Retelling Polish History through the "Soft Avant-Garde" Films of the 1960s

By Mazierska, Ewa | Framework, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Retelling Polish History through the "Soft Avant-Garde" Films of the 1960s


Mazierska, Ewa, Framework


When discussing avant- garde in the context of Polish cinema, several factors should be taken into account. One is the very understanding of this term. I list two main approaches to this concept. According to the first, which is closer to my own use of the term, avant- garde represents a pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm in a given discipline of art or, for that matter, in any other area of human life, such a politics. As Richard Kostelanetz claims, the "basic mea sures of avant- garde work are aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability."1 An avant- garde work should "transcend current aesthetic conventions in crucial respects, establishing a discernible distance between itself and the mass of recent practices; it will necessarily take a considerable time to find its maximum audience; and it will probably inspire future, comparably advanced endeavors."2 Of course, what is and what is not genuinely new is a matter of the cultural context, as well as of subjective opinion. A phenomenon recognized as revolutionary in a national context might be dismissed as derivative when situated in global cinema.

Avant- garde in the second sense can be understood as a specific, minor style, existing alongside but in opposition to the dominant one(s). In his seminal article on Jean- Luc Godard's Vent d'Est, Peter Wollen enumerates features that at the time of his writing were widely regarded as crucial characteristics of every avant- garde film: narrative intransitivity, estrangement, foregrounding, multiple diegeses, aperture, unplea sure, and most questionably, reality. By narrative intransitivity, Wollen means avoiding a linear narrative through gaps and interruptions, episodic constructions, and undigested digression; by estrangement, using direct address, multiple and divided characters, and commentary; by foregrounding, making the mechanics of the film/text visible and explicit; by multiple diegeses, showing heterogeneous worlds and rupture between different codes and different channels; by aperture, open- endedness, overspill, and intertextuality- allusion, quotation, and parody; by unplea sure, provocation aiming to dissatisfy and hence change the spectator; and by reality, real life, breakdown of repre sen ta tion, and truth.3 Although some of the characteristics as identified by Wollen, such as multiple diegeses and intertextuality, can be found today in a large part of mainstream cinema, his emphasis on the formal qualities of the film and achieving truth by breaking with realism defined the dominant approach to the cinematic avant- garde in the 1960s and 1970s and is still widely regarded as a common denominator of the cinematic avant- gardes. This minor style tends to cross de cades and national boundaries and reappear over and over again in new incarnations. One can even encounter an opinion that an avant- garde filmmaking puts the viewers offby its repetitiveness and predictability: an endless rearranging of the same, limited number of elements. Some authors- for example, Michael O'Pray in his book Avant- Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions, conceived as an introduction to the study of cinematic avant- garde- attempt an inclusive take on this phenomenon, recognizing the proximity between avant- garde, new wave, countercinema, experimental cinema, and art house films.4

Because cultural and national factors play an important role in determining the degree to which any given film or group of films fulfill the avantgarde criteria, it is worth discussing the Polish specificity in relation to this phenomenon. One way to perceive it, as suggested by Wollen, is as a minor style, existing along that which has dominated Polish film production. Such style is represented by directors like Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Andrzej Zulawski, and Piotr Uklanski.5 The diffi- culty with this approach is that the styles of these directors prove very diverse. What they have in common is only, broadly speaking, distrust of realism.

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