by Niles Schwartz
The first time I had heard of Stan Brakhage, I was watching the “drunken commentary” DVD track of South Park creator Trey Parker’s debut feature (and final student project from the University of Colorado), Cannibal: The Musical. Details about the true-life Alfred Packer story aside, it was interesting to hear an inebriated Parker point out the appearance of one of his instructors, Brakhage, in a minor role, and then describe him as “the father of avant-garde cinema.” So it goes, from a musical about cannibals with fudge-packing and bestiality jokes, I was introduced to one of our most important post-war artists, whose 1960 manifesto “Metaphors of Vision” pushed filmmakers to stretch out their craft and be liberated from the constraints of narrative. Maybe it was appropriate, considering that Parker was mashing up the Oklahoma-style musical with gore and dirty jokes, pushing his own boundaries. Anyway, the humor amusingly plays against the seriousness of Brakhage’s manifesto and ambitions. In 1987, Kurosawa remarked how little we had ventured in the frontier of film language. Both Stan Brakhage and Trey Parker show that he was right.
The Walker is highlighting the high period of American avant-garde film with “The Renegades: American Avant-Garde
Film, 1960–1973,” a six-film exhibition featuring Brakhage (Mothlight) along with Bruce Baillie (Castro Street), Hollis Frampton (Lemon), Gunvor Nelson (My Name is Oona), Ernie Gehr (Serene Velocity), and Bruce Conner (Three Ray Screen). In addition, the Walker’s Target Free Thursday Nights has contemporary renegades making personal avant-garde selections from the museum’s film collection including directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul (September 20), Cameron Gainer (October 18), Sally Dixon (November 29), and Melinda Ward (December 20).
These particular renegades, from the 1960-1973 period within which the Walker focuses, sought to change film as voices from the underground, dissidents playing with sound and vision not to alienate the viewer, but to bring us closer to ourselves. Brakhage and his manifesto took influence as the national climate was shifting temps, the subsequent years encapsulating political assassinations as spectacle, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and finally Watergate. The Hollywood New Wave began pulsating around the same time, with Arthur Penn incorporating ideas from the French New Wave into his Mickey One (1965), and counter-cultural rumblings such as Easy Rider, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. The renegade spirit was fermenting in the studio system as creative personalities and audiences, their trust in institutions withering, embraced new clothes for a filmic revolution.
But the politics of the avant-garde renegades are like an afterthought when we consider their exploration of film language. These films are formal examinations working to show how cinema can acutely capture our processing (psychological, emotional) of the world around us, our sense of awareness (or unawareness) withdrawn from plot circumscriptions. It’s an unveiling of the medium’s illusions, connecting to the Soviet formalism of Vertov and the kinoks, an entreaty to wake us up from film’s manipulations, while being exceedingly hypnotic, even poetic, aesthetically. It alludes to the European surrealists and modernists before World War II, to Joyce, Proust, Pound, Eliot, Picasso, Dali, Gertrude Stein, Woolf, Stravinsky, and so on. The projector flickers the undercurrents of our dreams.
And as recent, more popular (depending on how one wants to define “popular”) exercises in formal adventures that aim to channel the subconscious show (Lynch, Malick, von Trier, Wong Kar-Wai, or Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee took home the Palm d’Or at Cannes two years ago), some viewers may throw their arms up and fling the word “tedious” around, declining the invite. Take the first film we see in the exhibition. Frampton’s Lemon (1969) is a six-minute close-up of a lemon, light passing over it to give the fruit form and substance in the surrounding black void. The Walker has this particular film projected with the clittering of celluloid, the grain of the image pertinent to our interpretation. The static lemon image isn’t static – far from it. It’s an object undergoing change in time. Our eyes follow the shadow on yellow (or yellow moving along shadow), and the sense of a real texture, of something existing, is extraordinary.
Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity is the hare to Frampton’s tortoise, and poses the most ambitious viewing challenge at the exhibition (the full film is 23 minutes). Put together in-camera over the course of a single night, Gehr’s stationary camera alternates every four frames with opposing zoom adjustments. We are rhythmically drawn in (and pushed back), inching closer to the hallway door over time. Bereft of human form and in the hallway’s fluorescent light, Serene Velocity is a film essay examining the life-blood of a mechanical process. Spaces are susceptible to manipulation and transformation under the lens.
The most poetic offering is Nelson’s Oona, the subject of which is the filmmaker’s adolescent daughter, whom the camera follows as her name is looped over the soundtrack. The outcome carries the anxiety and discord of a 5:00 am dream, along with a poignant visual potion contemplating identity and childhood. Oona comes into contact with other figures and lush exterior surroundings, whites and blacks colliding as flashes of formlessness breathe into memory, memory itself becoming documentary. My Name is Oona is woven with sentiment, but its rhythms make it unflinchingly raw and visceral. The tools of the filmmaker are nets for capturing something abstract and psychological, just as they grapple with concrete, animal sensuousness.
Brakhage’s Mothlight is perhaps the most radical film here, because it wasn’t made with a camera. Instead, Brakhage constructed an organic visual nest (moth wings, grass, leaves, dirt) and put it between strands of tape, which was then rephotographed through an optical printer. The images elude language, as if there was a kind of pre-human consciousness to it. To quote Brakhage, it’s “what a moth might see from birth to death, if black were white and white were black.” The terrain of human associations is clouded, and our minds, along with our eyes, connect on something deeper and unfamiliar.
The San Francisco setting of Baillie’s Castro Street (1966), with clashing optical and aural techniques, is a screeching wasteland of industrial matter, of earthy color on steel, and busy streets populated by clanging metal instead of people. The precision of Baillee’s focus and intoxicating lateral camera moves feels like a substance-addled stumble through urban over-abundance after a long night of energy expenditure. It’s beneficiaries in narrative cinema are in more familiar names like David Lynch and Michael Mann, both of whom made purely abstract films before integrating those exhalations of aesthetic arrest into their respective small-town mysteries and pulpy cop dramas, which so elevated them above melodrama and genre.
The highlight of the exhibition is the final room, a space primed for a frenzied dance jolt as Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” plays to Bruce Conner’s recent (2006) assembly of his older films, Cosmic Ray (1961) and Eye-Ray Forever (1965), played with three projectors and titled Three Screen Ray. The linked images play off each other to the score, splicing together vintage nudes, war manufacturing, advertising, and cartoons, disparate elements flashing, fighting, and dancing through the beating lights. Three Screen Ray is hilarious, erotic, ecstatic, and harrowing, clicking into the discontents of post-Kennedy consciousness. It is art as anarchy, transcendent of the “music video” associations that have been handed to it. Most perplexing is how Conner got away with the images of Mickey Mouse along with his subtle condemnations of capitalism, without rousing the wrath of Walt Disney Pictures.
“The Renegades,” the exhibition as with the artists that fill it, is an effort to open our eyes to the mechanics and possibilities of vision. With so many screens around us constantly, 40 to 50 years after this avant-garde high period, we may be illuminated and so independently sculpt impressions of our banal surroundings outside the screening room. It’s interesting to think about the renegades’ influence on movie aesthetics – or lack of it, as we are more plot-addicted than ever. Just this past week there have been tweets of disgruntled film viewers (regarding The Master) asking, “Where’s the plot?” We love our serial television. Even so, there are hints of these abstract renegade sensibilities in popular shows like Breaking Bad, and interestingly enough, the comedy Louie (the product of a true-blue film student, who has cast his hero David Lynch in an unexpected role as a would-be mentor). The crossroads of current cinema proposes us to ponder the devices generating the images, and then the ramifications of those images. I don’t suspect that a mainstream television show will sever its plot placenta, serving us with six-minute close-ups of fruit, or 23-minute focal jolts through empty hallways. But the “Renegades” exhibition is an important and dazzling reminder of how our vision exceeds the expectations set by what we endlessly consume with lethargic passivity.
“The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960–1973” runs now through January 6, 2013, in the Burnet Gallery at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, www.walkerart.org