Alan Sondheim on Mon, 11 Apr 2005 21:05:37 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Jennifer Lopez on Sitney's The Essential Cinema (fwd)

The Power Vacuum / Vacuum Power

"In 1975, within a small but important cultural institution, a small group
of men laid down the law." (Alan Sondheim)

Front cover: Stark: white letters on black background:

"THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA: / Essays on the films / in the collection of /
Anthology Film Archives /// edited by P. Adams Sitney ///// Volume One //
Anthology Film Archives Series 2"

This is the _essential_ cinema in 1975, chosen by committee, unified in a
singular volume, published by the New York University Press. The myth is
at work as the 'avant-garde' establishes not only its 'manifesto' (Sitney)
- but also its absolute canon, however "open" to present and future

Spine: Stark: black letters on white background. Of note:

The _Washington Square Arch_ logo at the base, with this marriage:

"New York University Press and Anthology Film Archives." In addition of
course: "THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA / P. Adams Sitney, ed."

Archives: Already doing the reader's work. This _essential_ collection is
permanent and permanently institutionalized; these are the films _that
will survive._

Back cover: Stark: black letters on white background. Of note:

"Anthology Film Archives is unique among the cinematheques of the world in
that it selects, preserves, and exhibits a body of essential films which
attempts to define the art of film-making. _The Essential Cinema_ combines
some of the polemical, critical, and scholarly activities of Anthology
Film Archives in book form."

Absent from the film list: Antonioni, Godard, Bergmann, Fellini. Present
in great profusion: Brakhage (never mind that he was apparently part of
the "initial committee" that included Mekas, Sitney, Kubelka, and Kelman.
Later Broughton came in and it looks like Brakhage got bounced. Ten of
Broughton's films are essential. Thirty-eight of Brakhage's are. Bunuel
gets four, Chaplin eight, Buster Keaton three (one of which is a 'prog-
ram'), Griffith the usual two (forget The Wind), Edison none, Bresson
seven, Cornell ten, Eisenstein four, you get the idea. This is the cinema
of cinema, although:

"Within the scale of avantgarde sensibilities there is a wide divergence
among these five men. However, they are a principle: that a high art of
film emerges primarily when its artists are most free." And: "The
curriculum it (The Essential Cinema) provides constitutes a film history
for a student and aspiring film-maker who wants to know the medium as an
_asethetic endeavor._ Within the range of film as an art Anthology Film
Archives attempts to leave out one of the most sublime achievements."

The language smacks of connoisseurship: "avantgarde, high, free, aesthetic
endeavor, sublime." Gender and class are absent, as is - not only Holly-
wood (for which a case might be made, i.e. already over-exposed and
overtly manipulative) - but also, as noted, Godard for example, Antonioni
for another - and that in spite of the latter's trilogy, and the former's
furious and deconstructive assaults on cinema, culture, ideology, war.
Also absent of course - any sign of pornography or erotic filmmaking (one
might include Deren's Meshes but hardly and barely), although the
so-called art or blue films dating back at least through the 20s exhibit
many of the characteristics of "free" as well as deconstructive narrative
(let's get it over with, let's let it fall apart).

Not only connoisseurship, but Deren, Menken, and a few others notwith-
standing, males dominate; both initial and final committee had no women,
or minorities (although "Lithuanian" might pass). What passes for freedom
comes within and beneath the aegis of power; what might be a discursive
formation is transformed into a monolithic and exclusionary canon. No
wonder that "art film" was at a loss before feminism; it remained bound on
one hand to a fairly traditional poetics of film (or a traditional poetics
that was new within film, to give it its due), ad on the other to a
neutralized simulacrum of downer culture with Warhol's stases. To be sure
_at that time_ the excitement was there, but it was the excitement of an
old boy's club, which still dominates cultural worlds in one form or
another. It would appear to some of us that, in order to be "free," the
essential would be always already problematized - and that the _words_
"free" and "freedom" were questionable from the start, as ideological
formations. This is the difficulty with any manifesto whatsoever - funny,
furious, revolutionary, tongue-in-cheek: it's an indication, if not an
_implication_ (in the sense of _implicated_) of believers - it carries far
too much baggage, and its potential anti-authoritarianism is also the
greatest authoritarianism conceivable, since other positionings are
relegated to the differend.

(For example, where is video? Are materialities, diegetic experimentation,
real-time, confined at this early date to film? Kathy Acker and Alan
Sondheim had completed their work; Nam June Paik had been around for
decades; Acconci and many other artists had worked in video and short film
for that matter; Ron Michaelson and others abroad had produced amazing
work. Clearly the "film-world" was a thing apart; from the officiated
viewpoint of the Anthology, "avantgarde" went only so far. "Free," yes,
but "free" within the bounds of medium, genre, and habitus; nothing else
would do, was even possible. To some extent, Jack Smith crossed over into
performance - that was it. Smith rates three in the film list.)

This book, which contains mind you wondrous essays, represents both the
hope and downfall of the "avantgarde": just when you thought you could
breathe again, the air disappears...

                                                       - Jennifer Lopez


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