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Nonfiction: Beauty, Old Faithful

P. Adams Sitney, Eyes Upside Down (Oxford University Press, 2008)

With his most recent theoretical construction, Eyes Upside Down, P. Adams Sitney, author of Visionary Film, reveals an intricate matrix of aesthetic attributes with Ralph Waldo Emerson as its core source. Sitney explores Emerson in relation to the works of eleven American filmmakers. His analysis results in a highly stylized and instructive text, which touches not only on American poets and philosophers, but also on visionary filmmakers from three post-World War II generations, including Marie Menken, Ian Hugo, Hollis Frampton, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Robert Beavers, Warren Sonbert, Ernie Gehr, Andrew Noren, Abigail Child, and Su Friedrich.

Since the days of Film Culture magazine, Sitney’s approach has remained both multi-disciplinary and systematic, a methodology that permits him to navigate through the semantic structures of the films, without reducing their beauty and poetics to mere cinematic tropes. Sitney’s power as a theoretician lies in his ability to translate the fluctuations of images into a language which is both as singular and poetic as the films they discuss. In Eyes Upside Down, Emerson’s aesthetics allow Sitney to explore the formal style of each filmmaker in his or her personal and historical context.

Sitney analyzes the abstract conception behind Brakhage’s Sincerity III (part of the 1973-80 series Sincerity/Duplicity) through its aftermath, the physical editing as a Brakhage rubato:

The diachrony constructed and critically exposed in the first two reels gives way to a synchronous portrait of family life with the filmmaker centered at his editing table; that is, he reveals himself constructing the synchronous as artificially as he had made up the diachrony.

Musical references and metaphors form part of the texture and richness of Sitney’s work, which, instead of enclosing, frees his subjects. An analysis of the writings of his subjects allows the author to compare the similarities and disparities in the theoretics of filmmaking:

Perhaps the most important distinction between Brakhage’s and Frampton’s versions of the cave metaphor would turn on Brakhage’s evocation of “most people” where Frampton wrote of an universal “I.”

For Sitney, all of these avant-garde filmmakers share the Emersonian conception of the Beautiful Necessity: “not intelligent but intelligence…it vivifies nature; yet solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence.” The author’s analysis delves into each filmmaker’s body of work, interweaving the most personal aspects of their perceptions and writings with his or her films. Sitney points to the presence of the Beautiful Necessity as the filmmakers surrender themselves and become witnesses to the sublime.

P. Adams Sitney demarks the scope of his thesis at the onset of Eyes Upside Down; it is subjective, and in many cases, may even seem to reduce the analyzed filmmakers to a few essential characteristics. Nonetheless, Sitney observes this as the critical condition of his study, reminding us that besides being an historian, he has also fostered friendships with each of the filmmakers in question. He thus makes himself part of the history of American avant-garde cinema. The meticulous and clarifying process that P. Adams Sitney employs will certainly stimulate renewed interest in many of the films he discusses; the book also offers an invaluable compendium of references to nascent filmmakers and writers.


Marcela Silva


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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