Does Avant-Garde Film Constitute a Coherent Body of work? – an Essay
“The idea of an avant-garde cannot, by its nature, be static or agreed. It is perhaps best understood as, in the philosophers’ term, an essentially contested concept, always open to dispute or redefinition.”
It has always been something of a trend in film academia to either make blasé definitions of ‘avant-garde’ film, or to blandly refute the possibility of doing so, as can be seen from the above statements. It is a ‘contested concept’, to say the least, and certainly ‘maddeningly obscure’, but that does not mean there are not definitive attributes that the ‘avant-garde’ school possesses, which other schools of film lack. The question of this essay is about coherence. But I posit that it is impossible to have coherence in experimentation, the two together are oxymoronic. What is possible though, are shared themes, shared tools, and shared ambiguities.
In this essay I will first attempt to rectify the common confusion in the academia between the Modernist movement and the Avant-Garde movement. I will explore the notions of Modernism and the Avant-garde, also known as High Modernism. I will then examine the division of the Avant-garde into to two different schools, the Narrative avant-garde; where I will look at Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919); and the Non-Narrative Artistic avant-garde, where I will look at Dziga Vertovs’ Man With a Movie Camera (1929). I will then explore the claims of the importance of ‘auteur theory’ and modes of production in avant-garde filmmaking; for this I will be using David Lynchs’ Eraserhead (1977).
High Modernism and Low Modernism: an Academic Hodgepodge.
“It might be argued that the only thing that unites them all is their status as ‘other’ to orthodox narrative filmmaking” (Smith, 1998:395).
The Modernist movement in the arts emerged in Europe specifically, from the embers of the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th century, and from the political revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century. Fundamental to the movement was the notion of perception, especially autonomous reflexive strategies which had their roots in nineteenth century Aestheticism (Smith, 1998:399, Burger, 1984, Crow, 1981). This obsession with reflexive and perceptive strategies was a reaction against, to use a phrase by Murray Smith, “the claim to realism on the basis of an accurate rendering of the perceivable aspects of the world – continuity of time and space, for example – while equally real, if not directly visible, social and psychological processes are either ignored or mystified”. Thus the great war with ‘classical’ narrative commenced.
However, in an age of massive political upheaval, technological innovation, the mass media and huge social change, a rift soon appeared which would split the Modernist movement between those ‘Low’ Modernist artists who believed in embracing the emerging popular culture and mass media in order to promote political, socio-revolutionary ends, and the ‘High’ Modernist, also called the Avant-garde, artists who believed in the total autonomy of art and therefore its complete separation from politics and society (Burger,1984:322-325). They were also totally dedicated to attacking “the very institutions and definitions of established practice” in art (Smith, 1998:399). In a Europe awash with revolution, this dedication to isolation and, effectively, cultural warfare, was particularly historically specific.
Not surprisingly perhaps, given the enormity of the changes occurring in Europe all around them, the Avant-garde was unable able to shelter entirely from the political upheavals of the day, (Poggioli, 1962:107-9, Wollen, 1982). Nor was it ever quite able to cut itself off from the steady onslaught of popular culture (Gunning, 1986:61). The major difference however, between the mainstream’s conceptions of what film should be used for, and what the Avant-garde thought it should be used for, were fundamentally different, as will be discussed in the following two sections.
As the Modernist movement began to divide between those who embraced popular culture, and those who attacked it, so too did the Avant-garde find itself splitting and splintering, between those who embraced politics and those who ignored it, those who embraced popular culture and those who attacked it, and most importantly, between those who accepted narrative, and those who rejected it in favour of abstraction.
The Narrative Avant-Garde.
“An alternative route to the cinema as an art form…ran parallel to the artists’ avant-garde from c 1912 to 1930 and sometimes overlapped with it. The art cinema or narrative avant-garde included such movements as German Expressionism, the Soviet montage school, the French ‘impressionists’…Like the artist-film-makers, they resisted the commercial film in favour of a cultural cinema to equal the other arts in seriousness and depth.” (Rees, 1997:96)
According to A.L. Rees, the early Avant-garde followed two basic routes. The Artistic avant-garde invoked the neo-impressionists’ claim that “a painting, before all else, is a flat surface covered with colour”. The Avant-garde similarly associated the film trip as a strip of transparent material that ran through a projector, and the Cubist debate over film in 1912 opened the doors to abstraction (Rees, 1997:96). Rees then identifies a second direction, that which “led artists to burlesque or parody films which drew on the primitive narrative mainstream, before (as many modernists believed) it was sullied by realism”. Rees associates this exploration of narrative predominantly with Dada and the surrealists, who “valued dream-like ‘trans-sense’ irrationality as the key trope of film montage and camera image” (Rees, 1997:96).
The mantle of this great debate was taken up by the Soviet political Avant-garde. According to Murray Smith, “Whether conceived primarily in terms of architectural construction (Kuleshov), dialectical conflict (Eisenstein), or the musical interlude (Vertov), montage aimed to infuse the narrative with a conceptual interplay out of which a revolutionary argument would emerge” (Smith, 1998:397). Again, politics and narrative came into the forefront of Avant-garde practice. With the emergence of montage, came one of the most important debates in the avant-garde school. How to use it.
The debate involved three main protagonists, Sergei Eisenstein, Slavko Vorkapich and Dziga Vertov. Both Eisenstein and Vorkapich claimed a behaviourist basis for montage (Bordwell and Staiger, 1988:74). According to Vorkapich “It is possible to stimulate a spectator into various psychological and physical reactions by means of certain visual intimations coming from the screen” (Vorkapich, 1934:8). However, whereas Eisenstein celebrated the possibility of doing this throughout the film, without the use of narrative (Eisenstein, 1970:62), Vorkapich on the other hand insisted on the need to let the story determine the film’s shape and to use montage chiefly in “transitional passages” (Vorkapich, 1934:9). However a film was about to come out of Germany which would prove that both the narrative and artistic avant-garde could go hand in hand, with unprecedented success.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as Narrative Avant-garde
“Not only did it become the benchmark of Expressionism in the cinema, with its world of distorted perspectives, dreamscapes, murder, mayhem and menacing shadows; it made the avant-garde movement itself seem like the emanations of a sick brain.” (Elsaesser, 2000:61)
Robert Weine’s film exploded onto the cinema screens of post-war Germany at a time when nothing like it had ever been seen before, and arguably since. What was unique was the films combination of a classical gothic narrative and an explicitly Expressionist set design. Motifs of perception in the avant-garde were personified in the nightmarish visions and confused narrative perspectives in the film. One qualification of an Avant-garde film has been posited by Parker Tyler. He sites “The chief imaginative trend among Experimental of avant-garde filmmakers is action as a dream and the actor as a somnambulist…the world in view becomes that of poetic action pure and simple: action without the restraints of single level consciousness, everyday reason, and so-called realism” (Tyler, 1960:96). To Tyler, Cesare represents “an arch symbol for subsequent avant-garde film making”.
One of the most interesting thing about Caligari is that, other than its use of the Avant-garde Expressionist technique in its set design, and the deliberate ambiguity of the narrator perspectives, there is little else in the film which actually conforms to the avant-garde model I have been disentangling. It was created in an established studio with a well stocked crew and with a healthy budget. The authorship of the film was far from auteristic, in fact it was downright confused. With the discovery of original scripts and first hand testimony, it has become clear that certain elements were pure accident. A claimed misunderstanding of the name Kubin for Cubism might have been the only reason the Expressionist designs ever came into being (Scheunemann, 2006:135).
Schnemann appears to shudder at the thought, predicting that “[h]ad he been commissioned with the design of the sets for Dr. Caligari, as the authors had suggested, the birth of expressionist film might never have happened…It would have lacked…any trait of expressionist abstraction” (Scheunemann, 2006:135). Nevertheless, the film has become, as Elsaesser remarks, a “benchmark” in experimentation. It is arguably the most explicit example of a Narrative/Artistic avant-garde film. It is the experimentation of the piece, its uniqueness of artistic vision, which is the overriding qualification for its labelling as Avant-garde.
The Artistic Avant-Garde.
“The significance of the avant-garde movement…is that it simply refused to compete. Rejecting Academicism – and thus at a second remove, Mass culture – it made a desperate attempt to fence off some area where the serious artist could still function. It created a new compartmentation of culture, on the basis of an intellectual rather than a social elite.” (MacDonald, 1964:61)
The Modernist movement saw the emergence of various artistic schools, most prominently by Aestheticism (Smith, 1998:399) and Cubism. A.L Rees claims that Cubism was the most prevalent influence on Modernism, specifically on the schools of Futurism, Constructivism and Dadaism; “Cubism heralded the broad modernism which welcomed technology and the mass age” (Rees, 1997:97-8). Martin Norden on the other hand refutes the emphasis on Cubism’s influence, claiming that it was the schools that were influenced by Cubism which had the most significant influence on film, not Cubism itself.
“We may trace this neglect to the fact that many of these movements are derivatives of (and are often overshadowed by) Cubism, which Yet we have ignored for too long the influences of Cubism’s related ‘isms’-Futurism, Precisionism, Suprematism–on avant-garde cinema.” (Norden, 1984:108)
A.L Rees explores the influence of Abstraction in the Avant-garde, according to him “This wing of the avant-garde was strongly idealist, and saw in film the utopian goal of a universal language of pure form”, as posited by Kandinsky in his work On the Spiritual in Art (Rees, 1997:98). The idea of perception and the breaking of continuity were key themes to the artistic avant-garde. This discontinuity underlay the avant-garde’s key rhetorical figure, that of paratactic montage. Appearing at the same time as the mainstream was perfecting its own narrative codes, montage’s “purpose is counter-narrative, by linking dissonant images which resist habits of memory and perception to underline the film event as phenomenological an immediate” (Rees, 1997:104).
Dadaism, a close relative of Surrealism, was perhaps one of the most significant influences on Avant-garde film. Dada artists were at the forefront of the attack on the academic institutions of art and culture, one of their rallying cries being “Death to art!” Many Dadaists had witnessed the horrors of the First World War, and their art as a reaction of disgust at a society which could sustain such a barbaric war. According to Smith, “If the war was the end-product of a society supposedly built on the principles of rationality espoused by Enlightenment philosophers, then the means of protest against this society would have to be irrational” (Smith, 1998:400).
Dziga Vertov disagreed with both Vorkapich and Eisenstein on the use of narrative and emotional encouragement. His argument was specifically with Eisenstein. To Vertov, the primary function of film was to record “cine-facts” as only the camera could, utterly rejecting narrative and any form of authorial interference (Aitken, 2001:12). What he aimed for was conceptual clarity, not distortion, “The decoding of life as it is. Influence of facts upon workers’ consciousness. Influence of facts, not acting, dance, or verse” (Vertov, 1926/1984:66). He represented the Artistic avant-garde, the side closest to the origins of the movement when it split from Modernism, and again, he personified the great debate between ‘Art’ and ‘Narrative’ in film.
Man With a Movie Camera as Artistic Avant-garde
“The kino-eye lives and moves in time and space; it gathers and records impressions in a manner wholly different from that of the human eye. The position of our bodies while observing or our perception of a certain number of features of a visual phenomenon in a given instant are by no means obligatory limitations for the camera which, since it is perfected, perceives more and better.” (Vertov, 1923/1984: 15)
In Man With A Movie Camera, Vertov was differing form his fellow Russian Formalists in his approach to montage and film form which implied an active, self-directed spectator who would be able to scrutinise the impressionistic montage structures of the film without being led to particular sets of conclusions. Thus he was able to avoid the reductivist tendencies of practitioners like the early Eisenstein and Propp (Aitken, 2001:14). To Vertov reflexivity was fundamental, he regarded fiction film as a form of “cine-nicotine”, which pacified the spectator. Man With a Movie Camera, to him, was to be “a disagreeable-tasting antidote to the poison” (Vertov, 1979:81).
To Vertov his film was “only the sum of the facts recorded on film, or, if you like, not merely the sum, but the product a ‘higher mathematics’ of facts” (Vertov, 1928:83-84). With his Kino-eye he believed he had found the ultimate non-bias recorder of truth. “I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it” (Vertov, 1984:17). But there were serious flaws with Vertov’s theory. What he was attacked for was his refusal to acknowledge that the very process of filming involved an authorial intervention. What he selected to film and what he selected to disregard – a process he even displays in his film in the famous ‘cutting-room sequence’- all these things conspire, deliberately or not, to influence what the audience are witnessing.
Fairthorne picks up on Eisenstein’s criticism of Vertov, assessing how, “Having no control over the secondary visual characteristics of the material, he was forced to make the interaction of the content of the film events even more powerful than their appearance”, but in doing this Fairthorne recognises that Vertov employs a specific device, “imprinting a more or less temporal metric on the film”, in order to both complement and disrupt the “intellectual relations” of the film images (Fairthorne, 1933:40).
Eisenstein’s criticism of Vertov, though it mentions the paradox in Vertov’s philosophy, was more to do with politics and emotional stimulation. Both practitioners were working in an environment of massive revolutionary upheaval, and as a consequence their state-sponsored work was expected to reflect this. in this respect the modes of production became an influence on the creation of the art. This is not something typically associated with the avant-garde, who are usually seen to be autonomous and financially independent. Again, it was the experimentation which was the key criteria which made this film Avant-garde, overriding any quibbles about state-sponsorship.
Modes of Production: the Auteur and the Money.
“Avant-garde films tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the filmmakers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions. Such films are usually distributed through film co-operatives, and exhibited by film societies, museums, and universities” (Smith, 1998:395)
The notion of an all-seeing, all-controlling, esoteric auteur has been a key element in identifying the avant-garde. Also the image of a restricted, independent budget, a small dedicated band of film-makers, and an elite system of distribution and reception, all of these romantic images of tortured, labouring professionals dedicated to their personal projects have been specifically attached to Avant-garde film making, for better or worse.
David Bordwell, considering the difficulties faced by critics of the avant-garde film, points out the importance not only of “the particular meanings constructed but the conception of implicit meaning itself” . According to Bordwell, for the avant-garde explicator “the artist stands as creator or transmitter of meaning. The artist draws upon personal experience…or upon a private mythology…or upon the art world, which passes along ‘inherited’ problems to be solved” (Bordwell, 1991:54).
Murray Smith attempts to qualify his own differentiation of ‘avant-garde’ on the grounds of modes of production, by comparing avant-garde film with ‘art film’, claiming that ‘art films’ “are made within a somewhat less rationalised system of production; and they are often supported by government policies designed to promote distinctive national cinemas. But art cinema is still a commercial cinema, which depends for its existence on profits, rather than the more ethereal rewards of status and prestige” (Smith, 1998:395-6).
Eraserhead as authorial and ‘maddeningly obscure’
“There are some secrets that, when you learn them, something comes with that learning that is more than the loss of now knowing. Those kind of secrets are different. And I believe in those. But talking about how certain things happened in a film, to me, takes a lot away from the film” (Rodley, 2005:78)
David Lynch is possibly the perfect example of an esoteric, auteurist avant-garde film maker, and Eraserhead is his most clear-cut example of an avant-garde film. Lynch’s crew for this film composed of cameraman Herbert Cardwell (later replaced by Frederick Elmes), soundman Alan Splet, Catherine Coulson, production manager/props person Doreen Small and actor Jack Nance (Rodley, 2005:55). Lynch is the personification of non-committal in his interviews. When asked about the motivations behind the making of the film, Lynch’s response was that “Certain things are just so beautiful to me, and I don’t know why. Certain things make so much sense, and it’s hard to explain. I felt Eraserhead, I didn’t think it. It was a quiet process: going from inside me to the screen” (Rodley, 2005:64).
The importance of abstraction and surrealism is central to Lynch’s work. In many ways his Henry character in Eraserhead resembles the Cesare character in Caligari, a type of somnambulist, wandering through a nightmarish wasteland of horrific psychological visions and ambiguous perspectives. Steven Schneider remarks on this shared theme also. To him, “Eraserhead’s unconventional plot, post-industrial wasteland setting and imagery which seems to have been extracted from the subconscious mind of a neurotic nebbish has drawn comparisons to the expressionist mise-en-scene of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari ” (Schneider, 2004:6). These comparisons are justifiable, however Lynch repeatedly denies the films were an influence (Rodley, 2005:22-34). Bordwell asks us whether or not this even matters. According to him, “Within avant-garde criticism, the issue often revolves around the extent to which the film can be interpreted independently of the artist’s personal life…the New Critical issue of the irrelevance of ‘extrinsic’ information” (Bordwell, 1991:68).
One of the most important elements of Eraserhead and also one of its most specifically Avant-garde attributes, is the film’s relationship with the spectator. According to Martha Nochimson, the presence of the so-called ‘baby’ in the film poses an extremely problematic narrative and personal dilemma for the audience. “The narrative depends on the conflict between the audience’s perception of the barely formed matter (its resemblance to a sperm defines it as the potential for actual form not its realisation) and the characters’ beliefs that they are dealing with a baby” (Nochimson, 1999:152). Lynch himself refuses to actually confirm or deny whether or not the monstrous creature is in fact a baby, leaving the audience to deal with issues of “the monstrosity of sameness”, the horrific image of something that ought to be human (Stacey, 2003:3-7).
Narrative subservience to visual and auditory material is also key in Lynch’s work and also qualifies the film as Avant-garde. Steven Schneider points out the use of “surrealistic set-pieces, apparently unmotivated behaviour and hyperbolic gross-out shots” (Schneider, 2004:9), whilst George Godwin emphasises the “expressionistic sound track” and the structure of the film into “a series of almost circular movements, taking the viewer on detours which seem to lead back to our starting point-but not quite” (Godwin,1985:37). Schneider also remarks that Lynch’s use of “episodes of bizarre, irrational behaviour” are place within “a pre-existing narrative context” whereby “viewers are encouraged to look for some connection”. He identifies this as a key strategy of the Avant-garde, thus further qualifying the film into that category (Schneider, 2004:8). This search for connections places the spectator in, as Godwin phrases it, “a kind of psychological quicksand, unable to find the correct footing, emotional or intellectual, from which to view the events we see” (Godwin, 1985:38).
Coherence or Confusion? Does it Need Both?
The Modernist movement from which the Avant-garde emerged was already a confused and divided one, rocked on all sides by revolutionary turmoil and cultural strife. Unable to fend off the advances of both politics and narrative, the Artistic Avant-garde gradually succumbed to a concoction of the two, and thus a befuddling confusion of theoretical principles. To have a narrative does not necessarily exclude you from the Avant-garde club and shunt you into the Modernist one. Everything depends on how a film utilises reflexivity and narrative ambiguity in order to initiate dilemmas of interpretation and perspective.
Nor does esoteric production and auteurism automatically make you avant-garde. The fact of the matter is, what is on the screen is the only criteria an audience has to judge by, extrinsic information is irrelevant in artistic judgement. The term ‘avant-garde’ translates as ‘advanced guard’, meaning a group of people who move forward in a certain direction to test the safety of the ground. In art this means experimentation. Attempting new and bold ideas to see if they succeed or fail.
During the course of its history the Artistic Avant-garde learned that it could not ignore politics and narrative forever, and so it adapted them into itself. The result is a healthy underground industry today, of directors such as Lynch, and film courses which still deal specifically with the works of the Avant-garde as a movement, if something of a messy one.
(All citation in accordance with the Harvard System)
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