Sunday, April 19, 2009

Group Post #7 --- Mike, Leslie, Bryan

The avant-garde, as suggested by its name, is a type of cinema that is always pushing ahead of established boundaries. Despite this, the description “avant-garde” continually refers to a set of, what some might say, easily identifiable films. What do you make of the decision to continue grouping films under this heading, even though they have come out over a span of eight decades, under the influence of many different artistic movements? Further, what does Peter Wollen’s attempt to divide the avant-garde into (only) two additional categories say about the film theory approach to avant-garde cinema?

In the Murray Smith article, David James’ view of the avant-garde is cited as a typical one, wherein it is a “‘reactive’ or ‘critical’ phenomenon, continually challenging and undermining both the established values of mainstream society and the norms of orthodox aesthetic practice.” If that, the avant-garde, is second cinema, and Hollywood-style is first cinema, then how does Third cinema fit into the categorization scheme, especially in terms of Apparatuses 1 and 2? How is this affected by, as Smith says, the fact that “The concept of the avant-garde is intimately related to those of modernity and modernism?”

Penley and Bergstrom’s article discusses the implications of viewing avant-garde cinema as the attempt at an exploration of consciousness. Specifically in terms of the films we saw last week, how does this interpretation play out? Keeping that in mind, are the rather unattractive elements of those films (the eye slicing, the sheer duration of Beauty No. 2, etc.) particularly reminiscent of Wollen’s virtues of counter-cinema in his earlier article? How does Catherine Russell’s “ethnographic impulse” differ from or change the way we understand films in relation to the “exploration of consciousness” model?


  1. I think that dividing films into avant-gard and dominant Hollywood is rational. For instance, dominant narrative cinema is classified into detective film, melodramas, historical film and other types of films. Similarly avant-garde films are divided into art house, underground and other types of films within the avant-gardist filmmaking style. Wollen gives an account of two types of avant-garde cinema movements, that differ because of their geographical origin ( co-op in North America and European filmmakers of 60s and 70s) and their use/choice of medium. The co-op movement examines a media composed, most fundamentally, of light, celluloid and time. The European avant-gard is based on the play of relationship between the signifier and the signified. Yet artists of both avant-gard movements have similar approach to filmmakers as opposed to the Hollywood producers.
    I believe that there is room for multiple devisions of avant-garde into sub-categories. However, I think, the avant-gard and Hollywood traditions should be considered as two filmmaking production techniques existing today. It seems to me that avant-gard should be considered as a whole because avant-gard filmmakers are influenced by the works of each other (for instance Eisenstein's influence on Godard's production) and the artists working in other media of avant-garde (painters, photographers), rather than by the Hollywood production.

  2. I do not feel that "avant-garde" films are easily identifiable by any means. I am not much in favor of Wollen's divisions or the typical dominant/avant-garde split that people make in reference to them. All of these approaches are simply manifestations of the human impulse to classify and code and put names on things, in an effort to better understand them and all of their micro and macro functions and traits. This approach, though undoubtedly useful in classes and publicity, seems to be more reductive than truly critical. As we've discussed before, these distinctions usually serve to ghettoize certain films more than to expand upon them. By making these classification systems, the films start to be judged by the set of standards that has been set up, instead of them being judged on their own individual context, merits, pluses, and minuses. I challenge anyone to say that films made by Europeans have some sort of inherent quality that is completely different and unreproducible by American filmmakers, from the same time period or different. Or that a so-called "underground" film is something totally distinguishable from an "art house" film. I typically think of "avant-garde" films as being ones that are typically exceptionally artistic and/or experimental and that are a sort of counter cinema (not necessarily Godard's, just any style that is reactive to any other style or one that attempts something entirely new, like Leslie said she attempted). Even this very vague definition groups films together that have no right being grouped together, but it may also be just vague enough to allow the films to be studied and appreciated in the most effective manner, namely, that of their being in and of themselves. It's a fine line to walk between classification and appreciation.

  3. The classification of films as 'avant-garde' today becomes especially difficult for two predominant reasons: the myriad films that could fall under this classification, spanning both time and form, and secondly, the stigma attached to the term 'avant-garde' by those outside of film circles. I agree that Wollen makes clear and sound distinctions between two avant-garde movements, addressing the influence of politics, arts, economics, and institutions. However, in these readings we are again drawing avant-garde in counter-distinction to mainstream or Hollywood cinema, something we've done previously when discussing Independent film. Are all Independent films avant-garde films? Are all avant-garde films Independent films? It would seem that the latter would hold true, though the former not necessarily. Independent films are independent of the economic and institutional politics and modes of production while not necessarily having to appeal to particularly "avant-garde" aesthetics. Would we call Sex, Lies, and Videotape an avant-garde film? As the harbinger of gay independent films in the U.S., the term definitely applies; however, its aesthetics are far from radical, in contrast to a film such as Peggy and Fred in Hell. Similarly, one can discuss the position of the spectator, voyeurism, and identification when trying to classify these films. Still, this too becomes complicated considering Todd Hayne's Superstar, which employs traditional filming techniques such as s-r-s or p.o.v. shots. In the end, classifying these films/genres becomes increasingly difficult, speaking to the multiple layered system of cinema and demanding further interrogation.

  4. The issues presented by the avante-garde and attempts to categorize it are issues of a 'film-taxonomy.' It is easy to identify a film by its geography or its time period, but to classify a film into subcategories can be based on a variety of factors. Are we categorizing only by content? What about light quality or film medium, duration or color? Essentially there are limitless opportunities for classification, so where do we draw the line? Essentially I am begging the question as to what is the most important aspect. What individual element do we classify a film by? Ultimately this is an impossible question. Films and film-styles as a whole encompass so many factors, so many unique traits, that it would be impossible to create a film-taxonomy based on one trait alone.

    So, is the avant-garde just another genre of the encompassing medium of film? What distinguishes the avant-garde? Clearly we are talking about films that push the boundaries of established practices, but by that same token, every novel technique introduced into a film would be considered avant-garde. We are judging the avant-garde and its constituency by content. In classification, is content king?

    We are the ones subjecting a structure to these very different films, so ultimately, it will always be a determination of a subjective nature. We can tell what is avant-garde and what is mainstream, and if not, then there's always room for more branches on the film-taxonomy tree.

  5. I'm intrigued by the idea of a mainstream avant-garde, or at least a "non-independent" avant-garde, if ever such a thing could exist. I do know that "avant-garde" is a label each person could apply to totally different movies, but I don't believe there has yet been a Hollywood avant-garde film. If things which might be elements of counter-cinema were present in all avant-garde to at least some measure, then I don't see it as ever really happening, but there was that "Dreams That Money Can Buy," a somewhat narrativized mainstream movie composed of avant-garde shorts. I'm pretty sure, though, that that failed "at the box office."

    I also came upon, in Thursday's "Double Occupancy" article, Robert Cooper's breakdown of state forms, which included imperialism in the US, post-modern state in EU, the modern (nationalist, authoritarian) state in Pakistan or Iran, and finally the pre-modern state in Sudan or the Congo. This distinction, if worthy, essentially throws into confusion the tied-up notions of modernity, avant-garde, and third cinema, not to mention the medium of film and the nation-state itself. If you create a third cinema work that is postmodern, will it necessarily be the product of a European country or similar nation? Would it then still be third cinema? I guess I'm wondering whether the state form (imperialism, authoritarian), condtion of modernity (pre-/post-), and film categorization (avant-garde, mainstream) are actually related in the way each paper says they are, and beyond that, whether those relations can cross between each author's theories.

  6. In response to Tracy's comments, I would say that Sex, lies, and videotape and other so-called independent films are avant-garde. However, it's really only in name. For instance, Sex, Lies, and videotape is more or less a traditional narrative film but it's economics are what makes it an independent film. It is not identified by a marked radicalism that accompanies many "avant-garde" films. And like Stephen, I believe that the classification of Avant-garde only serves to ghettoize these films. In general, I would hope that we can move towards a state of declassification where films just are what they are as opposed to falling into convenient and counterproductive classifications.

  7. As seems to be the consensus, an avant-garde film is one that pushes boundaries or limits in some way or ways. While I wouldn't consider Sex, Lies, and Videotape avant-garde in its narrative and technique, there are certain ways it pushes boundaries. I think as an independent film it pushed the boundaries of what an independent film could aspire to be, and this, coupled with its explicit sexual dialogue (which I imagine may have made mainstream audiences back then uncomfortable) and economic means of production, could lead some audiences to view it as an avant-garde film. One of the earlier posters associated the avant-garde with art house films, however, I feel today most independent films are shown in art-house type cinemas. So would an independent film, just because it is being shown in a more "artsy" cinema be considered avant-garde? I think ultimately one's definition of avant-garde depends on the extent to one's knowledge of film, and that the general public will often associate independent films with avant-garde virtues, whether the association is valid. Defining avant-garde therefore becomes very tricky. I do like Pengley and Bergstrom's idea of the avant-garde being an exploration of consciousness though, as many of the films we watched last week had a dream-like quality too me, in the way they throw together seemingly disparate images and events that are (subconsciously) linked in some way below the surface.