Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon: Christopher Maclaine
JUST ANOTHER DIAMOND DAY (THE MATERIALS BEFORE US)
Christopher Maclaine is, along with Jean Vigo and Charles Laughton, possibly the greatest filmmaker whose entire directorial oeuvre can be counted on one hand. He made only four films: The End (1952), The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Beat (1958), and Scotch Hop (1959), each of which is shorter in length than the one before it, the total running time of all of them adding up to little more than an hour. The End may well be Maclaine's masterpiece, but having seen these 16mm treasures twice now, I have to say that his swan song is the one closest to my heart. Maclaine went to a Scottish heritage festival outside of San Francisco and films pipers, dancers, log-throwers, and the like--all kilted and tartan-ed up, argyle socks pulled high and proud. On a certain level my attraction to Scotch Hop is pre-artistic, irrational, resolutely personal. I can't easily resist the totemic pleasures of Celtic, especially Scottish, signs and allusions; my last name is Scottish, and though my heritage is probably no more Scottish than it is any number of Northern European nationalities (Irish, Norwegian, French, etc.) I "feel it." Or at least I think I do. The Powell-Pressburger masterpiece I Know Where I'm Going! is for me essentially a dramatic articulation of my 'more civilized' ancestors or cousins drawing close to the mythic primordial north, with its (and "my") inhabitants, that much closer to Ultima Thula (of course there's another Powell project: The Edge of the World, '37) and the sunless winters. The union of civilization and its wilder verso (though not its opposite), the dialogue brought to a conclusion through action, an event, a meeting.
But "totemic pleasures" are simply the tip of the iceberg for Scotch Hop, and the reason why is the union of "civilization" (or control) and "pre"- or "sub"-civilization (or carnival). Maclaine expresses this union through disjunction--here is a great cine-poet of mismatched cuts, "messy" editing, "pointless" camera angles who ultimately proves through these his deftness with the medium. The bagpipes (white sun highlights on black pipes: a beautiful saturated non-color expression amidst the reds and greens and yellows) provide a music that drapes the entire film, and provides it with an aural skeleton. Dancers move in time to the music, but Maclaine has sped up or slowed down the film just so, so that they only appear to be moving in time to the pipes. A lie before our very eyes, but true, because Maclaine as well as any other cineaste I know has arrived at that fundamental truth of the film-image: the expression of its materiality, the full admittance of its illusory potential and properties, and the exercise of the medium's powers in total comfort with this "confession." Meaning: there are all sorts of tricks and devices and techniques that Maclaine uses in this film, in all his films, but they have moved beyond being tricks or anything else, except their own pure expression. Slow motion or fast motion, the function is above all to operate openly as itself, in time to music. No longer tricks, because they don't have to be disguised as anything, justified as anything, other than themselves. Maclaine is true to his materials and his tools, and in this truth to the celluloid and emulsion, light and shadow and color amidst the trace of five dozen cuts (or whatever), projects outward, revels, in a way that conventional filmmaking standards tend to shore up, suture, and direct our gaze away from.
THE QUESTION OF THE AVANT-GARDE
What is this phrase, 'avant-garde'? What is it about French words that they turn so amorphously monstrous for English-speaking art lovers or cinephiles: 'auteur,' 'cineaste,' 'mise-en-scène,' all word-concepts that have come to mean things in our language vastly different, even crazily separate from, their original and sometimes maybe simpler French definitions. In one sense I do not believe in an avant-garde, or the avant-garde: the cultural struggle on all its fronts and forms has no easy hierarchy. ('Thou shalt not make representational films,' 'Thou shalt not depict Woman,' 'Thou shalt reintroduce the 'flicker' into thine films,' 'Do this in memory of Me [or in anticipation of Me] and all shall be well with the world.') Then again I find myself drawn also to films which do things counter to convention, to standards whether industrial (films to be seen in theaters for $7-10 which generally run 90-180 and tell a story with actors...) or formal-stylistic (conventional films can easily incorporate "experimental" or "out there" aesthetic elements, even richly--but they cannot foreground or serve them, lest they be harshly punished by the marketplace and the rigged court of "public opinion").
One thing that unites this idea of 'the avant-garde' is how hostile people can be to its very existence regardless of its vagueness. So many people see 'the cinema' as a form of moving-photographic storytelling in some sense or another. They push this essence of cinema as though it were true, when it fact it's not at all true, not nearly so comforting and easy. Cinema is not about essences but about powers, and these powers manifest themselves partly in possibility. Cinema can be made without cameras, without photography, without set durations, without actors, without crews, without titles, without images, without sounds, without purpose (just footage), without aspirations to posterity or longevity, without money, certainly without what Noel Burch has termed the 'Institutional Mode of Representation.' They can be made with paints, with scratched or degraded or otherwise manipulated emulsions, with multiple reels projecting on the same space (or multiple spaces), with more than one way to view them, with two or more actors playing the same 'character' (Maclaine did it, Buñuel did it...), with the borrowed charm of children, with an entire community, or with nobody, with running times far too long or too short to book a United Artists theater screen, and with abandon. The only essential properties of the cinema seem to be 'time' and 'space,' and by essential I don't mean to say that these properties must necessarily ever be fixed. Indeed, the more closely we look, the more we see the lines between our arts and our disciplines, which language inscribes, are seams easily broken--already broken. The only thing we need concern ourselves with, at the outset, is to guard against a tendency to totalize and categorize and fashion crutches out of labels or rules. 'The avant-garde will save us' or 'the avant-garde is pure' are expressions fully as weak as 'we shall accept the boundaries of convention with no questions.' This thing 'avant-garde probably doesn't really exist, and it certainly doesn't exist on just one or a few fronts, in just one or a few ways. When it comes down to it, when we examine the words we use, I am not for the avant-garde, but I would like to think I am all for possibility.
A BRAND NEW DAY (A FRONTIER OF EFFECTS)
Christopher Maclaine, speed freak, destructive, true tortured poet--a Beat Baudelaire on benzedrine for the 1950s-60s (re)emergence of the American avant-garde (the birth of the so-called "New American Cinema"). In his book Film at Wit's End (the Maclaine chapter which constitutes a large chunk of the scarce available material on this filmmaker), Stan Brakhage writes of Maclaine's destructive behavior, his addictions and his wretchedness--but also his passion, his fleeting moments of happiness, the fleeting moments in which he'd inspire happiness in others. About Scotch Hop he praises the rhythmic properties of the film, as a "pure masterpiece":
Maclaine did not accomplish the exquisite rhythmic sense of Scotch Hop by sitting down and figuring dry tables of numbers and rhythms or studying the formalities of composition and rhythm. Others may talk of the technical details of rhythm--the methods to attain it, its analysis and explanations--but they would not be able to make such a masterpiece as Scotch Hop. Chris Maclaine was able to accomplish what he did with this film because he loved what he was filming. He had his day--perhaps only one such day in his whole miserable life. He had a camera with him and he had worked with it for years, and he knew how to operate it so that it did not interfere with him. He danced with it.
--p. 125-126, Film at Wit's End.
Seeing Scotch Hop most recently, I was reduced to tears within moments (the film is only a few minutes long) and I was overwhelmed by this expression of affection and openness by a filmmaker, a person, eventually torn apart by his enthusiasms, his manic fears and passions. He was never to make another film again, never to turn his camera on another subject, never to edit strips of film into another expression of his profoundly consumptive love. No more moments where filmic "truth and lie" fall into synthetic embrace. With Maclaine, as with so much (all?) great artistic activity, we are sooner or later, at one time or another, humbled and strengthened simultaneously, unable to pull apart the articulation from the matter being articulated, wherein the film is a performative utterance which constantly projects into time, space, and mind the indestructible first-last moments of its utterance ... where filming & screening are really one and the same, parts of the same activity, whose deepest individualisms will still be ultimately, ideally, bridges within social reality, among all people. If this expression, 'avant-garde,' means anything truly useful, it is as a stamp, an intention, hopefully a guarantee that cinema, that art, will never ever run out of new ways of doing this.
Here are links to other participants in the A-G Blog-a-Thon (let me know if I'm missing any so I can update): Acquarello at Strictly Film School, Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan, Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance, Flickhead, Richard Gibson. Ed Gonzalez at Slant, Michael Guillen at the Evening Class, Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto, Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!, David Hudson at Greencine Daily, Darren Hughes at Long Pauses, Jennifer Macmillan at Invisible Cinema, Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee, David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia, Girish Shambu, Michael S. Smith at Culturespace, Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, That Little Round-Headed Boy, Thom at Film Of The Year, Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.