Avant Garde: Academic Study and Film Culture

Girish is hosting a blog-a-thon on avant-garde cinema. (See his post for a full list of links.) I'm a day late, but I thought I'd take the occasion to reflect on avant-garde studies within the academy. I tend to find much theoretical and critical study of avant-garde work insufficiently critical - that is, scholars tend to take up the very position of avant-gardism of the work they study in a way that they would never do in approaching a commercial narrative film. I don't mean to paint with broad brushstroke or suggest that this all avant-garde study is currently about, but it does seem a real methodological pitfall for those, like me, who argue that film scholarship can and often should take a detached, analytical stance toward its object of study. (Incidentally, documentary studies has its own version of this pitfall.)

On the other hand, even the detached stance cannot adequately explain the avant-garde's textuality, history or social function without reconstituting the aesthetic formations in which the films were produced and received. This becomes particularly crucial when teaching the avant-garde as part of a general film curriculum; students are often so keen to dismiss non-fiction, non-documentary filmmaking as worthless that it's worth devoting some energy to suggest why some consider(ed) avant-garde films as the fullest expression of cinematic art.

Furthermore, whether we're talking about pedagogy or scholarship proper, the availability of avant-garde texts is slim enough that even the most distant of historians or critics might find some worth in encouraging a film culture that circulates avant-garde film texts. Girish's commenters have compiled some suggestions of avant-garde films on DVD release, but the brtue reality is that the vast plurality of the major, not to mention minor, films of the avant-garde have either no video release or else a release so expensive that educational or institutional exhibition is the only real option. So you get Brakhage, Deren, the 20s avant-garde, and a handful of filmmakers that have decided to self-release; missing are postwar American experimental work, structural materialism and the post-1970 co-op distributed films. And then there are those you can't show in a classroom even if you wanted to: perhaps my personal favorite and an interesting historical example of the expressive vocabulary of midcentury American experimental filmmaking, Gregory Markopoulos's Twice a Man, does not have any general 16mm distribution outside select festival and archival showings. Now, obviously there are reasons that video release would be inferior of even useless compared to film screenings, but with schools increasingly turning away from film screening in their cinema studies classes, a lack of video formats means an absence of the avant-garde in course syllabi.

Against this backdrop, Michael Zryd's essay, "The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship and Dependence." (Cinema Journal 45.2) makes a twofold argument. First, he argues polemically for the academy's continued support of avant-garde filmmaking, along the lines I consider above. Second, he makes an analytical argument that avant-garde practice can only be understood properly by taking into account the imbrications between avant-garde filmmaking and academic film studies:

Since the exponential rise of film studies as a discipline in the mid-1960s,universities have supported avant-garde film production, sustained its distribution co-ops, and served as its primary site of exhibition in North America. Furhtermore, because sales and rentals to universities are the primary market for avant-garde film, scholarly criticism - serving a de facto publicity function - has had a decisive impact on the avant-garde film world in a way that is unthinkable for narrative feature-length filmmaking. (17).
Zryd here is performing what I think is an interesting balancing act, on one hand pledging a scholar's allegiance to avant-garde film culture while subjecting the avant-garde to the sorts of archival historical analysis that one would normally apply to feature filmmaking. In this case, instead of studio records, he sorts through booking receipts of the Filmmaker's Coop. It might not completly avoid the pitfalls of participant-observer criticism (and I know many will object to my objections on this matter), but it reframes them in a productive way.


Brian Darr said…
Hi. Really interesting. I'm trying to sort through the implications of what you are saying. Is Zryd suggesting that the rise of the film studies discipline has influenced filmmakers to create work calculated to appeal to academics in particular, as a way to reach for the maximum proceeds from the rental of their films? And if so, is this a bad thing or a good thing? Is it any different than a Hollywood or Indiewood filmmaker tailoring work to the sensibilities of influential critics or festival programmers? Lots to ponder.
Chris Cagle said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Cagle said…
... whoops trying to get the hang of Blogger's commenting.

Yes, Zryd is arguing that academic study greatly overdetermines the market for contemporary avant-garde work, though perhaps as you suggest, it would be interesting to see case studies of actual, traceable influence.

As far as bad or good thing, Zryd maintains that traditionally mediamakers have seen the academic market/influence as a necessary evil, whereas Zryd suggests that both sides see the relationship more positively.
Squish said…
After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you'd like to be a part of it:


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