Thursday, October 04, 2007

Low Culture

Ruminations of a mildly polemical, highly speculative slant. On the spectacular. Not in the Debordian sense here--more like 'the Colosseum' or Tom Gunning's 'Cinema of Attractions.'

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.


jmac said...

This is a very thought provoking post . . . Lately I've been trying to understand things from the perspective of someone who is disinterested in avant-garde cinema. I grew up so far away from this kind of work, and it was quite a long path to it. So I've been there myself! Lately I've been hypothesizing that people relate to cinema that reflects their world back to them. And when a moving painting is screened, like Stan Brakhage's, The Dante Quartet (it's on YouTube, illegally, by the way!) there may be nothing that people can relate to. Why can people relate to Picasso but not to Stan Brakhage?

I am so with you on the concept that if we make cinema popular and accessible to everyone, people will begin to get the A.G. cinema. I really want to see experimental cinema come up from underground, if only because I wish it had been easier for me to find so long ago. It's a gift & people should at least be able to choose to accept it or not! You know what they say . . . give the people what we want.


jmac said...

P.S. By people I mean "we." Sorry!

nirav said...

Hey man,

Where'd you hear this about the shift to the 3 blade shutter making things more comfortable for the audiences? Sounds interesting, at least from the perspective of someone who is interested in the making of things less comfortable for audiences....

Zach Campbell said...

Nirav, I've actually misremembered the date!--it was actually 1909, which seems more appropriate in terms of content and maybe film length (1903 was still Porter, not Griffith, of course). As for my bad memory, perhaps the three-blade shutter might have been invented in 1903 (or earlier), but took a few years to finally catch on? But the rest remains the same. Noel Burch, the chapter "The Wrong Side of the Tracks" in Life to These Shadows:

"Moreover, it is surely of some interest that the notorious Massachussets law forbidding movie houses from projecting pictures for more than two minutes at a time, with at least a five-minute pause 'to rest the eyes' between each projection, was only adopted in 1908, precisely at a time when the desire to bring the middle class into the movie house was beginning to gain ground. [NOTE 3: And only a year before the technology to suppress flicker began to be widely installed.]"


And NOTE 7 for the chapter: "The elimination of flicker only become more or less universal around 1909 when the existing stock of projectors had been replaced and the multi-bladed shutter--already commercially available several years previously--had become the norm." (p77)

Burch's take on the class dimensions of this discomfort was that the working classes, during this era of labor history and horrible working conditions, were willing to take the "discomforts" of the movie house (which included but were not limited to flicker--also bad seats & ventilation, smoke, and with nitrate always the threat of fire) as something relaxing relative to a hellish day on the job.

Zach Campbell said...

Why can people related to Picasso but not to Stan Brakhage? Because we've been brought up to respond to Picasso, told he's an artist who's doing amazing things with paint, illuminating the human condition, etc. The circumstances surrounding film art are different. I think it's a matter of social conditioning--not that Picasso is a fraud and we've been "tricked" into accepting him, but rather, we're sensitized to his achievements more than we are to Brakhage's.

Precisely why this is could take a book.

Alex said...

"I think it's a matter of social conditioning--not that Picasso is a fraud and we've been "tricked" into accepting him, but rather, we're sensitized to his achievements more than we are to Brakhage's."

We need to always remember that film (and television, podcasting, computer animation, etc) are the only arts that are necessarily industrial art forms. We see Picasso as an "artist" because Picasso's type of arts (painting, sculpture) aren't so heavily wedded to the results of the Industrial Revolution. Other painters of Picasso's caliber often are actively opposed to modernity (modernity being the social contract state, or industrialization, or socialism/capitalism).

For example, many painters were historically supporters of royal regimes or aristocracies or the Church and were explicitly opposed to modern hedonic economics. Explicit opposition to modern hedonic economics (or utility maximization) is a central theme behind the Dance of Death or Ship of Fools in medieval art. So, we can readily understand a painter as outside of modernity - precisely because so many painters historically were literally servants of the aristocracy or servants of the Church.

Zach Campbell said...

Alex, I think that has something to do with it, but I'd explain it somewhat differently. The whole idea of modern art of which Picasso was part, and upon which he built his reputation (and fortune) is something that does not actually appear until the age of photography anyway, i.e., at the period when Western painters no longer had to be (frequently) literal servants of church or the oligarchy. But because this art form (with a preindustrial history, but not immune to material changes of the industry age) slowly became sustained on the market and the rise of the bourgeoisie rather than on older forms of commission through powerful patron (classes), painting enjoyed the legitimation and propulsion of high status. Cinema, experimental or poetic or vanguard cinema that is, had less niche in these circles because there was practically no money involved in ownership of these works. The avant-garde flounders to an extent in our world, I think, not because it's not being made or not being seen, but because what's made & seen isn't being valued. The critical and theoretical justifications for this, in part, follow from the material issues of the market and its class alignments/allegiances. That's my take.

Alex said...

"Cinema, experimental or poetic or vanguard cinema that is, had less niche in these circles because there was practically no money involved in ownership of these works."

But that's the question. Cinema in general was in the early modern period (and remains today) an extremely profitable industry. Since my current employer is in some sense Barry Diller (I am one of the tiniest cogs in his conglomerate), there is little doubt about that. And the owners of cinema businesses are often, perhaps even usually, notable owners and patrons of avant-garde modern art. Barry Diller built a Gehry skyscraper, David Geffen's collections are perhaps the best in the US and so on into infinity.

And prices for recognized avant-garde artists (but not AG cinema artists) can be quite high, often exceedingly so. (After all, some of the most famous twentieth century artists lived like modern princes, buying feudal castles like Dali or aristocratic villas like Picasso. Their dealers did damn well too). It's that avant-garde cinema is - unlike other avant-garde artists who frequently are doing extremely well financially once they achieve some level of fame - viewed as somehow different.

Donal said...

Hey Zach, long-time reader, first-time comment-er.

Do you know Pip Chodorov? Your arguments about the useful-ness of avant-garde cinema remind me of a lot of what he talks about. On the question of opening these films up to a wider audience, I had the interesting experience of seeing Pip give a class on a-g cinema to a room full of school kids at the Lucca Film Festival in Italy a few weeks ago, in which he showed them Kubelka, Sharits, Baille, Brakhage, among many more. The response was interesting...

You should check out the Lucca fest by the way, I think you'd love it.

Zach Campbell said...

Hi Donal, thanks for commenting.

I'm not terribly familiar with Pip Chodorov. Obviously his name is something one comes across frequently, I've read a little of his writings on the Web, but no, nothing in depth. I'll look into it, thanks!