Women’s Experimental Cinema. Critical Frameworks

Robin Blaetz (ed),
Women’s Experimental Cinema. Critical Frameworks.
Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.
ISBN13: 978 0 8223 4044 7
US$25.95 (pb)
(Review Copy supplied by Duke University Press)
Alexander Graf and Dietrich Scheunemann (eds),
Avant-Garde Film.
Amsterdan – New York: Rodopi, 2007.
ISBN: 978 90 420 2305 5
US$117.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Rodopi)

There have been a spate of recent books on the history of avant-garde film, which have attempted to reconceptualize that history in terms of the myriad institutional contexts of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception, while placing less emphasis on the “heroic” and romantic narratives of committed filmmakers battling commerce to produce art. Among those books are David James’ history of the Los Angeles avant-garde, The Most Typical Avant-Garde. History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2005), the late Paul Arthur’s A Line of Sight. American Avant-Garde Film since 1965 (2005)[1] , as well as Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman’s anthology, Women and Experimental Filmmaking (2005). Common to all these works is a definition of avant-garde cinema that moves beyond the strictly formalist canon, established by P. Adams Sitney and the old boy network around Jonas Mekas, to include narrative and non-narrative works, documentary, amateur, and other works that break-down boundaries between genres in the “spirit of discovery, inquiry, and innovation,” to quote Petrolle and Wexmann’s introduction.

Now we have two new books on avant-garde cinema that buck that trend, accepting even embracing the classical avant-garde canon and its construction of history, while attempting to enlarge its scope to include more women or more Europeans. While Robin Blaetz’s anthology, Women’s Experimental Cinema, purports to be the first book “to insert the work of these less known filmmakers into film history,” Graf and Scheunemann’s anthology, Avant-Garde Film, augments Mekas’ ‘essential cinema’ model with a host of European experimentalists. Indeed, both volumes internalize the ‘essential cinema’s’ arch of film history as it pertains to the avant-garde, moving from Europe in the 1920s to Maya Deren and the New American cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Blaetz begins with Deren, noting that P. Adams Sitney in subsequent volumes of his text, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (1974, 1979, 2002), has expanded his view of women filmmakers to include Marie Menken, Abigail Child, Marjorie Keller (his wife), and Su Friedrich, since of course the feminist critique of Sitney was that he was male-centric. Pre-Maya Deren experimentalists, such as Helen Levitt, Sara Arledge, Mary Ellen Bute, Claire Parker, and Stella Simon, however, remain invisible, as do such more recent women of color as Lourdes Portillo, Trinh T. Min-ha, Safi Faye, Ayoka Chenzira and Julie Dash because Blaetz otherwise accepts Sitney’s parameters for avant-garde practice. Graf and Scheunemann’s anthology likewise treads the well-worn path from the 1920s European avant-garde of Surrealism and Futurism to the post-World War II avant-garde to post-modern trends, although Deren, Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits and Bill Morrison are the only Americans discussed, making the anthology’s title a bit of a misnomer.

Blaetz’s methodology is to present a series of career review articles on women experimental filmmakers, most of whom came into their own with the rise of feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even though many refused to identify with feminist objectives. Many of these female experimentalists, while not at the center of the Sitney/Mekas universe, certainly float around its edges, including Marie Menken, Joyce Wieland, Gunvor Nelson, Yvonne Rainer, Carole Schneemann, Barbara Rubin, Amy Greenfield, Leslie Thornton, Su Friedrich, Marjorie Keller and Chick Strand; at least four were spouses to men in that circle. Blaetz argues that many of these filmmakers have been misunderstood as working in the lyrical and diarist tradition of the male American avant-garde, thus “rendering the pervasive irony and humor of much of this work invisible” (p. 8). Blaetz also includes other women who are consciously attempting to deconstruct the male dominance of avant-garde cinema, e.g. Abigail Child, Barbara Hammer, Peggy Ahwesh, and Cheryl Dunye. Noting the absolute diversity of the work discussed, from lyrical and abstract films, to autobiographical films that utilize found footage – all of which mirror formal strategies of the classical avant-garde – Blaetz goes on to explicate women filmmakers’ focus on the female body as a contested site for image production, one which has been “the prime cause of the split between women filmmakers and feminist theorists…’’ (p. 11). But ultimately, Blaetz returns to formal criteria, noting that what unites all these women is “the evocation of surfaces” and the “layering of images,” (pp. 13-14) in other words formalist criteria that should allow all these filmmakers entrance into the Sitney canon.

Each of the anthology’s seventeen essays, ranging in length from 14-28 pages, includes a biographical section, short reviews of the filmmaker’s most important films, and a filmography with current distributors and bibliographic sources in the footnotes. As an introductory reader about women experimental filmmakers, Blaetz’s anthology proves to be a useful companion piece to Petrolle and Wexmann’s previously published volume. While the latter focuses more on close readings of individual, signature films, Blaetz’s anthology presents avant-garde film careers. Yet, there is quite a bit of overlap both in subject matter and in authors: Thornton, Friedrich, Child, Rainer, Menken, and Schneemann are discussed in both volumes, while Maurim Turim, Kathleen McHugh, and Scott MacDonald contribute to both. The career overviews, with some exceptions in Blaetz, are more celebratory than critical, which is fine given their stated purpose to expose a younger generation to the work of these under-valued women. Another plus is the high quality of the writing by the likes of such seasoned critics of the avant-garde as Paul Arthur, Chris Holmund, Noël Carroll, Chuck Kleinhans, Mary Ann Doane, William Wees, and Scott MacDonald, making this volume invaluable to students getting their first exposure to the history of avant-garde cinema. However, I would question the inclusion of a piece by Robert Haller, who chooses to write about his wife, Amy Greenfield, since any critical distance is strictly illusory.

While Blaetz hopes to expand the classical avant-garde canon to include women, the editors of Avant-Garde Film likewise seemingly embrace the theoretical precepts of that canon by merely expanding it to include many more Europeans. However, this may be conjecture, since the editors’ short preface by Alexander Graf and the late Dietrich Scheunemann gives little indication of the anthology’s intentions, other than to state that it is part of a larger project to reassess all 20th century avant-garde art, literature, and film. The editors do take exception to the fact that previous theorists of the avant-garde, including Renato Poggioli and Peter Bürger, have specifically excluded film from their analysis. While speaking of avant-gardes in the plural, the editors wonder whether the avant-garde’s entrance into the academy in the post-war period precluded the kind of anti-bourgeois rebellion that characterized pre-war avant-gardes, then note that experimentation in “modes of vision, reception, perception, projection and communication” (p. xi) have continued into the contemporary post-modern period. This is in fact an interesting point, but is not followed-up on anywhere in the anthology.

Looking at individual essays, there seems to be little to connect them methodologically, other than their loose construction in a historical chronology. The volume begins with an excellent essay by avant-garde filmmaker and theorist, R. Bruce Elder on Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling which covers some familiar territory, but also contextualizes the work of those filmmakers within the various European art isms of the 1920s. Thus, apart from an essay on Mário Peixote’s Brazilian film, Limite (1931), the anthology’s first section on the ‘historical avant-garde’ (this term is in itself problematic, since the filmmaker in the book’s second section are no less historical) deals with filmmakers long canonized, including Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Man Ray, Germaine Dulac, and Vladimiur Mayakovsky. This is not to say that these essays do not present new perspectives or more detailed research on their subjects, but only Michael Korfman’s essay on Peixote’s long neglected film covers ground that is completely terra incognita. A.L. Rees’ essay on abstract cinema, meanwhile connects Richter and Eggeling abstract animation experiments to the recent digital films of artists, like Steve Littman, Graham Wood, and Annja Krautgasser; Rudolf E. Kuenzli reviews the 1920s films of Dadaist, Man Ray, while Tami M. Williams discusses Germaine Dulac’s 1920s films from a feminist perspective, and Marina Burke presents a detailed discussion of Soviet Constructivist, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s film experiments, both in front of and behind the camera.

The anthology’s second section, ‘Post-War American and European Experiments’, predictably begins with Maureen Turim’s Maya Deren essay, parts of which have appeared elsewhere and constitute Turim’s sustained fascination with Deren. Inez Hedges, on the other hand, discusses Stan Brakhage’s little known and seldom discussed fascination with the Faust legend, while Yvonne Spielmann focuses her critical eye on Paul Sharits, one of the leaders of the structuralist film movement, although calling it a movement may be overstated. That covers the post-war American avant-garde, except for a brief discussion of Jim Davis’ abstract light pattern films in William Wees’ essay on the avant-garde fascination with abstract light. The post-war European film avant-garde is curiously represented first by Luis Buñuel in an impressionist meditation by French historian Pierre Sorlin, who attempts to find ‘the experimental’ in his mid-career Mexican feature films. Bart Keunen and Sascha Bru continue the surrealist thread with a discussion of post-war ‘magic realism’ in French and Belgian literature and film, but as in the case of Buñuel who is also referenced, the films discussed are actually fiction feature films with surrealist passages. I confess that I have not seen André Delvaux’s The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (Belgium 1965), but I do wonder whether this essay, like Sorlin’s, should have been included here. Nicky Hamlyn gives us a close reading of Peter Kubelka’s flicker film, Arnulf Rainer (Austria 1960), an acknowledged ‘classic’ of the film avant-garde, while arguing that it is not a flicker film, but rather a metafilm that theorizes film. Finally, Tania Ørum’s history of the 1960s Danish avant-garde focuses on the 1960s Copenhagen film collective, ABCinema, which utilized 16mm and light-weight sound equipment to experiment with new non-commercial forms, much as the New York and San Francisco avant-garde from this period had done. ABCinema, however, had a much more political agenda, using the camera for political actions, at least until the group fell apart in the 1970s, a fate it shared with other political film collectives.

Like the first two sections, the anthology’s third section, ‘New Technologies and Media Convergence: The Contemporary Avant-Garde’, is a mixed bag that fails to coalesce methodologically or even thematically. While Martine Beugnet’s gives us a close reading of two recent French avant-garde films, Nicolas Rey’s Terminus for you (France 1996) and Pip Chodorov’s Charlemagne 2: Piltzer (France 2002), Jonathan Walley’s discussion of the avant-garde films of Englishmen Anthony McCall and Tony Conrad return us to the 1960s and 1970s. Why was this not incuded in the previous section? Between those bookends, Frédérique Devaux analyses the recent films of Michel Amarger, Martin Arnold, and Rafael Montanez Ortiz, while Günter Berghaus presents a career overview of German video artist Ulrike Rosenbach, and Margit Grieb discusses veteran Austrian avantgardeist Valie Export’s recent digital work. And while I greatly admire American Bill Morrison’s Decasia, the subject of a close reading by Ursula Böser, I’m perplexed as to its inclusion here, since it is neither new media, nor does it fit into the European focus in this section. In short, the weakness in evidence here is that of many anthologies, namely its heterogenity in methodological approaches and lack of conceptual rigor. Both anthologies, therefore, will be useful to specialists and students of avant-garde cinema, but only for their insights into specific filmmakers and films, not for their revision of film history.

Jan-Christopher Horak,
Los Angeles.


[1] See my review in The Moving Image, Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall 2006, 142-45.

Created on: Thursday, 4 September 2008

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 →