Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon: Christopher Maclaine


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.


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.


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.


girish said...

Dyno-mite entry.
(Not that I expected anything less!)

One to re-read and savor and really think about.
...I'll surely be back for seconds.

Squish said...

Hahah, perfect: "lest they be harshly punished by the marketplace and the rigged court of 'public opinion' "

andyhorbal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
andyhorbal said...

This is a beautiful post. You've ensured that at least one more person will seek out and watch the films of Mr. Maclaine.

acquarello said...

Hmm... I can't imagine that a film about bagpipes and dancing Scots can be interesting, but now, I just have to see this! :)

I like your rumination on the terminology of avant-garde as well, it's one of those concepts that are quite ephemeral. By the time you can get some kind of consensus that this "different thing" that you're experiencing can be appropriately called avant-garde, it isn't anymore, it's already been assimilated into the culture.

Incidentally, apparently there's an avi file out there for Maclaine's The End for those interested in a quick fix.

HarryTuttle said...

Great post! I haven't seen his films yet, it's a shame if it would only take 1h.
I like your comment on the
It's frustrating for the viewer if an artist produces little, but regrets are endless if we go that way. The brevity or scarcity might be a lesson to pounder in our world so accustomed to instant abundance.
I mean to ask if the brevity of his production is a result of rare opportunities to film, of lack of material/inspiration, or if his conception of cinema could only incarnate in a transitory experience?
I'd like to discuss your refusal of a definition of Avant Garde... I think you incorporate in cinema things that are bordeline "abstract art" (unprojected filmstock can't be considered cinema IMHO) rather than pertaining to the cinematographic ontology. But your enumeration shows how wide is the range of cinema possibilities and how narrow and repetitive are conventional movies.

ZC said...

Thanks for reading, everyone.

Michael--I'm really not certain what the reasons are for Maclaine's films getting progressively shorter. (Also, arguably, progressively happier. Hmm.) The two you saw are definitely the more manic pair in his film work, the ones that demonstrate his black humor best (literally apocalyptic in the case of The End; and those great narrator's lines like, "The person sitting next to you is a leper"). Maclaine seems to have had a tenacity in following his vision like Warburg, but unlike him, Maclaine propelled inward: I'm tempted to say that his great dream was to funnel into the Mnemosyne Point. I only say I'm tempted to make this claim though.

Acquarello, I think the far more important thing about avant-garde cinema is engaging with the films that might get the label, and not worrying too much about the label itself and what 'genuinely counts' or doesn't. What I'd love to see is more & more of the blogosphere tackling 'difficult' areas of culture, rummaging through it, getting things out of it, sharing & learning with each other--be it Kubelka or Breer or Morton Feldman or Ornette Coleman or whatever. Let the a-g blog-a-thon bloom in small streams everywhere and every day after this one ...

(Also, thanks for the tip on The End by the way--that could be a great study resource! Didn't know it was available.)

Harry, for me it is not particularly important to find precise definitions of the cinema: in fact I have no faith that they can be found, and see no reasons why they should be constructed. Is a work by someone like Bruce McClure, or some other kind of 'expanded cinema,' really cinema? I am not always sure, but usually it seems "close enough," and to me a true cinephile should be curious enough in such experiments, from time to time at least, whether they consider it a full-blown member of the Seventh Art or simply a distant cousin.

As for your question about Maclaine's work: I mean to ask if the brevity of his production is a result of rare opportunities to film, of lack of material/inspiration, or if his conception of cinema could only incarnate in a transitory experience?

I don't know the answer for certain, but from what I've read on Maclaine (not a lot: as I mentioned there is not much available) I would guess that the first two options are more likely than the last one. I would guess that Maclaine just couldn't get his mind, his camera, his film, and his energy together at the same time very often during the years (the 1950s) when he was still functional. As a result, not a whole lot of film, but certainly a whole lot of greatness.

girish said...

There's a part of me that doesn't like the ghettoization of the avant-garde, placing around its neck a scarlet letter A to purposely differentiate it from the dominant cinema.

But I can also see how the process of drawing out the terms of "difference" between a-g and non-a-g cinema can be put to productive use:

(1) Sometimes, when we watch an a-g film, being aware that we are walking into something different, something "experimental," demands of us a certain wiping clean of preconceived stances or expectations we might bring, e.g. to a non-a-g film. We are thus giving a certain license to the film to take liberties that we might perhaps be a little less inclined to accept with open arms in non-a-g cinema. (I'm not saying this latter is "right," merely hypothesizing that it happens sometimes.)

(2) But the next step, of course, is to take this open-mindedness we bring to and the license we allow a-g cinema, back to non-a-g cinema, and allow it to fruitfully alter the way we watch non-a-g cinema (which in number, for many of us, easily outweighs the amount of a-g viewing we do). One way this occurs is that a-g cinema can sensitize us to a varied set of ways in which the powers of cinema can be made manifest, which might in turn allow us to better appreciate subtleties in deployment of these powers in non-a-g cinema. (A small example: It was only after I saw my first a-g films that I was drawn to noticing that in Altman's films, the use of the zoom lens and racking focus results in out-of-focus zones that add great sensuous properties to the image).

To sum up: I think that lessons learned in viewing a-g cinema can help make us sharper, more acute viewers of all cinema.

girish said...

And, I should quickly add:
by becoming better, more acute and "critical" viewers of all cinema, we are also automatically taking a step in the direction of implicitly reducing the barriers we have chosen to erect between a-g and non-a-g cinema.

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the precision on Maclain's oeuvre, Zach.
Girish said exactly my feeling. Barriers aren't negative. I understand why a scholar like you Zach, doesn't need labels, but they are helpful and constructive for the neophyt to orientate her/himself in this "vagueness". If one can mentally connect to another work from the same "category" it helps to draw quick comparisons to enhance the perception of the new work before our eyes. Advanced art requires a minimal reflexion to get into it, and this reflexion is only possible with a consequent background knowledge allowing identification of the intentions and language of the artist.
So like Girish says, the "barriers" are in fact liberating and uninhibiting when a work is too abstract or too far from us. It's a false simplification of the arts but it makes the initiation smoother, and less inaccurate than a clueless exposition to the work.

To me, if a film is considered "art" instead of "cinema" upgrades its value., because unlike the conventional experience of cinema, art implies a deeper and more active participation in the discovery of the work. It's not to say that art or cinema is superior, but they ressort to experiences and interactions of different nature.

Speaking of Lettrism (evoked by acquarello's post), they went as far as calling in an audience without projected film, only unexposed filmstock in a cealed can, and engaging in a collective discussion to figure what film is (could be) on this reel. To me this is "performance art", it's all about verbalisation and participative interaction with the public, which is nothing like (traditional) cinema. However it opens a reflexion on what is cinema, but from an (pure) Art perspective.
Same with the interactive short films of Terayama I cited on Filmbrain's post.

Avant Garde is difficult to grasp so any guidelines/labels are welcomed by the public, IMHO.

girish said...

To add: I'm vehemently against labeling and categorization when it is employed for prescriptive purposes ("You can't do that here!"; or, as in, "Hip-hop isn't very "musical" because it's not very melodic...")

But as a cinephile, I'm very interested in the way labels and categories get created and used, and once in a while, lessons from one category can be ported over to facilitate a deeper understanding of work in a different category. There can be value in this. (Sorry, just repeated myself from earlier.)

Mubarak Ali said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, Zach. I haven't seen anything by Maclaine yet but he sure sounds like an amazing filmmaker. I came across brief mentions of Maclaine's films (esp. The End) while doing some reading on Arthur Lipsett for my own entry. I believe Fred Camper informally groups The End, along with Lipsett's films, as being 'suicide films'.

As for definitions and classifications, I find my stance to be generally aligned towards yours, although I'm probably 'guilty' of having created divisions between what I've seen (/am seeing), when it comes to cinema.

"I think the far more important thing about avant-garde cinema is engaging with the films that might get the label, and not worrying too much about the label itself and what 'genuinely counts' or doesn't."


girish said...

Very true! That statement would be hard to argue with.

HarryTuttle said...

Yes I agree with Zach's main point, that the term "Avant-Garde" is a free-for-all for everything that doesn't fit anywhere else, thus means nothing in itself for artists who end up in this bag.

Experimental techniques and aesthetics are so diverse and so specific that they don't have much to do with each other.
But it's meaningful to outsiders, just to broadly identify two main very superficial families : conventional cinema and non-conventional cinema. It's not a judgmental/limitative categorisation, it's a strictly technical partition for neophytes IMHO.

Winstrol said...

I guess you have a lecture course in a university on cinema history