In Movie Journal, bits and pieces from a twelve-year period of writing for the Village Voice (1959-1971), Jonas Mekas views New York as a lively site for avant-garde, its theaters, basements, and lofts replete with antagonists—U.S. reviewers, police, and European critics.1 The underground city spaces are scenes of discovery and confrontation, with artists and their films always on the horizon, forming what Bakhtin calls a heterology. The enunciation is conversational, a celebratory dialogue more than a monologue or tome, with the invocation of cohorts and nemeses. The collection is an impressionistic micropolitics of the 1960s underground, what Foucault might call an archeology, albeit unlike Foucault, concerned with person and authorship; or what Deleuze and Guattari might call a map as opposed to a tracing. Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant, poet, journalist, filmmaker, and diarist was charting an artistic geography set within the peace movement and the generational revolt of the counterculture.
Although much simpler and even chatty, his manner is akin to de Certeau’s in his European city of theory and daily life, and reminiscent of Benjamin’s strolls through Berlin seen from the riverbanks of Paris. Like de Certeau, he has no great unifying system of artistic (like urban) planning; like Benjamin, Mekas’s presence is inscribed—he inhabits the city about which he writes. More importantly, he strays from the path, absorbing experiences, listening. One significant difference in the 1980s is that theory, like Jack Deller, rarely listens, particularly to art or women, speaking out of context or in any context only to allies who aren’t listening anyway—like the cocktail party scene behind closed doors in Rainer’s film.
(The story would be different in Los Angeles, the city of freeways and drivers. Because Manhattan is an island, the theorist can still be a pedestrian. And while Mekas speaks of and praises women artists, they are on the periphery, although not cordoned off or qualified.)
On Mekas’s forays into the city as a series of underground art events, he tells us about his friends, how Brakhage is feeling, and Bail lie’s concern about pollution. Or when describing the third New York Film Festival symposium, which included Pauline Kael and Hoi lis Alpert: “I was glad when Gregory Markopoulos stood up and, trembling with rage, told him that he was a soulless moron” (205). History is personal, anecdotal, a series of fragments, always in relation to the present, rather like Rainer, whose work is personal, satirical, political—concerned with the everyday. The immediacy is comparable to “thisness, hereness, nowness,” what Deleuze and Guattari call haecceity (remember high school Latin and hie, haec, hoc—that tested litany?): “Nor do I put my stakes in the future: I am now and here” (vii); So Is This is another experience of haecceity.
Although the heart of this Lithuanian poet was in New York (“I am a regionalist. . . . No abstract internationalism for me”[vii]), avant-garde had few spatial, temporal, stylistic, economic, or intellectual boundaries—neither media, nor technology, nor nation. The only delimitations were personal and cultural blind spots, refusals to see. Although his criticism evokes Art and Beauty, the view is anti-establishment—anti-institutional, nonhierarchical, and anti-money—the inverse of intellectual values of the 1980s. Avant-garde, elided with a commitment to experimentation and personal-social change, had everything to do with everyday life, including radical politics. Mekas fervently believed that we could only change the world after we changed ourselves, the way we thought—perhaps comparable to Deleuze and Guattari’s advocacy.
“Rhizome” and other chapters from A Thousand Plateaus reminded me of Mekas, like an echo from another period.2 The analogy is not literal, more like an overtonal montage which, as Eisenstein described it, is almost a fourth dimension superseding, or in spite of, Deleuze’s brief mentions of “experimental” film in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image which he describes as molecular (rather than molar), genetic, gaseous perception, the latter an unfortunate coinage.3 However minimal and exceptional the references to Snow, Brakhage, or Land, it could be argued that like feminism and television, appropriated as theoretical objects for models of postmodernism, avant-garde cinema is a model of time and movement more central than Deleuze acknowledges. His theory of cinema—predicated on Bergson along with Peirce (following in the late 1960s footsteps of Peter Wollen in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and de Lauretis in 1984 in Alice Doesn’t)—is presented through a division between classical narrative and the modern European narrative. Mekas sees little difference between the two. The Gold Diggers crosses Deleuze’s rather unbreachable distinction between classical and modern cinemas, also overturning the narrative/experimental bipolarity by instantiating politics: female subjectivity.
In On the Line (1983) and A Thousand Plateaus, D and G describe their book as an agencement, an arrangement, with neither subject nor object, with “lines of articulation or segmentation, strata, territorialities; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and of destratification.”4 Movie journal is in line with the pantheon of Sitney and Michelson (or they with Mekas)—Brakhage, Smith, Markopoulos, Anger, Land, Snow, Frampton, and Jacobs. However, the significance accorded Warhol’s films and temporality signals one crucial difference. Mekas’s quarrels with the European, narrative avant-garde or the nouvelle vague, and with U.S. film reviewers and festival organizers, are constant binary oppositions or lines of segmentation to which I will return. However, unlike Sitney, his inclination is that of D and G’s rhizomatic structure, spreading out in many and unpredictable directions, taking off in lines of flight. “We speak of nothing but multiplicities, lines, strata and segmentations, lines of flight and intensities . . . and their selection. . . . Writing has nothing to do with signifying [a brazen remark], but with land-surveying and map-making” (5).
In one of his longest pieces, Mekas, walking with Ken and Flo, talking about walking with Stan, arrives at Jack Smith’s loft, at 11:30 P.M. “One slowly began to perceive that this was not just a set for some kind of theatre piece that was coming up, a background, a crutch for it: No, this set, this arrangement [a concept central to D and G] was already the content. . . of the evening, of the play, it was there and it spoke already at us, and acted upon us . . . around 1:30 or thereabout. . . it was no longer essential what would come or should come . . . and Jack walking there . . . picking up this and that, and whatever he did or didn’t do, and whatever his actors did, by almost doing nothing, or by doing something . . . all the theatres had been closed and over, long ago. . . all the ugly, banal, stupid theatres of the world, and that only here, . . . was this huge junk set. . . the final burial rites of the capitalist civilization . . . only Jack Smith was still alive, a madman . . . we knew we had seen one of the greatest and purest theatre evenings of our lives . . . as we walked, silently” (397). This arrangement (and Mekas’s response), a series of middles and their connections, which had no discernible plan, no beginning, ending, or set time, is, for me, a perfect emblem of rhizomatic criticism or thought, what D and G call a “multiplicity.” Ken Jacobs’s 1963 Blonde Cobra is also structured like a rhizome, an arrangement of bits and pieces of Smith’s performances and characters, abandoned footage filmed by Bob Fleischer and Smith which Jacobs later edited.
For D and G, binary logic, dualisms, and even great structures are limits: “Each time a multiplicity is caught up in a structure, its growth is offset by a reduction in the laws of combination” (8). Smith, like Joseph Cornell, two artists treasured by Mekas, deals with arts of combination, multiplicities (for Smith, transsexualities and identities) which Mekas does not reduce by catching them “up in a structure.” For D and G, like the avant-garde in the 1960s, the multiple must be made and it will be a rhizome, “absolutely distinct from roots and radicals” (10). The mundane examples of rhizomes are rats which “move by sliding over and under each other. There is the best and the worst in the rhizome: the potato, the weed” (11). The tree structure embodies order, hierarchy, a beginning and an end. The “rhizome can be connected with any other without radical separation . . . between regimes of signs” (11). D and G’s botanical analogy is echoed by Mekas: “Drop me anywhere, into a dry . . . stone place . . . and I’ll begin to grow” (vii). Or, Mekas as the farmer, midwife, mother hen: “So I kept running about my chickens, cackling, look how beautiful my chickens are . . . and everybody thinks they are ugly ducklings!” (ix).
While Mekas can be taken as an early theorist of postmodernism, endorsing Warhol, Burroughs (as do D and G), and Godard comparable to Wollen’s model, he might better be taken as a theorist of arts of the everyday—like de Certeau, with rhizomatic roots in the anarchistic everyday of the historical avant-garde which in the 1960s had migrated to New York art galleries as surrealism, transformed in Europe into “the situationists.” A poetic emblem of Mekas’s valuation of the everyday is Joseph Cornell, “the real poet of dailiness, of the unpretentious, of the anti-art film” (110). Warhol is another, as is George Landow with his early loop film. “What CornelI’s movies are is an essence of the home movie. They deal with things very close to us, every day and everywhere. Small things, not the big things. Not wars, not stormy emotions, dramatic clashes or situations. His images are much simpler” (407). Like the “anti-art” film, D and G claim to write the “anti-cultural book” (“The rhizome is an anti-genealogy” ). The similarities between phraseology are many and uncanny.
Mekas’s description of a visit to Cornell’s basement is comparable to the theater event in Smith’s loft: “I looked in amazement at all kinds of little things in incredible number—frames, boxes, reels, little piles of mysterious objects and parts of objects, on walls, on tables, on boxes, and on the floor, in paper bags, and benches and chairs—wherever I looked I saw mysterious things growing, little by little. And there was Joseph Cornell himself, walking kindly among them, touching one, touching another, adding some detail, or just looking at them, or dusting them off—the Gardener—so they grow into their fragile, sensitive, sublime, and all-encompassing perfections.” Perhaps nothing could better describe D and G’s rhizome—this beautiful scene even replicating the plant metaphor. The films of Cornell are “invisible cathedrals . . . almost invisible, unless you look for them” (410).
In addition to his style of thought and value, Mekas depicts 1960s avant-garde cinema in its entirety as a line of flight: “The medium of cinema is breaking out and taking over and is going blindly and by itself. Where to—nobody knows. I am glad about both: That it’s going somewhere, and that nobody knows where it’s going. I like things out of control. . . . The currents that are moving within us, and are externalized by the artists, are ripe with new impulses and they spurt out in uncontrollable and unfamiliar gushes. So the avant-garde artists themselves sit in the audience, surprised, repeating, ‘What the hell is happening?’ “ (209).
For me, On the Line is a model of avant-garde which advocates the overthrow of ontology (unlike the arguments of romanticism or the revelation of the signifier), the dismissal of foundations, the nullification of beginnings and endings. The logic of connections, of “and . . . ,” is exemplary as a model for the political and artistic counterculture—from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, a series of shifting, intersecting alliances, connecting in the middle. For D and G, the “middle is not at all an average—far from it—but the area where things take on speed” (58). “A rhizome . . . is always in the middle, between things. . . . The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, exclusively alliance” (57). “A rhizome never ceases to connect semiotic chains, organizations of power, and events in the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (12).
I think of volatile, mobile, eclectic, counterculture formations, including cooperatives like Ant Farm and their crazy-quilt participants and diverse projects, the intersection of political allegiances—from civil rights to Vietnam to ecology to women to freedom of speech, the connections sought between the local and the global, networking together and imagined as linked in the future by electronic technologies of immediacy. (The 1960s concept of the global and the local, which gained currency through McLuhan and video visionaries, is again in style; this strategy of radical action has been recently rediscovered by Stuart Hall, Donna Haraway, and de Lauretis, however, as a new tactic.) If the international “middle” (like women, blacks, youth, local actions, and wars of liberation) could connect in a new constellation of multiplicity, the structures of power with clear boundaries (and what D and G call “faciality,” which I will not develop) of beginnings and endings could be bypassed. The cross-country traversal of the United States by mutual actions like civil rights and end the war movements are examples of geographical decentering. Like politics, art also involved a nomadic entering and leaving by traveling filmmakers.
D and G’s structure describes the impulse and reality behind the filmmaker’s cooperatives and distribution centers, “a-centered systems,” the way the thing worked: “networks of finite automata, where communication occurs between any two neighbors, where channels or links do not pre-exist, where individuals are all interchangeable, and are defined only by their state at a given moment, and in such a way that local operations are co-ordinated and the final overall result is synchronized independently of any central authority” (38). This is also a perfect description of the international workings of AA;5 avant-garde functioned in a comparable manner, at least for a while, before it solidified in one version into a historical Great Artist, hierarchical, segmented system.
D and G’s emphasis on the middle reiterates many films’ strategy—without titles or closing credits (usually taken as opposition to ownership and star authorship, the denial of either film or maker as commodities), without clearly demarked beginnings and often with only tails out endings. Conner’s A Movie is a series of middles and connections, a film without a beginning, with titles and credits broken up and interspersed in the middle; rather than an ending, there is a respite—the film runs down, exhausted. The orchestration of chase scenes and disasters is a rhizome, or to use another of D and G’s metaphors, a river or a stream, without beginning or ending, racing along, picking up speed in the middle and chipping away at the banks which try to contain it. That D and G invoke U.S. pragmatism is apparent in this metaphor, reminiscent of William James, who argues in 1894 that consciousness (or time) was not a series of discrete events but that it flowed—like a river or a stream, a “stream of consciousness.” Mekas’s references to James Joyce, like Smith’s invocation of Baudelaire (in Blonde Cobra), are signals of modernism’s pragmatism.
D and G’s method is “pragmatism [which] . . . puts together multiplicities or aggregates of intensities” (32). “Aggregates of intensities” resembles the sublimity that Lyotard seeks to retain in events, and perhaps the passion and structure of the counterculture, remembered in the 1980s by postmodern critics as the lost intensity provided by live events, direct action, and binary oppositions—the visible and palpable clarity of “Which side are you on?” Unlike much postmodern negativity—a disdain for the present, fear of the future, and desire for the past—D and G, like Mekas, are looking for the “truly beautiful, loving, or political” (33). For Mekas, “evil and ugliness will take care of themselves; it is the beautiful and good that need our care. It is easier to criticize than to care; why choose the easy way” (59). About Ken Jacobs’s films: “All things that are clear make us more radiant. These films do not want our soul; these films do not want our money; these films do not want our votes. . . . Jacobs’ . . . shapes and forms transmit to us, evoke in us, or rather produce in us the states and forms of radiance . . . a happiness of one who is totally awake, in full consciousness. That’s the difference between art and LSD” (351). Like Brakhage, Mekas’s stance on drugs was very different from, for example, romanticism and video visionaries.
The rhizomatic structure is set against arborescent structures—the geneological, hierarchical model of the tree, the search for roots, a structure branching down akin to linguistics, information theory, communication schema, and most scholarship. The tree model, like corporate hierarchies, doesn’t suggest a popular methodology for D and G. Mekas: “You see, I search for nothing, absolutely nothing. Search means nothing to me, it’s meaningless. All I want is to celebrate a few things, a few very beautiful, unique, simple things. . . . It has to do with energy that sustains life and makes it more luminous” (406). For D and G, the U.S. avant-garde, the underground, are “lateral shoots in immediate connection with an outside” (43). This outside is not what Bergstrom calls for; rather, “we shall never ask what a . . . signifier or signified means . . . instead we shall wonder with what it functions, with what it transmits intensities or doesn’t” (3). D and G., like Mekas, like Lyotard, seek “luminous energy,” the “transmission of intensities,” the “evocation of radiance.” Like Lyotard’s sublimity, this resembles Eisenstein’s “ecstasy” which was an awakening. In all these accounts, pathos, affect are valued as transformative. During the 1970s and 1980s, the emotions were out of fashion.
Mekas endorses what Deleuze, drawing on particle physics and quantum mechanics, might describe as image-time, not the image as consciousness of something but the image as consciousness in which “the reality seems to be transformed into a . . . field of energy, aesthetic energy”; in Serene Velocity by Ernie Gehr or Wavelength, “we react kinestically to the movements of the light. But through the form we reach deeper, into the indescribable, into the invisible: we reach into the area of relationships, proportions. You can’t put your finger on it. . . like the atom, splitting. . . . All architecture, I am told, is a question of relationships. . . . When two things are put together in right relationships, they sing . . . ninety-nine percent [of the under and above ground films) do not sing at all. They do not even hum. They puff, they squeak, they honk—but they don’t sing” (347).
As I stated earlier, Mekas espoused, as perhaps D and G do in the 1980s, that change must occur from within, “that the real work must be done inside; that others can be reached only through the beauty of your own self” (155). Mekas represents the peace and love aspect of the counterculture, inflected by Eastern, meditative (Buddhist) thought: “Goodness . . . is boring to most of us. . . . Evil is exciting. . . . We go to movies to get the taste of the seven sins. . . . But goodness bores us; quietness bores us; simplicity bores us. Even love bores us, unless it is perverted. . . . The words ‘amateur’ (from ‘love’) and ‘home’ are used to describe something bad” (131). His belief in the goodness of amateur and 8mm film (against commercial cinema) is an endorsement of technology and availability comparable to the video guerrillas’ faith in home video (with their opposition to commercial television). “Films . . . will be made everywhere and by everybody. The empires of professionalism and big budgets are crumbling. Every day I meet young men and women who sneak into town . . . with reels of film under their coats. . . . They screen them at some friend’s loft. . . and then disappear. . . . They are the real film troubadours. This is about the best thing that has happened to cinema since Griffith shot his first close-up” (20). (Brakhage published A Moving Picture Giving and Taking BOOK in 1971, reprinted from Film Culture.)
This belief in rhizomatic multiplicity is consistent with D and G’s “magic formula”: “PLURALISM = MONISM” in which one passes “through all the dualisms which are the enemy, but the altogether necessary enemy, the furniture we never stop moving around” (47). Or as Mekas writes, “The old banalized culture keeps looking at the new in oppositions, in negations, while in truth the process is that of deepening, cleansing, expanding, widening, adding. The question is how much can one widen or add without upsetting people’s balance so much that they see it as ‘opposed’ to what they know already” (400).
Comparable to the difference between rhizomatic and arborescent structures, D and G set the map against the tracing, again as an allegory of the rhizome: “Contrary to a tracing, which always returns to the ‘same,’ a map has multiple entrances. A map is a matter of performance, whereas the tracing always refers to an alleged competence” (26). The visit to Smith’s loft is a matter of performance rather than alleged competency—the lack of which has been a constant criticism of avant-garde films. Mekas: “Even the mistakes, the out-of-focus shots, the shaky shots . . . the overexposed and underexposed bits are part of the vocabularly. The doors to the spontaneous are opening. . . . What the old, smart generation thinks important the new artist finds unimportant. ... It is the insignificant, the fleeting, the spontaneous, the passing that reveals life and has all the excitement and beauty” (40). “The passing” is comparable to Heath’s distinction between preconstruction, construction, and passage—the latter, his key to the reception of avant- garde films. Mekas’s is a philosophy of everyday life, experienced in the present, in the moment, in the here and now, haeceity, while not forgetting the past.
The Gold Diggers is a map, with multiple entrances and exits for women. So is The Man Who Envied Women, which is an update of Mekas’s New York. The cardboard cut-out figures or silhouettes of Snow’s earlier New York Eye and Ear Control (A Walking Woman Work) (1964), a film version of Jensen’s Gradiva without either Jensen’s or Freud’s diagnoses, have, in these two films, become women rather than artistic or scholastic delusions.
A structure of segmentation, the “furniture we never stop moving around,” threads through Mekas’s writing: the “altogether necessary enemies” are newspaper reviewers who ignore or disparage avant-garde films, most commercial cinema (with constant exceptions, for example, Hawks, Welles, Rosselini, and Marilyn Monroe), and European critics. Like critics’ endless charges of the technical ineptness and unprofessionalism of the films and events, the second repeated criticism (in addition to boredom—a quality inherent in the viewer rather than the work; boredom is self-inflicted, like knowledge) has been the lack of politics. Mekas’s running dispute with the European narrative cinema anticipates virtually all of the late 1970s critiques except feminism (which restates these positions for feminism with newer theories and terminology), a debate outlined by divergent definitions of politics.
In a “talk” with Louis Marcorelles, a French critic: “I personally feel that cinema should be highly socially responsible, in the Brechtian line. Cinema has to be located in a given time . . . a given purpose.” Mekas: “But that’s what we are doing. In Brazil they have hunger problems. But here we have hunger of the soul. . . . If you’d think deeper about the underground cinema you’d find that it reflects the American man as deeply as the Brazilian cinema reflects the Brazilian man.” Marcorelles: “I feel that the underground cinema is completely divorced from America.” Mekas: “. . . For the essence of the American man was beginning to die, he was becoming like a machine and like money.” That Mekas shares the belief that pluralism = monism, the result of rhizomatic thought, is clear in this remark: “It may seem to you that we’re all mixed up. But that’s part of what we are doing. This mixup, this confusion is part of the New American Cinema. We don’t like separations. The cinema is one.” Marcorelles: “It’s not realistic.” Mekas: “It’s unrealistic to separate” (237-241). The infinite variety of styles, times, and qualities of films as one makes sense within this construct. That Marcorelles and Mekas are on very different wavelengths is also apparent.
In 1966, Mekas reported the following comments, the first by Carlos Saura: “ ‘The conception of this type of cinema is extremely amateurish, elementary.’ He walked out of Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls, commenting: ‘This underground cinema is disastrous and a disgrace.’ ” “Agnes Varda commented on the films . . . of Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer. . . . ‘They are useless.’ ” “Pasolini commented on Scorpio Rising, ‘This is an easy way of making films’ ” (257-258). Responding in 1969 to a comment in “a Paris film monthly” that “the American film avant-garde is totally apolitical,” he replied: “The Old Establishment, the capitalists, and the New Left all miss the true meaning, and they all hate it. The capitalist hates . . . [it] because, if he be exposed to it, his very heart would be transformed, the beast would be killed. Those of the New Left who hate it are latent capitalists. My God, apolitical! . . . How strange, and how corrupt it is to think of politics only in terms of films (or actions) of destruction. . . . Our home movies are manifestoes of the politics of truth and beauty. Our films will help to sustain man, spiritually. . .” (351-352). (Claire Johnston also took European art cinema and particularly Varda to task, preferring John Ford’s representation of women; Johnston sided with auteur criticism’s appeal to and valuation of popular culture.)
One European narrative filmmaker was acknowledged as an intellectual ally. In 1968, Mekas wrote: “ Weekend reconfirms my belief that Godard . . . is coming closer and closer to the techniques and aesthetics of the New American cinema. It’s interesting . . . how Ron Rice . . . in The Flower Thief, in one big stroke managed to liberate himself from most of the restricting conventions of the cinema and the society, while it took Godard six years and ten movies to do the same, and he still hasn’t made the final plunge into freedom . . . privately he still plays games with the capitalist cinema, with the Daddy’s Cinema . . . (324). In June 1970: “Pravda is Godard’s best film to date. With Pravda Godard finally abandons commercial cinema and joins the underground . . . we have much higher and stricter standards in the underground. A commercial film can never be discussed in terms of the perfection we have in the underground film” (385).
Mekas’s definition of politics, including the war in Vietnam, which circles throughout his reviews, emerges in his referrals to Warhol’s films which reveal the bleak underside of commodity culture, the tedium and destruction of values of capitalist exchange performed on bodies; sex is a commodity of exchange (neither hetero nor homosexual, perhaps Barthes’s “multiplicity of homosexualities” but taken to bleak rather than “glittering” ends), not an erotics but a monotony, its unpleasurable banality another addiction, like drugs, leading nowhere except to more sex, just something to do. “The terror and hardness that we see in The Chelsea Girls is the same terror and hardness that is burning Vietnam; and it’s the essence and blood of our culture, of our ways of living: This is the Great Society. . . . These works, once understood and embraced . . . would exorcise us from terror” (257). The art historical interpretations of Warhol as the critic/celebrator of the pleasures of consumer culture become ludicrous in front of many of his films. While his silk screens might be about the surface of franchise and celebrity culture, many of his films are all about the relentless passage of time, of deathly repetition. Freud’s Beyond The Pleasure Principle and the death drive signaled by repetition are taken literally, with anxiety rather than pleasure the spectatorial affect.
Warhol’s films also fit with Mekas’s Eastern metaphysic: “As Buddha says, the more personal you are the more universal you are” (377). Regarding Eat, Empire, Sleep: “It is a cinema that reveals the emergence of meditation and happiness. . . . If all people could sit and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and meditate upon it, there would be no more wars, no hate, no terror. . .” (155). And, in 1966 regarding Eat: “We are beginning to see ourselves in a different perspective, or in no perspective, at all, perhaps, but in the simultaneity of distances—like looking at ourselves from outside and inside at the same time, out of our own body” (247). This simultaneity of distances, the collapse of perspective and distinctions between outside and inside, is sophisticated theory—perhaps of D and G’s simulacrum.
It is the countercultural stance against money, against commerce that clearly drives the period and differentiates the avant-garde from postmodernism. For Mekas, “we shouldn’t give in even an inch to the commercial temptations” (278). And earlier, “Let’s keep our art free of any sponsorship, whoever the sponsor may be” (114). Making films with the artists’ own unfettered money was the only hope for personal creation. I suspect that artists might view this position as sacrificial ly ideal.
The title of a 1964 piece, “Report from Jail,” and other items chart the decade’s struggle over censorship, particularly Flaming Creatures: “A verdict was passed in the New York Criminal Court last Friday that Jack Smith’s film Flaming Creatures is obscene. A similar decision was passed by the Los Angeles court on Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio Rising . . . if . . . Anger or . . . Smith were to be caught watching his own film, he could be prosecuted. The projector and the screen, seized along with the film . . . will be likewise disposed as tools of crime.” The apparatus as criminal is an interesting metaphor, a modern version of Apollinaire’s story of a crime in which a real murder was filmed and then incorporated into the narrative. The difference between the two is the shift from realism to modernism, from the signified to the signifier. Willard Van Dyke, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, and Shirley Clarke were among those who explained, in court, “some of the meanings of Flaming Creatures” (142). The battle over confiscation of prints and equipment reminds us of another political context—of governmental surveillance and imprisonment. Little details during court appearances like being threatened with a contempt citation for not wearing a necktie describe real repression by real state apparati.
At the film festival in Knokke-le Zoute in 1964, they “smuggled Flaming Creatures into the projection room in the can of Dog Star Man,” storming the Crystal Room and fighting “over the projector, how the lights were cut off, and how I [tried] to push off the house detective” (110). As always, he is not alone: “Barbara Rubin shouted from the projector platform, fighting like a brave general. . . .” P. Adams Sitney was there, along with the “flaming Barbara.” He describes an encounter with Agnes Varda, there with her daughter: “Only slowly did it dawn on me that she took me for a sex maniac. After all, I am showing that dirty, transvestite movie in my room. . . . No wonder a State Department man was sitting next to our table wherever we went” (114-115). This was power that could be seen, like FBI infiltrators at protest rallies (detectable by their giveaway brown laced shoes worn with blue jeans and third-world shirt), power that had overt effects. However, as Foucault argues, power is operative not only within various state apparati and is not only repressive; power, like the various machines of the visible on which much of Foucault’s writing rests, produces pleasures—of evasion, the risk of protest.
When rereading these columns (“I am not a reviewer. I write, I comment only on those aspects that interest me. I never review the films” ), I was reminded of how much I had forgotten. “Short term memory understands forgetting as a process; it. . . merge[s] . . . with the collective rhizome which is temporal and nervous [like Mekas’s fragments]. Long-term memory (family, race, society, or civilization) traces and translates . . . at a distance . . . it is ‘untimely’ and not instantaneous [like scholarship, including this book]” (D & G, 35). It is precisely Mekas’s belief that art is linked with everyday life, the ordinary, the detail, the present, combined with his willingness for a variety of experiences, all propelled by a radical impulse that avoids binary, hierarchical systems that most attracts me.
Yet, there is something missing. While Mekas values women artists, praising Shirley Clarke, Marie Menken, Storm de Hirsch, Elaine Summers, Yoko Ono, Barbara Rubin, Joyce Wieland, along with Yvonne Rainer, it’s not enough. It does not do justice to the contradictions experienced by women avant-garde artists—albeit prior for most of these women, including Rainer, to engaging feminism. Thus, I want to stray from the path, onto another source, Scott MacDonald’s late-1970s interview with Hoi lis Frampton—with the caution that Frampton had the great advantage of hindsight.
Rainer, included in Mekas’s list of the greats in U.S. theater, has become one filmmaker Framptom “pays attention to” (along with Snow and Brakhage, although the latter is a strained, double-edged influence). Frampton remembers “the first thing I ever saw Yvonne Rainer do. I was in some loft—was it Brooklyn? I don’t remember. There were not many people—a small, word-of-mouth crowd. In the middle of it she started making Noises, little mewing sounds, squeaks, bleats. I was electrified. . . . Is this the moment? Are we witnessing it? Are we going crazy? Dance had been mute. . . . What was memorable was a violent disruption of, a transgression against, the culturally expected . . . that single gesture broke open the whole decorum of dance.”6 Avant-garde film, a transgression against the expected, also struggled with sound. Many believed, with Brakhage, that film had to be silent.
Many pages later, like an unforgettable memory, Frampton returns to “Yvonne’s leaving off performance,” a shift of media remarkably similar to Potter. “She has shifted from a posture of visibility to one of invisibility. What is visible about her now is what can be decoded from the work” (74-75). Increasingly, like Potter, Rainer collaborates with women and investigates the terms of vision—a doubled shift of interest (to women, to film and collaboration), a strategy derived from the women’s movement which has altered the structure of avant-grade, “redressing the balance” of power whereas in the 1960s, crossdressing was the unsettling tactic.
Frampton’s memory of Rainer triggers a comparison of “two modes of visibility,” of the difference between Rainer and Brakhage, who “also came out of performance”: “he’d like to be on both ends; he’d like to be seen and at the same time he would like to be in control of the way in which he is seen. Yvonne seems to perceive the pivot between those two modes of visibility uniquely” (75)—a prophecy of one structure of The Man Who Envied Women. The two poles also have everything to do with Foucault’s panoptic dyad and “speaking eye,” with Mulvey and the active male/passive female division of labor, and with power; Frampton’s memories overlap nicely with contemporary theory.
In the (sexual) difference between Brakhage and Rainer—which might have something to do with the status of language, of speech, of sound— Frampton positions himself with Rainer: “She and I share some sympathies . . . she’s involved with language, though in a different way from me. Yvonne has adopted a confessional rhetoric, an overt one of personal material. . . . While the material is personal . . . it also has a specific formal weight. . .” (74). (Since our theories of narrative are inextricably linked with linguistics, the founding Saussurean moment in film studies, in spite of Wollen’s very early exegesis of Peirce, language, perhaps more than narrative, is the real debate.)
The Man Who Envied Women takes us on another journey through New York in which warehouses have become upscale boutiques, art galleries, and lofts, a film which reminds us that Rainer was there all along, performing, dancing, as was Potter, slightly later, in London. Both films are remakes of Wavelength—jack’s droning theory lecture to the bored students and cine-matographer with their panoptic spotlight stages the endlessness of that film, made in an artist’s loft. Thriller (and the classical artists’ garret of La Boheme) was also performed in a loft which was formerly a garment factory; the incidental murder of Wavelength and the necessary death of La Boheme become the focus of Thriller.
Alice Jardine assesses D and G’s awkward position “on a complex and changing epistemological and political field of battle” (reiterating the military metaphors of the avant-garde, Mekas, and D and G.) She assesses that (1) they are “ignored and dismissed by the majority of academics,” except a male “student minority”; (2) their “posture towards the U.S.” is “idealistic”: “they are the only writers in France who have consistently taken American literature and culture as their model”; and (3) they are “publicly supportive of the feminist movement” with, however, few women disciples.7
I must add awkwardness, more of an embarrassment, to this list of wary avoidance. D and G’s rhizomatic versus arborescent thought—established through botany and the central example of the rooted tree versus tuber plants like tiger lilies (my more glamorous example), crabgrass, or potatoes, on first and perhaps second glance seems vague, anarchic, ahistorical, downright silly. On initial encounter I wanted specificity, concreteness; I was bewildered and bemused but fascinated.
Then I remembered reading S/Z in the early 1970s: haecceity, like faciality, is no stranger a coinage or vaguer a concept than the proaretic and hermeneutic codes, and the Doxa. While the Doxa reeked of jargon, Barthes’s readerly/writerly distinction bespoke the vague banality of cliche. Both devices—the commonplace and the obscure—were simultaneously empty and confusing until I could provide my own examples to fill them, to clarify them; by doing this, of course, I changed the way I thought. This switch of intellectual gears is not easy. It involves throwing out, or momentarily setting aside, a great deal of time, effort, and conviction, becoming uncomfortable with the new, struggling with ideas and terms rather than dismissing them with “I’ve already heard this before.” As Meaghan Morris argues, the first line of dismissal of new theoretical constructs is “I cannot act with this theory.” The second rebuttal is “This theory eliminates agency,” in the 1980s accompanied by a plea for the psychoanalytic theory of the subject.8
This conservative response of knowing disregard is often invoked against avant-garde work; like dominoes, the same argument has been applied in recent years to Freud/Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, and now D and G. For example, in his recent review of Deleuze’s Foucault, Dana Polan cautions us to retain a theory of the subject which, he suggests, these theorists lack (although he pinpoints Foucault).9 That Deleuze and Foucault specifically critique psychoanalysis—D and G for its binarism (with which I, to a degree, disagree, preferring to read Freud as also functioning within a model of contradiction, both/and rather than either/or) and Foucault for its faulty major premise of sexual repression—is not mentioned. That new models have other, different, theories of the subject is not acknowledged, until later.
That theory, like avant-garde, initially struggles with academic conservativism, as I argued in earlier pages, is not so surprising within the cultural and political context of the 1980s, resulting in a determined repetition of the same as difference—like the 1988 presidential campaign. As Morris noted, deconstruction dismantles binarisms only to prove, in the end, that they do function, like the snake devouring its own tail. The ploy conserves and defends stasis, the intellectual’s invested time and labor; it resists change and maintains power. (Theory converts forget their initial resistance if not mockery which eventually turns to denial as opponents become enthusiasts, but always late. As Godard said, being ahead is only possible because the rest of the world is behind.)
These gambits within the academy and the reception of avant-garde work paradoxically suggest D and G’s distinction between “arborescent systems” and “rhizomatic systems”: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems comprised of centers of significance and subjectivization . . . a subjective affect only from pre-established connections” (36). These centers are comforting, safe. Universities are arborescent—with a chain of pre-established command: from the Chancellor on top, to a few Vices, then more Deans and many disciplined Chairs, along with professors who are Full, Associate, or Assistant. At my university, the principle of “faculty governance,” a rhizomatic ideal traversing discipline and rank, covers up the reality that the faculty are governed; the student protest in the 1960s was aimed at unraveling this hierarchical structure.
Commercial narrative films are on the side of arborescent—a series of “subjective affects from pre-established connections” labeled continuity style. The absense of “pre-established connections” like story and character, in many avant-garde works, initially triggers an almost painful unease in viewers; as long as the desire for the familiarity of classical film conventions remains intact, avant-garde work can only be lacking, estranged, discomforting. For, like the conventions of narrative cinema, “The arborescent structure pre-exists the individual, who is integrated into a specific position within it” (37). We know the rules of the game and our place on the story board and take comfort in this repetition and our knowledge; it’s not so much what we can learn but the verification of what we already know. The opposition, commercial cinema versus avant-garde, can be simply written as arborescent versus rhizomatic.
However, this is too pat, ahistorical, and, to be fancy, binaristic. Avant- garde can also become an arborescent structure, hierarchizing artists within “significance and subjectivization,” taking place from within in Toronto in 1989: avant-garde becomes Art. Cooptation (arborescence) from the outside is something else: avant-garde becomes Style (or Fashion, as Poggioli argues). Mekas described the latter process: “In 1964, film-makers left the underground and came into the light, where they immediately clashed with the outmoded tastes and morals of the Establishment, the police, and the critics. During the later months, the absence of screenings resulted in a series of articles in national magazines written mostly by people who had never seen any of the films. . . . By autumn, however, the tone of the press, the snides, began to change into fatherly friendliness. The fashion was about to be born. The magazines and the uptown decided to join the underground and make it part of the Establishment. . . which brought an obvious confusion into the ranks of the underground.” Like a general, he maps three options: (1) “to be swallowed by the Establishment,” (2) to “retreat further into the underground,” and (3) the rhizomatic tactic, to “smash through the lines of the Establishment to the other side of it (or above it), thus surrounding it” (371). Or, as D and G fancifully put it, “only underground stems and aerial roots are truly . . . political.”
When the underground becomes the establishment, becomes Art, only the last action is possible, as the protestors against Toronto know so well. I will briefly describe the protest. The “International Experimental Film Congress” included “practicum” sessions taught by David Rimmer, Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, and Pat O’Neill—critiqued as perhaps fetishizing the technological; “special presentations” of curated films included sessions on abstract films, collage films, Latin American films, and women filmmakers—challenged as merely a bone to women, and as fetishizing the past, a very different era; recent films from Canada, Britain and the Continent, West Germany, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe—accused of a “tepid internationalism,” a leveling of differences.
The circulated protest letter was signed by seventy-six artists, including Peggy Ahwesh, Barbara Broughel, Abigail Child, Steve Fagin, Su Friedrich, Joe Gibbons, Barbara Lattanzi, Rainer, Keith Sanborn, and Leslie Thornton (to name only the film and video makers whose work I have studied and plan to write about—it takes me a very long time to figure out how to write about each separate avant-garde work).10 The impassioned petition challenges “the official History promoted” by the Congress: “The time is long overdue to unwrite the Institutional Canon of Masterworks of the Avant-Garde.” The Congress is accused of tokenism to women, feminist film theory, and new work by younger artists: “the overwhelming majority of participants consists of representatives of the 60s Avant-Garde and its decaying power base. Only one or two younger filmmakers have been made part of the official program. Workshops are dominated by technological values and are led exclusively by older men.”
The stance against canon-formation is critical, in many ways a return to the original principles of inclusion rather than exclusion, of equality rather than stars, of multiplicity rather than hierarchy of artist or films. At the same time, the emphasis on women filmmakers, feminism, and theory is radically different—a real avant-garde maneuver, as is the critique of the presumed internationalism of this cinema, always dominated by the United States, in turn dominated by men’s films.
I want to stray from the law of this letter, taking a side journey, and detail another critical difference which the letter invokes between the historical conditions of the 1960s and 1980s avant-gardes by looking at two emblematic works. While both avant-garde periods endorsed multiplicity, the 1960s version was clearly defined by opposition, by the binarisms I have described, rhetorical and political tactics employed by feminism today, although that is changing. In this for or against stance of either/or options, variety came only after and within the terms of the initial big choice (for or against the war, hetero- or homosexual—the latter, broken down by Warhol in the 1960s and perhaps by Abigail Childs in Mayhem). A botanical example would be a garden of random and exotic wildflowers bordered by a fence. The letter partakes of the older ethos while advocating a different version of multiplicity, one without a fence. More difficult for many critics is unchecked multiplicity not clarified or defined or impassioned by binarist opposition, including mass culture versus art—the perplexing aspect of postmodernism for its theorists, many of whom are bothered, as were critics troubled by Warhol, by artists’ sorties and forays with commercial artifacts and tactics, including making money, female fantasy, and narrative.
There are significant differences between then and now which I will metaphorically sketch by an analysis of two works, Four More Years (a videotape) and On the Marriage Broker joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, or Can the Avant-Garde Artist Be Wholed? (a film). The first is by a collective, TVTV, or Top Value Television, taped in Miami, Florida, the site of the Republican presidential convention in 1972; the second is by Owen Land, a.k.a. George Landow, in 1978.
Four More Years was taped and broadcast as an alternative to network coverage of the conventions. Watching the tape is an unsettling experience of historical, almost cultural, displacement. While our memories view the decade as yesterday, 1972 poignantly feels light years away. Like politics and theory in the late 1960s and 1970s, carried on loudly in the margins, outside official institutions and buildings, the tape’s verite, hand-held, meanderingly casual style of off the beaten track wandering is also, and rigidly, bounded by binary logic, a series of oppositions—including the networks’ style of stable cameras, anchored by star reporters in the control booth above the proceedings and on the floor interviewing famous politicians. TVTV interviews the famous reporters—Walter Cronkite, who worries about the influence of TV news; Roger Mudd, who coyly refuses to speak to the TVTV roving, hippy reporters; Mike Wallace, ponderous and officious; and Cassy Macklin, who is smart, direct. They all agree that the convention is boring, an anti-event of staged enthusiasm. Opening with a rehearsal of college-aged GOP singers, “More than ever we need Nixon now,” the sound of chanting protestors outside the convention walls is heard: “Tricky Dickie’s Got to Go!” The hand-held camera, like the sound and editing, positioned amid “the people” as a participant, tracks the dividing lines: the anti-war protestors outside of the hall and at Flamingo Park and the conventioneers inside.
While the Vietnam War is the critical divide, the struggle is also over the student movement and reality: Youth for Nixon claim that their cheers are spontaneous, that their enthusiasm is not being coached; while they do have team leaders, they assure the reporters that their exuberance is genuine. At cocktail party headquarters, a middle-aged matron praises the sorority girls playing Nixonettes who are, in fact, paying the GOP for the privilege of hostessing at the convention. Tricia Nixon and Julie Eisenhower, uttering daughterly banalities, claim that more youth support Nixon than the end the war movement.
The visible opposition is declared by clothing—the GOP men are wearing suits and ties, the protestors wear jeans and beards; the GOP women have bouffont hairdos and wear dresses and makeup; the protesting women, albeit fewer, have long, straight hair, wear jeans, and no makeup. The GOP is the party of wealth and middle age, of cocktail parties on yachts hosted by Ron and Nancy Reagan, where corporate donors accuse the protestors of disloyalty to the United States. “If these people liked our country, they’d fight for it. . . anyone can get a job. . . . I don’t mind colored people living near me if they are clean. . . .” In opposition to these scenes in the Miami harbor, the Vietnam vets, scruffy, bearded, in wheelchairs, stage a street theater of death in the parking lots outside the convention hall. The protestors play harmonicas; the Ray Bloch orchestra, in formal attire, plays show tunes.
While Nixon accepts the nomination, shots of veterans shouting “Stop the Bombing” are intercut; balloons are released on the convention floor and exuberantly popped, metaphors of the bombing, as shouts of “Four More Years”—Nixon’s slogan—are intercut. The camera rapidly tracks back, revealing an empty convention floor, while the sounds of the delegates chanting continue, oddly predictive of the 1980s—the shift to the political right. Arguments which sounded ludicrous then and during the tape were right—youth did eventually support GOP politics. The unimaginable, even to Republicans, a Reagan presidency, turned into an eight-year reality.
As the black and white, verite style also reveals, these were not the good old days. The security and surveillance surrounding the convention are just hints of the violence and hatred between the factions argued as patriotism. Along with the battle for youth, another issue was at stake—reality. Was the enthusiasm of Youth for Nixon real or engineered? Were the Vietnam vets really soldiers or just impersonators? Thus, two issues which plague cultural studies scholars emerge here: oppositional practices (good) and simulacra (bad).
The transformation of culture—including the revision of the Vietnam vets against the war and the GOP, transformed into alliance in the 1980s—is extraordinary, a radical difference revealed by the tape. A politics of opposition, with clearly demarked borders—“Which side are you on?”—no longer structures our politics. Furthermore, the lines of segmentation and the tactics of opposition are not secure, not for all time, but can traverse sides. Strategies of the left have been taken up by the right, for example, anti-abortion protests, along with specific programs like day care, disarmament, and peace. The borders have shifted while left-cultural studies still adhere to the old oppositions, bemoaning their loss. However, unlike D and G’s assertion, binary structures serve strategic, historical purposes. Binarism might be a left-over from the 1960s when opposition to racism, the draft, and the war was a matter of survival in an era when the world was polarized into two Cold War camps. While duality can result in exclusion, for feminism, binary opposition was, and continues to be, a feminist claim for inclusion.
In “Politics Now (Anxieties of a Petty Bourgeois Intellectual),” Morris acutely assesses the functioning of this historical image of the left, an image preserved in Four More Years. She charts the differences between 1975 and 1985. “In 1975, cultural politics were the concern of the full-time radical. It was a matter of taking politics to various cultural activities. . . . By 1985, the full-time radical has in many cases become the radical professional . . . with ‘polities’ increasingly defined by . . . (usually institutional) activity.”11 She argues that in the “era of full time radicalism” the same “personnel” appeared everywhere, a “sort of familial alliance system,” (a buddy network so aptly described by Stanley Aronowitz and Fredric Jameson12), which led to “exhaustion, paranoia and burn-out” (177), portrayed in the 1989 obituaries of Abbie Hoffman’s drug overdose.
Perhaps more damaging is Morris’s assessment that the life-style left had an “incapacity . . . to perceive its own cultural functioning”: “We hear a lot these days about superficial style-obsessed postmoderns; but the smart young things about town have little indeed to teach the Left about the politics of authoritarian control through style. We’re the ones, after all, who installed a ruthless surveillance system monitoring every aspect of style . . . a surveillance system so absolute that in the name of the personal-political, everyday life became a site of pure semiosis” (178), with activities divided into either good or bad, keeping others out.
She then suggests several problems with the left: (1) the lack of interest in the products of cultural work which, she argues, do exist; (2) the insistence on repetition; and (3) the “displacement of criticism by diagnoses of personal motivation” (183). To her list, I would add the avoidance of women’s writing, art, and feminism, amid brief but categorical declarations of the critical centrality of the women’s movement to the protest movement. In their assessments of that period, both Aronowitz and Jameson drop in quick references to feminism’s starring role, and then proceed with their long lists of male participants and theorists. As I argued regarding avant-garde texts, cultural objects do exist—it is their distribution and criticism that is diminishing, along with their ossification into fixed and rigid interpretations, what Morris argues is a problem of use. Her position restates Benjamin’s emphasis on exhibition, taking work into new contexts, new situations; it suggests Barthes’s call to “Change the Object Itself” which feminist film theory has done to the classical Hollywood film, inscribing female subjectivity along the way.
Regarding the “radical professional” and one context: universities are rarely sites of radical activism in arts, politics, pedagogy, and everyday life as they were in the mid to late 1960s and 1970s, and, in fact, partake of the new right, supply side, careerist conservatism, a gold standard/materialist ethics operative on many levels in the culture. Like corporations, universities proclaim rather than conceal their status as marketplaces, head-hunting for hot, famous thinkers, competing with big-buck offers, deals more than salaries, complete family packages including spousal jobs, day-care facilities, along with household moving expenses, terms which intellectuals (unlike the Marx Brothers in the anarchic contract scene from A Night at the Opera) negotiate with economic savvy down to mortgage points, a travel budget, tech equipment for personal use, and private, academic valets. Negotiating contracts has become “Let’s Make a Deal.” Administrators are businessmen rather than scholars.
Like the cultural hot commodity—time (and speed), the big bonus prize, and paradoxically the ultimate sign of intellectual worth, is bartered time for not teaching; in a strange inversion, the less time spent at a university via course reductions and sabbaticals, combined with more time spent at home or in international, scholastic tourism, the higher the salary and the more prized the catch; the tales of the University of California’s offers are becoming legend. Like the many skewed inversions of late 1960s precepts occurring during the 1980s (some of which are terrific for white women and women of color), many of our former values, including time and duration, along with money, are topsy-turvy and unremarked. (If a husband receives an offer as a condition of his spouse’s acceptance, he, in turn, while being offered a simulated position, a term of another’s contract, can negotiate for a higher salary at his original university and be pretty certain of receiving it. Desire, even if feigned, is better than no offer at all.) Academic horse trading reveals an uneasy compatibility between Lacanian desire and raw, capitalist competition.
Theories of “traveling theory” are being proposed with no mention of this new reality of scholastic, timeless tourism as intellectual upward mobility. With this profitable “nomadology” of fashionable theorists (and the increasing discrepancy between superstar and yeoman faculty replicating the social schism between rich and poor, white and “of color”), the formation of local, intellectual communities has changed. Universities are becoming transient marketplaces, way stations we pass through or visit, rarely places we live, rarely repositories of personal history and collaborative work. The highest bidder and entrepreneurial familialism distantiate this nomadology from the treks of film and video makers. The shift in practice and theory, in the academy, from military metaphors of opposition (still functional in Deleuze and Guattari, like Mekas) to capitalist coinage of incorporation is not coincidental or trivial. I will return to this critical notion later.
Baudrillard’s urging to Forget Foucault! might be perverse when we most need an assessment of academic politics. The beauty of teaching Foucault is that his work concerns the practice of knowledge, the institutions we are in—it is simultaneously theory and local practice, a history of the present. The irony of “teaching” Foucault is that we often don’t practice what he preaches, resulting in the belief that theory has nothing to do with everyday life. Still, for better or worse, richer or poorer, which will change anyway, universities are one scene of avant-garde, and, for me, my daily life.
Six years after Four More Years, Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker joke (1978) was wildly and oddly predictive of the 1980s; the film resonated D and G’s critique of psychoanalysis. Printed over the beginning and end are two texts of religious ecstasy (the first by John Milton told by a character in a seventeenth-century Puritan costume)—the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s. The film parodies avant-garde film, recent theories of the film apparatus and language, pedagogy, and Freudian psychoanalysis, the jokes more than the analysis. Panderers become costumed, talking panda bears, sitting in armchairs and conversing in their pop art living room: “We each have to tell one marriage broker joke, and then pretend that we are avant-garde filmmakers making a film about marriage broker jokes.” “My film is going to be introduced by a fake panda, and it’s going to be about Japanese salted plums, among other things.” Psychoanalysis becomes a line of flight, careening from panderer, to panda, to salted plums, from Freud to Linnaeus to commerce—a crazy rhizome of thought set within a meticulous visual style of radiant colors, spectacular studio scenes, including a jungle with a movie screen and Liberace and Little Richard impersonators. While this mimicry (prior to Eddie Murphy on “Saturday Night Live”) is of the black rock singer, Little Richard was also an infant patient of Melanie Klein.
D and G view psychoanalysis as a delimited binarism—with Little Hans as one case in point. They argue that each time Little Hans tries to get outside patriarchy, outside Freud’s theory, to move to the street outside his house, to become-horse, Freud brings him back to the parental bedroom, to Oedipus. Hans wants to be like the horse, but he is brought back within psychoanalysis, his line of flight curtailed. “They kept on smashing his rhizome and messing up his map . . . blocking every outlet until what he desired was his own guilt and shame. . . . Freud takes explicit account of Little Hans’ map making, but always and only to reduce it back onto a family photo” (29). Here, the affinity of D and G with feminism is apparent. The paternal Oedipus and its restrictive system worked over Dora as well as Hans, two case studies which feminists and filmmakers have revisioned, arguing that Freud wasn’t listening to women and children. Little Hans’s father mediates the analysis, as does Dora’s father.
Most critically, “The important thing is never to reduce the unconscious, to interpret it or make it signify following the tree model, but rather to produce the unconscious and, along with it, new utterances and other desires [precisely the goal of feminist critique, along with unbalancing the poles of power]. The rhizome is precisely this production of the unconscious” (40). For D and G, psychoanalysis like linguistics “draws only the tracings . . . of the unconscious . . . the second, the tracings . . . of language, with all the betrayals that that implies (it’s not surprising that psychoanalysis has hitched its star to that of linguistics)” (29).
Two ironies of film scholarship become apparent: while many avant-garde films, including Bleu Shut, Land’s films, and Critical Mass, directly explore language, and in fact could be analyzed through various models of Unguistics, film theory, historically predicated on linguistics linked to psychoanalysis, explores the visual conventions of classical narrative, in the main, ignoring the sound track. And while the charges of being apolitical, or merely arts of the signifier, are leveled at avant-garde films, considered here as theory, we do not accuse our linguistic or semiotic theories of the same apoliticism or emphasis on signifiers. (At the same time, these avant-garde films are, in many ways, rhizomatic analyses of linguistics.)
However, using their own system, one can take D and G’s anti-Freudianism to more positive ends. “But dead ends should always be re-situated on the map, and in that way opened up to possible lines of flight” (31). This is what Mitchell, Johnston, Mulvey, Campioni and Gross, and de Lauretis, for example, did with that formerly dead-end Freud. Yet, “binary logic and bi-univocal relations still dominate psychoanalysis . . . linguistics, and structuralism, even information theory” (7). When either the oedipal structure of romanticism or the binary logic of feminist sexual difference is repeated and conserved beyond its useful or political context, a gradual reduction of thought does occur.
Land’s parody of avant-garde and theory is conducted by Morgan Fisher, the filmmaker as corporate, suited pedagogue standing in front of a blackboard, monotonously lecturing about film and theory. The first of his lectures concerns the apparatus: “There is no motion in a motion picture; Only the projector moves the strip. Pulled along by wheels called sprockets, With protruding teeth to get a grip.” There is more of this sing-song rhyming, followed by applause, and then the film’s intertitle. “What’s a structural film?” inquires the first panda. “It’s when engineers design an airplane or a bridge, and they build a model to find out if it will fall apart too soon. The film shows where all the stresses are,” answers the second.
Fisher reappears later, with his second lecture, a disquisition on theory’s logic: “Of the many theories which have been propounded there are few which merit serious consideration. Of the more credible hypotheses, the following stand out: The marriage broker is merely a pander and the so-called prospective brides are prostitutes. Textural corruption has, in some versions, changed the word pander to panda. . . . Thus, two opposing schools have developed. One claims that the panda referred to is ailurus fulgens, the Himalayan panda. . . . The other school insists that the panda referred to is ailuropa melanoleuca of Tibet and southern China. . . . Another interpretation has it that the entire situation is in fact really an allegory. . . .” Imagine Land’s next film parodying Deleuze and Guattari, which he might already have done, including their notions of “becoming animal” and “faciality”— the filmmaking panda bears and the impersonators.
In an earlier scene with Japanese performers, the take-over of the U.S. economy by Japan and the shift from a culture of difference and opposition to one of differentiation and dispersion are staged. Capitalism becomes theater of the absurd. Two Japanese performers in intercut medium shots, sitting behind desks, play petty executives debating the label, the packaging of their new product, salted plums: “Now all that needs to be decided is the number of jar sizes which we will offer. I’d say extra small, small, medium, small large, and extra large.” “No. There should be small, large small, small large, large, extra large, and jumbo.” “But you’ve left out medium!” “That’s right, and for a good reason. Think of the state of the economy. People want to buy a large jar, but they feel guilty; so small large satisfies both their guilt and their gluttony. Whereas people who can only afford a small feel consoled by the availability of a large small, thus giving them a sense of superiority over their neighbor who can only afford a small.” This goes on until “Wait a minute, we’re not talking about small large plums, medium plums and large plums. We’re talking about large small jars, medium jars and small large jars; the size of the jars only, not the size of the plums!” More of this and “Extra small, small, large small, medium, small large, large, extra large, and jumbo. Are you sure we are offering enough choices?” “What do you mean?” “Well, if we limit the customer’s choice too much, we are denying his free will—and he might suspect that he is being manipulated.” “Good point. And don’t forget we are only talking about the size of the jar and not about the number of salted plums contained within.” “Precisely. The size of the jar has absolutely no relationship to the number of salted plums contained in it.” A perfect description of the state of contemporary culture, including the endless repetition of the same trivia. Language’s arbitrariness in advertising is comic and, like his earlier work, a theoretical issue.
After this film, Land began his attempts to escape universities (as D and G would put it, a rhizomatic line of flight from the arborescent structure of the Art Institute), seeking a disability discharge for health reasons. Along the way, he orchestrated musical operettas, extravaganzas with his students at the Art Institute, staging them as performances, composed music, and played in a band. From there, he went to Japan and shortly after or before began to make videotapes, a medium which he liked right away. Then to the Philippines for their hands-in healing/anti-surgery and spiritual cures. The last I heard, he was living in Los Angeles, studying the techniques of the Renaissance master painters. If you turn to the endnotes, you will be able to take an Owen Land multiple-choice film quiz—he could have done stand-up film comedy although he laughs at his own jokes.13
In a book review in the Village Voice, Doug Henwood, who should have seen this film, writes that “not even Jeane Dixon could tell in 1979 that the U.S. would find itself in hock to Japan 10 years later. Who knows what 1999 will bring?” I suggest the Live Elvis. He points out that “the Japanese experience has hardly entered into the debate over the virtues of market socialism . . . the Japanese system offers plenty of hints on how a state-led planning system can be decentralized . . . and offers living proof that low military spending is a potent economic tonic.”14 This inversion of a cold war premise of the U.S. economy, the prosperity granted by militarism, is one of the significant revisions of the late 1980s. The other, which is a condition of the first, is the end of the cold war.
Along with these two significant shifts is the multiplication of economic powers other than the United States, now a debtor nation selling off its assets through corporate takeovers to other nations, including Japan. In The Decline of the American Economy, Betrand Bel Ion and Jorge Niosi argue that economically speaking, the dominance of the United States during the postwar period was a historical fluke, that the normal state of the economy is one of multiplicity, witnessed by the rise of not only Japan but Korea and Brazil, involving a world of competition.15 Literary theories of heterogeneity (Barthes), dispersion (Foucault), or multiplicity (D and G) oddly predicted the change in global economics. Like the state economy, however, these models don’t take into consideration the bipolarity between rich and poor, male and female, white and of color, which are international, vertical divisions set against, or over and above, the horizontal dispersion model.
Rather than nuclear wars, there will be trade wars. We need to remember that fearing a nuclear war, while fighting wars of containment around the globe, had little to do with pleasure; and that tactics of opposition also instantiated hierarchy, and exclusion.
This dispersion of economic power among several nations is accompanied by what I have called franchise culture, a culture of international monopolies leased as the local, resulting in a national and international sameness, sold, however, as difference—the small large model of the world. For example, choosing a video recorder among the literally hundreds of models is a salted plum experience of trying to discern quality and difference, only to learn that the product name, the trademark guarantee, means nothing. Whether American or Japanese, most models are now made by the same companies, with, presumably, the same components. We frantically choose between McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, sold as different yet relentlessly the same. Maintaining the contradictions of difference may be a critical task as it continues to be for feminism. I suspect that cultural difference will be as central to rethinking Western postmodernism as sexual difference was to redefining classical film theory.
With rare exceptions, our screens feature U.S. films, while television has a limited internationalism, no matter how many channels are added to the spectrum. We imagine that our exported cultural representations are still dominantly desired and influential, and shake our heads at the sad influence of bad-faith U.S. mass culture on other cultures. While U.S. television programs, like films, are being internationally traded for great profit in the recently deregulated markets, we forget that in that transmission they are transformed, rewritten, used differently, framed by cultural and historical conditions of reception. As Woolf noted regarding women, and as D and G view the simulacrum, we see the same world, but we see it with different eyes. However, like automobiles and electronics, this process of cultural exportation will transform to importation. The decline of the United States as a dominant representation will truly alter the face of Hollywood and Soho.
During an event at the 1989 Honolulu Film Festival, an interesting exchange occurred. Seated on the left of a long table were three U.S. filmmakers who had shown their films about Vietnam; seated on the right were a critic and two Vietnamese directors who also had shown their films about the Vietnam War. Although their sizes were glaringly different, all the participants were men. Yet, it was an auspicious, conciliatory moment. In solemn and polite turn, each side critiqued the other’s films. Both sides agreed on one thing: that neither side knew how to represent the other. U.S. soldiers in the Vietnamese films were bad, macho, whiskey-swilling parodies; and the Viet Cong in U.S. films were slippery caricatures. The participants laughed at this realization, as they had guffawed during the screenings. The Vietnamese critic said that if we had known each other, there would not have been a war. Wonderful thought.
However, when I asked the directors on both sides about the difference in the representations of women, the U.S. directors became rudely defensive, interrupting my question, and citing Coming Home to countermand my implied critique. Morris, from the audience, silenced the interruptor. The Vietnamese directors asserted that because men were taught to worship women, it was their duty to show ideal women, accounting for the perfect makeup and eyeliner of their female characters during combat. Absent or ideal—there was, in the discussion and in the films, little difference for women, white or of color.
I want to return to the letter of protest. The conclusion endorses avant- garde as a “revolutionary frame of mind” and, as I have argued, always/ already historical, contextual (the notion of the historical avant-garde is like female woman, or better, male man): “The issues which galvanized the Cinema Avant-Gardes of earlier decades arose from different conditions than [from] those which confront us today. . . . The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde.” The switch to the humble lower case, the impressive list of signers which brilliantly illustrates the sheer number of women making films today, along with the critique of the old internationalism as a univocal, male pluralism in favor of a model which views differences—sex, race, culture—as productive of knowledge, are signs of new times.
The argument is also pitched along generational lines—age and youth, older men versus younger artists. For Mekas, avant-garde is viewed as a generational struggle: “Each generation redefines art—and not in books or essays but through the works of art” (206). “The independent cinema is not . . . a ‘primitive movement,’ but . . . the . . . changing frontier, the Vietnam of cinema. Thank God it is not a movement—it is a generation” (68). For Harold Bloom also, art was quintessentially a generational battle of sons against the fathers.
Yet, like the rest of life, the generational struggle is different for women. There is a double standard of chronological difference; the same standards applied to men do not apply to women, measured by a ten-year differential. As women age, rather than achieving centrality and power, they are marginalized. As Freud writes: “I once succeeded in freeing an unmarried woman, no longer young, from the complex of symptoms which . . . had excluded her from any participation in life. She . . . plunged into eager activity, in order to develop her by no means small talent and to snatch a little recognition, enjoyment, and success late though the moment was [my emphasis]. But every one of her attempts ended either with people letting her know or with herself recognizing that she was too old to accomplish anything in that field.” Social conditions are mistaken for symptoms; the “unmarried woman, no longer young” had continual accidents “till at last she made up her mind to resign her attempts and the whole agitation came to an end.”16 Her resignation is Freud’s success, the happy ending, and women’s tragedy. Rather than railing against social conditions, her anger was directed against her body (think of cosmetic surgery today). Thus, the “unmarried woman, no longer young” joins Little Hans and Dora, turning her rage inward, against herself.
Equally disheartening is the realization that conscious conventions of chronological, generational difference reiterate unconscious Freudian desires and taboos: men’s desire for their mothers and women’s desire to possess their sons are unconscious prohibitions restaged in the spectacle of the older woman with the younger man. Cher aside, this rare scenario is not as readily accepted as is the operative and sanctioned reverse—the older man and the younger woman, often with a twenty-year age gap, the retro-high fashion couple of the 1980s who usually have a child. For, within the Freudian scenario, it is proper that the girl pass on to her father, who in turn will care for his daughter. Thus, men traverse or can cross the generational divide—while women are rigidly held to their prescribed, chronological role and place.
It is significant that Potter, Rainer, and Condit (in Not a Jealous Bone) all deal with the question of age for women. It is symptomatic that few critiques, with the exception of Condit’s piece, which is all about an old woman, even mention this issue, a silence suggesting that differences of age, like sexual difference earlier and “the unmarried woman, no longer young,” have been internalized as prohibitions rather than being challenged as social constructions of inequality. Potter critiques the romanticism which forever holds women to youth in both Thriller and The Gold Diggers, in the latter, analyzing the mother-daughter relationship and the youthful star system. As Collette Laffont’s voice-over discovers in Thriller: “And what if I hadn’t died? I would have become a mother. . . . But the heroine of such a story doesn’t just labor day and night to feed her children. And if they had let me live, I would have become an old woman. And an old seamstress would not be considered the proper subject of a love story.” In The Man Who Envied Women, Rainer asks all women in the audience who are still menstruating to leave the room. In Not a jealous Bone, Condit’s star is an eighty-year-old woman, Sophie, with her wrinkled skin a sagging sack, struggling with an image of the youthful ideal body—her mother remembered as young and beautiful. On the beach, Sophie’s old and flabby body is in contrast to the sleek, classical body of youth. Sophie survives the violence of city streets, takes the bone of life from the dead ideal woman, dons a party dress, and joyously dances in the last scene, singing “You are dead and I am still alive.”
Potter concludes the end of Thriller with “We were set up as opposites, as complementary characters, and kept apart to serve our roles. . . . We never got to know each other. . . . Perhaps we could have loved each other.” Mimi, “who was searching for a theory that could explain” her life, wonders whether the “key to her death was written in their texts.” Laffont/Mimi laughs a mocking, hearty laugh: “Suddenly I understand. There was me in the opera. And there was me in the attic. . . . It was murder.” One critical difference is that between imaginary and real women—of all ages, mothers and daughters, and the now archaic “sisters.” The real avant-garde move would be, at last, to centrally include women. If told from their points of view, even the desired dream girls and imaginary women would tell very different stories—which just might be mayhem. But that’s another story.