- A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film since 1965, and: The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles
Until recently, the history of American avant-garde cinema was written by critics who were often filmmakers themselves or polemicists for the avant-garde, so that their historical narratives were imbricated with other agendas. Descriptions and analyses of avant-garde films went hand in hand with valorizing specific filmmakers. Given the focus on individual works, most histories eschewed discussions of cultural contexts or theoretical frameworks in favor of enlightened connoisseurship. Unanswered were questions of how various avant-garde movements were constituted through institutional networks, historical ruptures, and continuities. As I noted in Lovers of Cinema, "Avant-garde film movements can only be historically circumscribed if they are constituted in terms of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Their role in the history of cinema should not only be gauged according to their individual aesthetic achievements, but also in terms of the myriad contexts of their institutional frameworks and reception."1 The two new books reviewed here are very different, but both are informed by similar concerns for establishing historical contexts. While Arthur's monograph is a collection of essays focusing on a more narrowly defined modernist film avant-garde in America, organized according to a rough chronology from the 1960s to the present, James's history of alternative film production [End Page 142] in Los Angeles over the past ninety years is a monumental work of historical synthesis that seeks to place Los Angeles beside San Francisco and New York as a center of avant-garde practice.
Originally published between 1982 and 2003 and reworked for the present volume, Paul Arthur's essays chronicle the American avant-garde's checkered trajectory through the past forty years. As both an acute observer and critic and a participant in the avant-garde—he has been closely associated with Millennium Film Journal—Arthur writes both from within the movement and from outside it, being also an academic film historian. His book's title, then, refers both to the internal vision of the filmmakers as constituted in aesthetic artifacts and to the external vision of the audience and its construction. While each chapter can stand alone, Arthur notes continuities in his introduction: "the legacy of sixties counterculture; uses and theoretical implications of found footage; the allegorizing of technology; intersections of personal and social histories; the philosophical schism between poetic, expressive tropes and structural film's anti-subjective, rationalist basis" (xiii).
Arthur's first chapter focuses on Jonas Mekas while discussing the rise of what was then called new American cinema in the context of the burgeoning 1960s counterculture, seeing in the culture at large the very same elements of incompleteness, fragmentation, and presentness in Mekas's diary films and exhibition/distribution projects. Quoting Mekas's dictum, "The policy of NO POLICY is also a policy," Arthur sees the sense of improvisation, of going with the flow, of staying independent by never tying yourself down as key to both the success and weakness of the times. An intense distrust of language went hand in glove with the lack of definitions, because language could be used by the ruling class to control. In chapters 2 and 3, then, the urge to capture the moment is explicated in terms of film portraiture and cityscapes, respectively. While the work of Andy Warhol (Eat, Henry Geldzahler) serves as an example of portraiture, Arthur next discusses numerous city symphonies from Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round to Hollis Frampton's Zorns Lemma to Ernie Gehr's Signal—Germany on the Air. Common to all these projects is a radical subjectivity that insisted on the primacy of aesthetics and formal experimentation over politics.
In the 1970s, then, the American avant-garde turned away from its "desire to exist outside history" by embracing what Foucault has called "the archive." Influenced as much by...