So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
Back on Halloween, I posted a fitting lesson plan. For Thanksgiving, I guess I’ll go with a perverse one.
I taught Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) in a week in my course “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” devoted to the use of biography as argumentative grounds in film criticism. Since this course served as a writing seminar, one of my learning objectives this week was to get students to consider how they could marshal biographical details of an artist’s life into an analysis, without falling prey to the intentional fallacy by assigning the artist’s views and experiences too much weight. To this end, we watched some Joyce Wieland films, and I had students read Lauren Rabinovitz’s chapter on Wieland in Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71. My plan here was threefold: 1) I wanted students to enunciate the specific sorts of arguments we could make about the films when we drew upon knowledge of Wieland’s status as a Canadian artist living and working in the US, her political commitments, and her status as a woman artist too often playing second-fiddle to her more-famous husband. 2) I wanted the students to acknowledge the scope and limits of what we can learn from these things, and to understand that a work of art’s meanings are not entirely determined by the artist’s biography. 3) I wanted students to recognize the difference between acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Wieland, versus acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Friedrich, whose work tilts further into the genres of personal essay film and diary film. While one could imagine an analysis of Wieland’s Patriotism (1964) that doesn’t dwell on issues of Wieland’s biography, it is impossible to imagine and analysis of Sink or Swim that doesn’t acknowledge Friedrich’s biography. It belongs to a genre in which acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s lived experience is absolutely essential.
Peter Hutton died on June 25, 2016. I could tell anecdotes here about having him for a professor across three courses at Bard College, about things he said to his students, places he took his students, and the impact he had on me as a young film student. I’ll spare you that, though, for now. For now, I’ll just say that I am extraordinarily grateful to Jesse Malmed and Patrick Friel for programming White Light Cinema and The Nightingale’s retrospective of Hutton’s work this past Sunday. It is, if I’m not mistaken, the first time Peter’s work has shown in Chicago since I first arrived here in 2008. It was wonderful to revisit it, and I am saddened that it took Peter’s death for this to happen.
What follows isn’t analysis, just some impressions, as a way of expressing gratitude to the programmers. I make such extensive use of visual aids normally in my writing that it can be reinvigorating to write about films that are only distributed on 16mm, and actually rely on the author to describe their experience. (I apologize if I’m out of practice!)
This particular lesson came late in my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” course, late enough where it could act as a sort of a postscript on many of the movements we had talked about so far in the course. Thoughts on structural film, narrative, and theories of play below!
What follows will be quick, because I did not spend an entire day on Martina’s Playhouse (1989) when I taught it in my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” course. It shared a day with Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s Schmeerguntz (1965) and Nelson’s My Name Is Oona (1969), for a week themed around parenthood.
I assigned Ahwesh’s interview with Scott MacDonald as reading for this week. I was interested in what sort of reactions the prominent child nudity and role-play in this film would provoke, particularly given that, all things considered, the events we see onscreen aren’t all that strange. (MacDonald puts it well when he reminisces that “The minute I would turn on my little Super-8 camera to make home movies, two of my boys would drop their pants … Any parent sees that kind of nudity all the time.”[i]) There is, however, a real difference between private family moments and public exhibition, and I was hoping that my students had some strong reactions I could bounce ideas off of.
I have decided to collect two lessons together in this post, since they have a similar scope.
The first lesson is a guest lecture I gave when I was a teaching assistant for Tom Gunning’s winter 2015 course “The Post-war American Avant-Garde Film” at the University of Chicago. This lecture followed a screening of films by Phil Solomon, Lewis Klahr, and Janie Geiser. The second lesson is from my own course, “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art,” taught at the School of the Art Institute in spring 2016. This lesson centered on Geiser, Klahr, and Joseph Cornell.
Bruce Conner’s A Movie is one of my favorite films to teach. I’ve taught it while covering theories of editing in an Introduction to Film course, I’ve taught it for a course on cinematic rhetoric, and I’ve taught it in courses on the history of American avant-garde cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a school that had a good-quality 16mm print of it in its collection, and since then I’ve made frequent use of a MPEG-4 rip of a VHS copy of that print (formats upon formats!). It’s less than ideal, but the poor image quality never seems to diminish students’ fascination with it.