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August 2, 2006

Marking Time

Girish has asked film bloggers to participate in an "Avant-Grade Blog-A-Thon," and his entry on Joseph Cornell, concluding with a long list of participants, has me feeling guilty for not contributing. Many of my readers will know that I've written in the past on Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, but like many Marker fans, I first discovered him via Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, which was "inspired by" Marker's amazing short film, La Jetee, a 28-minute black-and-white post-apocalyptic time-travel narrative composed (almost) entirely of stills. I read Marker's film not only as a cautionary tale about the dangers of war in the age of nuclear weapons but also as a profound meditation on cinematic time, on the ways in which cinema itself can be read as a kind of time machine.

But while I could easily write at length about La Jetee's treatment of time and memory, which manages to sweep in everything from fashions and city ruins to museums and Hitchock's Vertigo, I continue to find myself asking definitional questions about the avant-garde and its place in a world in which MTV's appropriation of avant-garde aesthetics now seems almost ancient, especially with the recent hoopla over MTV's 25th anniversary, which has done little other than underscore the network's declining relevance as a music industry institution. As I began writing this entry, I found myself returning to a blog entry Nick Rombes wrote some time ago on cinematic archives, noting the correspondences between shots in Meshes of the Afternoon and in the killer video in Gore Verbinki's ultra-pop horror film (and I mean that in the best possible way), The Ring.

These intersections between commercial and avant-garde cinema are not entirely new. James Cameron riffs on Bunuel and Dali's Un chien andalou when Schwarzenegger's cyborg is forced to do some improvised eye-repair work, and The Ring takes its aesthetic not only from avant-garde film but also from visual artists such as Francis Bacon and David Hockney. But Twelve Monkeys' reconsideration of its cinematic source continues to fascinate me, particularly during the scene set in the downtown theater in which Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe are hiding from the police while Vertigo plays onscreen. And, of course, Hitchcock himself was no stranger to the avant-garde, deploying animated images in Spellbound that were created by Salvador Dali. Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery namedrops Alain Resnais' use of flashbacks in Last Year at Marienbad. The list goes on.

I need to get back to work on my article, but I'm having trouble formulating the question (or questions) I want to ask about these observations. I think there's more going on in these citations of the avant-garde than mere appropriation. The "Vertigo" scene in Twelve Monkeys is incredibly rich, offering its very own theory of spectatorship and exhibition (it's worth noting that Robert Harris and James Katz were hard at work on their restoration of Hicthcock's original vision for Vertigo), and many of Verbinski's citations have a similar effect. For now, perhaps I'll simply ask if readers can recall other examples of commercial films citing, quoting, or otherwise referencing avant-garde cinema and, perhaps, how you interpret those intersections.

Posted by chuck at August 2, 2006 2:13 PM

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Re: Hitchcock, he also wanted to try to get New Zealand avant-gardist Len Lye to work with him on an early project--I want to say, on the credits sequence of one of his '30s films, but I could be mistaken.

I think La Jetée is an incredibly great film (as is Sans soleil), although I have to say that the last time I watched 12 Monkeys I found myself astonished at how apathetic I was toward it. (Could just be a filmic-temperament thing: I don't think I'm cut out for Terry Gilliam fandom.) A cool thing about Marker is how willing he is to efface himself, but as he 'disappears' as an authorial construct he spreads like oil (or something more connotatively positive...) over the complex surfaces of his subjects. You're absolutely right about La Jetée as a kind of cinematic auto-critical 'time machine.'

As for The Ring, I think you (and Mr. Rombes) have persuaded me to one day have another look at it ...

Posted by: Zach at August 2, 2006 4:19 PM

You know, I'm not sure I would identify as a Gilliam "fan," at least not in the sort of cult-like devotion he sometimes seems to inspire. I like a number of his films (12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, Brazil), but others (The Fisher King, especially) haven't aged particularly well and many seem incredibly self-indulgent.

12 Monkeys, especially, benefits from a strong script by David and Janet Peoples, and because my research focuses on cinema as a time machine, it's an "important" film for my research trajectory.

The Ring is mildly interesting, but for me that interest derives almost exclusively from its treatment of ways of seeing--note all the scenes in which Naomi Watts sits attentively in front of illuminated computer, TV, and microfiche screens. Nick's readings of The Ring (he's written several entries on it) are pretty compelling.

Posted by: Chuck at August 2, 2006 4:39 PM

I guess the one that immediately comes to mind is how Brakhage's scratch films eventually led to the title sequence of Se7en, followed by a slew of Se7en-inspired sequences, like Suicide Kings in the late 90s. That "inspired" part is what I'm ambivalent about. It's something like a mass production of a patented process, where the inventor/author doesn't really receive residuals for the original work that's been co-opted/adapted for profit. Sure, there's the occasional nod where Brakhage's name is thrown out as the innovator of that particular aesthetic, but it's still not in the context of his own films but rather, as a passing reference to someone else's (more popular) film. So in that sense, we're still not talking about Brakhage, the artist, but around him, in the context of pop culture, and that just doesn't sit right.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 3, 2006 8:38 AM

Interesting example. I haven't seen Seven in a long time and only watched Brakhage subsequently. Your second point (that Brakhage's work was co-opted) is also an important one and certainly a factor in these appropriations, especially when it comes to Brakhage's not being compensated for his innovations.

Posted by: Chuck at August 3, 2006 11:53 AM

Chuck, Is the question you attempting to formulate one of cross-over? And doesn't that suggest a trajectory before the map? Could there be a smidgin of discomfort in beginning to tell a tale before apraising the lay of the land? If surealism is to avant-guarde, what is X to popular culture? Just where can one find a manifesto of pop culture? Liner notes?! Interviews?! Commentary tracks on DVDs?!

Posted by: Francois Lachance at August 3, 2006 12:23 PM

Francois, I like the map metaphor and that may be the source of my hesitation. I certainly agree with acquarello that filmmakers such as Brakhage (and Jonas Mekas and Bruce Conner, to name others) have seen their aesthetics/techniques appropriated by pop filmmakers or music video directors, but it's more difficult to address how those techniques fit within a pop sensibility.

Your rhetorical question about where to find a pop culture manifesto (maybe in the essays of Chuck Klosterman or the reviews of Lester Bangs?) raises a good point, I think, that the popular is perhaps more difficult to map.

Posted by: Chuck at August 3, 2006 12:56 PM

At one point I thought about mentioning MTV's Anniversary in my Blog-A-Thon entry on Bruce Conner, whose techniques became so ubiquitous in music videos that he no longer felt the desire to make films the way he had been, as others were doing it for him. But in the end it slipped my mind. Proof, I guess, of the station's irrelevancy (to me, at least).

If I hadn't written about Conner I probably would have picked Oskar Fischinger, as I recently bought a new DVD release of his films from the Center For Visual Music. Fischinger's experience with Disney provides another example of the problems that occur when the commercial cinema intersects with the Avant-Garde; his films were a major inspiration for Fantasia, and he was even brought on board the creative team. But in the end Disney insisted that the overwhelming majority of the images in his prestigous release be representational, not abstract as Fischinger wanted. He was demoted to another department, then left the project, took his name off the credits, and had this to say of the opening sequence: "The film ‘Toccata and Fugue by Bach’ is really not my work, though my work may be present at some points; rather it is the most inartistic product of a factory".

All detailed in this essay I found.

Posted by: Brian at August 3, 2006 4:37 PM

I found the connection between Conner and MTV to be very convincing, but I also would love to know more about Fischinger. I'm fairly certain that I've come across his work at some point, but haven't been able to recall where (as far as I can tell, I've never mentioned him on my blog).

Even with the "factory" or assembly line aspects of Fantasia, it's hard not to find that film utterly compelling (I had a similar response to the Dali-Disney collaboration, "Destino"). I'll check out the essay asap and hopefully some of Fischinger's films as well.

Posted by: Chuck at August 3, 2006 4:56 PM

There's always this strange dance between experimental work in any medium and its potential for being commodified and appropriated. I can recall when Chicanos were all in an uproar about the commodification of Frida Kahlo. Insofar as experimental film can be an explicit critique of the modes of production that often control filmmaking, perhaps what seems to ingenuine about their subsequent recontextualization into commercial vehicles is precisely their disrespect of the original ethic?

Posted by: Maya at August 3, 2006 10:51 PM

I enjoyed Brendon Bouzard's observation that the effect of mainstream appropriation of the avant-garde is often to "render it safe." I think that much of his analysis of the avant-garde presence in Dumbo can easily apply to many of the films we're discussing here, Spellbound and The Ring in particular...

Posted by: A. Horbal at August 4, 2006 1:33 PM

Maya and Andrew, I think you're both pretty much right, especially when it comes to mode of production issues and neutering the oppositional politics of avant-garde filmmakers. 25 years after MTV, a jump cut or flash cut is longer startling, and certainly that's true of a number of other effects as well (I'm thinking of filmmakers who've appropriated effets from Jonas Mekas' Diaries and Happy Birthday, John here as well).

But in terms of rendering the avant-garde "safe," in The Ring, it seems slightly more complicated in that it's precisely those avant-garde images that are meant to frighten or disturb, that seem mildly uncanny (as uncanny as something directed by Gore Verbinski can be). I'm certainly not defending these appropriations, so maybe my question has more to do with reception--how children in the 1940s made sense of Dumbo (or, maybe, how "we" make sense of The Ring today).

Posted by: Chuck at August 4, 2006 1:55 PM

Just so happened in culling my bookshelves I came across this lecture by Hobsbawm and found two passages that might as they say "problematize" the notion of avant-garde.

Eric Hobsbawm
Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes.
[The Thirtieth Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture]
New York, Thames and Hudson, 1999

p. 30

In short, it is impossible to deny that the real revolution in the twentieth-century arts was achieved not by the avant-gardes of modernism, but outside the range of area formally recognized as 'art'. It was achieved by the combined logic of technology and the mass market, that is to say the democratization of aesthetic consumption. And chiefly, of course, by the cinema, child of photography and the central art of the twentieth century.

p. 40

One avant-garde tradition did make the junction between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century worlds. [...] This kind of post-1917 avant-garde leaped back across the non-political or even anti-political avannt-gardes of 1905-1914 to the socially committed movements of the 1880s and early 1890s. New art was once again inseparable from building a new, or at least an improved society. Its impetus was social as well as aesthetic. Hence the centrality of building -- the German word which gave the Bauhaus its name -- to this project.

Posted by: Francois Lachance at August 4, 2006 7:24 PM

Funny, I was just reading a discussion of Hobsbawm in Laura Mulvey's latest book (more on that later). The first passage, in particular, is interesting and suggests cinema's "shattering of the aura" of art, as Benjamin famously described it. Again, I think that thesis needs to be complicated by the recognition that this so-called "the democratization of aesthetic consumption" was attached to a relatively centralized culture industry.

I'm less familiar than I ought to be with Bauhaus, so I'm not sure I can comment on Hobsbawm's second quotation.

Posted by: Chuck at August 4, 2006 7:50 PM

Chuck, in response to your question, I'm reminded of American Beauty's use of the "plastic bag swirling in the wind," borrowed from Nathaniel Dorsky.

Thanks for joining us in this blog-a-thon; I always learn a lot from your posts.

Posted by: girish at August 6, 2006 11:14 AM

I had that scene from American Beauty in mind as well. I'm glad I participated and had the chance to "discover" several film bloggers I don't normally read. Thanks for hosting it.

Posted by: Chuck at August 6, 2006 12:49 PM

But in terms of rendering the avant-garde "safe," in The Ring, it seems slightly more complicated in that it's precisely those avant-garde images that are meant to frighten or disturb, that seem mildly uncanny (as uncanny as something directed by Gore Verbinski can be).

I think you're absolutely right, that it is more (and more than just "slightly") complicated than that. What I'm wondering, though, is whether by using these images in a sort of nightmare world, a supernatural Otherplace, filmmakers don't render these images safe by emphasizing their otherness. Whether they're reinforcing an idea that these avant-garde images have no place in a cinematic depiction of "reality."

It's a fuzzy thought, and I don't know that I can make it any clearer than that...

Posted by: A. Horbal at August 7, 2006 11:24 AM

Yes, there's certainly some narrative distancing going on. Naomi Watts' boyfriend even describes the tape as "bad student film" (or something like that), which suggests that the avant-garde is outside of or opposed to Hollywood realism.

What that means more broadly for these Hollywood "appropriations" of avant-garde imagery is another question.

Posted by: Chuck at August 7, 2006 11:34 AM

After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you'd like to be a part of it:


Posted by: Squish at September 13, 2006 10:52 PM

The Hitchcock Blog-a-thon sounds like fun. I happen to be teaching North by Northwest this week in my introduction to film class, so maybe I'll write about that.

Posted by: Chuck at September 14, 2006 9:43 AM

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