Far from klieg lights, unknown to the E! Channel, a particular mode of filmmaking has begun to flourish again in New York, fueled by young enthusiasts and newcomers, some participants in the active San Francisco scene of the mid ’90s.
Unlike other moments in dissident cinema, there is no single new tendency or dominant content—rather a burgeoning culture of difference and purposeful derangement. The Internet may have facilitated information flow, but, in practical terms, this resurgence is not a response to some overriding technological imperative. Artists are combining digital processes with presentations based on projection equipment that could have been used a century ago.
There is no one particular center, but there is an ongoing flow. This week, the New York Underground Film Festival opens in an expanded and more experimental mode; next week, the latest feature by San Francisco filmmaker-programmer-media guerrilla Craig Baldwin gets a commercial run at Cinema Village; later in the month, the Whitney Museum begins screening a range of avant-garde films and videos as part of its 2000 Biennial. Meanwhile, institutions like Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium have been joined by new micro-cinemas (another San Francisco term) on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg.
Given the relative lack of critical attention, who could have predicted the audience that thronged the Whitney for its mind-bogglingly comprehensive retrospective of American avant-garde cinema last fall, or the crowds that packed the Walter Reade last month for an evening of lyrical diary-films by Nathaniel Dorsky? Similarly, legendary underground figures like the protean Ken Jacobs and minimalist composer Tony Conrad are lionized by audiences born years after these men made their structuralist blockbusters. Even the art world has shown a new interest in time-based film/video installations.
You know something is happening when a sure Oscar winner like American Beauty makes an alienated teen with camcorder the emblem of high-school cool. We asked a number of knowledgeable parties to discuss the current scene. Participating were filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh (professor of film at Bard College) and Brian Frye (cofounder, with Bradley Eros, of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema); programmers Gavin Smith (the Walter Reade Theater) and Astria Suparak (Pratt Institute); and Voice film critic Amy Taubin. —J. Hoberman
J. Hoberman First, a problem of terminology. Experimental, underground, and avant-garde all carry historical baggage. Peggy, what do you say when people ask what kind of movies you make?
Peggy Ahwesh Experimental films. It’s an OK shorthand to explain I’m working as an individual and keeping my choices close to home.
JH Emphasizing artisanal production.
Brian Frye Personally I try to stay away from using the words at all, because when people ask me that question, it generally means they have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s really hard for some people to even conceive of films that aren’t standard features. I mean, that’s my experience, trying to explain what I do to my parents and their friends.
JH What about the New York Underground Film Festival? Any connotations there?
Gavin Smith Well, this year, there seems to be a marked increase in what they’re calling “experimental.” The festival director, Ed [Halter], said that’s what the festival was gravitating towards. Initially the NYUFF was where subinde- pendent filmmaking comparable to Slamdance found its level.
JH I’ve heard some people use Ken Jacobs’s term “mutant cinema”—a description to suggest filmmaking that doesn’t look “normal” but is also something further evolved.
Astria Suparak I think “mutant” sounds deroga-tory. “Underground” might be more acceptable to younger generations who associate this term with music and counterculture.
JH Are they your audience at Pratt?
AS It’s mostly students from Pratt as well as other schools. Also film and video makers, people from the neighborhood and sometimes as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut.
GS I was really impressed by the turnout. Brian, do you see the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema as part of so-called micro-cinema?
BF Yeah, in a sense. That’s a situation in which filmmakers show their films and then talk about them with people who are informed and interested, a place where there’s a lot of give and take, which is something that Bradley [Eros] and I would like to do as well.
PA The programs there are so eclectic, using multiple formats and projection set-ups, audiotapes and live performance elements lovingly crafted specifically for each show.
JH How do you fund it?
BF The fact of the matter is, we really don’t. The funding for the Robert Beck is in my back pocket and Bradley’s. I have no interest in justifying myself or what we do to a bunch of bureaucrats.
JH Why are things suddenly better in New York than 10 years ago? Is there a new audience?
AS A possible reason might be the connection between the work and music.
BF Someone like Tony Conrad, who’s been around for a long time, suddenly has this incredible resurgence. He does a performance and all these 20-year-old kids come out. It’s a real testament to young people in New York City that so many show up. The one thing that really shocked me when I moved here was that there could be so many film schools and that they could be so painfully commercial. Even at the cinema studies department at NYU, which I was shamefully a part of as a graduate student—you can leave that part in—it was ridiculous. Not only did they not support anything, they weren’t even aware of it. Bard’s an exception. But it’s not in New York.
JH You mean students go to Bard and pay money or their parents’ money to learn to be mutant filmmakers?
PA Bard’s not a film school, it’s a liberal-arts environment. They’ve either come to the school with a certain perspective, or within the first two years they’re interested in this area. But it’s not like omigod, we tricked them. It’s not like we changed their minds and showed them Brakhage films.
Amy Taubin I’ve taught since 1978, and in the late ’70s, people would come because it was an easy class, it was me, and I showed movies that had sex. I would always tell them if you get seriously interested in this, you have to know that you’re not going to make any money. Now, although this is the most money-driven culture we’ve ever had, there’s also money around on the street. And people presume that money will be there for them, the way we did in the ’60s. Psychologically that’s enormously liberating.
JH Twenty years ago, people were even wondering how long the medium would last. Now, it’s like film has outlived its own death.
PA I think it’s a quality of the “quotation marks” times that we find ourselves in. Working with obsolete equipment is part of the bag of tricks an artist uses.
JH Is the distinction between film and video still even an issue?
PA Most of my students make hybrid works and go back and forth between film, video, and the computer. As long as they can find some cool textures, degraded images, and weird colors, they’re happy exploiting the fundamental qualities of the forms.
JH Like Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful.
AT I’ve thought about this because I was projecting Flat Is Beautiful in class, and it looked like shit. It had all these great ideas and images, but the technology wasn’t up to it.
GS I think Flat Is Beautiful looks great. The way it looks is the texture of pixelvision and Super 8, and it is what it is.
AT I know, that’s the argument I always make, but then I’m sitting there looking at it with people who want to make things . . .
GS . . . and it doesn’t cut it with them . . .
AT They’ve decided that they never want to make something like that.
BF The problem is more that video technology conceives of itself more as a means of replacing something than as something that’s valuable in its own right.
JH Filmmakers and videomakers used to be like two separate religions. I remember hearing videomakers complain how filmmakers fetishized what they did, going on about the tactile nature of film, “You can touch it! You can lick it!” All the things that you couldn’t do when editing video somehow made film more authentic. Now people seem more pragmatic. If you are projecting video, you may not have the flickering 24 frames per second, but you have virtually all the other properties of cinema.
AT You do, in your imagination. Some people have access to incredible video projectors, the Museum of Modern Art has one, but if I show this stuff at SVA, it’s a piece of shit.
JH One of the goals of the old avant-garde was to change the way that people looked at film—to smash a particular mind-set.
AT At Sundance there were all these dotcom companies trying to build a library to sell on the Web. They were acquiring shorts that were the most retro kinds of short narrative films that people make in film school. They weren’t looking for anything else.
JH Do the audiences at Pratt or the Robert Beck leave demanding new kinds of movies as a result, or is it like the audience that exists for poetry—people may go to readings but the writing in newspapers isn’t going to change?
AT Even in what you call the heroic period of the avant-garde, it was clear 99 percent of the movies would not make the step into the wider world because audiences would not give up narrative. People expected otherwise from inside—from the cult.
AS There’s been a definite change in the audience at Pratt. When I started showing non-narrative work a few years ago there was resistance. Even a member of the film faculty said, “I don’t understand why you are trying to get Pratt students to watch experimental films.”
BF I would make a parallel to something musical. There’s a big difference between kids who listen to Jim O’Rourke and those who listen to techno. The ones who like Jim O’Rourke will force themselves to sit and deal with something that’s slow and difficult and cerebral, and the others want to go somewhere where they can dance—the music is like wallpaper. They’re both relinquishing the “narrative” of 1-4-5 pop music, but they’re doing it in different ways.
AT Maybe the reason you see this reflowering is that young people are no longer attached to narrative in the way that people from my generation were. They’re not attached to it even in Hollywood terms, because they’ll accept the most woeful kinds of narrative just as long as it has the other stuff, or what they like about the other stuff.
GS I’ve always had three words to say to that: MTV. It seems to me MTV is a sort of training ground to wean people off of conventional narrative—disjunctive montages being a dominant stylistic device.
JH Speaking of MTV, what do you make of an art-world filmmaker like Matthew Barney?
AT People are automatically going to resent anybody who doesn’t have a hard time raising half a million dollars.
BF Barney’s the first person in a long time doing this kind of film in the art-world context where you’re expected to sit through the whole thing. That’s the big difference to me.
PA I hate it. To me, it’s like advertising that’s built on anxiety, like “I’m not good enough, I’m not rich enough.” I think that’s how people view the films. They don’t understand them. I find them really irritating. The production values are so Thorsten Veblen—conspicuous consumption. That drives me crazy.
JH Whose work would you rather promote?
GS Stephanie Barber in Milwaukee is doing interesting work. It involves optical printing, found materials, very disjunctive—the sound content at odds with the visuals. Someone we would love to program is a Boston-based filmmaker, Tracy MacCullion, who has a film called Gash. She’s a very exciting new filmmaker.
PA She’s a hand grenade! Tracy is a volatile talent with a very intuitive creative process. She makes raw, scrappy lesbian narratives with gore and stabbings and girls-on-the-run themes. Nida Sinnokrot is an emerging artist whose film and video installations use motors from old flatbeds and projectors—reinventing 24-frames-per-second movie material.
BF A lot of people are working with things that were already there. That’s one of the things that I like a lot about what Luis Recoder does; he doesn’t really alter the material he’s working with, he alters something about the way he presents it and makes it into something very different, exposing something already there.
JH You’ve all been very polite, no one’s mentioned the lack of critical discourse or journalistic attention. Whereas there are always people who want to be film reviewers, there aren’t that many inclined to report on difficult movies. Maybe this will help.
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave, 505-5110, www.anthologyfilmarchives.org
Millennium Film Workshop Inc., 66 E 4th St, 673-0090, www.millenniumfilm.org
The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at Collective: Unconscious, 145 Ludlow St, 254-5277, www.crosswinds.net/~rbmc
Pratt Film Series at Pratt Institute, Dekalb bet. Hall & Classon Sts, Brooklyn, 718-636-3422, www.pratt.edu/prattfilms
Brooklyn Babylon Cinema at Dumba, 57 Jay St, Brooklyn, 718-670-3719, www.billburg.com/ocularis
Two Boots Pioneer Theater, 155 E 3rd St, 254-3300, www.twoboots.com