, just as the lyrical film, in certain ways, is akin to Abstract Expressionism. The trance film has a Freudian base, and we see a single protagonist who is often the film-maker in quest of himself. In the mythopoetic film, it’s a Jungian base; the subject is myth, and all the mythic figures come together in a vortex as opposing contraries of a single self. Also the film begins to be about the nature of cinema. In the structural film, the protagonist disappears completely; there is no psychological mediator; there is a repudiation of psychology. I’m going to show a structural film, George Landow’s The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter.

Here is the graininess of texture, and a flattening of the space. In the structural film, the eye performs a meditation. And it’s not at all surprising that Landow would take its ironic title The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter, from a mystical work, in this case, the Upanishads, referring as they do to the ghee, the buttery film, that rises to the surface of clarified butter. It’s not surprising that his previous film would be called Bardo Follies, referring irreverently to the Tibetan paradise or ultimate realm. This is a cinema of meditation without the psychological intermediary.

What came after this? We’re right in the middle of the throes of a transition. In the past year or two, we’ve seen films such as Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut, George Landow’s Remedial Reading Comprehension. There are films which intimately involve the audience, one way or another. Zorns Lemma is based upon permutations on the alphabet, followed by a long translation of a philosophical text from the Latin of Grosseteste on the nature light, over one shot. Nelson’s Bleu Shut appeals to the audience to guess the incredibly idiotic names of boats; there’s a clock on the screen constantly so that you know how far to the end of the film; at the very beginning, someone says this film will be thirty minutes long, but the film is actually thirty-eight minutes long. And then, throughout Remedial Reading Comprehension, we’re involved in a didactic process: a remedial reading lesson meshed with a series of indirect autobiographical reflections. The monochromatic, simple, meditative, structural film, is moving strongly into this new area of thematic constructions involving the audience. Just as Brakhage himself and Markopoulos, at the same time as Michael Snow and Landow, made structural films; Brakhage made a film called My Mountain Song 27, about one object, a meditation on a mountain; Gregory Markopoulos made a flicker film with little injections of images so quick that the distinction between whether they’re still or they’re moving is gone, called Gammelion; and Paul Sharits began to make a cinema where the distinctions between animation and photography break down because images appear so quickly and in a schematic form.

The old masters continue to change according to this diachronic morphology, and along come new masters, and, as they enter the cinema, they enter at its newest stage; we don’t have Michael Snow coming to cinema and making a mythopoetic film or making a psychodrama; he comes at a certain time; there’s something in the air; he’s part of that form; he’s making a structural film. This leads to a general postulation upon which this lecture turns. The great unacknowledged aspiration of the American avant-garde cinema has been the mimesis of the human mind in a cinematic structure. Beginning with the attempt to translate dreams and other revelations of the personal unconscious in trance films, through the imitation of the act of seeing in the lyric film and the collective unconscious in the mythopoetic film, this cinema has attempted to define Consciousness and the Imagination. Its latest attempts have approached the form of meditation (structural film) in order to more directly evoke states of consciousness and reflexes of imagination in the viewer. The recent thematic films follow the direction established by the structural cinema in finding correlates for the conscious mind. Landow and Nelson propose film viewing as a test; Frampton offers montage as a logical function and cinematic construction as a system of thought.

Now I’ve given basically this in a diachronic form, I would like to very briefly suggest a way of looking at it as a synchronic form through history. I’ve done this through a chart.


Trance Film

Deren: A Study in Choreography for Camera
Brakhage: Reflections on Black

Anger: Eaux d’artifice
Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon

Anger: Fireworks

Markopoulos: Swain

Structural Film

Snow: Wavelength
Markopoulos: Twice a Man

Landow: The Film That Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter
The Illiac Passion

Jacobs: Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son
Brakhage: Anticipation of the Night

Markopoulos: Gammelion
Anger: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Scorpio Rising


Brakhage: Thigh Line Lyre Triangular
Mekas: Diaries Notes and Sketches

Noren: Kodak Ghost Poems


Conner: A Movie
Rice: The Flower Thief

Anger: Invocation of my Demon Brother

Frampton: Zorns Lemma

Nelson: Bleu Shut

When did these film-makers begin making films? In the 40s Maya Deren had written poetry; James Broughton was and remains a published poet; Christopher Maclaine was a poet; Brakhage, even, was a poet and a dramatist; Sidney Peterson a novelist, Willard Maas a poet in the late 40s. What was the situation of poetry in the late 40s? Wallace Stevens published Transport to Summer (including Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction) in 1947; in 1950, he published The Auroras of Autumn. William Carlos Williams had published most of Paterson in the 40s, the The Collected Later Poems in 1950, The Desert Music and Other Poems in 1954. Pound brought out The Pisan Cantos in 1948, and Robert Duncan, his The Venice Poem in 1949. These film-makers were very much part of a milieu which created this poetry, and they shared a world view that included Stevens as an ideal, Duncan as a new hope, Pound as a tragic case of a great poet involved in a political dilemma. Listen to what these film-makers have said about their work.

Brakhage, in Metaphors on Vision says:

I would say I grew very quickly as a film artist once I got rid of drama as a primary source of inspiration. I began to feel that all history, all life, all that I would have as material with which to work, would have to come from the inside of me out rather than as some form imposed from the outside in. I had the concept of everything radiating out of me, that the more personal and egocentric I would become the deeper I would reach and the more I could touch those universal concerns which involve all men.[3]

Nowhere is the visionary stance of the American as film-maker more clearly stated. There are scores of similar affirmatives. There’s a delicious statement, of Gregory Markopoulos; in Film Culture he says:

The film-makers who have banded together under the auspices of the Film-Makers Cooperative have each and every one of them that divine fire and confidence which the ancient Greeks called THRASOS... Furthermore, I would venture to suggest that only in the motion picture as an art form and that means immediate and continued experimentation, creativity, inspiration while at work, is there the truth of what we enjoy naming Reality.[4]

And Jonas Mekas says:

The new artist, by directing his ear inward, is beginning to catch bits of man’s true vision... in a sense, an old art is immoral—it keeps man’s spirit in bondage to Culture.[5]

Finally, Michael Snow talks about Wavelength, but it could be any visionary film-maker talking about his work:

I wanted to make a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas. I was thinking of, planning, for a monument in which the beauty and sadness of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking of trying to make a definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balance of “illusion” and “fact,” all about seeing.[6]

We have here, quite clearly, definitely, a continuity of the Romantic aesthetic.

Harold Bloom accounts for the Romantic survival in poetry; he might as well be speaking of the avant-garde film:

Modernist poetry in English organizes itself, to an excessive extent, as a supposed revolt against Romanticism, in the mistaken hope of escaping this inwardness (though it was unconscious that this was its prime motive)...

He says that:

Paul de Man terms this phenomenon the post-Romantic dilemma, observing that every fresh attempt of Modernism to go beyond Romanticism ends in the gradual realization of the Romantics continued priority.
Our age begins to abound in late Romantic “completions” of Freud, but the Romantic critique of him, by Jung and Lawrence, have not touched the strength of his erotic pessimism.[7]

In this last quotation, I’m not so interested in the primacy Bloom finds in Freud, but in the very intelligent way in which he describes Lawrence and Jung as being Romantic critics of the Freudian vision. A French literary critic helps us to define the highly contradictory literary phenomenon. Maurice Blanchot has it when he says:

If we could approach these first Romantic onslaughts with new eyes we would see that their surprising feature is not their glorification of the instinctive or an exaltation of delirium but, quite to the contrary, a passion for thought and the almost abstract demands made by poetry to reflect upon itself and achieve itself through its own thought. Naturally the concern here is not with the art of poetry, a secondary consideration: It is with the heart for poetry which is knowledge, with its essence which is to be a quest and a quest for itself. Since consciousness is not only moral but poetic, poetry no longer wants to be natural, but only and absolutely consciousness.
Romanticism, advent of the poetic consciousness, is not just a literary school or even an important moment in this history of art: it opens an epoch: more, it is the epoch where all other epochs reveal themselves because through it the absolute subject of all revelation is brought into play, the “I” in all its liberty, adhering to no conditions, recognizing itself in nothing particular, and only in its elements—its ether—in the WHOLE where all is free.[8]

It’s a paradoxical situation, and it’s the essence of this paradox that has a kind of aesthetic magnetism, as Blanchot sees it. Paul de Man, whom Bloom cites, also in the final quotation I will offer you, emphasizes the paradox and contradiction of Romantic reflectiveness:

An abundant imagery coinciding with an equally abundant quantity of natural objects, the theme of the imagination linked closely to the theme of nature, such is the fundamental ambiguity that characterizes the poetics of romanticism. The tension between the two polarities never ceases to be problematic.[9]

In this Romanticism, we have: the myth of the self; the establishment of the contraries; and the complications of self-reflection; aesthetics as the subject of problematic art; the role of the artist as visionary, and the overwhelming emphasis of the theme of consciousness. When we look back from the Romantic perspective at the American avant-garde film, we see it has a visionary stance as taken by its individual makers; we see its involvement with its own processes. Interestingly, we have isolated a tremendously important figure by not mentioning him: Andy Warhol. The only absolutely non-Romantic figure in this tradition, the parodist, a film-maker whose work brought the most decisive critical blow to the American avant-garde cinema; a man who began making films and made a joke, a great grand aesthetic joke, out of all the Romantic claims of the avant-garde cinema, out of the idea of the total film-maker. He’d turn the camera and walk away. He criticized the idea of the moving cinema when he just left the camera there. In place of the actor, he created stars. Warhol’s cinema, like Warhol’s art, is highly critical; his genius is for that kind of criticism. He saw, I believe, though I can’t say he was terribly conscious of it, he saw before anyone, that the American avant-garde film was a Romantic survival, and urged a strategic attack against it. That attack was one of the things which caused the birth of the structural cinema. Film-makers had to find a way of re-incorporating the materials of Warhol’s attack within a visionary cinema, and what happened with Michael Snow and George Landow and the static cinema is essentially a new Romantic affirmation in recoiling against this tremendously crucial aesthetic attack that Warhol made.

Finally, I’ll repeat that, to comprehend the American avant-garde cinema as a whole, you have to explore the immanent ideas which the film-makers share, although they’re not always conscious of them, and that two persistent concepts have stalked the history of this genre in America through all its form: one is the pursuit of a form that would be the image of consciousness, and the other is the idea of abstraction, which will be the subject of my next lecture.

P. Adams Sitney


[1] Erlich, Victor; Russian Formalism: History and Doctrine, Hague, 1965.

[2] Shklovsky, Viktor; “Art as Technique” in Russian Formalist Criticism ed. by Leman and Reis, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1965.

[3] Brakhage, Stan; Metaphors on Vision, New York, 1964. Film Culture.

[4] Markopoulos, Gregory; “Projection of Thoughts” in Film Culture, #32, spring, 1964.

[5] Mekas, Jonas; “Notes on the New American Cinema” in Film Culture, #24, spring, 1962.

[6] Snow, Michael; “A Statement” in Film Culture, #46, October, 1968.

[7] Bloom, Harold; “The Internalization of Quest-Romance” in Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. by Bloom, New York, 1970.

[8] Blanchot, Maurice; “The Athaneum” in Art and Literature, No. 6, Autumn, 1965, Tran. Sonya Brannell.

[9] De Man, Paul; “The Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image” in Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. by Bloom, New York, 1970.

(Film Culture n. 53-54-55, spring 1972, pp. 1-24)





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