views on Views from the Avant-Garde Part 2

From: William Wees, Dr. (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Oct 16 2006 - 14:48:00 PDT

Hello, again, Frameworkers-

I started making the trip from Montréal to New York to take in "Views from the Avant-Garde" in 1998, the second year of "Views'" existence. I hoped to see the latest work by the most interesting and innovative a-g filmmakers. I knew, of course, that the selection process (and other factors) determined which films made it on to the screen at the Walter Reade Theater, and after a couple of years I realized that the taste and enthusiasms of the programmers made the content of "Views" less eclectic than I would have liked. Particularly noticeable was the scarcity of overtly political films (I use "political" in the broadest sense of the term) and the preponderance of films that fit comfortably within the tradition of formalist, "visionary" and personal films that dominate the canonical American avant-garde. There were exceptions-Ken Jacob's up-dated "Star Spangled to Death" in the 2003 "Views" comes to mind immediately-but they were few and far between.

Apparent, as well, was a tendency to group films with formal and/or thematic similarities in the same program. This had some pedantic interest, but sometimes made me wonder if certain films were selected, not because they were among the best new a-g work, but because they "fit" the concept of a particular program.

Despite these reservations, I have found much of interest over the years, and I am grateful for the opportunity to catch up on some of the current American a-g films-with some European and, more rarely, Canadian films turning up as well.

But I can't help commenting on what appears to be an increasing tendency for older work to crowd out newer work. Between 1998 and 2004 there were occasional retrospectives (Arthur Lipsett, Robert Beavers, Jonas Mekas, the Kuchar brothers' early 8mm films) or individual older films, such as Jerome Hiller and Nathaniel Dorsky's "Fool's Spring" (1967), Harry Smith's "Film No. 15" (1966), and Peter Kubelka's "Mosaik im Vertrauen" (1955). But a large percentage of the screening time was devoted to recent and brand new work. That changed last year with older films-S.N.S. Sastry's "And I Make Short Films" (1968), Warhol's "Blue Movie" (1969), Alan Ross's "Grandfather Trilogy" (1979-81), a Larry Gottheim retrospective of films from 1969 to 1991-taking up, by my calculation, a little over 30 per cent of the screening time. This year, one-third of the films shown were more than 5 years old-many much older-and they took up 45 percent of the screening time.

Although most of these films were new preservation prints or restoration blow-ups (8mm to 16mm or 16mm to 35mm), the fact remains that the original films ranged in age from 14 to 59 years old: from Paolo Gioli's "Filmarilyn" (1992) to Kenneth Anger's "Fireworks" (1947). A female friend noted that not one of the older films was by a woman. But the implications of that omission go well beyond the programming decisions for "Views" 2006-and beyond the purpose of these notes.

I would be the first to argue for the value of seeing older a-g work, but those possibilities already exist-at Anthology Film Archives and MoMA, for example-whereas the opportunity to devote a weekend to viewing a selection of the best of the newest a-g films is special, if not unique. I'm certainly not objecting to using a small portion of that opportunity to present "re-discovered" or (to borrow Bruce Posner's term) the a-g's "unseen cinema." Arguably, that could apply to Paolo Gioli's films in this year's "Views" (though the recent appearance of a DVD of his work weakens that argument) and Saul Levine's 8mm films, because of the fragility of their gauge and the near extinction of projectors capable of showing them (but they were shown in 16mm blow ups, which means they are now readily available for screening anywhere). I don't see any way the argument could be applied to the films of Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Ernie Gehr shown this year.

Of course, Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith can show whatever they want, but perhaps I'm not alone in wishing they would go back to offering primarily new "Views from the Avant-garde."

-Bill Wees

William C. Wees, Editor
McGill University
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