This is not a full lesson plan. It is only a few remarks, which I made at the beginning of my class before moving on to the lesson proper, which was much more discussion-based.
I consider these remarks to be necessary in the current moment, and I plan to continue delivering such remarks during future lessons. Many filmmakers associated with North American avant-garde cinema are wild fabulators, building up grand mythologies for themselves and their careers. The figures examined here are certainly no exception. However, it is important that, as instructors, we do not get too caught up in telling these stories. These filmmakers were not just Great Geniuses. They were people, human beings living in a particularly historically-situated time, within the realities of a certain political regime. Acknowledging this reality is crucial, as it helps us better understand our own era.
It is useful to keep the following things in mind, and to repeat them whenever possible:
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren with Alexander Hackenshmied, 1943), often considered the precipitating film of American avant-garde cinema, was made by two immigrants.
Maya Deren was born in Russia in 1917, to Jewish parents. She entered the US as a five-year-old child, when her parents emigrated from Russia in 1922. An advanced student, she entered college at the age of 16, and later obtained a master’s degree.
Alexander Hackenschmied, also known as Alexander Hammid, was born in Czechoslovakia in 1907. He worked as a photographer and camera operator in various capacities within Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. In 1938, he served as the camera operator for Crisis, a documentary on Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten crisis funded by leftist American film producer Herbert Kline. The film premiered just as Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and annexed parts of it for Germany. Given the political situation in the country, and given the overt political positions of the film he just affixed his name to, Hackenschmied knew that he could not return home. He immigrated to the US in 1939.
Maya Deren died in 1961 of multiple cerebral hemorrhages. Some attempt has been made to lay the blame for her death on Dr. Max Jacobson, a man whose practice consisted almost entirely of getting his patients addicted to amphetamines (and whose license would eventually be revoked).
Especially given the murky details of Deren’s death, it can be hazardous to extrapolate too much on what, exactly, might have helped her avoid leaving this world at the age of 44. And yet … it is difficult not to ponder counterfactuals. What if the US had followed other developed nations in the wake of World War II in providing nationalized health care to its citizens? What if the National Endowment for the Arts—which was founded in 1965—had existed earlier? Would public funding for the arts, or better access to non-quack healthcare, have helped one of the great pioneers of independent film to live past the age of 44?
Kenneth Anger spent his youth in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California. In 1947, the year that Fireworks was made, the California legislature unanimously passed legislation requiring the registration of convicted sex offenders. At this time, “convicted sex offenders” included those convicted of violating anti-sodomy laws.
In the early 1950s, California law barred those convicted of sodomy (the definition of which included not only same-sex sex acts, but also non-procreative sex practices such as oral sex among heterosexual couples) from being a public school teacher. Due to professional licensing, you also couldn’t be a doctor. Or a dentist. Or a pharmacist. Or an embalmer. Or serve alcohol. (This last legislation was drafted to try and crack down on gay bars.)
In 1957, Fireworks was shown at Hollywood’s Coronet Theater, a social hotspot for gay male cinephiles thanks to its screenings of queer-leaning art films. (It almost certainly was shown their earlier, but Anger’s self-aggrandizing tales of the first screening stretch credulity, and so one must exercise caution while narrating this history.) The LAPD vice squad raided the theater, and charged operator Raymond Rohauer with obscenity. Rohauer was found guilty. This verdict was overturned by the LA County Supreme Court. Fireworks would be a flashpoint in legal battles around the first amendment protections of cinema in years to come.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This quote is often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. (they are in fact his words, although he borrowed some of the language from the abolitionists of a prior century). It is accepted by many as an unexamined postulate, a pat truism. It should not be taken as a dictum in this way. It is not a brute fact of the universe, like the gradual expansion of the cosmos, which one can simply sit back and passively observe. The arc of the moral universe bends only because people grab onto it, and spend their lives pulling. The gains we have made over the past centuries will only remain if we vigilantly defend the world we want to live in. We cannot take them for granted. There are always forces lying in wait, ready to undo them if we remain complacent.