Momentary Thoughts on the Avant-Garde (Under Construction)
It’s little mystery that there are other forms that film can take beside the average A plot, B plot, three-act structure (that which utilizes limitations both for creativity, and for audience pleasure; the pleasure of both knowing how a story will unfold, and in watching something unfold in a new, interesting, or smart way); many of these films attempt to perform feats that other films might easily stray away from, in that they a) might not be commercially viable, and that they b) might be considered boring by the general public which often attends movies for a more “structured” approach (of course, “structured” could just as easily apply to these films, but not due to the inner-workings of plot). These are the films on which I’ll focus here, for a brief bit, because they have caught my attention lately with their ability to capture an audience through various methods which are not necessarily analogous to the common viewing procedures, even if they, themselves, differ wholly from each other (which is very often, but not always, the case).
Of course, I do not claim any expert knowledge on avant-garde cinema, since I am almost just getting into it myself, but I do feel that there is much that can be said and debated over such a topic, and, in wishing to put my thoughts down on how I personally feel toward these works, I hope to perhaps spark such conversation. Right now, I am limiting myself to one film per filmmaker (although this may change over time) and simply detailing what I think he or she is doing with this particular film, in relation to other films and the expectations of those films, and in relation to the audience.
Meshes of the Afternoon; Maya Deren (1943)
Maya Deren spins a yarn over and over and over again, until her story has folded in on itself so many times that it can no longer hold itself together. It is interesting to see how a film like this, made by she and her husband with their own money and home, differs from the newer avant-garde, in that it, more than many others, still attempts to tell a structured story; it is different from films of that time in that it deals more with symbology and a lack of a coherent chronology (and, in that, a rather confused narrative) that would almost exemplify films that would come out much, much later (Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue utilizes a similar method of layers upon layers in which we’re never quite sure if what we’re watching is real; of course, Kon’s logic behind his film was very different from Deren’s, and, in that, they could hardly be further apart). Deren’s use of symbols and a looking glass (a window through which time will unfold again and again) provide an escape from that Hollywood style of filmmaking that was so pervasive back in the 1940’s (although she was by no means the only filmmaker participating in films against the grain).
Shift; Ernie Gehr (1974)
Gehr’s short film follows traffic on a street, which could be filmed a number of ways, and which he does, in fact, film in every number of ways; upside down, backward, canted, normal, slowly, quickly, etc. Here Gehr sets up his film with a standard shot of a car traveling down an anonymous road, and then he instantly begins eschewing notions of what is to come next by keeping us off-balance with every upcoming shot choice, and nearly every use of sound (that which doesn’t so much match the picture as it does the movement and the tone). After turning his camera every which way imaginable, he finally concludes the film with another cinematic technique – the montage – which serves as a surprise to the audience, not only because it was something Gehr himself had never experimented with (at least not publicly), but because nothing in the film would have led one to believe it possible. The film almost feels like an avant-garde Soviet work, in that its editing dynamics work to make the audience feel every cut, every sound, every shift in the possibilities that cinema brings to our natural world.
The Dante Quartet; Stan Brakhage (1987)
Brakhage’s cinema is one of intense beauty, and the landscapes he creates through paint on celluloid are some of the more expressive portraits to be placed into cinema. The Dante Quartet flows like music as Brakhage takes us deeper and deeper into the bowls of Hell, each segment of the film constituting another layer. There are no players within the film, although I suppose one could figure a story, which is not in the least explicit – no, Brakhage is more interested in a feeling imparted on his audience, one of pure emotion, and, in that, it is much more like music than anything else. There is a form that he utilizes, but it is on that is at once both intuitive and methodical at the same time; the real reason for each painting is non-existent, other than how each work will affect those viewing it (music also does not have a primary basis on form; each note is hit because it is right, as opposed to serving some higher purpose, as a shot in a film might). This film dances before the eyes, captures the heart in its grasp, and asks it to feel, to know, to understand.
And there is more to come…