I think I was 16 when I had my first experimental film experience. Shortly after my mother told me the story of how my father managed to seduce her into his downtown apartment (on the 5th date) with promises of a private 8mm film screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I convinced my father to haul out the projector. The print was scratched and fragile; jumping in the gate of the old Bell and Howell, Moloch rattled on the screen in shaky double vision. Dad showed me neat projector tricks, like slowing the film speed down to eight frames per second, so the crowd rushing in pursuit of the false Maria took on the semblance of a frantic funeral march. Since the film was silent, I took the liberty of playing DJ with the family record collection. At the time, Pink Floyd’s psychedelic sounds seemed like a perfect accompaniment to the wild robot scenes. Years later, I would revisit Metropolis in a film studies course. The classroom was perfectly silent, the image stable, the mood sober and reverent. And while Lang’s Expressionist classic surely deserves such serious scholarly examination, my family’s spirited engagement with the film was a lot more fun.
Although cinema has been defended as an art form since the early ‘20s, its pervasive designation as an ephemeral product for popular entertainment has complicated efforts to mark certain works of the avant-garde as worthy of preservation and consideration within art history. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that, due to the efforts of a group of critics and filmmakers (most notably the indefatigable Jonas Mekas), experimental film gained admission into the world of art and academia. The ‘60s witnessed a flourishing of avant-garde cinema in underground venues throughout the country, and gradual entry into museums, galleries, and university classrooms. By 1970, critics and filmmakers who had been considered more or less radical thinkers less than ten years before established the “Essential Cinema,” a list of films selected from cinematic history “which indicate its essences and perimeters.” Acquiring the films from this polemical list (history-making is always tricky), Mekas established Anthology Film Archives in order to build a safe haven for the avant-garde free from the pressures of the commercial success and the art market. The history of experimental/avant-garde/underground film exhibition shows a cycle of economic hopes and disappointments, institutional sanction and counterculture reaction, and varying degrees of invisibility.
The last few years have been bright times for the intrepid cinephile. Institutions such as the Whitney and the MoMA offer opportunities to view significant works from Avant-garde film’s history that had been previously excluded from the canon. With its bipolar identity between establishment and underground, Anthology hosts a vast array of increasingly lively and well-attended screenings. Complementing an invigorated institutional interest in these films, several alternative venues have emerged in recent years. The NY Underground Film Festival has expanded as one of the most important showcases for new, challenging works. The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema on the Lower East Side offers weekly showings of classic and contemporary experimental works, ranging from ultra-rarefied flickers to unabashed camp. And as one of the organizers of Ocularis Cinema Williamsburg style, I’ve seen a growing interest in our experimental programs, as well as a real influx of provocative new works by local film and video makers.
While both museum and alternative film venues are essential to keeping avant-garde films alive as works of art and as inspiration for contemporary makers, the viewing experience will differ greatly in each context. When one sees a recently restored version of Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) at the Whitney, with its black box walls and conference room chairs, one wonders, if he were alive today, how Smith would feel about the décor. Would he accept the fact that you couldn’t smoke in the theater? Wouldn’t he festoon the room with colorful fabric, burn incense, and cover the walls in tin foil? Work that comes out of such lively, rebellious, and anti-establishment impulses can seem benign and historical when screened in these serious spaces at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Then again, we probably wouldn’t be able to see Smith’s films at all if it weren’t for archival efforts that, due to the exorbitant cost of film preservation, could only be carried out on an institutional level.
Non-traditional venues can offer a different engagement with this work within contemporary contexts that are not dissimilar to those where avant-garde cinema was originally conceived, nurtured, and shared, and where new work is continually born. Perhaps we were closer to the spirit of Jack Smith during an event at Tonic, where a presentation of slides and records from Smith’s collection, spun by John Zorn, seemed infused by the counter-cultural energy that the work embodies. Like the venues of the past and analogous spaces of today, the lack of financial resources can stimulate filmmakers and programmers to find creative and engaging ways of showing film.
When I first began working with Ocularis in the summer of 1997, it was a virtually illegal venture, with spectators climbing up ladders to the rooftop on Galapagos Art and Performance Space. Now as a marginally more established alternative venue, we no longer worry about being shut down by the Fire Department. It’s easier to imagine certain works as part of a living tradition in a venue like ours, where there’s room for a casual lively interaction with the film: the occasional beer glass knocked over, shattering on the floor, occasional bar talk and DJ-sets seeping into the screening room.
Most people who have seen Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966) in the last five years have probably done so in a museum screening room. In these hushed, carpeted confines, one certainly appreciates the artistry and significance of this canonical film: a dual screen 16mm projection showing the joys, terrors, sexual escapades, hallucinations, and harsh realities experienced by real and improvised characters in two rooms at the legendary Chelsea Hotel. Warhol’s film opens a window into the ‘60s’ demi-monde, tracing in light and shadows an often-romanticized moment in culture, life, and art. The Chelsea Girls is an active experience for both the projectionist and the audience. Using certain instructions, the projectionist determines when to make the sound audible on one of the reels seen on the screen, and the audience decides whether to direct their focus on one frame or the other, or both. Warhol’s cinema further suggests another kind of active spectatorship. As he once said: You could do more things watching my movies than with other kinds of movies; you could eat and drink and smoke and cough and look away and then look back and they’d still be there.
During his lifetime, Warhol’s work inhabited underground spaces and gained widespread acceptance within the established arts community, not to mention the commercial market. Of course, Warhol’s film works, especially those of the 1960s, were among the least visible elements of his oeuvre. The unmediated frontality of Warhol’s unedited film reels, screen tests, and duration pieces like Empire generally excluded them from the more mainstream acceptance his other works enjoyed. Yet The Chelsea Girls was an unprecedented break with the marginality of Warhol’s film work, and with the reception of avant-garde film in general. When The Chelsea Girls opened at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in late September 1966, Jonas Mekas, who embraced Warhol’s films from the very beginning, lamented that “critics and ‘normal’ audiences will dismiss The Chelsea Girls.” Surprisingly, diverse mainstream journals actually published glowing reviews throughout the fall, and the film booked successive screenings in Manhattan through May 1967. Over 1 million moviegoers saw it during its national release.
In 1972, Warhol removed all of his early films from distribution, and for nearly 20 years these films remained only as myth and memory. Screenings of The Chelsea Girls at Ocularis or any venue are possible thanks to a large-scale effort to preserve Warhol’s films initiated by the Whitney in the mid-‘90s, and through distribution facilitated by MoMA’s circulating film library. Scholarly attention to avant-garde film aids in exploring the rich layers of these works and broadens our understanding of cinema’s multi-faceted history.
Underground exhibition proves equally important in maintaining these films as living, breathing expressions, evoking the radical impulse that created them, and rendering them relevant to our own times.
Here’s to all tomorrow’s parties.
Gregory Baird is a contributing writer to the Brooklyn Rail.