Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 15, May 2001



Kirill Galetski

Making Avant-Garde Film Accessible




Scott MacDonald

_Avant-Garde Film_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

ISBN 0-521-38821-X

199 pp.


The term 'avant-garde' has the connotation of being something surreal, which is not always the case. The French for vanguard, which traditionally means 'the foremost position in an army or a fleet advancing into battle', its secondary definition is 'the foremost or leading position in a trend or movement, or those occupying a foremost position'. Both definitions bear weight when applied to filmmaking of a progressive nature.


Scott MacDonald's book _Avant-Garde Film_ asserts that progressive filmmakers are at the forefront in leading the battle against staid filmmaking conventions, changing the way films are made, and even perceived. 'The mainstream cinema (and its sibling television) is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, the dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives' (1), writes MacDonald in his Introduction.


'No one -- almost certainly no one -- sees avant-garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters and on television, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children (we learn to appreciate the various forms of popular cinema from our parents, older siblings and friends) and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood.' (1)


_Avant-Garde Film_ is divided into three thematic sections, titled 'From Stem to Stern', 'Psychic Excursions', and 'Premonitions of a Global Cinema'. The first section bears the most veiled title. What it seems to mean for its presented films is that they are through-and-through assaults on conventional filmmaking standards, using the medium in ways which are perhaps formalist and technical, but explore areas of human experience which the medium definitely has not touched upon previously in any way. 'Psychic Excursions' are in the vein of 'classic' avant-garde filmmaking, as an exploration of the inner workings of somebody's mind, more often than not the filmmaker's. By 'Global Cinema', MacDonald means the kind of films that are truly international -- in their cultural scope as well as their production values.


MacDonald covers a different filmmaker and his or her film(s) in each chapter. The book elucidates the richness and diversity found in a world of cinema far removed from run-of-the-mill narrative and confining conventions. MacDonald's choice of films for review is multi-cultural and far from obvious, and avoids subjects which have already been amply described in other books. The filmmakers whose work is covered include James Benning, Hollis Frampton, Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, Godfrey Reggio, Michael Snow, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. He does not overly critique the films but does juxtapose intent and his assessment of the result, leading the reader to gain an awareness of the sometimes complex issues involved in the concepts presented. This allows the viewer to gauge his or her own level of interest before seeing the films, and to draw their own conclusions about them afterward. He also describes his experiences in viewing the films, an important factor in the latter considerations. He states: 'My goal is to provide a way of seeing each film that not only makes what some have considered difficult work reasonably accessible, but offers a way of using the films that can energize viewers' experiences with cinema of all kinds.' (12)


A consistent theme that runs throughout the book is an association of the intentions of avant-garde filmmakers to the original aims of early filmmakers. Such cinema pioneers as the Lumiere brothers, with their film of an arriving train, or Eadwaerd Muybridge, with his motion studies, used film in a more concrete (and in some cases more rigorous) way than the theatrical tradition filmmakers that were to follow and eventually dominate the scene.


The book is painstakingly researched and brings up interesting details, such as the processes used in arriving at aesthetic choices used in making the films. Particularly intriguing to read are the chapters devoted to perhaps the most widely known personalities in the book, Yoko Ono and Godfrey Reggio. Ono, who is saddled with the fame (or notoriety, depending on one's opinion) of being John Lennon's widow, has produced artwork of often questionable talent. However, MacDonald describes her films as something of a revelation, especially _No. 4 (Bottoms)_, an 80-minute series of shots of human buttocks made while subjects were walking, with commentary: '_No. 4 (Bottoms)_ is a comic film,' notes MacDonald, 'that allows us to laugh at the Big Deal made of human nudity and of the reproduction of the naked body in conventional film.' (26) MacDonald's commentary on the film reveals important details worth paying attention to when watching the film:


'The consistency of the overall organization of _No. 4 (Bottoms)_ can cause viewers to become complacent and assume there's nothing to see other than one bottom after another. But while the visuals continue in the same graphic and temporal arrangement throughout the film, midway through the film's eighty minutes Ono begins to toy with the viewer's memory, by repeating some bottoms seen earlier, and passages of commentary heard earlier. Whereas the repeated sound bits are pretty obvious, the repeated bottoms are not . . . Once the film develops this mystery . . . the viewer's relationship with the bottoms becomes more personal: we look not to see a new bottom, but to see if we 'know' a particular bottom already' (25-26).


Godfrey Reggio is most well known for his 'qatsi' films, which take their titles from Hopi Indian words meaning different kinds of life. The completed films are _Koyaanisqatsi_, meaning 'crazy life' or 'life which calls for a new way of living', and _Powwaqatsi_, which means 'life in transformation', and which is a film about life in the 'Third World'. Without overt commentary, _Powwaqatsi_ shows a variety of people of different nationalities in various, real-life, occasionally strife-torn situations. It is probably one of the first instances in cinema history where the plights of people living in third world countries are brought to the forefront with sensitive attention. Reggio comments in this regard:


'This sounds very simplistic, but one of the obvious things I noticed was that in most films the foreground was were the plot and characterization take place, where the screenplay came in, and how you directed the photography. Everything was foreground; background (music included) basically supported characterization and plot. So what I did was try to eradicate all of the foreground of traditional film, and take the background, or what's called 'second unit,' and make *that* the foreground, give *that* principal focus.' (139-140)


This quote is certainly in keeping with MacDonald's explanation of the third section's theme since he talks of the films therein breaking a tradition of 'imperialist' filmmaking, in which exotic peoples and locales serve as a mere backdrop for a narrative that explores concerns of the 'heroes' from developed countries.


Reggio has planned a trilogy, with 'Naqoyqatsi' ('war life'), which is now in production, completing the series. MacDonald describes Reggio as 'one of the few American filmmakers I am aware of who has managed to use methods from this area of film experience for a cultural and cinematic critique that has attracted a feature film audience of considerable size' (137-138). MacDonald's choice of Reggio for the book is stimulating, since probably a lot of viewers and I, for one, are not accustomed to thinking about Reggio as an avant-garde filmmaker.


Reggio, in turn, had kind words to say about MacDonald's professionalism (MacDonald has written about Reggio in two of his books, the other being _A Critical Cinema 2_, the second in a series of interviews with independent filmmakers): 'MacDonald spent a lot of time with me', declared Reggio in a recent interview for _The St Petersburg Times_, 'he's someone who really does his homework.' [1] MacDonald interprets the films as being highly conceptual, and explains the technical nuances where the film's concepts delve deep into filmmaking technology, such as in J. J. Murphy's _Print Generation_ and Morgan Fisher's _Standard Gauge_.


The book is adequately illustrated with black and white stills and frames, which are sometimes crucial to the understanding of the more visually and aurally complex films in the selection. James Benning's film _American Dreams_ is a primary example, where the visual elements in the film are a chronological 'slide show' of memorabilia associated with baseball star Hank Aaron, and a rolling text which is a running monologue, a diary of a macho baseball fan from Milwaukee with whom many viewers can easily identify until he starts to show homicidal tendencies. The soundtrack is a mixture of oldies and radio commentary on historical events.


MacDonald's writing style is readable throughout, and is intelligent without being overly academic. The book has a very non-standard selection of films, even on avant-garde terms. It eschews an exploration of such well-known avant-garde film luminaries as Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. It mentions them only in passing, in the first chapter. I think that a book with such a general, all-encompassing title as 'Avant-Garde Film' should have gone more in-depth about these filmmakers, perhaps offering individual chapters on their work as well. MacDonald probably reasoned that there had been much written about Deren, Anger and others of their caliber, and decided he had different fish to fry.


While being thorough in terms of its production research, the book lacks enough biographical detail on a lot of the filmmakers, which could have probably provided additional insight into their respective visions.


The book would probably be best appreciated when the films it mentions are available for viewing. A filmography in the back of the book dutifully provides sources for all of the films mentioned in the book, not just the ones discussed in great detail. Since MacDonald is a film history teacher, he knows how to write a good 'textbook', and _Avant-Garde Film_ could also serve as great material for a film appreciation course of the same name.


St Petersburg, Russia





1. From an unpublished conversation. For the published interview see: Kirill Galetski, Interview with Godfrey Reggio, _The St Petersburg Times_, no. 585, 14 July 2000 <>; accessed 7 May 2001.



Filmography (by book section)


From Stem to Stern


_No. 4 (Bottoms)_: Yoko Ono (UK 1966).

_Wavelength_: Michael Snow (US 1967).

_Serene Velocity_: Ernie Gehr (US 1970).

_Print Generation_: J. J. Murphy (US 1974).

_Standard Gauge_: Morgan Fisher (US 1984).


Psychic Excursions


_Zorns Lemma_: Hollis Frampton (US 1970).

_Riddles of the Sphinx_: Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen (UK 1977).

_American Dreams_: James Benning (US 1984).

_The Ties That Bind_: Sue Friedrich (US 1984).

_From the Pole to the Equator_: Yervant Gianikian, Angela Ricci Lucchi (Italy 1987).


Premointions of a Global Cinema


_The Carriage Trade_: Warren Sonbert (US 1973).

_Powwaqatsi_: Godfrey Reggio (US 1988).

_Naked Spaces -- Living is Round_: Trinh T. Minh-ha (US 1985).

_Journeys From Berlin / 1971_: Yvonne Rainer (US. 1979).

_The Journey_: Peter Watkins (Canada, 1987).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Kirill Galetski, 'Making Avant-Garde Film Accessible', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 15, May 2001 <>.




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