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.
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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.
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In the spring of 2016, I taught two concurrent sections of a seminar on Avant-Garde Film and Video Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I tallied up the 25 final papers across my two sections, I received two papers on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), two papers on Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), three papers on Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) … and six papers on Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989). Clearly, the video had struck a nerve, above and beyond anything else I had shown in the course had managed to do.
I have subsequently integrated the video into my course “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric, and I definitely plan to teach it again in the future, across a variety of possible contexts. I like to take a relatively hands-off approach when teaching Tongues Untied, privileging student conversation over lecture. However, I do have some notes on things I have found it productive to turn to while leading discussion, based primarily around clips I find to be especially rich.
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