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Structural Film
development in the American avant-garde
cinema since the trend toward mythopoeic
forms in the early 1960s was the emergence and development of what I have
called the structural film. 1 The pattern
which operated within the work of Maya
Deren was echoed, as I have shown, in the
entire thrust of the American avant-garde
cinema between the late forties and the midsixties; on the simplest level it was a
movement toward increased cinematic
complexity. Film-makers such as Gregory
Markopoulos, Sidney Peterson, Kenneth
Anger, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka,
to name a few of the most conspicuous,
moved toward more condensed and more
complex forms.
Since the mid-sixties a number of filmmakers have emerged whose approach is
quite different, although dialectically related to the sensibility of their predecessors. Michael Snow, George Landow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad,
Ernie Gehr, and Joyce Weiland have produced a number of remarkable films apparently in the opposite direction of that
formal thrust. Theirs is a cinema of structure in which the shape of the
whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is
the primal impression of the film.
The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is
minimal and subsidiary to the outline. Four characteristics of the structural
film are its fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer’s perspective), the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen.
Very seldom will one find all four characteristics in a single film, and there
are structural films which modify these usual elements.
What then would be the difference between the lyrical film I have
described and the structural film? What would be their relationship? The
lyrical film too replaces the mediator with the increased presence of the
camera. We see what the film-maker sees; the reactions of the camera and
the montage reveal his responses to his vision. In the opening sequence of
Hammid and Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, we found the roots of firstperson cinematic consciousness. They filmed the first approach and exploration of the house from the point of view of the puzzled participant. But
they immediately qualified — or mediated — that forceful opening by showing the figure of the protagonist in subsequent variations. In creating the
lyrical film, Stan Brakhage accepted the limitations of that opening sequence as the basis for a new form. Out of the optical field and metaphors
of the body’s movement in the rocking gestures of the camera, he affirmed
the film-maker as the lyrical first person. Without that achievement and
its subsequent evolution, it would be difficult to imagine the flourishing of
the structural film.
The four techniques are the more obvious among many subtle changes
from the lyrical film in an attempt to divorce the cinematic metaphor of
consciousness from that of eyesight and body movement, or at least to
diminish these categories from the predominance they have in Brakhage’s
films and theory. In Brakhage’s art, perception is a special condition of
vision, most often represented as an interruption of the retinal continuity
(e.g., the white flashes of the early lyric films, the conclusion of Dog Star
Man). In the structural cinema, however, apperceptive strategies come to
the fore. It is cinema of the mind rather than the eye. It might at first seem
that the most significant precursor of the structural film was Brakhage. But
that is inaccurate. The achievements of Kubelka and Breer and before them
the early masters of the graphic film did as much to inform this development. The structural film is in part a synthesis of the formalistic graphic
film and the Romantic lyrical film. But this description is historically incomplete.
By the mid-1960s the contributions of the lyrical and graphic cinema
had been totally assimilated into avant-garde film-making. They were part
of the vocabulary a young film-maker acquired at the screenings of the
Film-Makers’ Cinematheque or the Canyon Cinema Cooperative. They
were in the air. The new film-makers were not responding to these forms
dialectically, because they situated themselves within them, no matter
which films they preferred and which they rejected.
The major precursor of the structural film was not Brakhage, or Kubelka, or Breer. He was Andy Warhol. Warhol came to the avant-garde
cinema in a way no one else had. He was at the height of his success in
the most lucrative of American arts — painting. He was a fully developed
artist in one medium, and he entered another, not as a dabbler, but with
a total commitment. He immediately began to produce major cinema. For
years he sustained that production with undiminished intensity, creating
in that time as many major films as any of his contemporaries had in a
lifetime; then, after completing The Chelsea Girls (1966), he quickly faded
as a significant film-maker.
Warhol began to take an interest in the avant-garde film in 1963 when
it was at the height of the mythic stage. He quickly made himself familiar
with the latest works of Brakhage, Markopoulos, Anger, and especially
Jack Smith, who had a direct influence on him. On one level at least —
and that is the only level of importance to us — Warhol turned his genius
for parody and reduction against the American avant-garde film itself. The
first film that he seriously engaged himself in was a monumental inversion
of the dream tradition within the avant-garde film. His Sleep was no trance
film or mythic dream but six hours of a man sleeping. (It was to have been
eight hours long, but something went wrong.) At the same time, he exploded the myth of compression and the myth of the film-maker. Theorists
such as Brakhage and Kubelka expounded the law that a film must not
waste a frame and that a single film-maker must control all the functions
of the creation. Warhol made the profligacy of footage the central fact of
all of his early films, and he advertised his indifference to direction, photography, and lighting. He simply turned the camera on and walked away.
In short, the set of concerns which I have associated with the Romantic
heritage of the American avant-garde film were the object of Warhol’s
fierce indifference.
Stephen Koch has something to say on this subject:
The Duchampian game in which objects are aestheticized
merely by turning to them with a certain glint in your eye does
have continuing value, though not as the comical anti-art polemic so often ascribed to it . . .
It is possible to understand this rather specialized aesthetic
experience as a metaphor, in consciousness, for the perception
of things at large, in which the unlike things compared and
fused are the self and the world. … It is a major modernist procedure for creating metaphors, and an antiromantic one, since it
locates the world of art’s richness not in Baudelaire’s “Elsewhere” but in the here and now. At least almost.
Warhol goes further. He wants to be transformed into an
object himself, quite explicitly wants to remove himself from the
dangerous, anxiety-ridden world of human action and interaction, to wrap himself in the serene fullness of the functionless
aesthetic sphere. 2
Warhol defines his art “anti-romantically.” Pop art, especially as he
practiced it, was a repudiation of the processes, theories, and myths of
Abstract Expressionism, a Romantic school. Warhol’s earliest films showed
how similar most other avant-garde films were and, to those looking
closely, how Romantic. Yet whether or not the anti-Romantic stance can
escape the dialectics of Romanticism is an open question. Koch seems to
think it cannot:
Transforming himself into the object celebrity, Warhol has made
a commitment to the Baudelairean “resolution not to be moved” —
an effort to ensconce himself in the aesthetic realm’s transparent
placenta, removed from the violence and emotions of the
world’s time and space. So Warhol turns out to be a romantic
after all. 3
The roots of three of the four defining characteristics of the structural
film can be found in Warhol’s early works. He made famous the fixedframe in Sleep (1963), in which a half dozen shots are seen for over six
hours. In order to attain that elongation, he used both loop printing of
whole one-hundred-foot takes (23/4 minutes) and, in the end, the freezing
of a still image of the sleeper’s head. That freeze process emphasizes the
grain and flattens the image precisely as rephotography off the screen does.
The films he made immediately afterwards cling even more fiercely to the
single unbudging perspective: Eat (1963), forty-five minutes of the eating
of a mushroom; Empire (1964), eight continuous hours of the Empire State
Building through the night into dawn; Harlot (1965), a seventy-minute
tableau vivant with offscreen commentary; Beauty #2 (1965), a bed scene
with off- and on-screen speakers lasting seventy minutes. Soon afterwards,
he developed the fixed-tripod technique of reconciling stasis to camera
movement. In Poor Little Rich Girl: Party Sequence (1965), Hedy (1966),
and The Chelsea Girls (1966) he utilized camera movements, especially
the zoom, from the pivot of an unmoving tripod without stopping the
camera until the long roll had run out. Yet Warhol as a pop artist is
spiritually at the opposite pole from the structural film-makers. His fixed
camera was at first an outrage, later an irony, until the content of his films
became so compelling to him that he abandoned the fixed camera for a
species of in-the-camera editing. In the work of Michael Snow and Ernie
Gehr, the camera is fixed in a mystical contemplation of a portion of space.
Spiritually the distance between these poles cannot be reconciled.
In his close analysis of Warhol’s early work, Koch views these films
with the kind of intensity and perspective that the structural film-makers
brought to them. He sees in them the framework of an apperceptive cinema. In the end of Haircut (1963), in which someone in a barber’s chair,
after a long stare into the camera, breaks into unheard laughter as the final
roll of film flares up in whiteness, he sees “the cinematic drama of the
gaze, reaching its final and reflexive development”:
The moment is a gently felt turn of self-consciousness suggesting
the gentlest of put-ons — a put-on not in the sense of artistic
fraud but that implied by a kind of Prosperolike cadenza (if I
may compare great to small), a breaking of the spell. With it we
realize that, like all the other early films, Haircut is about the
hypnotic nature of the gaze itself, about the power of the artist
over it. 4
Koch sees that beyond the obvious aggressions and ironies of the early
Warhol films — and perhaps because of them — there is a conscious ontology of the viewing experience. What the critic does not say is that these
apperceptive mechanisms are latent or passive in Warhol’s work. To the
film-makers who first encountered these films the mid-sixties (those who
were not threatened by them), these latent mechanisms must have suggested other conscious and deliberate extensions: that is, Warhol must have
inspired, by opening up and leaving unclaimed so much ontological territory, a cinema actively engaged in generating metaphors for the viewing
or rather the perceiving, experience.
Thus the structural film is not simply an outgrowth of the lyric. It is
an attempt to answer Warhol’s attack by converting his tactics into the
tropes of the response. To the catalogue of the spatial strategies of the
structural film must be added the temporal gift from Warhol — duration.
He was the first film-maker to try to make films which would outlast a
viewer’s initial state of perception. By sheer dint of waiting, the persistent
viewer would alter his experience before the sameness of the cinematic
image. Brakhage had made a very long film in The Art of Vision, but he
was apologetic about its four hours; it had to be that long and not a minute
longer, he would claim, to say what it had to say. Ken Jacobs had been
bolder or more honest in describing the endless and perpetually disintegrating experience of his projected Star Spangled to Death. But that too
would have been a perversely orchestrated experience from beginning to
Warhol broke the most severe theoretical taboo when he made films
that challenged the viewer’s ability to endure emptiness or sameness. He
even insisted that each silent film be shown at 16 frames per second although it was shot at 24. The duration of his films was one of slightly
slowed motion. The great challenge, then, of the structural film became
how to orchestrate duration; how to permit the wandering attention that
triggered ontological awareness while watching Warhol films and at the
same time guide that awareness to a goal.
Not all of the structural films respond to the severe challenges of their
form. Those instances of structural cinema in the filmgraphies of men who
had worked successfully in other modes tend to use the frozen camera,
loop printing, the flicker effect, and rephotography to open up new dimensions within the range of concerns that they pre-established in their
earlier works.
Just why, at approximately the same time, Stan Brakhage, Gregory
Markopoulos, Bruce Baillie, and Ken Jacobs began to extend their art in
this direction is difficult to determine. Warhol’s sudden shock-blow to the
aesthetics of the avant-garde film was a factor, just as it was to film-makers
like Michael Snow, Paul Sharks, George Landow and Hollis Frampton
whose work largely lies within the domain of the structural film.
Michael Snow, the dean of structural film-makers, utilizes the tension
of the fixed frame and some of the flexibility of the fixed tripod in Wavelength. Actually it is a forward zoom for forty-five minutes, halting occasionally, and fixed during several different times so that day changes to
night within the motion.
A persistent polarity shapes the film. Throughout there is an exploration of the room, a long studio, as a field of space, subject to the arbitrary events of the outside world so long as the zoom is recessive enough
to see the windows and thereby the street. The room gradually closes up
its space (during the day, at night, on different film stocks for color tone,
with filters, and even occasionally in negative) as the zoom nears the back
wall and the final image of a photograph upon it — a photograph of waves.
This is the story of the diminishing area of pure potentiality. The insight
that space, and cinema by implication, is potential is an axiom of the
structural film.
In a note for the fourth International Experimental Film Competition
where it won first prize, Snow described the film:
Wavelength was shot in one week Dec. ’66 preceded by a
year of notes, thots, mutterings. It was edited and first print seen
in May ’67. I wanted to make a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas. I was thinking of
planning for a time monument in which the beauty and sadness
of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking of trying to make a
definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of
“illusion” and “fact,” all about seeing. The space starts at the
camera’s (spectator’s) eye, is in the air, then is on the screen,
then is within the screen (the mind).
The film is a continuous zoom which takes 45 minutes to go
from its widest field to its smallest and final field. It was shot
with a fixed camera from one end of an 80 foot loft, shooting
the other end, a row of windows and the street. This, the setting, and the action which takes place there are cosmically
equivalent. The room (and the zoom) are interrupted by 4 human events including a death. The sound on these occasions is
sync sound, music and speech, occurring simultaneously with an
electronic sound, a sine wave, which goes from its lowest (50
cycles per second) note to its highest (12000 c.p.s.) in 40
minutes. It is a total glissando while the film is a crescendo and
a dispersed spectrum which attempts to utilize the gifts of both
prophecy and memory which only film and music have to offer. 5
He simplified the essential ambiguity in the film by describing one of
the events as a death. The order of the actions is progressive and interrelated: a woman supervises the moving in of a bookcase; later she returns
with another woman; they listen to the radio (a few phrases from “Strawberry Fields,” pop culture’s version of ontological skepticism) without talking; so far we are early in the film, the action appears random; midway
through, a man breaks glass (heard offscreen) to get in an unseen door
and climb the stairs (so we hear); he enters the studio and collapses on
the floor, but the lens has already crossed half the room, and he is only
glimpsed; the image passes over him. Late in the film, a woman returns,
goes to the telephone, which, being at the far wall, is in full view, and in
a dramatic moment which brings the previous events of the film into a
narrative nexus, calls a man, “Richard,” to tell him there is a dead body
in the room. She insists that the man does not look drunk, but dead, and
she says she will wait downstairs. She leaves.
Had the film ended at that point, the image of death would have
satisfied all the potential energy and anticipation built up through the film.
But Snow prefers a deeper vision. We see a visual echo, a ghost image in
black-and-white superimposition of discontinuous flashes of the woman
entering, turning toward the body, telephoning, and leaving. Then the
zoom continues, as the sound grows shriller, into the final image of the
static sea pinned to the wall, a cumulative metaphor for the whole experience of the dimensional illusion in open space.
The events of Wavelength occur first as discrete actions or irreducible
performances. But the pivotal telephone call bridges the space between
their self-enclosure and the narrative. Snow exposes his cinematic materials
in Wavelength (even more so in his later film, whose title is the mark <->)
as momentary states within the work. The splice marks, flares of light,
filters, different film stocks, and the focal interests of the room (the yellow
chair against the far wall especially) create a calculus of mental and physical states, as distinguished from human events, which are as much a part
of the body of the film as the actions I have dwelt upon. Things happen
in the room of Wavelength, and things happen to the film of the room.
Three strips from Michael Snow’s Wavelength.
The convergence of the two kinds of happening and their subsequent metamorphosis create for the viewer a continually changing experience of cinematic illusion and anti-illusion.
Annette Michelson finds this film a metaphor for consciousness itself.
Her eloquent paraphrase reveals its relation to phenomenology:
We are proceeding from uncertainly to certainty, as our camera
narrows its field, arousing and then resolving our tension of
puzzlement as to its ultimate destination, describing in the splendid purity of its one, slow movement, the notion of the “horizon” characteristic of every subjective process and fundamental
as a trait of intentionality. That steady movement forward, with
its superimposition, its events passing into the field from behind
the camera and back again beyond it, figures the view that “to
every perception there always belongs a horizon of the past, as a
potentially of recollections that can be awakened; and to every
recollection there belongs as an horizon, the continuous intervening intentionality of possible recollections (to be actualized
on my initiative, actively up to the actual Now of perception.”
[Husserl, Cartesian Meditations] And as the camera continues to
mov …
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