The Israel Film Archive’s curated program at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen this year contained the first-ever screenings outside of Israel of David Avidan’s ribald, provocative, heretical, language-fed and machine-made cinema-poems.
One of the country’s most avant-garde poets in the 1960s, in a time when Israel was still a cultural backwater struggling to define itself, Avidan had the courage to go against the grain of Israeli poetry to define himself as a transmedia artist, a futurist, and internationalist poet.
The perspective of Avidan’s films is simple: that of revolt. In this his cinema most closely resembles that of Jean-Luc Godard’s more cantankerous films—whatever anyone could postulate, Avidan’s position could always be summarized as “no.” This stance of negation that links Avidan and Godard in their fundaments also emerges from the same source: it is language which nourishes both of their cinematic ideas.
Avidan’s film are playful. Disloyal. Provocative. Iconoclastic. Unconventional. In Sex (1970) and Split (1969), the two Avidan shorts shown at Oberhausen, there is not a single holy cow not incinerated by his literal (and metaphorical) flamethrower: The Family unit. The Army. Sex. Legality. Judaism. Jesus. The capitalist dream (back then, Israel was still a relatively socialist country). Emerging from an ethos of revolt, Avidan breaks every rule, especially the rule of grammar, the rule of the serious.
The central pillar of Sex (which Avidan half-ironically comments ”Isn’t a sex film, it is a film entitled sex,” although it also has plenty of sex proper in it), is Avidan reading a poem from atop a cross, while on a bed a naked woman writhed with sexual pleasure, her limbs splayed cruciform, as Avidan hums a Hassidic niggun as the soundtrack. Provocation is piled on provocation, all with a touch of infinite jest.
Yet, even Avidan’s provocations should not to be taken too literally. For, like all jesters, he is always also mocking himself. To do so, his films are reflexive and contain always elements of their own creation: Avidan typing, Avidan recording his poems on a Dictaphone, Avidan sleeping with his girlfriends.
“I’m still looking for the script,” declares Avidan, halfway through a film that has obviously been scripted. But his position has merit—all films, all works of art are unfinished, half-baked, works in progress. The glory of the “unfinished” emerges from a philosophy within which Avidan understands the work of an artist to be a perspective and not a career. Avidan’s playfulness, his destructiveness, which he turns even against himself, is present every statement he makes: ”I’ve always thought I had a very photogenic penis,“ Avidan declares, while displaying his rather normal-sized member on-screen. It is as if he cannot help but mock himself, valorize his weaknesses while diminishing his valor.
To revel in the pleasure of the forbidden requires a certain courage, as does using himself as a model in sex scenes (even more so in a conservative and sexually rigid country and time, in which the slightest nudity was already a provocation). Yet, such is the nature of David Avidan, the poet in permanent revolt, whose mission is destroy the old and make way for the new.
To break rules, as if often stated, requires a mastery of them. Yet first, the rules must be put on display, ridiculed for the arbitrary structures that they are. Avidan’s second film, Split, begins rhetorically, reflexively: “It’s hard to say what’s more ridiculous. To stand in front of a camera. Or behind one?”The film is not only self-aware, but aware even of that self-awareness. No ideas are pure, and everything is mixed. So a film about sex can be nothing but also a film about loneliness: “This is a film about loneliness, loneliness for two.” Whereas an act of creation can only be an act of destruction: “This is a film about getting rid of this film.”
Splits provocative opening image—a girl being undressed in the Holy City—sets the tone for the rest. Split is a film of opposites: Sex and sanctity. Filming and film. Sex and love. Poetry and image. But Avidan’s approach is never dialectical as much as experimental, playful. His shorts are infused with the innocent pleasure of messing about. Easy images (bullet holes in film) and over-easy rhymes (“The railway station is just a manifestation in correlation with transportation”) punctuate the film, often with a zest of ribald humor: “Double exposure in a camera—deeper and cheaper.”
Language is the essence of Avidan’s films and works (he was after all, primarily a poet), but even as a poet Avidan considered himself as a total artist. Film is simply the extension of poetic language into another medium. Poetry, for Avidan, is life, and a poet is a poet of everything. Of rhyme, rhythm, variation, color, film, sound. And if a poet has a task it is as much to break apart, to lay bare, as it is to create: to break down limitations of form—poetic limits, artistic limits, cultural limits—in order to establish new ones, and plant the seeds of revolt.
Avidan is a manifestation of the figure of the jester, of Picasso’s melancholic harlequin, whose mission is to bring joy to others, yet at the price of self-sacrifice. And price he paid. For his revolt, Avidan was punished by a society not yet ready for his innovation, or for his contempt. David Avidan is said to have starved himself to death divorced, debt-ridden, and pariah. His films banned. His life a mockery. The sad and melancholic joker who committed suicide through hunger, in a world that may have been a bit too serious.
Special thanks to Ori Drumer, guest curator of the exhibition "David Avidan: Media Prophet," for contributing anecdotes, ideas, and context for this article.
"David Avidan: Media Prophet" is running June 6 – November 30, 2019 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.