Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On a Polemic and Vanguards

"...But the other episodes, meant to constitute a kind of anticinema (a notion not to be condemned in itself, and which has been developed along very interesting lines by Bresson and more obscure avant-garde directors like like P. Gilson) fall awfully flat: a man comes into a room, hangs his hat on a rack, goes out of the shot, the hat vanishes, he comes in again as before, hangs up his hat, goes out, etc., ad infinitum, while a pianist practices ever-ascending scales. This gag is hardly worthy of Méliès, and Messrs. Richter and Man Ray had gotten beyond that sort of thing long before sound came in.

"Why was this rather slick piece of tom-foolery awarded the Grand Prize at Brussels? My guess is that neither art nor experimentation had anything to do with a choice which seems to be a nostalgic attempt to rehabilitate an irresponsible form of film fun which has been dead and buried for more than thirty years."

--Noël Burch, from "Why a Prize to Dom" (letter), Film Quarterly (1959)

"Describing the films of Robert Breer is an extremely difficult task, for he is one of the most thoroughly original creators working in films today, in terms of both technique and sensibility. Roughly speaking, his works belong to that category of films generally called "abstract" (though his are also highly "concrete"), but differ from everything else that has been done along these lines in one basic respect: Breer is undoubtedly the first film-maker to have brought to his medium the full heritage of modern painting and the sum of sophisticated experimentation that it represents. Breer began his career as a painter, was one of the early members of the postwar Parisian school of abstraction froide (disciples of Mondrian, the Bauhaus painters, and, more recently, Herbin), and his first films were candid attempts to "animate" the large forms and pure, flat colors that peopled his canvases. His first really successful film of this kind, Form Phases IV, was for the most part a continuously animated flow of vaguely geometrical, clearly defined shapes evolving on a flat surface according to extremely complex rhythmical patterns, and it exploited ambiguous relationships between optical planes to remarkable effect. This seven-minute film was practically without "cuts" (in this case juxtapositions of completely dissimilar patterns) though it did employa form of ellipsis by which fixed images underwent series of sudden, partial transformations. This last technique had already been employed, though in a much more schematic form, by the Swedish painter and film-maker Viking Eggeling, who is Breer's only real precursor. (In a sense, however, that great French primitive Emile Cohl might well have recognized the author of A Man and His Dog Out for Air as a worthy heir to his own rhythmic and graphic genius.)

"... In view of Breer's obvious importance and originality, one cannot help wondering why the Brussels jury neglected his work when it came to handing out awards. The choice of Dom as grand-prize winner would seem to indicate that they were simply out of their depth, though this is rather surprising considering the reputations of the individual jury members. A partial explanation may perhaps be found int he quality of the sound tracks which Breer has added to his films. These seem little more than hasty afterthoughts, and their rather haphazard clumsiness is a shocking contrast to the refined, studied complexity of the images themselves.

"His most recent film is A Man and His Dog Out for Air, which is a completely new departure in Breer's work. Returning to almost pure abstraction, he shot this very short but brilliant film entirely in black and white. It consists of an astonishingly complex ballet of marvelous wiggly lines, is animated with unprecedented virtuosity, and suggests, I feel, an entirely new notion of cinematic space."

--Noël Burch, from a review of several Breer films, Film Quarterly (vol. 12, no. 3, Spring 1959)

* * *

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica's Dom.

Robert Breer's A Man and His Dog Out for Air.

* * *

These preceding quotes, of course, were taken from "early" Noël Burch, when his vanguardist-formalism, perhaps a kind of politically-motivated elitism (the object of his scorn was American/Hollywood hegemony in all its forms), ran rampant. This softened and mutated as Burch went through various other, uh, "form phases." (You can find his praise of Showgirls from not too many years ago.) But even this extreme dedication to modernist forms, to calling certain things (like the animation of Lenica & Borowczyk) outmoded, even irresponsible ... well, that too still has some roots in a political critique. Burch's vanguardism is not along the lines of a prescription for the masses, i.e., if we all just watch and appreciate Robert Breer's movies then capitalism will fall.

I have no worthwhile opinions about either film; I love Borowczyk but I like his animations with Lenica less than the live action stuff. I concur with Burch and pretty much everyone else interested in experimental cinema that Robert Breer is a master. Obviously both films are damaged by watching them in tiny GoogleVideo boxes.

* * *

Burch wrote more recently (2004), by the way, in a piece titled "Complicity" written for Cinema Journal:

"When I arrived in Paris as a student in the early fifties, one of the things that struck me immediately as "different" was the minuterie, the time switch that as a matter of course equips every apartment-house corridor and stairwell in Western Europe. And when I first returned "stateside" two decades later, I remember being disturbed by those New York hallways lit night and day, although I still knew nothing of things ecological and would have to relearn how the United States has this fear and hatred of the Other . . . and the dark. In that longer essay, this would lead to a discussion of gun culture, and to the culture of revenge that seems so intimately connected with it (and of course to that suspiciously overconfident cult of the masculine). Robocop remembers who he is when he remembers whom he must kill. How many movie and TV dramas are about revenge? The absurd attachment to the death penalty on the part of so many states and so many individuals is the clearest expression of the importance to U$ society of sheer revenge. A death penalty that, moreover, even abolitionist states seem happy to join in exporting, generally in the direction of people who are not white and who are not supposed to be able to fight back—as Noam Chomsky never tires of reminding you.

"Tom Frank recently accused the "left" in his country of not seeking to really understand the "silent majority," that "other America" that does not like feminists and queers and supports the likes of G. W. Bush. By damning them out of hand, by seeing those men and women as the absolute Other, the Left has itself become an obstacle to change. The way forward lies toward those "ordinary people," not away from them. We all know what he means. But I think that despite that highly visible ideological rift between the "anciens" and the "modernes" in the United States today, exacerbated by Vietnam, feminism, abortion, and the blatant display of permissiveness, the creature comforts of the ultimate consumer society constitute an inestimable cultural cement in which even its severest critics are mired. As individuals. But we are talking about a country where individualism is the unofficial religion (here I would bring in the car culture, the oil market, war conducted as a drug bust, and the typical contempt for the lives of aliens, nonpeople, Martians). Any administration, from whichever faction of the conservative coalition, that speaks out in the name of the American way of life is bound to have broad tacit support for interventions covert or overt. This national egotism is not, of course, peculiar to the United States, but it is taking more and more ugly forms there. The Green presidential candidate in the last French election put all this in a nutshell when he wrote that "America is prepared to change the world to keep from changing its lifestyle."

"I suppose my position could be described as cultural pessimism, of which I have been accused in the past. If this means being pessimistic about U$ culture and its foreseeable impact on the planet, on the immense majority of poor people who inhabit it, and even on the rest of us who are richer than most, then the accusation is fair enough. However, this is still a very large planet with many peoples on it, and despite or perhaps even because of global capitalist productivism, other models will emerge and prevail. That is my hope for the future. "


David McDougall said...

the "Complicity" excerpt is fantastic. I'd love to get a hold of the whole essay.

In another venue, perhaps, I think it would be relevant to have an extended debate on the fragment "despite or even because of."

ZC said...

Dave, that's the question, isn't it? I don't know how answerable it is until we clarify the terms. Capitalism may indeed sow its own seeds of destruction ("because of"), and yet still work against the elements/agents of change in that destruction ("against")--so yes and no, I think, depending before anything else on what more specific question we're asking ...