- Avant-Doc: Intersections of Avant-Garde Cinema by Scott MacDonald
Scott MacDonald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 433 pp.
Scott MacDonald is prolific: he has published extensively on film, frequently using interviews with filmmakers, as was the case with his series A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers and again with this text, Avant-Doc: Intersections of Avant-Garde Cinema (2015). Avant-Doc presents edited interviews conducted with a diverse range of filmmakers. The resulting oral history offers perspectives from makers on their work, emphasizing intersections between documentary and avant-garde filmmaking traditions. As MacDonald points out, both designations have different histories (1). As he illustrates in his text, the meanings and applications of “avant-garde” and “documentary” continue to evolve over time as the political, economic, and technological contexts in which films are made shift.
In the introduction, MacDonald provides a brief explanation of the interwoven histories of avant-garde and documentary filmmaking, explains his method (he records interviews with filmmakers, then refines transcriptions over many months with input from filmmakers), and identifies a temporal bent in Avant-Doc for recently made American films, many with a connection to Cambridge, Massachusetts, due in part to his academic affiliations (17). At the outset, MacDonald clearly outlines his methods, motivations, and limitations.
Although both “avant-garde” and “documentary” are malleable, vast terms, MacDonald explains that “avant-garde” was first used to describe films made by painters in the 1920s and that the category currently encompasses a wide range of styles. He defines “avant-garde” by stating that “the current value of the term is its inclusiveness, rather than its designation of any particular approach, though generally speaking, the films included can be understood [End Page 109] as explicit or implicit critiques of commercial media” (2). Equally slippery is the definition of “documentary.” MacDonald defines “documentary” as films that make a “truth claim,” but he contrasts this definition with that of Trinh T. Minh-ha, who says documentaries do not exist, presumably rejecting the capacity of any film to make a legitimate “truth claim” (2). MacDonald acknowledges the challenges of each definition but outlines general expectations of each genre to orient readers.
As MacDonald points out in his introduction, exhibition and distribution of documentary and avant-garde films are still separated into their own channels. With regard to blending the two genres of filmmaking, interdisciplinarity risks the diffusion of recognizable boundaries that are important for legitimization by institutions, especially for filmmakers in pursuit of resources. Though the patrolled distinction of each category seems to have value for filmmakers as they access the apparatus of arts economies (grants, galleries, festivals, etc.), the reality of how each history infuses the work of practicing filmmakers is not distinct but rather profoundly integrated, as illustrated in Avant-Doc.
Personal filmmaking occurred in avant-garde and documentary filmmaking almost simultaneously, though, as the Ed Pincus interview illustrates, filmmakers were not necessarily aware of the work or comfortable with the comparison between modes (12). Veteran filmmaker Ed Pincus perceived significant distinctions between his work as a documentary filmmaker and the avant-garde filmmaking happening at the same time. Pincus differentiated his work through the use of sound (experimental filmmakers’ work was silent). In his Avant-Doc interview, he recalls having felt at odds with experimental filmmakers and attributes the development of personal documentary to the technological developments that allowed film-makers to carry small cameras and portable sound equipment (96).
In a contemporary context, locating Pincus at the intersection of avant-garde and documentary, as MacDonald has done, is sensible and appropriate. Subsequently presented filmmakers in Avant-Doc are comfortable being associated with both histories. Avant-documentarians include Jane Gillooly, who integrates audio-taped interviews, abstract imagery, and notions of performance in the hybrid documentary Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013), about an extramarital affair in the 1960s. With a background in painting, Pawel Wojtasik makes films and installations that invoke experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage. He engages in a dialectic with the observable, real world in films such as Below Sea Level (2009) and Pigs (2010). Perhaps the pièce de résistance, as an...