Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film

Jeffrey Skoller,
Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film.
Minneapolis MN, University of Minnesota University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 8166 4232 X
US$25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Minnesota University Press)

Most film histories of the avant-garde have approached their subject from a formalist and aesthetic point of view, less concerned with the content of images than with the filmmaker’s experimental use of formal cinematic devices to foster self-reflexivity. Given the valorization of structural film by polemicists, like P. Adams Sitney, this focus on the apparatus and film’s potential to function as metacinema is not surprising. However, recent film histories, including David James’ work on the L.A. avant-garde or Paul Arthur’s book on post 1960s avant-garde cinema[1] have attempted to broaden the discussion by bringing newer theoretical models into play which analyze the what as much as the how. Jeffrey Skoller’s Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film fits into this trend, looking at the construction of history and historical narrative through experimental film texts of the last twenty years.

Over that same time period, the writing of history has evolved from the creation of seamless ‘objective’ narratives that unconsciously package the past into understandable causalities to an Foucauldian conception of history as an incomplete construction, produced in the present and subject to multiple subjectivities, gaps, fissures, and repetitions. In the same vein, Skoller seeks to discuss avant-garde films which “undermine such gaps between past and present by using a range of cinematic strategies to consider elements of the past that are unseen, unspeakable, ephemeral, and defy representations not necessarily verifiable through normal empirical means.” (xv) While making history their subject, these films also foreground aesthetic and formal aspects that function to release “history as a force acting on the present.” (xv) Skoller’s methodology for this project, then, takes its cues from Gilles Deleuze, whom he quotes liberally through out the text, in particular Deleuze’s conception of the time-image, as a cinematic experience that allows the spectator to negotiate different levels of time and its relationship to the present moment of viewing. History is not seen as a naturalized end product and therefore as a static and unchanging objective truth, but rather as a series of discourses and relations relative to a present that is constantly in flux.

One of the central themes of the book is the Holocaust, since, according to Skoller, it was the Shoah that ended any notions of modernity being a progressive forward movement of civilization. As numerous commentators from Eli Weisel to Claude Lanzmann have noted, the Holocaust as a historical phenomenon defies intelligibility and therefore cannot be neatly encapsulated in any single aesthetic form. Specifically critiquing the “Hollywood Shoah business,” whether Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (USA 1993) or Polanski’s The Pianist (France/Germany/UK/Poland 2002), the author looks instead to avant-garde films that open up the past to the present by developing a relation between the present and the past, constructing “a form of knowledge rather than a re-created spectacle.” What is not visible becomes as important as what remains visible in history: the specters, shadows, and shards of the past.

In his first chapter, “Shards,” Skoller looks at three films: Eureka (1974, Ernie Gehr), Dal plo all’equatore(1986, Yervant Gianikian, Angela Ricci Lucchi), and Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1991, Craig Baldwin). Skoller employs Walter Benjamin’s notion of the transmutability of an object’s meaning over time, until it becomes meaningless in the present; it becomes the goal of the historian to understand how and why objects lose value through time. The aesthetic practice of the Surrealists, according to Benjamin, takes such dead objects from the past and recontextualizes them in the present through allegory, thus releasing creative and intellectual energy. All three films here utilize found footage to create surrealist allegories of history. Gehr’s Eureka reworks through optical printing a piece of actuality footage from the beginning of the 20thcentury to construct a time-image that not only references the past and the present, but reveals the past in the present and vice versa. Gianikin and Lucchi’s film, then, creates a historical allegory out of hundreds of different pieces of found footage that document Europe’s colonial conquest of the Third World, revealing their latent racist content. Balwin’s Tribulation 99, on the other hand, denies that any (historical) image can communicate historical truth, theorizing instead that the ambiguity of images allows them to become evidence for the construction of any and all historical narratives. In all three cases, the gap between the image’s original moment of production (and meaning) and its reutilization in the present opens up a space in the present for the viewer to acquire new knowledge.

In the second chapter, “Shadows,” the author discusses three films about Jewish life before and after the Holocaust: The Man without a World (1991, Eleonor Antin), Urban Peasants (1975, Ken Jacobs), and Cooperation of Parts (1987, Daniel Eisenberg). All three films are attempts at sideshadowing, to use Michael André Bernstein’s term, namely to create counternarratives within historical events that point to unrealized alternatives, to roads not taken by history. Antin’s film is a postmodern creation of a supposedly lost, Yiddish silent film, directed by Yevgeny Antinov, a forgotten Polish-Jewish director, which samples bits of Yiddish film and culture to become “an object that fulfills a desire to bring the past closer.” (50) Jacob’s Peasants, on the other hand, reworks home movies of an Eastern-European Jewish family that emigrated to Brooklyn, where they continued to live their lives – untouched by the Holocaust – as they had in the Shtetl. Eisenberg, the child of Holocaust survivors, returns to Europe in Cooperation to piece together his identity from the ruins of his parents experience, since he had been “forced to live in the shadow of events and experiences that not only were never his but are never rendered clearly for him, spoken of only in hushed tones and disconnected stories.” (61)

In “Virtualities,” Skoller views Allemagne année 90 neuf zero (1991, Jean-Luc Godard), Persistence: Film in 24 Absences/Presences/Prospects (1997, Daniel Eisenberg), and B/Side (1996, Abigail Child). All three films conceptualize history in Deleuzian terms, not as a chronology, but rather as a geological stratification of layerings, overlappings, and superimpositions, wherein past and present co-exist simultaneously. Godard’s film is a meditation on Germany in the year of its postwar reunification, in which Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine’s character from Alphaville) wanders through a modern Germany that has lost any sense of history, “subsumed by the specter of global capital.” (80) In Persistence, Eisenberg discovers traces of the (Jewish) past in the Berlin of the present, finding, e.g., some Hebrew letters appearing under the flaking paint of a pre-war building. In B/Side, Abigail Child returns to a struggle in New York involving squatters who had set up a tent city in an abandoned lot, in order to imagine a different future, had the activists been successful, rather than evicted. Skoller here again appropriates Deleuze in noting that history (at least in works of art) should also include the aspirations of the losers who are in danger of being written out of history; Philip Rosen has made a similar argument in reference to Sembene’s Ceddo in Change Mummified. Cinema, Historicity, Theory.[2]

In his fourth chapter, “Specters: The Limits of Representing History,” Skoller analyses Signal-Germany on the Air (1982-85, Ernie Gehr), Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett), Un vivant qui passé (1998, Claude Lanzmann), and The March (1999, Abraham Ravett). In each of these films it is the impossibility of visualizing the Holocaust (or slavery) that forces the filmmakers to search for alternative cinematic strategies. While Gehr gives us long takes of Berlin’s topography, filmmakers Lanzmann and Ravett confront witnesses to the Holocaust. Lanzman interviews a Swiss Red Cross official who had visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but reported that the Jews were well-treated; Ravett films his mother repeatedly over a twelve year period about her forced march from Auschwitz in January 1945, but she is never able to give him more than a few impressions, until finally the screen goes dark and only a few words remain scrawled on the screen. Burnett’s African-American hero is similarly mute in the face of the crushing legacy of slavery.

Skoller’s fifth chapter, which carries the subtitle “Filmmaking as Mourning Work,” discusses El dia que me quieras (1997, Leandro Katz) and Chile, la memoria obstinada (1997, Patricio Gusman), which are personal documentaries that return to seminal moments in the history of Latin America, namely, the death of Che Guevara and the CIA orchestrated coup d’etat of Salvatore Allende. Both films search to recuperate the idealism of past revolutionary struggles for the present. Unfortunately, Guzman’s film comes off as mostly nostalgia and certainly lacks the kind of formal innovation that has been one of Skoller’s criteria for selection. The author’s final chapter, “Coda,” likewise seems to lack focus, covering everything from VCRs to digital technology (CD-roms) to museum installations, while failing to deliver any concluding remarks.

Despite losing steam at book’s end, Jeffrey Skoller’s work is a valuable contribution to avant-garde cinema historiography. His close readings of a diverse selection of films that construct history in a more open way that reconnects it to the present, and his instrumentalization of the theoretical work of Gilles Deleuze, among others, makes Shadows, Specters, Shards a rewarding read.

Jan-Christopher Horak
Los Angeles, USA.


[1] David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde. History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight. American Avant-Garde Film since 1965, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
[2] Philip Rosen, Change Mummified. Cinema, Historicity, Theory, Minneapolis/London: University Minnesota Press, 2001, p. 200.

Created on: Friday, 24 November 2006 | Last Updated: 24-Nov-06

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →