Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 32, October 2004







William C. Wees


Introducing Avant-Garde Film:

O'Pray's _Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions_



Michael O'Pray

_Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions_

London and New York: Wallflower, 2003

ISBN 1 903364 56 6

136 pp.


In his Preface, Michael O'Pray clearly announces that his book is intended to be introductory and 'aimed primarily at students and the general reader', which is the mandate of The Short Cuts Series for which it was written. Moreover, as the book's subtitle 'Forms, Themes and Passions' suggests, there is no central argument, interpretive strategy, or theoretical paradigm guiding O'Pray's approach to avant-garde film. The closest he comes to developing a critical apparatus, or at least a point of view on his subject, is in his introductory chapter, 'The Avant-Garde Film: Definitions', to which I will return. In the following chapters, most of which are only ten or twelve pages long, O'Pray briskly surveys significant periods and movements in the history of avant-garde film from the 1920s though the 1990s.


In each chapter, O'Pray supports his generalizations and brings some specific details to his overviews by focusing on a few representative films and filmmakers. For 'The 1920s: the European Avant-Gardes' O'Pray singles out Hans Richter's _Rhythmus 21_, Walter Ruttmann's _Lichtspiel Opus 1_, Man Ray's _Retour a la raison_, and Bunuel and Dali's _Un Chien Andalou_ for special consideration. For 'The 1920s: Soviet Experiments' he selects Eisenstein's _October_ and Vertov's _Man with a Movie Camera_; for 'The 1920s and 1930s: British Avant-Garde Film', Len Lye's _Trade Tatoo_ and John Grierson's _Granton Trawler_ (one of the few surprises among O'Pray's choices of exemplary works); for 'The 1940s: American Mythology', Maya Deren's _A Study in Choreography for Camera_ and Kenneth Anger's _Eaux d'Artifice_; for 'The 1950s: The Aesthetics of the Frame', Stan Brakhage's _Anticipation of the Night_ and Robert Breer's _A Man and his Dog Out for Air_; for 'The 1960s: The New Wave', Godard's _Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle_, Huillet and Straub's _Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach_, and Antonioni's _L'Eclisse_ (another surprising choice, but then purists would probably object to including any New Wave directors in a book on avant-garde film); for 'The 1960s: Sex, Drugs and Structure' (a desperately inclusive title), Andy Warhol's _Sleep_, Jack Smith's _Flaming Creatures_, and Michael Snow's _Wavelength_; for 'The 1960s and 1970s: Form Degree Zero', Peter Gidal's _Action at a Distance_, Malcolm LeGrice's _Berlin Horse_, and Kurt Kren's _15/67 TV_; for 'The 1980s: The Ghost in the Machine', Win Evans's _Epiphany_, Patrick Keiller's _The End_, and Jane Parker's _The Pool_. In his final chapter, 'The 1990s: The Young British Artists', O'Pray discusses three film/video artists, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing, and Douglas Gordon, but only Taylor-Wood's _Method in Madness_ receives more than a couple of sentences of commentary.


As my summary of the book's contents indicates, O'Pray's coverage of eighty-odd years of avant-garde filmmaking is highly selective and, given its brevity, notable for the comparatively large number of British filmmakers it includes. In addition to the chapter on the British avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s, the last three chapters include only one filmmaker (Kren) who is not from the UK. As a Reader in Film at the University of East London, O'Pray is in a good position to report on, and evaluate, trends in avant-garde film and video that are not well known outside the UK. Still, his account of developments in the 1980s and '90s is seriously skewed by the absence of a whole generation of avant-garde filmmakers who came into prominence during those same years in the rest of Europe (most notably, France, Germany and Austria), as well as North America. Basically, O'Pray takes the same route as his countryman, A. L. Rees, who devotes the first half of his _A History of Experimental Film and Video_ to a general history of experimental/avant-garde film up to the end of the 1960s, and the second half to developments in British film and video from 1966 to 1998. While both books serve as antidotes to Amero-centric texts like P. Adams Sitney's _Visionary Film_, David James's _Allegories of Cinema_, my own _Light Moving in Time_, and Scott MacDonald's _Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies_ (MacDonald does, however, include Wollen and Mulvey's _Riddles of the Sphinx_ and Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi's _From the Pole to the Equator_), the fact remains that O'Pray's book, like Rees's, will not give 'students and the general reader' any sense of how much has happened in the realm of avant-garde film and video outside the UK during the past quarter century.


But does it have to? That depends on what one expects of a 'a good starting point for anyone interested in avant-garde film', to quote a blurb on the back cover. Certainly O'Pray's chronologically arranged survey of avant-garde film, even with gaps and oversimplifications, is how most introductions to avant-garde film have been organized, beginning with the pioneering books by Sheldon Renan, _Introduction to the American Underground Film_, and David Curtis, _Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution_. However, in _Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies_ Scott MacDonald offers a different kind of 'starting point' by analysing a limited number of avant-garde films (none dated earlier than 1966) to introduce some basic issues raised by the unorthodox techniques and challenging subject matter that distinguishes avant-garde film from more popular and commercially viable film forms. What MacDonald's approach lacks in breadth it gains in depth by concentrating on what makes a film 'avant-garde', rather than grouping avant-garde films according to when, where, and by whom they were made.


Another possible starting point is suggested by O'Pray's introductory chapter, in which he presents a highly condensed summary of attempts by various critics and theorists to define avant-garde film, or at least to stake a claim for a critical/theoretical approach suited to the terrain of avant-garde film including what to call it. 'Poetic', as O'Pray points out, was favoured by two icons of American avant-garde film, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas, but in the late 60s and early 70s, 'underground' gained considerable popularity, especially in the United States. In the UK, O'Pray reminds us, 'Malcolm Le Grice opted for 'formal' and Peter Gidal has used 'structuralmateralist' and latterly 'materialist'' (5). The Canadian Mike Hoolboom adopted 'fringe' (which O'Pray does not mention) for his anthology of interviews with Canadian avant-garde filmmakers, _Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada_. Certainly 'fringe' suits O'Pray's observation that avant-garde film 'remains, to this day, marginal to the commercial cinema and art world alike' (1), though he subsequently acknowledges that since avant-garde films and videos are now displayed in art galleries and museums, they have lost their marginality, at least in the 'art world'.


While labels like 'fringe', 'material', 'structural-materialist', 'formal', and 'poetic' served the aesthetic and/or political agendas of the critics and filmmakers who used them, 'underground' suited the anti-establishment politics and lifestyles of the 60s 'counterculture' that also provided a sizable and appreciative audience for 'underground films'. Historically, however, 'avant-garde' and 'experimental' have been, and continue to be, the most common labels. Since O'Pray prefers the former, he makes a point of explaining why the latter is unsatisfactory: it is tied to notions of working in a new medium; it can refer to innovations in mainstream cinema and simply denote 'changes in technique, in methodology'; it 'suggests tentativeness and quasi-scientific rationalist motivation'; perhaps most importantly, 'it fails to capture, and in fact seems to exclude, the passions and spontaneity involved in many of the films it purports to cover . . . [and] does not imply radical social or political ideas often associated with the avant-gardes [in the other arts]' (5).


If O'Pray settles that terminological issue with reasonable ease, he faces a bigger challenge when he attempts to disentangle 'avant-garde' and 'modernist'. While recognizing that for many people the terms are synonymous, O'Pray draws upon Paul Willeman, Raymond Williams, and Andreas Huyssen to argue that a case can be made for assigning 'avant-garde' to particular historical manifestations of rebellion against generally accepted forms of, and attitudes toward, artistic expression (e.g. Futurism, Dada, Surrealism), while reserving 'modernism' for a broad range of themes and styles suited to the changing conditions of the modern world but which may or may not fall within the practices and doctrines of any specific avant-garde movement. 'While modernism dominates the twentieth-century art world', O'Pray writes, 'there are a finite number of avant-gardes and not all of them are necessarily espousing the cause of modernism . . .' (6). By the end of the chapter, however, O'Pray has backed away from the distinctions and definitions he offered as an introduction to the subject of his book: 'In the end, all of these nomenclatures avant-garde, underground, experimental, modernist, independent, share some sense of outsideness, of marginality, of independence. And perhaps that is all that can be gleaned from these different formulations in a short introductory book' (7).


Perhaps, but I would argue that while O'Pray's distinctions between 'avant-garde' and 'modernist' are challengeable, they nonetheless offer a basis for introducing avant-garde film in a way that would distinguish it from other kinds of film and, at the same time, indicate its relevance to theoretical and critical debates about modern art and culture. This would not only be of service to 'students and the general reader' but make a contribution to more advanced studies of avant-garde film and to cultural studies generally. But to do so would required a more vigorously argued thesis and a more consistent application of his two key terms. Instead, the line between 'avant-garde' and 'modernist' becomes increasingly blurred as O'Pray proceeds, and at one point he even reverts to the label he rejected in his introduction when he refers to 'the history of experimental film' (111).


O'Pray adopts, in other words, a whatever-works approach to characterizing films as avant-garde or modernist or both. He refers to Brakhage 'and other American modernists' (80), and then notes that in the work of Brakhage and Breer, 'strong modernist values are established in the film avant-garde' (68). He answers his own question, 'What is avant-garde about Antonioni?', by referring to 'his ability to open up new forms of expression through his use of time, space and narrative' (74), which sounds more like characteristics of modernism -- and, indeed, he later he refers to 'Antonioni's modernism in film'. (79) Godard, Antonioni, and Straub/Huillet are said to 'share a form of political modernism characteristic of European avant-garde filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore notions of 'modernism' and 'avant-garde' are often interchangeable in writing about these filmmakers' (79-80). 'Modernism' is the operative term in his discussion of Gidal, Le Grice, and Kren, as well as certain filmmakers of the 80s in Britain, but for the British New Romantic movement it is 'avant-garde' (including the assertion that 'the New Romantic movement occupied the 'underground' version of avant-gardism' (110)). And he echoes Deke Dusinberre's contention that British avant-garde film of the 20s and 30s represented 'an avant-garde *attitude*, rather than an avant-garde movement proper' (47).


My point is not that these statements are wrong or do not serve their immediate purposes, but taken together they fail to establish clearly-defined and theoretically-sound criteria for determining what films and movements belong in an introduction to avant-garde film, and why. This is, I hasten to add, a common failure in writings on avant-garde film, and it is not what O'Pray set out to do. Still, his book represents another missed opportunity to place the study of avant-garde film on solid theoretical grounds and effectively demonstrate its kinship with avant-garde movements in all of the arts.


McGill University

Montreal, Canada





David Curtis, _Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution_ (London: Studio Vista Ltd., 1971).


David James, _Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1989).


Scott MacDonald, _Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies_ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).


A. L. Rees, _A History of Experimental Film and Video_ (London: British Film Institute, 1999).


Sheldon Renan, _An Introduction to the American Underground Film_ (New York: Dutton, 1967).


William C, Wees, _Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-garde Film_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



William C. Wees, 'Introducing Avant-Garde Film: O'Pray's _Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 32, October 2004 <>.












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