The execution of creating a reality through the consideration of film strategies is one of the many expertise a good filmmaker possesses. Their capability in provoking feelings through manipulation of editing is a talent and a skill. But, keeping attention on the point they are making is of the utmost importance for their final production. Immediately, rendering the ideas of childhood and sexual intimacy in unison tends to make even the strongest of stomach feel uneasy. However, in our culture there is a common widespread sexualization of innocence, and misunderstanding of family related interactions. While this varies in severity, Peggy Awesh, the 63 year old experimental filmmaker, calls this to our attention with no escape of the elephant in the room. Her careful curation of the film “Martina’s Playhouse” (1988) is a twenty minute film, recorded on a super 8 then blown up to 16mm.
When discussing any piece of art it is very likely that the artist will become a part of the conversation. However, many artists do not wish this upon the viewer. The artist as a not to be acknowledged entity has been around long before avant-garde cinema. The male-dominated realm of avant-garde cinema participates in this trope and wishes for the work to speak for itself. However, when it comes to Carolee Schneemann you will find she comes attached with her work. In Fuses, her first of three films created in 1967, Schneemann inserts herself physically into the film by including shots of her having sex with James Tenney. The film also consists of close shots of her vulva and his penis, shots of her cat, them kissing, as well as the outdoors. It becomes very obvious why for many people Schneemann appears too connected to her art, and for this supposed reason she was rejected from the avant-garde cinema community. Scott McDonald shares his perspective on the reason men in avant-garde cinema shied away from Fuses, “In a culture where men still tend to be trained to deny their emotions, the assumption that the making of ‘serious’ art must involve detachment implicitly promotes art produced by males” (135). McDonald makes a good point about detachment as a product of the patriarchy, however, I do not see Schneemann’s marginalization as so polite. To me, this was just an excuse for dismissing a confident woman who has chosen to provide a reality many people have lost sight of. As a result of making men uncomfortable, Fuses was unfairly cast towards the genre of pornography. This begs the question, was Schneemann’s Fuses marginalized because it was not detached from its artist or because it was made by a woman who refuses to be a prisoner of sexual standards created by men?
As humans, we rely on the land we live on. Though we might not always respect it or take care of it the way we should, it is the most important thing…ever. The landscape of a given area and the way it is treated can tell you a lot about the people who live in that area. The underlying theme of this week’s films, with the exception of Ito Takashi’s Spacey (1981) is the American landscape and the relationship between the land and its occupants.
Deborah Stratman comments quite directly on this relationship in her film Energy Country (2003). Energy Country paints a harsh portrait of southeastern Texas and the oil industry that resides there. As the oil industry and American nationalism often go hand & hand, Stratman critiques US involvement in the middle east using a combination of both documentary and experimental film techniques. Visually, the film has the cues of the typical avant garde film in the way that the shots are composed and strung together; sonically, Energy Country takes a more experimental approach than a typical documentary in some instances Stratman layers several audio tracks upon one another to create a chaotic effect. Clips of oil refineries and energy production facilities are layered on top of each other interspersed with clips of bombs dropping while found audio clips from christian radio play in the background. The voices playing over the fiery imagery speak of god and how he loves america. They speak of Islam and how threatening the religion is to the American way of life, mentioning that for the president to say that Islam is a peaceful religion is to “jeopardize all of the free world and America.” All the while Stratman is showing us American bombs being dropped on a landscape below. Energy Country raises questions about the ethicacy of the oil industry and the landscapes it affects. Internationally, the destruction caused by the American pursuit of foreign oil is disgusting. Domestically, though the destruction isn’t caused by the dropping of bombs, the effects of the polluting of American landscape by the oil industry are nauseating. This film focuses mainly on the domestic side of the industry and its effects on the landscape of Texas, but Stratman doesn’t shy away from the international issues surrounding energy.
It is simple enough to begin with the fact that all films have some sort of setting. Whether avant-garde or not, films take the viewers somewhere. It might be just one place; a classroom, a wall, or a high school gym. It might be of many places; a hundred different areas of a metropolis, the path of a freight train or an array of factory buildings. Where and how the filmmakers choose to take us is just as important as other components of filmmaking – storyline or lack thereof, background/context and subjects. In four different films made in a period extending from the 1960s to early 2000s, Go, Go, Go! (1964) by Marie Menkin, Spacy (1981) by Ito Takashi, Energy Country (2003) by Deborah Stratman, and Castro Street (1966) by Bruce Baillie, filmmakers tamper with different methods of effect to change our perspective on setting and architectural space, as well as elicit the importance of place in avant-garde film.
The following films explore the disappearance of nature and the taking over of the natural world by humans. Architectural kaleidoscope films show images of industrialized cities and portray them as somewhat dangerous and sinister. In Deborah Stratman’s film Energy Country, she shows energy companies in Texas fenced off with warning signs as eerie music plays in the background. Images of industrial buildings letting out smoke into the atmosphere feels toxic and unnatural. The mood of this film is rather melancholic. The point of these films seems to be exposing what mankind has done to our Earth. Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street shows scenes of flower fields interrupted by a train making loud industrial sounds. It feels unnatural to simply look at the train going through the field as an aesthetic choice, it instead gives off the impression that the train is disturbing this natural scenery.
The avant-garde, experimental films of the late 1960s put their audience in the darkness of the theater with radical images and speculative subjects. The viewers were left to wonder “What am I watching,” “Why is this happening,” and ultimately “What went wrong?” Which is the same question that Blonde Cobra presents at the end of its duration. Naturally, we question the intentions of artists in this movement. Blonde Cobra flaunts its awareness of failure to unravel film and identity. It reminds us the world is not a spectacle easily observed but a reminder that we are cinema. We are no longer bought into the heteronormative conventions in the mainstream of Hollywood. Thus we begin to realize our position as spectator in relation to what is being viewed. In the “Introduction (to Flesh Cinema)” by Ara Osterweil, we are immersed into the ideas behind Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra of embracing failure and queering the image in the corporeal turn of the avant-garde.
“Failing” is pivotal in the films of the American underground cinema. “Losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” is what Judith Halberstam has manifested in the ‘queer art of failure.’ Osterweil introduces us to the platform in which Jack Smith performs for Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra. Described as “the worst film ever made” by critic David James, Blonde Cobra is the composite of Bob Fleischner’s parody films of Blonde Venus (1932) and Cobra Woman (1944) with the narration of a live radio. Jacobs deconstructs the fictional world that lives in cinema by taking away the image, playing the audio throughout the theater opposed to speakers behind the image. The blackout of the image, a persistent feature in the film, is the instance of what could’ve been a mistake. Rather its failures are key and used to queer cinema from heteronormative commerciality that is capitalism.
One theme that seems to have come up consistently throughout this semester, is the idea that the avant-garde film makes the viewer aware of the medium of film itself. This quality can make a film like Stan Brakhage’s material inspired “Mothlight” modern under Greenberg’s definition of modern art that we looked at in the reading “Modern Painting.” A realist painting tries to seduce the viewer into giving in to the illusion of the scene while a work of modern art is fully aware of it’s position as an object in a gallery. In his article for Film Comment “Bad Movies”, J. Hoberman takes on this abstract push and pull between the modern and the classic view of art and puts these ideas into the context of mainstream film in the 20th Century.
With film, it seems, the relationship between art and reality becomes slightly more confusing than it is with painting for example, due to the nature of the medium. With painting the original goal was to capture reality and try to render three dimensional objects on a two dimensional surface. A film camera however, is always capturing some piece of reality, no matter what it is pointed at. For many commercial films today, the film maker’s goal is also to capture a piece of reality, but one that is not the actual reality of the people the camera is pointed at and is instead a fictional space that is created when the people in front of the camera pretend to exist in that fictional space.