Pondering pretension in experimental film

Still from Michael Snow's Wavelenth

Still from Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia), 1971

In a post about photographers as filmmakers, photographer Alec Soth (Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara) wonders if his long-held “notion that photographers make poor filmmakers” is really true. But what caught my eye was his opening paragraph:

In college I was drawn to experimental filmmaking. I studied Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton. I made my own videos and super-8 films. But after awhile I saw this work as ponderous and pretentious. I rejected experimental filmmaking. I came to believe that the power of film was in conventional storytelling.

It’s not everyday one sees one’s old masters, both figurative and — in the case of Gehr — real, on a blog. At any rate, as someone who was also drawn to experimental filmmaking, and made his own super-8 and 16mm films at one time, I have some thoughts on Soth’s “rejection” of experimental film as “ponderous and pretentious,” as well as the larger issue about photographers turning to filmmaking.

Anyone who would recognize those filmmakers Soth mentioned (Brakhage, Frampton, Gehr, Snow, etc.) would also know that they are far from the end-all and be-all of experimental film, though I suppose they are easy targets if one is looking for pretension and ponderousness.

The late Brakhage is of course the doyen of the medium, even in death (he passed away in 2003), and an easy target on many counts, as I wrote about once before. And with over 400 films to his credit, lord knows there must be lots of ponderousness in that oeuvre (I’ve seen some of it myself). The others Soth mentioned (Frampton, Gehr, Snow) have long been grouped together under the rather off-putting rubric of “structural filmmakers” (at least they still were as of the late 80’s/early 90’s, when I — and I suspect Soth too — studied them). They (and a few others like Tony Conrad, Joyce Wieland, and George Landow) form a group of makers whose output has undoubtedly been more written and read about than actually seen, and therein lies part of the problem. Another part is that of course there was never a “school,” never a unified outlook or style, except in the pages of categorists and reductionists.

As a student hungry for this new-to-me medium, I couldn’t get enough of the films I was being shown in my classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, or separately (but also on campus) as part of the San Francisco Cinematheque‘s programming. But the thought of “structural film,” of sitting through those films, based on all I had read, filled me with dread. When I finally saw my first so-labeled “structural” film, which perhaps to this day remains the poster child for the genre, such as it is — Michael Snow’s Wavelength — I had to ask myself what I had been so afraid of.

Still from Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967)

I remember after a film screening of some sort, somebody had the crazy idea of projecting Wavelenth in the lecture hall. Perhaps they had grabbed it from the Art Institute’s library, or maybe someone had left it lying around the projectionist’s booth. After reading so much about this film, how important, how seminal it was, here was finally my chance to see it, I thought. Or perhaps I thought, okay, let’s get it over with. It must have been 10 p.m. by this point, not an ideal time for a 45 minute film of a progressive zoom shot of a somewhat empty New York City loft with nary a narrative action (or so I thought).

I was riveted. When it was over, only one of about three folks left in the auditorium (I think there had been only about 15 of us at the start anyway), I was floored. I had to of course check myself against those “Even though I don’t understand it, this is great” — or perhaps more correctly, “Because I don’t understand it, this is great” — reactions not uncommon to the overly earnest, bright-eyed art student I was in those days. But no, there was no doubt. I did understand it, in so far as anyone, naive or old-hand, could understand something that didn’t have a handed-on-a-silver-platter message, something that didn’t even exist in the pedestrian realm of messages and meanings, of moving (in the “arousing deep emotion” sense) narrative.

Narrative. It was perhaps here that Snow’s film, and many other ostensibly similar films I would soon see, like Gehr’s Still, Brakhage’s The Text of Light, James Benning’s 9/1/75, or Warhol’s Empire, had its biggest surprise: There is plenty of narrative to go around. Naturally it isn’t the “conventional storytelling” in which Soth thinks the power of film lies, but the naked, raw narrative that comes to the surface once the superficial trappings of plots, the glib expressiveness of actors and actresses, the melodrama of soundtracks, get left behind. Perhaps better to call it imagination, rather than narrative. Like much of what I love about photography, that non-moving — in the still sense — medium. The frame seemingly holds nothing, just the bare smidgen of life, of events, of stories, and yet it holds everything we need to create a story. There is nothing else we need to see. A good photograph, anyway. A good film, too.

That’s not to say that these media are the same, which is perhaps why Soth has difficulty finding photographers who have been able to make the transition to film. But I have another idea as well. Soth lists out an array of photographers who have tried to “cross over,” and an impressive amount of films. But looking over Soth’s list, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the reason he came to to his conclusions about photographers making poor filmmakers is that he is limiting himself mainly to established, famous photographers. While I don’t want to make a blanket statement, I have to wonder how many of these films would have ever been made had not the makers already enjoyed some sort of cachet as established photographers. Certainly they had access to circles of funding and support, and some certainty about distribution (or at least a trip around the film festival circuit). It’s not to say they weren’t interested in the medium, in its possibilities, but with some exceptions (notably Robert Frank) it seems more like dabbling, a desire perhaps to see their photos move (in both senses), rather than a full committment to the medium itself.

One film I would recommend to Soth is one that he probably saw during his brief involvement with experimental film: Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). While there are many Frampton films one could recommend, this film is perhaps most appropriate for the discussion here.

Though Frampton was primarily known as a filmmaker, it was photography that he first turned to when he moved to New York in 1958 as a young man, and he would continue to photograph throughout his life, as evidenced by this exhibit held the year after his death in 1984. In (nostalgia), Frampton uses twelve photo prints from his earlier career, and one by one these photos are placed on a hotplate, and after some time they begin to curl up and burn. On the soundtrack, the narrator (who is actually not Frampton but rather the above-mentioned Michael Snow) talks in the first person about each image, when and where it was taken, the circumstances surrounding the photo or the people in the photo, the memories it engenders. But there’s a catch: the image and sound tracks are deliberately “out of synch.” As we see a photo slowly burn and wither away, the narration we are listening to is actually about the next photo, the one coming up.

The film is brilliantly constructed, the commentary giving us a preview of what is coming ahead, the better to implant that narrative, and to make us feel as if we took the photo we now see burning up before our eyes. And yet, we cannot simply be content in our nostalgia, because while seeing one thing, we are forced by the narration to contend with that which we have yet to see. This is of course much of the raison d’être of these sorts of films, to jar us from our conditioned ways of seeing, to pull the conventional rug out from under us. Yet one doesn’t have to enjoy (nostalgia), or other films in this vein, only on this subversive level.

When I think back on this film, what I remember most is the image of these photo prints slowly curling and then burning up, inexorably, beautifully. Each new photo brought another chance to watch these still photos move. One of the photos we see is of someone (it may be artist Carl Andre but I’m not sure) posing with their head in an empty picture frame, while outside of the inner frame the person has got a hold of a metronome. It’s as if the photograph wasn’t enough to freeze that metronome in motion, it had to be done from the inside. The film as a whole acts in that way, making us think we are ticking back and forth between past and future, but in reality we are in neither.

Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) film still, 1971

Once at a screening of Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren‘s films, films which have often been lumped in with others mentioned here, a friend of a friend hadn’t sat through 30 seconds of the first film of the program before he yelped “Oh shit!” and bolted for the door. In a milieu that engenders a lot of quick exits, that was by far the quickest escape I had ever seen.

Escapist fare, I can concede, most of experimental films are not, if your idea of escape is to check your imagination at the door. I always looked at them from the opposite perspective. Bombarded by conventional propaganda at seemingly every turn, cinema both popcorn and arthouse ruled by a beginning, middle, and end structure (sans Godard, who mixed them up, to frankly ponderous results), it was these films, stripped bare yet unlimited in their capacity to inspire exploration, that were my escape.

5 Replies to “Pondering pretension in experimental film”

  1. A lot going on in this write up…
    Just found your site and looking forward to reading more…
    As for me, not much of a photographer…however…the film side of things really peeks my interest…

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