Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Avant-garde film & poetry

So I'm working on a review of the new release in the Treasures from American Film Archives series that focuses on avant-garde film. One thing I haven't decided whether to include is how so many AG filmmakers have opposed having their work available on video because of their ideas about the purity of the film medium. Even DVD isn't immune: there's a guy who claims to have run scientific tests that "prove" films on DVD are inferior to VHS. The filmmakers aren't completely wrong but this attitude sounds like poets refusing to allow their work to be translated into another language and if that sounds completely ridiculous that's because it is. Poems are going to lose far more in translation than seeing a 16mm AG film on DVD (though it's arguable that a translated poem can gain something in replacement while that could never happen with video).

I think two factors are at work here. First and most obvious is that poetry has a long and valued history of translation, not just works but entire forms such as the sonnet and sestina have come from other languages. AG filmmakers frequently called the shots and given the opportunity for a wider audience far too many show a circle-the-wagons mentality. Second, the filmmakers tend to lack a sense of how distribution and marketing (in the broadest sense) work or at best only in a very limited arena. Poets understand publishing, running magazines, selling, reading, etc and there's a wide if half-submerged support network. AG filmmakers won't get into Blockbuster any more than most living poets will get into B&N but they also don't seem to understand that there are alternatives. I'm not talking about Bruce Conner releasing his films on an insanely expensive DVD that was only available through a gallery. [I've since been informed that this is not quite correct. The gallery DVD was available for a donation to a charity - Conner apparently got no money from it and the donation could be as low as $20. The retail DVD has two films for $50. Certainly expensive but whether it deserves an "insanely" is your call.] That's art world thinking and should be fought at every opportunity. While most might need a lab to do the film transfer there are various possibilities ranging from many of the indie labels to burning your own DVDs.

The other thing that I know won't go into the review is how so many AG films get called "poetic" or compared to poetry but I suspect this may be due to a confusion between the word "image" being used literally for a film and more abstractly for something else in poetics. For example, Shirley Clarke's film of various bridges around NYC could be labeled poetic - it's non-narrative with shots of bridges (both extreme long and close-ups) that are super-imposed with some visual manipulations. Similarities are brought out and aspects of bridges that might sometimes be ignored are foregrounded. But I'm not sure this is quite the same as poetic. Just compare to Hart Crane's The Bridge, the opening section of which has:
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen

I'm not trying to "prove" they're different; that would be pointless. It's just that "poetic" is used too losely in film criticism.