Suburban Culture, Menippean Satire, and Avant-Garde Film:
Thirty-odd years after P. Adams Sitney wrote Visionary Film, it remains the definitive account of American avant-garde film. Not least because it set a standard of critical excellence that no other scholar or critic since has even approached. Sure, as a co-founder of Anthology Film Archives and the editor of seminal journals Filmwise and Film Comment, Sitney drew on a far deeper well of first-hand knowledge than most critics. But still, it was Sitney’s careful observations, penetrating insights, and ready wit that made
Visionary Film a classic, prompting a recent third edition. In a field dominated by academic pedants, Sitney is a rarity. An art critic of the old school, cheerfully dismissive of scholarly fads and preoccupations.
Today, Sitney is a Professor of Visual Art at Princeton University. Last year, he was a senior scholar at the Getty Research Institute, where he finished a forthcoming book, discussing major avant-garde filmmakers like Hollis Frampton, Robert Beavers, and Abigail Child. In the meantime, he’s written and edited several other books, including Film Culture Reader, The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, Modernist Montage: The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and Literature, and Vital Crises in Italian Cinema.
Brian L. Frye is a filmmaker, film curator, and film critic based in Olympia, Washington.
Brian L. Frye: I thought we could begin with your formative years. When, in fact, were you first introduced to experimental film?
P. Adams Sitney: I had the great good fortune of growing up in a university town. My father was a grocer in New Haven, CT. When I was very young, I went to an inner city school. By the sixth grade, I was the only white male in my class. I was very street smart, and I learned how to get into the university. I could walk into virtually any university building and pass myself off as a professor’s kid or graduate student’s kid. One time when I was about 14, I wandered into a screening of Un Chien Andalou and some other avant-garde films. And for a certain kind of pretentious art-oriented adolescent, Un Chien Andalou was the perfect film! I was hooked!
I had a job in the university feeding and taking care of rats, ultimately shooting them up with LSD for the medical school—all before LSD was known as a drug, of course. But that was how I gained access to the university library. I’d sit and read books on art and cinema, or Manvell’s Experiment in the Film. And I developed a kind of adolescent passion for seeing these kinds of films. There was this painter named Tom Map who later taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. Anyway, he knew Brakhage and showed some of his films in the film society. By the time I was 16, I had corresponded with Jonas [Mekas] and Brakhage, and had my own film society and was publishing a little newsletter, which became Filmwise. I just had a great deal of luck.
Rail: I understand you had an early meeting with Joseph Cornell as well.
Sitney: Well, that came about actually when I was 19. I was about to take some films to Europe so I called up Joseph Cornell—Brakhage had given me his phone number—and I asked him if we could show his films. He was very reluctant, but I was a persistent kid. I went out to see him. There is a loaded and long story in that, but ultimately, he let me take the films, and Filmmakers’ Cinematheque showed them. But it was the weekend that JFK was shot, so he, like many of us, was very upset about the whole thing. And this sort of squelched the showing of his films. But after Anthology started, I went to see him again, and eventually was able to convince him to allow us to show his films. He was very, very difficult. On one occasion I went out and bought a book on Garcia Lorca to give him, knowing that he made a film inspired by Lorca. So as I was standing in his front porch, he opened the door as if he wasn’t expecting me. I said, ‘Here’s a present.’ He looked at the book and said, ‘I have it already.’ Eventually, his mother told him to bring me in and slowly… I just wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. There are some things that adolescents can do—from not having the good sense or tact to know when they are not wanted. That can be an enormous advantage.
Rail: Well, thirty-odd years later Visionary Film remains among the most important books on American avant-garde film. I’m wondering whether it accomplished what you had in mind and why you think it remains one of the most important books on American experimental films today?
Sitney: I can answer the second part of that much more easily than the first. When I got the idea for the book, I’d been traveling with a collection of American avant-garde films in Europe during two separate two-year periods: first to the International Exhibition of New American Cinema at the end of 1963 through most of 1964, and then again in 1967 through 1968. I had also been in Buenos Aires with films in the summer of 1965. So there were a group of films—some 30 to 40 hours—that I have seen at least a dozen times, about which very little was written. In those days, there weren’t anything like videotapes. The only way you could see a film and study it was to see it over and over again. So, I had a unique advantage. I had also been collecting documents on filmmakers while editing both a little journal called Filmwise, and Film Culture. In 1969, I became the director of the newly formed Anthology Film Archives. But when my administrative inabilities became thoroughly apparent to me—and I believe to everybody around me—I stepped down from that position and became the director of the library and publications instead. In any case, I had two things going for me at that time: I had access to documents—to a very large degree—and an intimate exposure and familiarity with many central films. Therefore, a lot of material in the book consisted of quoting these important documents. What had been published was scattered over years and years and they were hard to find. And I had descriptive familiarity with a great many of the films. Aside from anything having to do with my own contribution, already there was this solid basic description and documentation that made Visionary Film particularly valuable to people who wanted to remember what they had seen recently and to have more filmmaker information. In addition to that, I had been talking to filmmakers for years: some in published interviews and others in more informal situations. I was bringing a lot of what the filmmakers had thought about their own films to the book. So, I think that if the book has lasted a long time, it’s because it’s not just what I thought about the films or my own critical perspective of them—which was surely the most controversial part of the book—but my unique access at the time to a library of facts.
Rail: One thing that always struck me is that there hasn’t been a book with an impact comparable to Visionary Film,even though a lot of people have written on the subject. Why do you think that is?
Sitney: There were a couple of books before [mine]. The authors didn’t have my familiarity with the films or my obsessive interest in documentation. Sheldon Renan’s book was kind of a handbook, and Parker Tyler’sbook was essentially a critical reassessment of Tyler’s point of view; so, frankly they weren’t as useful as Visionary Film. The books that came after that more or less assumed the existence of Visionary Film, and often gave critical arguments against its principles. So, in a sense, even the people who oppose me have been keeping me in the business. But I should add something else that only occurred to me recently. I spent an entire year at the Getty. And what I realized, having all that time to read and write, is that I have been overwhelmingly a genre critic. That is, my approach has been to identify the ‘kinds.’ One of the many questions I ask of any film is, “What kind of film is it? What genre does it fit in, and how does it respond to other work in the genre?”
One of the major contributions of Visionary Film was to establish a certain kind of history of genres. One of the genres was overwhelmingly controversial, which was “structural film.” But a bunch of the others were uncritically accepted. And it’s been that generic framework that has largely lasted all that time. I think the generic framework lasted because it is to some extent in close touch with what the filmmakers themselves either directly or intuitively thought they were doing. I’ve always felt I’ve been a critic who depends very much on the thoughts and reflections of the filmmakers that I am writing about, even when I am not in complete agreement with their self-evaluation.
Rail: And do you think that is an unusual tack to take?
Sitney: It isn’t unusual within the whole history of critical work. Certainly the people who were actively writing about painting when I was a kid—[Clement] Greenberg and [Harold] Rosenberg—were those who had spent a great deal of their time looking, talking and listening to the painters. But after Visionary Film the universities got interested in avant-garde cinema. And most of the people who wrote about it—not all, but most—[were] products of the university system. Therefore, their writings were in response to the generic needs of the books that university professors produce, in a very codified system that emerged in the 1970’s, which was dominated by certain aspects of European—largely French—philosophy and criticism.
Rail: What’s your general impression of, or thoughts on, this intersection of—or dominance, in some respects—of critical theory and the universities in discourse, and academic and general thought around experimental film and avant-garde film today?
Sitney: Well, it has gone up and down. That’s the good side of it. One of the things that allowed the study of avant-garde film to survive in a very dark period was its little corner within the university world. There was a period when the only audience for the avant-garde cinema was coming out of the universities. And the universities were invigorated—for better or for worse—by this kind of discourse. And there was a certain period in which many films reflected the kind of postmodern intellectualism that was prevalent in the academic world. You would often have text read in such films; there were films that involved certain kinds of psychoanalytic interventions. The greatest example, and this is actually outside the universities, is the work by Yvonne Rainer. So, what was happening in the general culture was also happening in the universities. Now, that’s very much on the wane. What we have now in the universities is an enormous acceptance of what I call “suburban culture.” A young person who comes to the university is no longer ashamed—sadly—of being a suburbanite. What that person saw in the rec room constitutes all the culture one aspires to. I mean, you can even be gay, and go to the university world, and no longer feel you have to know the name of any opera. And this is a kind of universal suburbanization, whose major tool is the DVD. It’s interesting that those who used to be one’s greatest opposition become, over years, one’s cronies and friends. I mean, the difference now between the cultural views of myself and, let’s say, of Peter Gidal is minimal, compared to the difference between myself and any young film and TV person who is working on some theme of the Sopranos. There’s been a whole cultural transformation. And what once seemed to be the battleground turned out not to be the battleground at all.
Rail: My concern is with this long-term aesthetic viability of a lot of the art that was produced during that period.
Sitney: But that is always true, for any given period. Certainly there were a lot of misvalued elements. During that period, there was a politburo mentality in certain aspects of the French theory. Departments really attempted to crush and send to a kind of gulag anyone who wasn’t in line. But even despite that, life in a gulag is better than life in the suburbs!
Rail: (laughter) Didn’t the kind of arguments you brought up in Visionary Film come under a lot of criticism during that period?
Sitney: Well, certainly, but my championing of Brakhage has turned out triumphant in that sense. That Brakhage is back, and is fully acknowledged as the great master that he is. Of course, the price of that is his tragic death. But that’s inevitable. I don’t think anyone still feels the need to Brakhage-bash over those false issues of patriarchy, etc. In fact, in David James’ new volume on Brakhage, there are very interesting post 20th Century discussions by Tyrus Miller and Abigail Child, and various ways in which Brakhage is recuperated. That is good news, and valuable. That David James book is wonderfully useful and interesting in that respect. “Changing my mind.” Yes, I am slow. When Visionary Film first came out, I had not yet found a way to write about Ernie Gehr. I still haven’t found a way to write about Yvonne Rainer in a way that I feel that I myself can make a major contribution. Not that she lacks various supporters. I was quite slow to see the really important change that the young women were bringing about. I certainly didn’t understand the importance of all of those who kind of had a cultic obsession with Super-8 or 8mm, or certain kind of screening conditions. One might almost attribute that to the cultural work of Ken Jacobs, with all of those people who were being nurtured by Jacobs’s SUNY/Binghampton operation. So, it took me decades in order to really see how the historical machine was operating and reconfiguring, because I was already deeply committed to certain great filmmakers. But I also had my blind spots.
Rail: Can you discuss the theme for your new book?
Sitney: Well, I spent a whole year at the Getty. And I initially wanted to write a short book but I ended up with 680 pages. And I knew I wanted to start with Marie Menken. I was never able to give her her due. When I first wrote Visionary Film—the first time—I simply didn’t understand how to write about her. At any rate, in my new book finally I felt that I’d grasped Menken properly which led me into thinking about superimposition and Ian Hugo. I think I got a pretty good take on those two important filmmakers whose work I never could deal with before. And most of the book concerns films that are made in series. There are four chapters on Brakhage. There’s a long chapter on Frampton’s Hapax Legomena; something on Magellan; two chapters on Mekas’s Diaries, Notes, and Sketches; a long chapter on Andrew Noren’s Exquisite Corpse; something on Sonbert; something on Abigail Child’s series, Is This What You Were Born For?; three chapters on the cycles of Robert Beavers; and by this time I had a monumentally long book! But I felt I couldn’t beat it to an end without coming back both to Ernie Gehr and Su Friedrich. So, I had this big long book, and at a certain point I was afraid to look up to see how long it was. And when I realized that it got as long as Visionary Film was, I said, ‘This is going to have to stop.’ So as much as I would’ve liked to have time to consider Peter Hutton, Nick Dorsky, and Saul Levine,I think that’s going to have to come another time. Unlike Visionary Film, every chapter is organized around an individual filmmaker.
Rail: Aside from the menippean satire you had mentioned before, have you identified with any other genres?
Sitney: Not really. I don’t see a new generic form dominating the work of young filmmakers. Largely the dominant form is the crisis film as Brakhage understood it. Brakhage saw it operating in Menken and Hugo, and made it his own. And that came back with an enormous resurgence after the collapse of the Foucaultian, Lacanian influence on the menippean satire. I think young filmmakers today take it as a completely natural fact that they will be working in something like the crisis lyric, even though they may not know the concept or the term. They don’t need a story. They don’t need a framework. They are just going to start shooting and find the film in the material. I take the curatorialwork of Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith as exemplary of what young filmmakers are doing. You see the same genres over and over again at Lincoln Çenter. Although such exhibitions are very useful, they are very repetitive and certainly very exhausting.
Rail: In terms of the relationship between film and video as well as the transition from one to another, I am wondering whether or not you think avant-garde film, as a genre, is really medium or format-specific? Or whether what is important about it can translate into another medium?
Sitney: This is a big question for which I am not an expert. This is how I feel: The fact that Jonas Mekas, Ernie Gehr, Andrew Noren have actually issued works in video as well as on celluloid seems to me to indicate that the aesthetic validity of the transition is incontrovertible. There is some art that is not material-specific. I myself am prejudiced towards the chemical image. I feel that if the chemical image were not to exist, if the projected film that I know of—that I grew up with—didn’t exist, I might never have been drawn into this art in the way that I have. But as always, I have had to listen to the wisdom of the filmmakers, and those filmmakers are making an extremely good point. Certainly, Noren and Gehr are among the greatest purists. And yet they have found a way to make their art digitally. I find myself close to people like Kubelka,who wants to remain completely in the sphere of the celluloid, and Brakhage, who was nevertheless very enthusiastic about the Criterion release of By Brakhage.
Rail: Despite the fact that your approach in Visionary Film and later is much less insistently focused on film material than a lot of what was written in the late 70s and 80s – writing that was foregrounding, but in some ways much less sensitive to the aesthetic qualities to the medium – it’s in the background in a way.
Sitney: The best films and the best filmmakers loved the medium. And to appreciate what they’ve done is to see it in the best possible conditions. Sometimes, some of it can’t even be seen. They are just invisible on the monitor. But then again, I remember the first time I heard Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in a concert hall: there were instruments I hadn’t known existed from all of the recordings that I had heard previously. It is simply that we are moving into a different period. I found myself in a very interesting position among the scholars during my time at the Getty. I was one of the oldest. And there were people who were working on Warhol and Yvonne Rainer. And very often there was a description of an event or a screening, and I happened to have been there. And to realize that I had — instead of being “the kid” I had been for years, now I was this old-timer, who had these kinds of memories from the walls of Troy. I could remember what the event was, what it looked like, how the room looked like from those times. We are stuck—we are positioned by the historical conditions of our entry into a particular aesthetic world. And mine had to do with certain qualities of beauty that come about in a film theatre. Although I find myself much less dogmatic and absolute than several of my good friends, like Fred Camper, who doesn’t want to see any film in any condition other than its original format, or Nick Dorsky, who doesn’t own a DVD player, monitor or television. Beavers too has a very limited relationship to such technology. My sensibility is much more pragmatic. I am forced to be, partially by my exile in southern New Jersey.
Rail: One other thing that I wanted to get your impressions of was, during the period where you started writing, there were these larger than life figures like Brakhage and Frampton. And there are still some people approximate to that sort of stature in American experimental film today —like Dorsky and Beavers—but not quite in the same way. I haven’t really seen a whole lot of younger filmmakers emerging the way that they did back then. And I am wondering if you see that, if you have any sense—is it a function of time, or has the film world changed in such a way that that it is no longer a possibility?
Sitney: That’s hard to predict. If you were coming in as a young woman to film would Su Friedrich be a larger than life person? My guess is she would be. These are certainly people who have the eccentricities and strength of character that would put them in those kinds of categories. We are talking about women in their fifties. What does a 20 year old think of Lewis Klahr? Is he larger than life?
Rail: Yes and no. Perhaps it’s the filmmakers as much as anything. Someone like Su Friedrich has taken on a kind of voice and has defined herself in a way much like Brakhage did, but that is the exception to the rule today. There seems to be a time when filmmakers were much more invested in speaking for themselves, whereas today people rely on academics in a way that they didn’t used to.
Sitney: Do you rely on academics?
Rail: Well, I don’t.
Sitney: Does Bradley Eros rely on academics?
Rail: Well, I don’t see as many filmmakers writing as before.
Sitney: Ah, that’s it. That’s the difference. Filmmakers do not write. The last book… but there is a book! Abigail Child’s book, This Is Called Moving, is the first book in a very long time in the tradition of Frampton, and Brakhage, and Deren. It is good to see that book, considering there are now more curators than writers. At 61, I can’t tell who is larger than life. I sometimes think about what it would be like to come to New York at 20 years old and run into Mark McElhatten. He’s certainly seen a hell of a lot of films, and seems to know what he wants and doesn’t want. He may be seen as a larger than life person. Besides, people don’t drink as much as they used to. That has something to do with it. There was a lot of excessive behavior that was alcohol stimulated and in public. Maas, Menken, Frampton, Kubelka. Brakhage, Jonas, me! We were drinking quite a bit. I remember I was completely plastered during that debate with Malcolm Le Grice at Millennium.
Rail: (laughter) It didn’t hurt your sense of humor. But you’re right. That was a unique chapter in film history.