ALTERNATIVE PROJECTIONS: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980

By Keller, Sarah | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

ALTERNATIVE PROJECTIONS: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980


Keller, Sarah, Millennium Film Journal


ALTERNATIVE PROJECTIONS: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980 Edited by David E. James and Adam Hyman John Libbey Publishing/Indiana University Press, 2015

The idea haunting a good deal of David E. James and Adam Hyman's recent anthology Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980 involves the uneven attention paid to New York artists and intellectuals in the formation of the canon of experimental film, over and above the under-represented west coast. Reasons given for the disparity of attention include the overshadowing of artistic effort in motion pictures by the behemoth of the Hollywood machine, the dominance of European avant-garde traditions that especially influenced artists and intellectuals on the east coast, and even-in an excellent essay by Josh Guilford on the heliophobia expressed by Jonas Mekas and others on the east coast-the overabundance of sunshine in southern California. Much of the energy of this volume fixates in one way or another on bicoastal rivalries, making an argument for the need to reevaluate the important contributions of west coast artists and to adjust the canon of experimental cinema accordingly.

Whether the reader of the volume agrees with such arguments, James, Hyman, and their illustrious roster of collaborators go a long way toward making the case. All biases aside, Alternative Projections provides a useful corollary and often a corrective to what has become a somewhat unilateral approach to experimental cinema in the period taken up here. At its very best moments-and there are many-it illuminates (with that California sunshine) what has been obscured by New York's shadow and offers insight into alternative candidates for inclusion in the canon of America's experimental artists, many of whom were working across media and across the boundaries of high and low art during the post-war period through the 1970s.

In fact, the porosity of those boundaries informs many of the scholarly contributions, including Matt Reynolds' essay on artist Ed Ruscha in which he addresses the paracinematic elements of Ruscha's photo books, especially Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1967), arguing that Ruscha's work "provide[s] examples of using fine arts practices to create a more radical rethinking of the cinematic medium" (191). Likewise, the divide between commercial and artistic interests is challenged in Julie Turnock's magisterial essay on the commerce (literally, too) between experimental artists and the commercial mainstream directors of Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars (1977). She posits that art and commerce at this moment enter into a useful symbiotic relationship, such that "experimental filmmakers, both directly as labor and indirectly as inspiration, taught popular filmmakers...strategies for organizing and mobilizing the elaborately designed composite mise-en-scène," primarily through their labor on the optical line of these features. Moreover, according to Turnock and supported through her meticulous research and first hand interviews with the artists, the influence ran both ways: "these filmmakers took skills and inspiration from their day jobs back to their own work" (228).

Other essays put more focus on directly disparaging the influence of New York and European art traditions in the formation of the experimental film canon. For instance, Juan Carlos Kase's essay on Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren's collaborative work posits that their films have not seen greater attention because they do not fit into the dominant mold for experimental film, "Structural Film," a certain kind of experimental film identified in the writings of P. Adams Sitney around 1969 that emphasizes a formalist approach and, according to Kase, "isomorphic technical similarities, including a fixed camera position, the flicker effect, and loop printing" (253). …

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