A generalized historical picture, which of course I've touched on here before: it wasn't until about 1903 that the middle classes--who were largely responsible for cinematic production from the get-go--also began to heavily join the ranks of moving picture audiences; this is how Burch figures it, because the triple-blade shutter eliminated the most physically painful aspects of the flicker, which the working class audiences were apparently more willing to endure at the time. (As I understand it there is more nuance to this history of filmic spectatorship, but I think as a basic gloss it still holds.) [EDIT: I've misremembered the date, it was in 1909 that flicker was more or less eliminated in movie screens, though the shutter for it was invented before this date. Six years is a long time in early cinema history so I've made a gaffe. See comments below.] It was shortly after this change that what Burch calls the Institutional Mode of Representation began to take effect; that the (commercially) dominant form of films went from being a variety of spectacles ("cinema of attractions") to narratives that, among other things, incorporated those spectacles. When the very great flicker films of the 1960s were made, no revolutions came about as even a partial a result of them obviously, but a new and I think fascinating cinematic strain came [back] into being, at least. It was an experimentalism that did not hurt the bourgeoisie, as scholar Burch and practicioner Tony Conrad may have hoped, but keep in mind that it also wasn't co-opted, whereas a lot of (say) the Nouvelle Vague's effects and tropes were. Paul Sharits, who did a lot of work with flicker and with violent imagery and sound, actually comes across in his writing as more of a thoughtful hippie type with a pedagogical slant: he was trying to make films that would bring people to meditative states, not High Works of Art so much as tools for beauty or peace. This is one of the major reasons why I think avant-garde/experimental/poetic cinema deserves to be talked about still, and not as "elite" cinematic product--not because of vanguardism, but because it strives to fulfill simple human desires for beauty, fascination, wonder, reflection, criticism, etc. I think there is good reason why a lot of the "real" avant-garde, as distinguished from the modernist "art film" tradition insofar as we can distinguish the two, has actually not been appropriated and co-opted by capitalism. It hasn't been harmful to capitalism, but it could be helpful outside of capitalism. Whereas narrative(/art) masterpieces of cinema are frequently geared towards a number of ideological projects, and of course operate first and foremost in the global profit system (and Bruce Baillie films don't)--even when these complicit commercial works are, by all means, masterpieces. The avant-garde in painting has a big money market behind it; in cinema, not really, unless you're talking about visual artists "visiting" cinema-land (Matthew Barney, whose films I've not seen and make no judgments on).
Part of what this entails is bringing the vaunted a-g tradition "down" to low culture--serving perfectly obvious, transparent functions. Now obviously, dealing with hyper-educated mathematics-flirting works of Hollis Frampton is not a passive experience, nor is it helped by ignorance of a lot of what Frampton was working with, in terms of cultural references and material. By bringing part of (a very marginalized) high culture "low" I don't mean that I want to dumb anything down. But to recharacterize the works as having everyday functions, which I am confident the films of Brakhage, Sharits, et al. can fulfill should anyone want them to. But if you look at a lot of what is despised in media culture today, such as the stuff that film critic Mark Kermode wouldn't bring himself to watch, you'll see that it attracts viewership among people who, I think, aren't that fooled as to the form and content of what they see--does anyone think the viewers of American Idol, NASCAR, pro wrestling or numerous other bad/disreputable/"guilty pleasure" shows are not aware of the sensationalism, the deft narrative/spectacular constellations, which draw viewers in? The much-ignored, ridiculed working class and poor, and possibly also the market of middle-class adolescents, who comprise a lot of the audiences for bad TV and such, I think they're all largely aware of properties (the limitations as well as desired functions) of these works. (Having been a middle-class adolescent, as well as having my familial roots and personal experience in working-class backgrounds, I have to say I'm less optimistic about teenagers with pocket money and status issues than I am about rednecks who watch WWE.) The respectable move is to always justify why something is good, not to simply say "I like it, I'm drawn to it." To identify a guilty pleasure is to submit the honesty of the latter type to respectable "taste statutes." Of course many people may be honest about what they like without being critical of why they might like it, too.
And: does anyone actually think that in 1902, working class audiences of motion picture exhibitions were just similarly immune to the painful headaches caused by the unchecked flicker of the projector beam? That they didn't know that more comfortable and refined leisure activities existed "out there?"
One of the interesting charms of pomo capitalist extravaganza Domino (Tony Scott, 2005) is how it does at least give this voice to representations of the presumed-uncritical viewership of precisely this sort of film. And it exhibits these people as fairly savvy of their media environment. The Fast and the Furious is another example, as is maybe xXx. One could say that in all these high-tech, high-octane, media-savvy action films are packaged and presented advertisement for new technologies, a way of selling (images of) cool shit like computer devices and cars to the people who paid to see the movies, i.e., a continuing "education of the senses." And I think this is an eminently reasonable assumption, at minimum, and partly composed of obvious, demonstrable facts, e.g., the role of product placement. But at the same time as the films fulfill these commercial/ideological functions, I think some of them depict, echo, or mirror a certain level of consumer awareness (and thus, by extension, an aspect of human agency) that is not nearly as well-reflected in more respectable middle-brow works. I think it will take a more extensive set of film-to-film comparisons to really seize on this but this is a project I am interested in pursuing, seeing if my hypotheses would pan out.
Insofar as I am optimistic about these "types" of films, and the image-commodity mediasphere of low cultural sensationalim--and my optimism is limited--I would say it is because it, too, fulfills viewer desires (e.g., for spectacle) a bit more honestly than most media, more respectable and visible and "memorable" media. That honesty can lead to transparency and, from the point of view of critical analysis, I think it may be easier for the organic intellectuals of today to grapple with this.