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

From: William Wees, Dr. (email suppressed)
Date: Wed Nov 01 2006 - 15:39:52 PST

Scott makes some good points in questioning my statement about the lack of political films in the "Views" screenings. My statement applied to "Views" over the years, and was not directed specifically at this year's "Views." No doubt, I should have been a bit more cautious in my generalizations, but I think they hold true regarding "Views" screenings over the past ten years. For that matter, I think they also hold true for this year's screenings taken as a whole.
Scott is right, too, to suggest that a-g films challenge the conventions of popular, commercial filmmaking, and are, in that sense, political. But how many of the films would strike a political scientist as political--i.e.. dealing with issues such as neo-colonialism, feminism, consumerism, racism, American imperialism, etc., etc.?
Of course I'm not asking for PBS-style documentaries on political issues--or Michael Moore rants, for that matter. And I'm too far removed from the current a-g film scene to be able to name films that I think fit both categories of avant-garde and political, but I find it hard to believe they don't exist in far greater numbers than the "Views" screenings would lead us to believe. I just feel that--over all--formalist, "high art" criteria come first in the selection of films screened at "Views," and that seems to me unduly restrictive if one is interested in the full range of a-g production today.
Two last comments: Scott, your film, "More than Meets the Eye: Remaking Jane Fonda" was, indeed, political, and I should have mentioned it in my original post to Frameworks. In the Saul Levine program, the two films with truly political content were made more than 30 years ago. That doesn't mean they have no relevance today, but it does make one wonder, where are today's Saul Levines, and why aren't we seeing their films at "Views"?
Thanks for forcing me to re-think my opinions about "Views." I hope other Frameworkers will find something useful in this exchange.
--Bill Wees
William C. Wees, Editor
McGill University
 853 Sherbrooke St. West--ArtsW225
Montreal, QC H3A 2T6
514-398-4935 (telephone) 514-398-7247 (fax)


From: Experimental Film Discussion List on behalf of Scott Stark
Sent: Wed 10/25/2006 6:23 PM
To: email suppressed
Subject: Re: views on Views from the Avant-Garde Part 2

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. M!
 y 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 pedantic!

Scott Stark
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