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Avant-garde: the necessary context

Mike Walsh


Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Meshes of the Afternoon, (stills), 1943 Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Meshes of the Afternoon, (stills), 1943
Avant-garde filmmaking rarely involves looking back. The emphasis is on being at the cutting edge, on leading us kicking and screaming into the new historical moment. But paradoxically, avant-garde works often need historical contextualisation to explain how their textual forms arise in response to contemporary ideas and practices. Thus the value of The Plastic Pulse season, curated by Jon Dale for the Media Resournce Centre in Adelaide.

Avant-garde cinema may have enjoyed its first flowering in France and Germany in the 1920s, but the next focus of sustained creativity came in the United States between the early 1940s and the 1960s. The Plastic Pulse provided a rare opportunity to see works from influential figures such as Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and Maya Deren and to consider their links to the present.

The most anticipated event of the season was an evening concentrating on the works of New York composer/filmmaker Phil Niblock. Niblock’s The Magic City abstracted a performance by Sun Ra’s Arkestra, exploring the possibilities of synaesthesia between abstract imagery and dissonant jazz composition. With his new work Guitar Too, For Four, Niblock has shifted to foregrounding the dialectical relation between music and image.

This was a classic piece of minimalism counterposing a split-screened video of an ethnographic documentary with a composition played live consisting of electric guitar feedback moderated by synthesisers. Small shifts in the music arise both from the feeding back of ambient sound (the pick-up of each guitar ‘hears’ the other guitars as well as its own output) and tonal shifts made by the performers, who were led by Oren Ambarchi, one of the forces behind SBS’s Subsonics program. Harmonic tones and overtones emerge, until they are overtaken by other developments.

The listener shifts attention between these voices—the emergent harmonics and the primary sounds—and then from aural to visual cues. The image is referential, repeatable and discontinuous in contrast to the continuous, improvised change within the music, which responds only to its own abstract structuring.

Music theoretician Stephen Whittington took up the connection between film and music when he introduced a collection from the recently-deceased Brakhage, emphasising the films as “continuity arts” in which patterns of succession were central. Whittington also stressed Brakhage’s concentration on seeing differently, a point borne out by the different parts of Dog Star Man (1963-64) in which we are invited to see both film and flesh differently by an emphasis on their textures, and by The Wonder Ring (1955), in which a train journey offers the raw material for a visual abstraction of reflection and refraction, of shade and framing.

Brakhage’s famous Mothlight (1963), made by pasting moths’ wings on to transparent stock, points to the adventure of process as much as product and to the ways that representation can emerge momentarily out of abstraction. Theo Angell’s Jackie-O Forestry Centre (2001) works similar territory, delving into the frenzied complexity of the video image and nature. You might not be able see the forest for the trees, but this is only a starting point when you’re interested in looking within the tree.

The avant-garde typically leaves its dead by the side of the road, but Dale gave us a valuable opportunity to see films known for earlier, braver transgressions. Sexual and formal transgression is at the heart of Ken Jacobs’ Blond Cobra (1959-63). The film confronts us with the multiple scandals of Jack Smith’s improvised narration consistently veering off into pornographic fantasy, associated with a blank screen, randomly staged and assembled shots of Smith and assorted comrades in drag, and even the random interpolation of whatever’s on the radio at that moment. There is a sense of freedom in imagining that anything might get sucked into the mix.

Smith’s own magnum opus Flaming Creatures (1963) is a whacked-out appropriation of popular genres such as the musical, the orientalist melodrama, and the horror movie, which allows the perverse and violent sexuality at the heart of these genres to bubble to the surface. John Waters suddenly seems to be only stating the obvious.

Other old favourites included Deren, the Lara Croft of Jungian terrains, and her Girl’s Own Adventures in the unconscious, and Sidney Peterson’s The Lead Shoes (1949), a delirious mixture of Dada, stoned jazz, women in nighties and men in diving suits.

Sheldon Rochlin’s Vali: The Witch of Positano (1965) provided a local perspective. In this documentary Vali Myers, who died recently in Melbourne, works through the possibilities for a Sydney girl in the 1960s to reinvent herself (and Australia in the process) in line with old-style new-age witchiness. If one theme of the contemporary avant-garde is the nature of technological materials with which we live, Vali addressed herself and her own fantasy life as among the most enduring forms of material.


Plastic Pulse, curator Jon Dale, Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, May 28, June 11, 18, 25

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 19

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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