- Avant-Garde Films:Teaching Wavelength
Avant-garde films are, in some ways, the very apotheosis of "difficult films." Whether emphasizing the aesthetic or the political dimensions of the term, truly avant-garde films are defined by the ways they challenge prevailing patterns of form and rhetorical address (the heart of the avant-garde's political intervention). Through innovative modes of visual and aural articulation, they change the ways we make meaning in cinema. At their best, avant-garde films are meant to blow your mind—which, not surprisingly, can prompt resistance in the classroom.
If avant-garde films are meant to be difficult, then part of the pedagogical challenge consists both in maintaining the films' inherent difficulty and in finding ways for students to find points of engagement with the work. It is important not simply to reduce avant-garde films to their "difficulty." That approach invites students (and many academics!) to dismiss the work as intractable, obscure, hermetic, or simply weird. There is an element of seduction involved in teaching any challenging film, and the avant-garde offers just as many pleasures as any other cinema. Those pleasures are simply (or not so simply) unfamiliar versions of cinematic pleasures like narrative play, where narrative is broadly defined in Hollis Frampton's sense of "a stable pattern of energy through which an infinity of personages may pass, ourselves included"; or intensity of affect, where that affect can be more kinesthetic than representational; or pleasures of the mind, where radical form or rhetorical address—as in the multiple ironies of Godard's or Trinh's voices—forge insights for students who do the work of breaking their expectations of what cinematic form and political formulation can look and sound like.1
In the classroom, the tension between estrangement and seduction is tested when instructors and students attempt interpretation. In the case of a film like Su Friedrich's Gently Down the Stream (1981), a film derived from the filmmaker's dream journals, I first ask for students' affective responses to the film, asking them to describe their emotions and associations, positive and negative, before moving on to interpretation and meaning. I have found that when students learn that Friedrich is lesbian and a lapsed Catholic, they often jump to overliteral or symbolic readings of the film's early images of looming Madonnas and nuns in negative. Such readings miss the ambivalence that Friedrich retains in the poetics of her dream processing. The imagery of Catholicism retains power and beauty. Sexual identity seems to open up in the film's movement towards images of nature and free-flowing rhythm—but remains fraught as "nature" is still bounded by culture. As is true for the interpretation of any complex work of art, readings tend to project the viewers' values and expectations in search of easy, reassuring "answers" [End Page 109] that might "explain" the film. Explanations are tricky with complex avant-garde works; as Frampton says in his pedagogical text, "A Lecture," "We are told that the explanation is simple: All explanations are."2
Further complicating avant-garde film teaching is the fact that not all experimental films have an avant-garde, or "counter-cinematic" agenda.3 Some artists use film as a graphic, rhythmic and/or representational medium, creating visual and aural textures that are as pleasurable or expressive as a musical performance, painting, or photograph (e.g., Viking Eggeling's Symphonie Diagonale , or Nathaniel Dorsky's Song and Solitude ). These films are less "difficult" than unusual, and require students to do less work, not more. Here, I invite students to break away from their learned tendencies to "read" films, figuring out narrative enigmas, deciphering thematic indirection or gleaning symptomatic meaning. Rather, the challenge is to "experience" the film, to see (and hear) its complexity and patterns, and to be sensitive to its atmosphere and mood—more modest and meditative work than the heavy lifting involved in most cinematic analysis. In these cases, it is important to serve the subtle formal textures of the film with adequate projection in the classroom, even more difficult for Dorsky's recent films, which must be projected at 18 fps.