Re: views on Views from the Avant-Garde Part 2

From: Scott Stark (email suppressed)
Date: Wed Oct 25 2006 - 15:23:34 PDT

At 05:48 PM 10/16/2006 -0400, William Wees wrote:

>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.

Bill, it might seem a bit trifling to question this statement of yours more
than two weeks after the festival, but after thinking about it much I feel
compelled to respond nonetheless. Anyone who attended the 2006 Views from
the Avant Garde screenings will know this is a misstatement (at least for
this year), but there are many Frameworks subscribers who did not attend
and might get an incorrect impression.

Let me start by asking: did you see the first two programs, which, in my
eye (and one of my own pieces was in the first) were about as overtly
political as one wants to get in an avant garde screening? Or are you
wanting to see something even more overt, like a documentary about Iraq? A
disposition on family values? An expose of corporate corruption? I assume
since you're holding up Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death as an example you're
still talking about works within the avant garde, and I doubt Views
audiences would come expecting or wanting to see those more conventional
things, which are easily available elsewhere.

But first, perhaps, the larger question: why do you think it's important to
have political films at the Views from the Avant Garde? What are you hoping
to accomplish? Do you think political films are going to inspire the
Lincoln Center audiences to activism? Or is this some kind of attempt to
assuage our guilty suspicions that art for purely esthetic purposes is a
selfish endeavor that does nothing to solve the problems of the world? That
if we showed political films we could pat ourselves on the back and feel
like we've done something purposeful?

I don't think I need to explain the idea that making a-g work is, on a
fundamental level, a political act, one which encourages people to see the
world in different ways and to question their own means of understanding
received information. But even if you dismiss that idea as an empty cliche
-- and I don't believe it is -- you can look pretty easily at this year's
first two programs -- The Great Divide and the Saul Levine retrospective --
and see some pretty overt goings-on.

Take, for example, Michael Robinson's The General Returns from One Place to
Another, which I mentioned in my previous post. There's a lengthy series of
onscreen texts (fictitious, I believe, though I don't know the original
source) by a general who is rationalizing genocide and speaking about it in
esthetic terms; this text is placed against shots of a lush, yet fragile
landscape. I found this exchange disturbing and revelatory -- understanding
how something as horrible as genocide gets rationalized by those committing
it -- which is as much as you can ask from any political film. Soon-Mi
Yoo's Dangerous Supplement uses military footage shot during the Korean War
to pose the question: "Is it possible to see the landscape of the past even
though it was first seen by the other's murderous gaze?" Olivo Barbieri's
work comments on a world that "had become a little bit blurred" since 9/11,
and (for me) views cityscapes as possible targets, with the viewer firmly
in the cockpit. My own video More Than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda
pits Fonda's astute political commentary from the Vietnam era atop her
later aerobics videos, attempting to turn the latter's self-absorbed
gyrations into a kind of revolutionary stride -- and finding in the
personal and the physical the deeply political. In particular I
cherry-picked quotes of hers from 35 years ago that seemed especially
cogent in today's political climate, and hope that I blended the political
(feminist, activist, narcissist) with the personal (and the abdominal) in
ways that anyone could see and inspire in him or herself.

The other works on the first program by Child, Thornton, Robinson, and
Godard, all deal, perhaps more obliquely, with political concepts such as
image and representation, exoticizing of the other, patriotism, cultural
chauvanism, etc. But then you get to Saul Levine's program of 8mm blowups
from his activist days of the 1960s, films that remain incendiary and
provocative, and Saul's articulate discussion afterwards which clearly
connected the dots between the lingering misdeeds of that long-ago era with
the hideous criminality of the current U.S. government. What more could you
ask for in political terms?

Are you arguing that these works are not political? If so, what are your
criteria? For me, the best "political" work attempts not so much to
convince me of something, but instead to create a kind of open dialog where
I can improve my understanding and better articulate my feelings about an
issue that I feel passionate about. Many of these works, whether overtly
political or not, do that for me.

I would venture to say that if you're seeing all these works as merely
fitting "comfortably within the tradition of formalist, 'visionary' and
personal films that dominate the canonical American avant-garde," then
you're not seeing them for what they are.

One other unrelated note:

>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.

Did someone say this was supposed to be the "best" new a-g work? That's a
pretty tough standard to live up to, both for programmers and makers. I'd
rather see a well curated program of work that ebbs and flows and adds up
to something greater than the sum of its parts, where the works resonate
with each other, than a collection of perfectly cut gems all thrown
together in a basket with their edges gouging each other's side. That's one
thing that distinguishes this festival from most of the others. Color me

Scott Stark
email suppressed


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