defending my rights

I have just re-read the opening on Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision.  Lately, I’ve been trying to re-evaluate how I approach Brakhage, or rather how to defend my enjoyment of his work.  When we screened The Stars are Beautiful in my Non Fiction class, it elicited quite dispassionate responses from some classmates (a reflection of a larger dispassion or antagonism towards the avant-garde in general by the non-CAMS major population as well, I would suggest).

The argument was raised that what Brakhage does in his films, technically or aesthetically, is being done “better” by other more mainstream filmmakers in more traditional narrative formats, to which our professor responded that the cynical interpretation of that point of view is that the avant-garde is constantly pushing the edge of what is acceptable in form and content, constantly innovating, and then the mainstream simply comes along and picks and chooses and appropriates what it likes aesthetically, without necessarily maintaining the conceptual or ideological meaning behind the techniques and styles that it acquires from pioneers such as Brakhage.

Which is exactly what I had been about to rebut with, so I was forced to pause and wonder: Am I a cynic in this regard? And if so, what’s up with that?  When did I become cynical about film, and where does that cynicism come from?  Is it legitimate?  I love the avant-garde and experimental traditions of the mid 20th century — is this love real or imagined?  Why do I love it?  Not because I find it more captivating (in the easy, narrative-drags-you-along-without-your-even-noticing sense), necessarily, but perhaps… These films do not exist in a vacuum, and the context of the artists, and their lifestyles, and their ideologies, and my own artistic aspirations, and certainly their writings create a world of captivation that is larger than but functions in concert with their films — hence my musings today beginning with my return to Brakhage’s own elliptical-poetic treatises in Metaphors on Vision.  Even when I watch a structural film that seems to resist pleasure, such as Wavelength, there is a certain kind of elitist, intellectual self-gratifying feeling from simply sitting through it, from the process of engaging with something that is not just a piece of film for entertainment or even edification, but a questioning of art and meaning and consciousness and perception.  And knowing that one has made the decision to turn your attention to these ‘higher’ questions of form and content is a different kind of good feeling, but good nonetheless.  While narrative film may message the senses, these films can also work on the level of massaging the intellect.

This is why returning to my copy of Essential Brakhage is exciting for me.  Brakhage is not Saturday night with coke and popcorn fare (he even, in fact, invokes popcorn as his anthithesis at times, or at least as a powerful synecdoche for the commercial theatrical cinema to which his work is perpendicular).  I think Brakhage demands repeated viewings.  I think you start to get so much out of it, too, when you let him create a context for his art, especially since his prose is itself as beautiful, arcane, stimulating, and challenging as the hundreds of films that make up his body of work.

There.  I have defended my right to take pleasure in difficult cinema.


3 responses to “defending my rights

  1. 1. I’ve never liked avant-garde cinema much.

    2. The idea of taking a body of work within context, specifically a work of avant-garde cinema within the context of its author’s writings, is something I haven’t considered before. Why the hell not? That’s such an obvious thing to do in retrospect, and probably would increase my enjoyment of the film dramatically. I love talking with “out there” artists to see what they were trying to say. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been able to enjoy Gabe’s work a lot more than I expect: after I’m done, I get to talk to him. And before that, I know very well where he’s coming from because I’ve listened to him talk before.

    3. I think your main argument here (or part of it) is that you enjoy when a film really makes you stop and think. You can’t just let it be and watch it like you would Saturday morning cartoons, you have to actively engage your brain in order to make any sense of it. Awesome. I love that kind of film (even if I also love eating a burger on Tuesday afternoons while zoning out to ABC’s Castle). But then you go on…

    “While narrative film may message the senses, these films can also work on the level of massaging the intellect.”

    Gonna have to stop you there. I’m sure you know some narrative films that you love and have really made you think, but I’m here to remind you of that fact. Narrative can massage the intellect just as much as the avant-garde. They may be better at discussing different intellectual things, but even still. If you’re not trying to engage, it’s just as easy to let the story and popcorn wash over you in front of a Hollywood movie as it is to get frustrated and walk out of an avant-garde piece. Plus, you can make a narrative film about the nature of the medium. Just think of any film about making a movie ever made.

    Even for narrative film…

    “there is a certain kind of elitist, intellectual self-gratifying feeling from simply sitting through it, from the process of engaging with something that is not just a piece of film for entertainment or even edification, but a questioning of art and meaning and consciousness and perception”

    …even if you’re creating that question of art, meaning, and form yourself in the way that Carol loves to.

    Your local narrative defender,

  2. Reply to myself: I feel kind of like a jackass for having to “defend narrative cinema”. Seriously. Does something so big and powerful need defending? Maybe I just feel the need to defend the awesomeness that it’s capable of given how far its fallen in the modern Hollywood context.

  3. Nope, no jackassery to apologize for. The crux of this is that none of these media should really need defending. And I’ll let you stop me at the point you wanted to stop me at — I totally agree that there are tons of narrative films that engage me intellectually, some in the Carol style you mention (wherein you can make anything intellectually engaging through the application of theory) and many in a simply ontological way. I think the problem with any of us trying to defend our aesthetic or “intellectually pleasurable” proclivities within the CAMS world to one another is that these really are, in a way, almost different media, in that the goal or effect of any single text is never the same as that of another. There just seem to be tendencies within the poles of the mainstream and the avant-garde that often become exactly that — polarized. I think a lot of films that you would defend, narrative films, can be considered avant-garde in a way. So maybe the distinction I really meant to draw was between narrative and non-narrative. That being said, there are certainly non-narrative films that are not intellectually engaging in themselves, that are simply explorations of the very nature of visual pleasure (although this conceptual basis is itself intellectually engaging, I think). And I definitely don’t blindly love all avant-garde and experimental work that has ever crossed my path; some of it you do just let wash over you like any good (or bad) Blockbuster. As Gabe would probably suggest, it’s all art because it’s all life. Maybe.

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