“The theaters of the Underground—often five or six docile customers in an improbable place that looks like a bombed-out air shelter or the downstairs ladies room at the old Paramount—offer a weirdly satisfying experience. For two dollars, the spectator gets five bedraggled two-reelers, and, after a sojourn with incompetence, chaos, nouveau-culture taste, he leaves this land’s-end theater feeling unaccountably spry.”
Manny Farber wasn’t the only writer mystified by the atmosphere of the typical avant-garde cinematheque. In the early 60s, “critics who visited the Charles [Theater] were as apt to review the audience as the movies," and Amos Vogel considered its unsavory character to be “very positive… [a] properly bedraggled beat audience spitting in the face of the bourgeoisie” (Hoberman & Rosenbaum). It is somewhat difficult to imagine that ambience now when attending a screening at Anthology Film Archives, a prestigious institution known internationally for its preservation and exhibition of experimental works. Originally conceived of as the first film museum by Jonas Mekas, P. Adams Sitney, Jerome Hill, Peter Kubelka and Stan Brakhage, it opened its doors in 1970 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Somewhat itinerant in its early years, it reappeared in 1974 at 80 Wooster Street, and by 1979 it had moved to the Second Avenue Courthouse; facing extensive renovations, the theater closed its doors for almost ten years and has remained a vital force ever since.
Anthology is seeing its 40th anniversary this year, and the programmers are celebrating with a three-day screening of Chuck Workman’s new documentary, Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema, which had its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. An unlikely candidate, Workman has edited Oscar sequences for the past two decades as well as Michael Jackson concert footage, though his more recent docs—The Score and Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol—have moved into the realm of countercultural history. When asked by ArtsBeat how he reconciles these two poles of his CV, the filmmaker somewhat blandly responded, “I would do it because I want to do it, and I hope you like it.”
There are not many documentaries about avant-garde cinema, which seems to have hit a particularly low level of cultural relevance in the 1990s from which it is now emerging. The only contemporary film that comes to mind is Martina Kudlácek’s Notes on Marie Menken from 2006. A somewhat haphazard biography of the mother of the New American Cinema and distinctive Warhol star (she appeared in Chelsea Girls toward the end of her life), Notes operated under the mistaken impression that experimental subject matter necessitates a meandering structure. One could learn more about her life and work, and in less time, from reading the chapter on Menken in Brakhage’s Film at Wit’s End. What could have been a much-needed entry point for the neophyte into the oeuvre of a perennially neglected artist wastes precious screen time in indulging Gerard Malanga’s aimless monologues.
Visionaries takes a more straightforward approach. Its intent is to expose the viewer, presumably unacquainted or only vaguely familiar with the historical avant-garde, to as much of its substance as possible. And it does this well, using the figure of Jonas Mekas for its loose narrative thread. Mekas, who also appeared in Kudlácek’s film as well as in each of his own diaristic film sagas, has always had a peculiar star power with his prominent liver spot, halted speech and accordion interludes. The octogenarian is still bristling with energy and passion for cinema. An extraordinary man, this Lithuanian expatriate co-created and edited Film Culture between 1955 and 1996; wrote the Village Voice’s “Movie Journal” column from 1958 to 1978 (from which he was somewhat ignominiously dispelled); helped found the Filmmakers’ Distribution Center (now defunct) and the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative (still intact); and bequeathed one of the great documents of American filmmaking, the epic Walden (1969), a mere three-hour excerpt from his ongoing Diaries, Notes and Sketches. And the list is far from comprehensive.
Like Kudlácek’s film, Visionaries is shot on rather ugly video—clearly a no-budget, self-funded production undertaken entirely out of love for the cinematic hinterland. It does have the unfortunate downside of making many of the films it excerpts look rather bad, as if filmed off a screen rather than properly transferred. Sound is by no means professionally mixed. The viewer is thrown into a world of brief clips and talking heads, among which number Sitney, Fred Camper, Scott MacDonald, Amy Taubin, the late Norman Mailer, Su Friedrich, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, the inimitable Robert Downey Sr., David Lynch, and, of course, Jonas Mekas. Somewhat nervous in its desire to inculcate the young’uns with a parallel film history, we see snippets of work by artists like Menken, Brakhage, Warhol, Jacobs, Kubelka, Mike Snow, Ernie Gehr, Storm De Hirsch, Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Shirley Clarke and Jack Smith in rapid-fire succession. While it is good to present the avant-garde in all its diversity and complexity, it is also somewhat misleading, promising the viewer visual pyrotechnics and constant novelty when many of these works are in fact slow, extended meditations on questions of form and structure—sometimes limiting themselves to a single space, often one, two, three, four or more hours long. On top of that, most of the material offered by the scholars veers toward the realm of platitudes, a generic conception of the experimental world as one of ‘unlimited freedom,’ ‘spontaneity,’ ‘self-expression’ and what have you. It all seems a little too pat, and the feeling of smorgasbord may be a residue of Workman’s commercial ventures, as no montage is complete without sweeping music to buffer it. What we really need is a series on the level of Art 21, something that can carry out a sustained investigation of a sorely underappreciated style.
It would have been interesting to problematize the avant-garde to a degree: for example, its narcissism, which Parker Tyler called “a crude, inept propaganda of ecstasy and happiness.” Or the notions of exclusivity surrounding Anthology itself, whose famous “Essential Cinema” program of approx. 330 films excludes work by any contemporary European artists—the exception being Kubelka, himself one of the committee members. Or the question of defining the avant-garde as a coherent movement at all, most notably in the wound which separates the distinct flavors of East and West Coast filmmaking (and New York’s inevitable dominance over San Francisco). Or the avant-garde’s virtual descent into invisibility outside the university circuit, which prompted Amos Vogel to ask: how truly subversive are “five heavy cans of 35 mm film and nowhere to show them”? Today, the scandals surrounding ‘lewd’ works like Scorpio Rising and Flaming Creatures have little more than a certain period charm. Actually, Workman’s film does suggest the latter dilemma in an odd moment outside Anthology. A group of young filmgoers who have rented out the theater in order to show their own work are asked questions at random: “Do you know what Anthology is?” “Do you know who Stan Brakhage is?” All reply in the negative, except for one fellow who enlightens us as to the fact that Brakhage was “a video artist” whose pieces are only seen by “arty students in college.” But, then again, most of the kids lined up for their vanity screening didn’t know who Fellini was either.
Despite reservations, worthwhile moments abound in Visionaries. It is always refreshing to hear from Kenneth Anger, the bizarre Luciferian who appears in a hockey jersey and informs us that he is “definitely not” part of a queer cinema movement, that he “hates the term” and that it “is a deep insult and kind of trivializing a deep emotion… They’re films by Kenneth Anger. I don’t need any other label.” We see Jonas Mekas prowling around the endless rows of film canisters in Anthology’s library; Mel Brooks’ first film, a wonderful send-up of Fischinger and McLaren’s abstract animations; Peter Kubelka presenting his standard but by no means dull pedagogy; some doofus toting a wine glass at the Maya Stendhal Gallery opining that an experimental film is “like a poem, like a haiku,” while Standish Lawder’s Necrology plays in the background—a clear sign of the rift which set this small enclave of tinkerers apart from the sterility of the white cube. There is much here to see and to savor. After all, it’s a celebration, and who wants to spoil the party?
Visionaries is playing June 4-6 at Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, corner of Second and Second.