Tag Archives: avant-garde

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.

lessons learned listening

: Or, a first manifesto.

For the past three weeks, the vast majority of my time has been devoted to shooting Tick Out of Time, the independent feature film that several of my fellow Carls have made happen this summer – this in itself a pretty amazing feat.  On July 17th the camera began speeding on the first take, and so many crazy days and nights of extreme heat and lost sleep later, we completed the martini shot, as they call it, in the late evening on Thursday, August 4th.  Wrapped.

Thus, an entire feature film has been captured on an endless series of re-formatted CF cards, and I was privileged enough to be a part of it – or rather, two feature films.  The first, the intended narrative fiction of Tick Out of Time, the second my own documentary-narrative interpretation of the process.  I originally came on board with the project, at the passing suggesting of the illustrious John Schott in early June, as the film’s documentarian.  The idea was that I would basically hang around and take stills and some footage of the process – auditions, discussions between the three members of the creative team, work meetings, location scouting, rehearsals, all the aspects of pre-production, production, and post-production, with a sort of vague intention of creating a documentary film, or at least a making-of movie.  (I also shot and edited this short promotional videofor the IndieGoGo page.)

It went as described, but as shooting arrived, my role transformed to something of a documentarian-digital imaging technician-social media maven-assistant camera-sound two operator-featured extra-production assistant extraordinaire, a getter of many birthday cakes and hotdogs and light bulbs and whatever else we needed at any given moment while sweating slowly to death in our interior location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I somehow ended up giving my life to this project for three weeks, and in the meantime, juggling two other internships and, despite the many other tasks I was fulfilling, valiantly finding ways to keep shooting for my documentary, which the idea of actually producing in some extended and meaningful form was becoming more and more interesting to me.  I’m still trying to synthesize everything that I received in return for the life I have given to Tick Out of Time – beyond some travel expenses covered and a great deal of craft provided, I’ve learned more in this short, hectic, brilliant, stressful process than I probably could in any production class at Carleton.

  1. What a budget can accomplish – even a small one.
  2. Pre-production is one long series of phone calls.
  3. Mobilizing your friends and family to help make your movie can work.  Sometimes.
  4. Shooting in the summer means you will sweat.  Always.
  5. The new Final Cut Pro X may actually be pretty good.
  6. A well-crafted file structure and digital organization are a must with so many shots and takes.
  7. You cannot make a movie [of this nature] alone.
  8. That yes, filmmaking with a crew will attract attention on the streets of a city.
  9. Talent release forms: you can never have enough of them.
  10. What technical approaches to apply for certain aesthetic choices in sound recording and cinematography.
  11. Sometimes aesthetic choices are forced by technical constraints — and this can be frustrating or incredibly catalytic for making a better movie.
  12. At some point, you realize that all the sleepless nights and sweltering afternoons and early mornings have been entirely worth it.

I’ve also had some revelations of a more personal nature, or at least relating to my own conceivable future practice in film.  I’ve realized that some of my hesitancy to be in what I see as the “mainstream” mode of film production (even in the no-budget world of the indie flick) — with 90-page screenplays, directors, producers, talent, caterers, set designers, DPs, crews, key grips, and such — has been a sense of not having access to the technical experience or organizational power that this requires.  To some extent, working on this film has thrust me into those technical and organizational roles, brought me to the realization that I can’t wait for some special permission to ‘be’ a filmmaker.  I must simply begin.

Me on set.

At the same time, not because any great misogyny has been perpetrated by Mother’s Favorite Pictures (quite the contrary — I have had sensitive and meaningful discussions regarding gender and the film industry with Gabe in particular), the whole process and my realizations about the almost subconscious avoidance of the undeniably ‘masculine’ power structures and mechanical/technical aspects of production has redrawn my attention to the overall gendering of the industry, the art world, and the opportunities presented to me in general as a young female aspiring filmmaker.  Because on many levels, film is as much business as it is art, and the money and power required to produce it are historically located in the hands of (white upper class) men.

(I beg no forgiveness for any feminist polemics that begin to emerge, because such self-excusing only serves to keep the power of the female artist in check.  At the same time, I make no direct accusation toward individuals and wish to make no enemy – my enemy is, at the risk of simply ‘blaming the system’, the embedded social constructions that no one of us has created and no one of us can single-handedly rework.  That is the long road down which we have progressed far, indeed, but not far enough – The Farthest Shore still winks in the distance.)

As a student of film, I have also been drawn to the experimental and avant-garde forms of cinema, historically more artisanal and intimate, requiring less of that masculinized money and power with the artist working alone or in concert with one or a few others.  Historically, perhaps, a more feminized mode than that of the ‘mainstream’ film production, but nonetheless a male-dominated realm of the arts as well.  But I wonder, a bit, whether some of my interest in the avant-garde arises from both my oppositional feminist leanings and a subsequent desire to be subversive, to be ‘avant-garde’ in its most oppositional sense, and from my desire to make film being diverted by fear of the ‘masculine’ large-scale production mode toward the more accessible ‘feminized’ personal, intimate, artisanal tendencies of the historical avant-garde.  The genre can carry a sense of the immediate, a made-by-hand style that resonates with me, but this summer has made me question, to some extent, the true nature of my affinity for this type of film, and how this affinity functions within the discourse of gender that is inherently part of my relationship with the world.  Likewise, documentary, cinema verite and the essayist modes of Chris Marker and Agnes Varda have grown increasingly influential in my own storming brain, sparking lightning bolts of thoughts as to what I may want to do with my filmmaking.

So that is the clearest lesson of all: that I ought to be making films.

I suppose I have known this all along, or since the moment I walked out into the magical starry October night after screening In the Mirror of Maya Deren, a sophomore in college calling home to declare that I had found my calling, pacing the streets of Northfield and waxing eloquent (sophomorically, perhaps) on the virtues of Meshes of the Afternoon.  Or perhaps much earlier when my thirteen-year-old self painstakingly produced a documentary of my grandfather’s life, what now seems a clunky Ken Burns imitation redeemed by sheer luck and purity of emotion into an essayist paean to the deeply personal experience of death at a young age.  Or perhaps even earlier, when I, the ever-wakeful preschooler, would desperately will myself to sleep during naptime, knowing that a successful afternoon sleep was the prerequisite for watching a movie with my parents on any given night in our wilderness wooden enclave on the outskirts of Park City – a feisty four-year-old yearning for films and blithely unaware of the strange magic being worked upon me by growing up within the shining aura of Sundance.

This summer has been a reminder that I wanted to declare my major four terms early; a summer devoted to the moving image, its production, consumption, consideration.  A summer of sitting steeped in the history of ‘essential cinema’ at Anthology Film Archives, of exploring the horizons of new media and video art at Eyebeam and on W. 14th street, of keeping my camera rolling on a daily basis, and of course, experiencing full immersion into the world of the making of the independent film.  I have been flirting aggressively with psychogeography, but I think now it is time to realize that psychogeography needs a means of translation, and that I can make that means of translation this medium to which I am renewing my vows.  I have been flirting with feminism (or at least the academic study therein associated), but this too, can be in concert with my camera — a choreography of life that is filmic and focused on understanding myself and the world through the twin lenses of my gender and my Nikon.

Luckily, there is no requirement that I choose one mode or genre of film and cut ties with all others — to be experimental, to be mainstream, to be experimentally mainstream, to work with narrative, to work with documentary, to work with narrative documentary and the liminal spaces between the constructed reality and the supposition of ontological truth in chemically or digitally images, to be a psychogeographer and a feminist and a Japanese scholar and a filmmaker — all roads are open.

I am committing myself to making no commitments, except to the need to express.  So long as I am breathing film, I think I can come close to finding all the frustration and happiness that will fulfill and sustain me.

And so, I am incredibly grateful for the experience of being a part of Tick Out of Time — as the post-production process kicks in, I will undoubtedly still be around and perhaps take on the co-editor role the guys have offered me, eager now for experiences that bolster my ambitions.  And I do, in truth, have a special love for this project that keeps me coming back in spite of constraints on my time and wonderings as to whether I should be working on more of my ‘own’ work.  Rather like an anthropologist, I am steeped in this participant observation.  As I continue to shoot this documentary (and I will, in the post-production phase as well), I become more convinced that it may be something bigger, a subjective realist narrative of my own awakening, the unconventional screenplay for which may be this very blog post.  I see a film infused with the artisanal and the intimate, a film that does not abandon feminism or psychogeography or theory but builds its foundations on a mental montage of all this and more, a film that attempts irony and humanism and rejects all universals.

This is the art, as Jonas Mekas says, that we do for our friends and for ourselves.

so many outstretched hands

Robert Beavers shows us his workspace — so, so inspiring.

Being in Berlin, we’ve had the chance to brush shoulders with the likes of P. Adams Sitney, Robert Beavers, and Ute Aurand on several occasions — which if you’re at all conversant with avant-garde and experimental cinema, is a BIG, BIG deal.  Check out my post for the trip blog here to read about our time with Beavers and Aurand, and my classmate Josiah’s post about the talk that Sitney gave at American Academy in Berlin.