Film Criticism

Film: The Front Line – 1983 by Jonathan Rosenbaum

An informal and prosaic, yet informed and balanced presentation of critical arguments and conversations on the state of experimental and avant-garde film during the early half of the 1980s, Film: The Front Line – 1983 provides an engaging and accessible introduction to several noteworthy, underrepresented personal filmmakers. Rosenbaum makes a conscious decision to omit key, pioneering figures in the American experimental film movement – Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, whose works are better represented and more widely considered (and have achieved some broader level of respect) within the film community – in favor of several lesser exposed, contemporary filmmakers whose works are singular, often visionary and groundbreaking, but also more problematically, suffer from limited distribution and general domestic unavailability. While the work of a few filmmakers are already familiar – Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, and Yvonne Rainer in particular (and to a lesser extent, Jonas Mekas, Jon Jost, Michael Snow, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) – the other filmmakers featured in the book (including a secondary introductory chapter on additional artists like Marguerite Duras, Jean Eustache, Tom Brener, Hollis Frampton, Raoul Ruiz, and Werner Schroeter, of whose films Rosenbaum had, at the time of writing, incomplete knowledge) proved to be illuminating (and inspiring) reading.

(Note: the succeeding notes represent only a subset of filmmakers featured in the book but whose bodies of work are of personal interest).

Beth B and Scott B – Filming primarily in Super-8 (with the exception of the 16mm film, Vortex), the Bs’ films have a characteristic noir, B-movie appearance that is pervaded by a sense of alienation (further reinforced by the incorporation of elements from the punk scene, such as singer Lydia Lunch, into their films). Most intriguing are Black Box and Letters to Dad, both of which deal with the subject of mind control and psychological manipulation, the latter film based on letters written in tribute to – and at the instigation of – Reverend Jim Jones by members of his Guyana cult.

James Benning – Aesthetically formalist, Benning’s framing of industrial landscape evokes a rigorous, austere beauty. Rosenbaum considers his most structured film, One Way Boogie Woogie (after the Piet Mondrian painting Broadway Boogie Woogie) to be his masterpiece.

Robert Breer – Creating avant-garde short films through the medium of independent animation, Breer’s installations are idiosyncratic, visual abstractions (and therefore, admittedly problematic). Appropriately, his two-minute short film, Man and His Dog Out for Air, was screened with Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad: both films using malleable images and narrative that converge towards an inner logic.

Jon Jost – Deeply rooted in Americana, Jost’s films operate as psychological studies that seem both experientially ingrained but also culturally endemic and capture a sense of profound alienation. Rosenbaum considers Last Chants for a Slow Dance to be Jost’s best film – and also his most disturbing – a portrait of a killer devoid of conscience or reason.

Jonas Mekas – Dividing Mekas’ career into two phases, Rosenbaum focuses on the filmmaker’s mature work, starting with Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a personal film diary on the expatriate (and American immigrant) filmmaker’s return to his native homeland after a 25 year exile. Rosenbaum perfectly encapsulates the melancholy and nostalgia that pervades much of Mekas’ later works in the following passage:

Behind all the childlike poetic stances of Mekas in his films is a tragic sense of life’s limitations that seems closer to maturity than defeatism or middle-class inertia – a constant sense, even throughout the unceasing flow of happiness that characterizes much of Paradise Not Yet Lost, that none of this can ever replace or rectify the paradise that he himself has lost when he had to leave his Lithuanian village, if only because Mekas himself understands that this paradise is a child’s fantasy and that the subjective world of his diary films is a constructed imaginary world that exists in effect only through his filmmaking.

Yvonne Rainer – A dancer, choreographer, and performance artist turned filmmaker, Rainer’s films bear the characteristic imprint of her early career (which is still evident in her latest work, a juxtaposition of avant-garde theory and dance entitled After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid which was shown in the 2003 New York Video Festival). Influenced in part by Maya Deren’s ‘dance’ films (or more appropriately, visual studies in the movement of bodies) Rainer’s early features, Lives of Performers and Film About a Woman Who… are direct extensions of performance art applied to the expository medium of film.

Acquarello, 2003 [reprinted]

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