Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film

Article excerpt

SHADOWS, SPECTERS, SHARDS: MAKING HISTORY IN AVANT-GARDE FILM Jeffrey Skoller. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005, 264 pp.

Jeffrey Skoller's Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film is a detailed, highly theorized examination of a range of avant-garde film practices from the 1970s to the present. The book takes as its central concern the various ways the medium of film can generate multiple, alternative perspectives on history. In addition, avant-garde film's tendency to foreground the role of spectatorship and to resist conventional techniques of cinematic narration requires the viewer to participate in the creation of meaning. Skoller shows how film's unique capacity to manipulate time and space, combined with the specific materiality of the medium, lends itself superbly to the project of revisioning history, not as narrative but in highly fragmentary, experiential, and, in some cases, virtual and speculative ways. In this sense, the films he analyzes may be situated in the context of a more general attempt to revise not only the ways history may be represented, but the wider project of reclaiming histories that have been "forgotten" or buried by traditional forms of historiography.

Through detailed analysis of films, Skoller, who is also a filmmaker, manages to show theory and practice working in concert. In addition, he sees the frequently self-reflexive filmmakers he discusses as "historiographers of their own practice" who take part in the process of reflecting on the history of the medium and the way it has impacted on the representation of history for more than a century (xxxi). The majority of examples he provides resist the temptation to narrate history, opting instead for fragmentary, nonlinear, associative, and allegorical modes of expression, bringing into being a "cine-poetics of history" (xxxvi).

Taking Walter Benjamin's conception of dialectical historical materialism as his central theoretical trope, Skoller focuses on the idea that the past is not simply past, distant and closed off; it continues to resonate in the present. The past is an important and vital force that shapes our lives, so it is necessary to become aware of history in the present. The materiality of film and its immediate appeal to the spectator provides the opportunity for engaged interactions with the past not provided, as Skoller argues, by the majority of Hollywood representations of history, "in which the implications of the events depicted have little bearing on the present viewing of the films" (xxxv).

In his introduction, Skoller discusses two main tendencies of avant-garde film practice that emerged in the context of 1960s and 1970s political modernism: the neo-Brechtian school associated with European art cinema, and the structural-materialist filmmaking that took root predominantly in North America and Britain. Skoller argues that the filmmakers at the center of his study, while deeply concerned with the materiality of the film medium-light, movement, and duration-succeed in revitalizing both avant-gardes by foregrounding the "material and formal processes" of film at the same time as they "take up historical and social issues" (xxviii). Following his well theorized but perhaps overlong introduction, Skoller structures the book thematically into five chapters and a coda. Each chapter begins with a theoretical framing discussion and then moves to analyses of specific films.

Chapter 1, "Shards: Allegory as Historical Procedure," draws primarily on Walter Benjamin's conceptions of historiography and allegory, with reference also to Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Gilles Deleuze, in order to discuss the work of several filmmakers: Ernie Gehr's Eureka (1974), Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci's Dal polo all'equatore (1986), and Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies under America (1991). Although vastly different in content and approach, all of these films are concerned with the uses and manipulations of found film footage. …