By Michael Sicinski
Although there have always been intrepid critics and cinephiles who have engaged with films belonging to the non-narrative avant-garde, there has existed a perception that such films, operating as they do on somewhat different aesthetic precepts, could be considered a separate cinematic realm, one that even the most dutiful critic could engage with or not, as he or she saw fit. In the ’80s, for example, there was a book series entitled Film—The Front Line that was intended to be an annual assessment of the year in experimental cinema. The text was assigned to a different critic each year, who would themselves decide how “experimental” would be defined. While Jonathan Rosenbaum, in the 1983 edition, carefully considered the relationship between what we once called “art cinema” and the “co-op” avant-garde, David Ehrenstein, in the subsequent volume, essentially dynamited said distinction, treating it like a form of aesthetic and political apartheid.
There was no volume for 1985, indicating that Ehrenstein’s gesture may have been as untimely as it was necessary. Nevertheless, when we look today at the relationship between international auteurist cinema and smaller-gauge, non- or para-narrative experimental work, there is perhaps more mutual cognizance between filmmakers, and greater continuity of interest among critics and cinephiles. These two trends may be related.
Since the ’70s, and the movement in experimental cinema away from the expressive models exemplified by Stan Brakhage toward the more restrained, formalist approaches collectively characterized as “structuralism,” there has been a significant increase in both creative interchange between avant-garde and auteurist narrative filmmakers, and between critics’ interests in both realms. There are possibly anecdotal reasons for this, not least of them being the relative placidity of structural film as compared to the jittery, anxious work of Brakhage, as well as certain gendered critiques of Brakhage’s first-person expressivity that are well worth consideration. By contrast, the clean, open anonymity of works by Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr, and Hollis Frampton were often more conducive to the post-structuralist critique of the centred subject, of which the new feminist filmmaking of the era was a part. Chantal Akerman was very frank about her debt to Snow in particular; Yvonne Rainer cited Frampton as germinal for her ideas about cinematic discourse, and one can see connections between the two filmmakers, particularly with respect to part/whole relationships.
The recognition that structural cinema might serve as a touchstone not only for later experimental film, but also for experimental film’s connection to the wider world of auteurist art cinema, was slow in coming, but certain developments (in both realms) allowed for a new canon to gradually emerge. Independent of the avant-garde, the late ’70s and the ’80s saw a general trend in European and especially Asian auteur cinema. The so-called “master shot” school was an outgrowth of certain earlier modernist tendencies (Ozu especially, but also Mizoguchi, Bresson, Antonioni, Jancsó, Angelopolous), but expanded on those formal elements. In particular, the elegance of these masters in terms of their use of stillness or partially obviated motion to convey certain psychic states, or to provide an objective correlative to the subject’s negotiation to his/her place within broader social or historical formations, was explicitly expanded upon in works by Akerman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, and others.
Why on earth rehash this shopworn history? What is actually at issue here is how the dominant understanding of the canonical avant-garde has actually been reshaped, in part, by its increased conceptual interconnection with international auteurist art cinema. In the ’70s, Peter Wollen could still write of “The Two Avant-Gardes,” marking a fairly clean distinction between the Godard/Straub/Kluge form of Brecht-influenced political cinema, on the one hand, and the structural-materialist options offered by Snow, Peter Gidal, and, oddly enough, Andy Warhol.
This history realigned, as we saw above, by the mid-’80s, with Rosenbaum and Ehrenstein, quite argumentatively, placing filmmakers like Rivette and Ruiz alongside Robert Breer and Ken Jacobs. By the 1989 publication of Allegories of Cinema, experimental film scholar David E. James is able to chart an entirely new path through the American avant-garde, placing Brakhage and Warhol as the twin poles of generative epistemological experience. (Keep in mind, P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film barely mentions Warhol at all.)
Warhol is pivotal for a few reasons. He draws on narrative even as he fundamentally abjures it; he explores themes of queer identity; and his films engage in ontological inquiry with respect to the act of film viewing, particularly as it relates to duration. So although, for instance, Snow’s work was formative for Akerman, and Frampton’s for Rainer, Warhol’s work was formative for critics and scholars who were learning to read experimental cinema within a new framework. Warhol, in a sense, provided “structuralism-plus,” a way to think about formal matters while also having additional material on which to hang certain spectatorial desires.
Although I do not want to be misunderstood as claiming that Warhol’s films were some kind of gateway drug for the avant-garde, I do want to make clear that their identification with a particular performative ethic made their often real-time duration strategies seem less immediately identified with abstract philosophical ideas, more “organic” as an expression of a habitus. This could be likened to the critical response to Akerman’s films, wherein the use of duration was understood not just as a formal device, but as a feminist expression of ennui, boredom, entrapment, or simply the creation of a space for women’s labour as a profilmic event, as in Jeanne Dielman (1975).
The enshrining of Warhol within the canon of the American avant-garde had other consequences. The expanded interest in duration was becoming a new dominant, one that could have mood or ambient effects as well as concentrated phenomenological elements. One could watch a “slow” experimental film not in order to give it rapt attention, but rather to experience the mental drift of giving one’s attention to it and taking one’s attention away, in waves. The formal elements were not simply demonstrations of mathematical principles: they delivered sensory affect.
As these new concerns came to the fore in experimental film history, a new set of filmmakers emerged as major masters of the era, many of whom had been working for years without attracting much interest from the likes of Sitney or Annette Michelson. The gradual, one-shot films of Larry Gottheim were rediscovered; the soft, gradual montage style of Nathaniel Dorsky emerged during the ’90s, but his earlier work from the ’80s was reconsidered as well. Landscape cinema took on a greater importance, as another mode wherein duration could be coupled with organic expression: two long-time practitioners, James Benning and Peter Hutton, were finally given their due. Even the films of Jonas Mekas, which had always been firmly considered a part of experimental history, received renewed critical attention, as his self-effacing claim of having been “just filming” made his work more interesting, not less.
So it should not be so difficult to see how, in the present moment, we would arrive at something like Paul Schrader’s “Tarkovsky Ring,” and various directors and filmmakers distributed throughout this chart with little concern as to whether they are, strictly speaking, international art-film auteurs, experimental filmmakers, or people situated somewhere in between. The evolution within experimental film history toward a prevalence of slow, observational cinematic modes has met art cinema at a crossroads. When one looks at Schrader’s diagram, one sees, for example, that Benning and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are on the same axis. Ben Rivers is situated between Wang Bing and “Alberto” Serra. Lisandro Alonso is outside the Ring, with Snow. Pedro Costa, meanwhile, is playing left field, away from Serra but grouped with Lav Diaz. But oddly enough, there’s Andy Warhol holding down two ends of the horizontal axis.
Now, one can certainly argue with this bizarre piece of movie math, and many already have. But what is most notable is that Schrader is confirming the end result of a joint evolution between experimental and auteurist cinema. Some filmmakers, such as Rivers, Russell, and Apichatpong, now move easily between the two realms, while still others maintain positions within the gallery/museum system (Akerman, Snow, Serra, Rivers, Apichatpong, and, of course, Warhol). But what is important is this: an aesthetic dominant has established itself whereby two previously discrete cinematic modes are now mutually reinforcing, and one can see this in very material, institutional ways. TIFF’s decision to discontinue its Visions program and bring those films under Wavelengths, alongside more traditional forms of avant-garde film, is an indicator of how these forms have continued to dovetail, and how, at least from the standpoint of experimental cinema, the values this shift reflects—temporal expansiveness, spatial coherence, meditative pace, and an organizational schema geared for overall cognitive mastery—have radically reconfigured our understanding of the medium, maybe permanently. In other words, the Brakhage scratch and jitter has been definitively replaced by the Warhol stare.
It could be said that this prevalence for more coherent, meditative imagery is a response to the increasing bombardment of images and sounds that the mass media, and the internet in particular, lobs at us on a daily basis. If we can postulate that what counts as art at any given moment tends to operate in some degree of opposition to the dominant social formation, then “slow cinema” is in some ways a response to the demands of the “society of the spectacle” and the specific cognitive demands it places on its members. Cinematic art, by contrast, is there to call upon distinctly different competencies. And by doing so, over time new values are established and new canons are formed.
To throw this issue into relief, I would like to cite two “failed” works of auteurist cinema, well into the slow-cinema era. Although they were aimed at quite different constituencies, they were both works by visionary directors who were in complete control of their content, and both were dramatically out of step with the aesthetic dominants of their time. They are Peter Greenaway’s three-film Tulse Luper Suitcases cycle (2003-2005), and the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008).
Greenaway’s first Tulse Luper film, The Moab Story, debuted in competition at Cannes, where it was deemed both tedious and incomprehensible, a self-referential mishmash with too many visual and sonic layers assaulting the viewer at any given moment. Taking the work with digital software and multiple frames that he’d first employed with The Pillow Book (1996) and expanding it exponentially, Greenaway was felt to have, as one critic said, “thrown everything in a blender,” with little concern for legibility. By contrast, Speed Racer, conceived as a children’s film, was rejected as a fast-moving procession of lacquered surfaces and vectors, tracks, and tubes, with internal screens and windows drifting in and out of the frame of reference with little concern for traditional story space. While the Wachowskis obviously felt that they were borrowing from the language of comics and animation, critics felt overwhelmed by its visual language, calling it a “cinematic pile-up” and “pop fascism.”
There are of course other auteurs who tend to operate within this mode of velocity and density of images and sounds, and they are taken with varying degrees of seriousness. There’s Michael Bay, of course, whose critical stock fluctuates enough to send any day trader into cardiac arrest, but we could also include Darren Aronofsky, Richard Kelly, and certain passages of late Godard. While none of these directors completely exemplifies a particular mode of “anti-slowness,” all have been dismissed at one time or another as overbearing, bombastic, and almost contemptuous of their audiences.
All of these thoughts were occasioned by my recent encounter with the films of Daniel Barnett, an experimental filmmaker whose name I sometimes came across in old issues of Film Culture or Cinematograph. One got the distinct sense that he was a filmmaker’s filmmaker, someone respected in the community but whose work had never gained significant traction in broader circles. In recent months, Barnett has placed several of his older works on Vimeo, and I discovered what is probably his best-known film, White Heart (1975). Operating at the juncture between Frampton’s system-building, Jack Chambers’ cryptic mythologies, and Owen Land’s cornball conceptualism, White Heart doesn’t fit comfortably into any particular school or movement, but somehow seems integral to many of them. At any given time, there are at least three things going on at once. There is a fraught, crackling surface, a combination of painting, scraping, and the unevenness inherent in hand-developing. Lines and sprocket holes frequently bob up the side of the image. And then there’s something moving within the image, a representation that involves something—trains, a woman washing clothes, a landscape—travelling across the screen. So Barnett is activating the horizontal, vertical, and surface vectors of the cinema image at any given time.
White Heart also experiments with loops, such as the aforementioned trains, seen in a city intersection from a high window. It is hard to discern at first that parts of the image are repeating, because the surface information that accompanies those repetitions—the pockmarks and peels—is completely unique upon each iteration. There is also the repeated use of the word “rose,” which eventually seems to refer to the flower, as expected, but through its repetition can take on a multitude of meanings: the image rose higher; objects are arranged in rows; and even several shots of the ocean imply that someone rows, rows, rows their boat.
This is an open-form film, and it contains bits that don’t have obvious connections to the whole. In particular, Barnett returns several times to an older man in a library, an academic type who offers erudite narration. His relatively straightforward appearance seems at odds with the heavily worked-over surfaces of so much of White Heart, such that he is like a voice from outside, an Owen Landian commentator. Similarly, we see a close-up of fingers holding a match, sometimes lit, sometimes not, as if prepared to burn the entire film from the inside out. It would take multiple viewings to fully grasp everything that Barnett is up to here. White Heart is a film that gestures outward, as opposed to structural films that point towards their own internal forms and conclusions.
This sense of dispersion continues into the present day, I discovered, with Barnett’s latest film, Science Without Substance, a feature-length work that was begun in the ’70s and completed this year with contemporary digital technology. It shares with Greenaway a commitment to layering and density that goes well beyond what a human being could reasonably be expected to grasp on first pass. It is a dense collage of sonic clips, found images, and original performance material. On its surface, there is a constant flashing of the video raster, implicating the viewer in the distinction between analogue (film) and digital (video) media and their integration during the process of perception.
There are moments of pure light and colour, but mostly there is an overwhelming sense of movement and confusion. There are recurring tracking shots out a train window, treated to make the houses look post-nuclear. These images are accompanied by (at the beginning) a 300-to-zero countdown and (at the end) a one-to-100 “count-up.” But above all there are individuals rifling through forests of discarded newspapers, magnifying portions in search of who knows what. This is compared with shots of computer-generated gobbledygook and audio clips about transformation and “waking up a different person.” Science Without Substance, over the course of its difficult journey, thematizes the struggle to understand one’s world, and is in many ways about the choice that its own viewer must make when confronting it: try to build a system for tentative comprehension, or embrace the chaos.
As I was watching the new film, I got the beginnings of an idea for a filmic category or descriptor. We could call it cinema bombardier, a kind of absolute opposite to minimalism or slow cinema. Barnett is a practitioner, along with other folks who have not gotten their historical due, like David Larcher, Mike Cartmell, Michele Smith, Bruce Elder, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Pat O’Neill. (One of the only bombardiers who has met with something resembling popular acclaim, although not from the avant-garde film world, is Ryan Trecartin.) These filmmakers seem to overwhelm the viewer with more visual and sonic information than anyone could ever possibly process, and if one goes in unprepared, the experience can be rather unpleasant. It’s a bit like flunking an exam in real time: you know you’re supposed to be “getting” something, but there’s too much coming at you, and in too complex a format.
But this is actually the point. These works are precisely about the incapacity of the human mind to make sense of highly complex systems, and so several things happen as we watch. We can let the whole thing wash over us like atonal art music—we will perceive themes and motifs, overall rhythms, but the micro-relationships will most likely elude us, especially on a single viewing. Or, we can try to organize the waves of data into broad categories, which means ignoring lots of surface details and instead focusing on patterns of colour, texture, light and dark pulsing, the use of text as text rather than as signification, etc. Or, we can concentrate very hard on what’s in front of us—all of it—for small moments, and then pull our rapt attention away for resting periods, resulting in waves of broad impressionism and select moments of careful notation of the smaller articulations.
I don’t like when writers on experimental cinema remark that a film is “challenging” or “not for everyone,” mostly because such proclamations carry a faint whiff of machismo. But at the same time, Science Without Substance asks its viewer to meet it more than halfway, and it doesn’t offer up simple pleasures. I imagine it will be hard to program, despite its obvious mastery. But at the same time, it represents a strain of experimental practice that is too often ignored by most of the gatekeepers of the avant-garde. Some would simply dismiss Barnett’s film as “unwatchable.” However, as Debord predicted, more and more of our world is indeed painfully watchable; the demand that we watch is a form of labour extracted from us daily. (Whether we see is a different matter.)
Straub and Huillet once claimed that they were making films for spectators who did not yet exist. The Warholian spectator, and that viewer stationed at all points around the Tarkovsky Ring, is fully formed. The spectator who may not exist is the one who submits to utter confusion and assault, who acclimates him or herself to the bafflement of the spectacular present, but within an enframed, aesthetic context where new competencies can be developed. Allowing oneself to be overwhelmed is not to place oneself at the mercy of insidious ideologies. The cinema of bombardment is a calculus of strenuous perception, an exercise of beauty as higher-level data processing, the joy of getting lost and then gradually finding our way out of the desert. These films bombard us in order to see what sticks.
The Front Line