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The artist has carried the tradition of vision and visualization down through the ages. In the present time a very few have continued the process of visual perception in its deepest sense and transformed their inspiration into cinematic expression.
—Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision

From the beginning, avant-garde filmmakers have insisted on the visual nature of the film medium. "The image must be everything," said Fernand Léger.[1] Man Ray described Emak Bakia (1926) as, "purely optical, made to appeal to the eyes only."[2] The scenario for The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), said Antonin Artaud, was "based on purely visual situations whose action springs from stimuli addressed to the eye only."[3] For Hans Richter, film was "visual rhythm, released photographically."[4] Dziga Vertov said his goal was to produce "a finished étude of absolute vision."[5] Germaine Dulac campaigned tirelessly for, in her words, "an art of vision . . . an art of the eye."[6]

Comparable pronouncements appear throughout the history of avant-garde film, but I have singled out one by Stan Brakhage for the epigraph to this introduction because it not only reiterates the avant-garde's commitment to "an art of vision" but locates the source of that art in "visual perception in its deepest sense."[7] I propose to take this assertion literally and examine its implications for avant-garde film in general and the work of Brakhage and a few of his contemporaries in particular (without implying that the filmmakers I have chosen to discuss are necessarily the "very few" to whom Brakhage alludes).

On the one hand, then, there is the avant-garde's traditional emphasis on vision, on film as "an art of the eye." On the other hand, there is the study of visual perception, the science of the eye. My goal is to bring both approaches to seeing—the cinematic and the perceptual—into a single discourse on vision and the visual art of avant-garde film.

Among early attempts to relate visual perception to film aesthetics, probably the best known is Rudolf Arnheim's Film as Art . Arnheim


invokes the perceptual theories of Gestalt psychology but does not apply them in great detail and does not give any special attention to avant-garde film.[8] Similarly, Slavko Vorkapich drew upon Gestalt psychology in a series of lectures, "The Visual Nature of the Film Medium," given at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 and extensively summarized in Film Culture .[9] Only the first few lectures dealt specifically with perceptual issues, however, and, again, avant-garde film is barely mentioned. Moreover, subsequent research has failed to support the Gestaltists' theoretical premise of an isomorphic relationship between perceived forms and specific electrical fields in the brain.[10] So, although an aesthetics based on Gestalt psychology may tell us a great deal about the formal structures of visual art, its basis in the actual functions of visual perception is problematic.

Jacques Aumont calls attention to the weakness of the Gestalt approach in a short but comprehensive article on visual perception and film theory published in 1983.[11] Although Aumont's stated concerns are principally "anthropological" rather than aesthetic and he makes no mention of avant-garde film, his argument shares with mine the assumption that questions of cinema and questions of perception are intricately related, especially where they concern the nature of the image and how it is perceived. As Aumont correctly points out, the image per se is of less interest in recent research on perception than are the processes that produce the image, and these psychophysiological processes are more likely to be compared to information processing than to capturing an image on film or projecting it on a screen. Scientific efforts to explain the brain's method of constructing the visual world, however, are relevant to the study of cinema. In chapter 1 I will draw upon scientific studies of vision to argue that what vision and film have in common is a fundamental dependence on light moving in time, and that what we call an image is the shape given to light's movement by the computations of the eye and brain and by the mechanical and optical apparatus of cinema.

In Concepts in Film Theory , Dudley Andrew proposes, "Cinema is above all things a representation of visual life itself." Therefore, he argues, filmmakers can use their art to "pose questions about seeing," and the only filmmakers Andrew mentions in this context are from the avant-garde: J. J. Murphy, Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, Bruce Conner, and Kenneth Anger.[12] Andrew does not pursue this line of argument, however, and in the rest of his book he gives scant attention to the avant-garde and none to its "questions about seeing." Nevertheless, the postulate that film represents "visual life itself" and its corollary, that avant-garde film


is especially suited to "pose questions about seeing," provide a firm basis from which to approach the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film. They must be expanded upon, however, and related to another issue that Andrew does not emphasize sufficiently: the role of the cinematic apparatus.

Any cinematic expression of vision must emerge from the optical, photochemical, and mechanical processes of making and showing films. Although these processes differ greatly from those of visual perception, they are designed to produce an image comparable to the world we see when we look around us. Hence the conventions of photographic realism accepted by the dominant film industry. Because of those conventions, most films offer a very limited and highly standardized version of "visual life": focused, stable, unambiguous representations of familiar objects in three-dimensional space. While it is true that this is similar to the image of the world ordinarily provided by so-called normal vision, it is also true that we are capable of seeing the world quite differently. To express some of these other ways of seeing, avant-garde filmmakers have chosen to ignore, subvert, or openly break the rules of conventional filmmaking. Whether intuitively or by conscious intention, they have discovered that "questions about seeing" include questions about the cinematic apparatus itself.

Thus, my inquiry into the avant-garde's cinematic equivalents of visual perception will follow two complementary lines of argument. The first holds that vision embraces many different ways of seeing. In addition to focused and full-color foveal vision, there are varying degrees of less focused and colorless peripheral vision, as well as hallucinations, optical illusions, and "closed-eye vision" (as Brakhage calls it), which includes hypnagogic imagery, phosphenes, and the grainy visual "noise" perceptible when we are in a dark room or have our eyes tightly closed. These and other less familiar ways of seeing have been documented in scientific studies of vision, as well as in the more subjective testimony of visual artists. They can also be discovered through our own processes of visual perception, when we allow ourselves to notice everything we are capable of seeing. In brief, my first line of argument insists on a recognition of a "visual life" that includes all possible ways of seeing.

The second line of argument requires a comparably expanded sense of what the cinematic apparatus can produce. It rests on the significance of such characteristic avant-garde techniques as superimposition, prismatic and kaleidoscopic images, soft focus, unusual camera angles, disorienting camera movement, extreme close-ups, negative images, distorted and totally abstract images, extreme variables in lighting and exposure, scratch-


ing and painting on the film, slow motion, reverse motion, pixilation, time-lapse photography, quick cutting, intricate patterns of montage, single-frame editing, and flicker effects.

These and other experimental techniques adopted by avant-garde filmmakers have been interpreted in various ways: as gestures of rebellion against the conventions of popular cinema, as typical shock tactics in the avant-garde's campaign to épater les bourgeois , as formalist methods of defamiliarization, as new visual codes substituted for the traditional codes of narrative and representation in cinema, as expressions of psychological states and symbolic meanings, as experiments to determine the formal properties of film, as ways of demystifying the medium and fore-grounding its materials and processes of production.

While granting the pertinence of all of these explanations, I would propose another that is less widely recognized but equally valid: the unorthodox techniques of avant-garde filmmakers "pose questions about seeing" and confront the viewer with a more complex and dynamic experience of visual perception than is normally the case in film viewing. This suggests that the two lines of argument concerning what we are capable of seeing and what the apparatus is capable of showing might be described more accurately as two terms of a dialectical relationship between visual perception and the technology and techniques of cinema. This dialectic of eye and camera (as I will call it for short) will be my principal point of reference in examining the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film.

In the early 1970s, two close observers of the avant-garde drew attention to the dialectics of eye and camera, though not in precisely those terms. In his historical survey of avant-garde film, David Curtis comments that avant-garde filmmakers "have explored the camera's ability to emulate and enhance human visual perception," and in one of his columns for Take One , Lenny Lipton argued that "an aesthetic theory of film should take into account the psychology of a dynamic eye and mind in relation to the technology of cinema."[13] Unfortunately, neither Curtis nor Lipton elaborated upon their insights or applied them to a detailed study of avant-garde film.

Among other critics who have declared their special interest in the visual dimension of avant-garde film, none have made an extended analysis of the dialectic of eye and camera. P. Adams Sitney, for example, says the "central theme" of his Visionary Film is the "dialogue of camera eye and nature," but his principal concern turns out to be "the cinematic reproduction of the human mind," and in his terms, "visionary" has more to do with the imagination than with visual perception.[14] In Underground


Film: A Critical History , Parker Tyler insists that "the particular emphasis" of the avant-garde is on "the film camera as voyeur " (Tyler's emphasis). This premise leads to many cogent comments on individual films and filmmakers, but it produces little insight into the perceptual possibilities of the camera beyond its function as the "peephole of the underground."[15] Gene Youngblood declares early in Expanded Cinema that "film is a way of seeing" but then skims over the conjunction of film and seeing, to concentrate on the ways film, video, and computer technologies communicate "expanded consciousness."[16] As helpful as all three critics have been in creating a broader appreciation of the avant-garde's accomplishments, they have not dealt adequately with the dialectic of eye and camera, nor have they placed sufficient emphasis on the desire of avant-garde filmmakers to "emulate and enhance human visual perception," in Curtis's phrase.

With one exception, more recent studies of avant-garde film have been even less illuminating on these particular issues.[17] The exception is Maureen Turim's Abstraction in Avant-Garde Films , in which psychoanalytic theory and semiotics provide the basis for an examination of perceptual processes set in motion by the avant-garde's radical reworking of image and sound. Although Turim places greater emphasis on the psychological than the visual experience of the film viewer (while allowing that the one cannot exist without the other), she demonstrates an appreciation of the visual art of avant-garde film that I share—though my approach and most of my examples are not the same as hers.

In other recent studies, politics and ideology take precedence over perceptual and aesthetic considerations. In Patricia Mellencamp's Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, and Feminism , the North American avant-garde scene and a sampling of its films and videos appear within a matrix of post-structuralist and postmodernist approaches that have been shaped and nourished by the author's engagement with feminism. Marxism serves a similar function in Peter Gidal's Materialist Film . Advancing a line of argument that Malcolm Le Grice presented less militantly in Abstract Film and Beyond , Gidal insists that the only films worthy of being called avant-garde are those that engage the viewer in a radical and self-referential critique of the technical, psychological, and social apparatus of cinema. Dana Polan's The Political Language of Film and the Avant-Garde avoids the partisanship and adversarial tone of Gidal's book, but it also avoids consideration of film as "an art of seeing" in order to pursue questions concerning the political relevance of film.

David James's Allegories of Cinema begins with the assumption that all films—from the standard Hollywood product to the most personal avant-


garde work—are inseparable from the social and economic conditions of their production, distribution, and reception. Therefore, James argues, the function of avant-garde film should be to make those conditions visible and open to the kind of critical analysis that could change them—and society—for the better. In his evaluation of avant-garde films, vision and visual aesthetics require little discussion, except when they threaten to divert attention from the ideological implications of a filmmaker's work (as has happened, James believes, in Brakhage's case).

Undoubtedly films are products of the culture from which they emerge, or as James puts it, "Making films is a social and material act taking place in history."[18] But that fact should not diminish the value of examining the social role and individual experience of vision and the translation of vision into filmic expression. In fact, it should underline the importance of the questions about seeing asked by avant-garde filmmakers—and answered in the making of their films. Hence the principal emphasis of this book on human and cinematic vision and on the effort to turn film into "an art of vision."

Although avant-garde films frequently offer ways of seeing that are different from those provided by the dominant film industry and by our own everyday experience of normal vision, they are still authentic equivalents of "visual life." Their authenticity, however, requires support from studies of visual perception. To provide this support and demonstrate its relevance to the avant-garde's aesthetics of vision, I will approach the subject in three different ways, which might be characterized as technical-biological, historical-theoretical, and analytic-aesthetic. While each overlaps the others and may be referred to at any point in my discussion, the first figures most prominently in chapter 1, the second in chapters 2 and 3, and the third in the remaining four chapters.

Chapter 1 argues that the images of cinema and of vision derive from the same three basic elements: light, movement, and time. Because they have these elements in common, the technical functions of the cinematic apparatus and the biological functions of the human visual apparatus not only can be compared but can be made to confront each other through what I have called the dialectic of eye and camera. Although I refer to light moving in time as the essential common ground of vision and cinema, I am not taking an "essentialist" position, which holds that the making and perceiving of images is somehow free of cultural influences. In fact, the explicit purpose of chapter 2 is to examine the historical origins and social consequences of equating manufactured images with human vision. Central to that issue is the development of so-called Renaissance perspective


and its influence on the conventions of photographic and cinematic image making—conventions the avant-garde has challenged because of the ideological, perceptual, and aesthetic restrictions they impose on the cinematic image.

To complete that line of argument, chapter 3 examines one of the avant-garde's most significant departures from conventional assumptions about vision: Stan Brakhage's concept of "the untutored eye." After tracing the theoretical basis of the concept from the seventeenth century to the present, I argue that Brakhage successfully revived an aesthetics of vision that E. H. Gombrich and others have pronounced dead. By doing so, Brakhage gave the avant-garde its most thorough and convincing justification for replacing the practices of conventional cinema with modes of image making that are truer to "visual life" in its fullest sense.

How Brakhage put his theory into practice is the subject of chapter 4, the first discussion of the work of a single filmmaker. It is also the central and longest chapter of the book, because I find Brakhage to be the central, as well as the most prolific, contributor to the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film. Rather than attempt to cover all of Brakhage's films, however, I will examine only a few that represent various solutions he has found to the problem of translating vision into cinematic form.

The remaining chapters follow the same strategy of using aspects of visual perception to illuminate some of the thematic and formal concerns of a few of the best-known avant-garde filmmakers. Chapter 5 examines Kenneth Anger's special use of light. Chapter 6 explores the hallucinatory imagery of Jordan Belson, James Whitney, and Paul Sharits. Chapter 7 traces the reciprocal relationship of perceptual and conceptual experience evoked by some of Michael Snow's major films.

As a whole, the book offers a series of studies (as its subtitle indicates), rather than a single, definitive statement on the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film. I have not attempted to include all the issues and filmmakers relevant to the topic, nor have I used visual criteria to create a canon of avant-garde films or a ranking of individual filmmakers. Instead, I have tried to show what kinds of issues arise and what types of approaches and insights become possible when vision is regarded as an aesthetic problem for which avant-garde filmmakers have found different but equally successful solutions.

My choice of filmmakers to discuss in more detail reflects several factors, not the least of which has been my pleasure in viewing and reviewing their films over many years. A less subjective factor is the recognition they have received as major figures in the history of avant-garde film


and, therefore, my assumption that many readers will be familiar with their work and at least the broad outlines of its critical reception. Other factors include the general availability of their films, with the exception of much of Belson's work (for matters related to the sources of films discussed in this book, see the Appendix); their expressed interest in the relationship of film and vision; and the differences in their styles of filmmaking, which allow me to illustrate a variety of responses to the avant-garde's "questions about seeing." They represent, in other words, a broad spectrum of responses to the dialectic of eye and camera.

Collectively, avant-garde filmmakers have turned that dialectical relationship into a positive, creative force; individually, they have tended to favor either the camera and the mechanical nature of the apparatus, or the eye and the range of human perceptions capable of being represented by the cinematic apparatus. Toward one end of the spectrum are Belson, Whitney, and Anger, whose films avoid direct reference to cinematic processes and machinery, despite the fact that all three (especially Belson) make extensive and sophisticated use of cinematic technology. Snow and Sharits, on the other hand, expose the mechanicalness of the medium and openly impose it on their cinematic images.

Brakhage tends to favor the eye, but he is also willing to give the camera its due. Thus, in Metaphors on Vision he refers to the camera as "the limitation, the original liar"; yet, three pages later he praises the camera for its

speed for receptivity which can slow the fastest motion for detailed study, or its ability to create a continuity for time compression, increasing the slowest motion to a comprehensibility. I am praising its cyclopean penetration of haze, its infra-red visual ability in darkness, its just developed 360-degree view, its prismatic revelation of rainbows, its zooming potential for exploding space and its telephotic compression of same to flatten perspective, its micro- and macro-scopic revelations.[19]

If Brakhage's work as a whole demonstrates an ultimate allegiance to the eye, this passage shows that he is capable of the kind of admiration for the camera that was virtually universal among the earliest avant-garde filmmakers.

The avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s thought the camera superior to the human eye. Characteristic of the period is Jean Epstein's praise of the camera's "nonhuman analytical properties" which prevent it from being "weighted down by likings and dislikings, by habits and considerations [which we] can no longer perceive." Germaine Dulac described the


camera as "an eye more powerful than our own and which sees things we cannot see." Dziga Vertov pronounced the camera "more perfect than the human eye for the exploration of the chaos of visual phenomena that fills space."[20]

In their enthusiasm for the "mechanical eye," as Vertov called it, these filmmakers frequently overlooked the visual restrictions and cultural biases it imposed on the cinematic image—limitations that have been recognized by later film artists like Brakhage and systematically analyzed by critics like Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean-Louis Baudry.[21] Although their bias in favor of the camera-eye did not prevent the first generation of avant-garde filmmakers from producing powerful works of visual art, it seems to have blinded them to the human eye's own capacity for perceptions as rich and meaningful as anything the camera's eye could produce. Probably Dziga Vertov went the furthest in regarding human vision as essentially passive and without significant insight until it perceived the world through a "mechanical eye."

"I see—I kino-see," wrote Vertov, and in The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), he symbolized the eye's subservience to the camera by superimposing an eye on the lens of a camera.[22] The eye appears to be "in" the lens and thus able to see only what the camera reveals. But as a visual metaphor, Vertov's camera-eye can be read in more than one way. Chapter 1 will offer a reading that proposes more similarities between human and cinematic vision than Vertov and his contemporaries were willing to recognize. Subsequent chapters will show how those similarities produce the creative conflict, or dialectic, of eye and camera that has so powerfully shaped the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film.

As a final introductory comment, I want to emphasize that aesthetics , in its original sense, derives from the Greek  image, "things perceptible to the senses." The film artists I discuss in this book have remained true to the original source and subject of aesthetics. Using light moving in time, they have translated the sense of sight into filmic art—not simply an art to be seen, but an art of seeing. How, why, and against what odds they have done so, are the principal matters under consideration here.


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