The Accessibility of the Avant-Garde: Talk about American Experimental Cinema

By Pierson, Michele | Discourse (Detroit, MI), Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

The Accessibility of the Avant-Garde: Talk about American Experimental Cinema


Pierson, Michele, Discourse (Detroit, MI)


Even though it is probably not the first word anyone thinks of when they think of experimental cinema, critics and curators regularly describe experimental films, or an experimental filmmaker's work, as accessible. The films of Peggy Ahwesh, Barbara Hammer, and Lewis Klahr have all been described in this way. In the lead-up to a screening of Klahr's Engram Sepals series of films at the Walter Reade Theater in New York in 2000, Michael Atkinson described Klahr as "[o]ne of the most evocative, accessible, and culturally aware experimental filmmakers alive and working."1 Sometimes it is a single film that attracts this kind of critical commentary. "Did I mention," Genevieve Yue wrote after a screening of Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled To Death at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2004, "that the film is six and a half hours long? It is also incredibly entertaining, funny, and accessible-perhaps more so than any avant-garde film I've ever seen."2 Nor is it only recent films, or films made since the 1970s, that get singled out for their accessibility. In the first of his five-volume series of interviews with independent filmmakers, Scott MacDonald identified the "first three sections of Hapax Legomena-nostalgia (1971), Poetic Justice (1972), and Critical Mass (1971)"-as "some of Frampton's most impressive (and accessible) films."3 Other filmmakers in MacDonald's Critical Cinema series of books whose films have been identified as accessible or who themselves identify accessibility as an issue informing their own thinking about their work include Robert Breer, Su Friedrich, James Benning, and Alan Berliner.

What critics seem to be suggesting, at least some of the time, when they describe a film or filmmaker's body of work as accessible is that it offers readily available ways of being appreciated and enjoyed. Accessible films, they agree, are pleasurable-entertaining. Any number of things might have attracted this kind of critical commentary: a certain type of drama, humor, or conceptual clarity. On rare occasion, critics have been more forthcoming about what it is about a film or type of avant-garde filmmaking that strikes them as accessible. It seemed to Noel Carroll in the mid-1980s, for instance, that "found footage films have a degree of accessibility that other avant-garde approaches may lack."4 The "accessibility of the imagery of the found footage along with its audience-pleasing parodic potentials make it immediately attractive to the avant-garde polemicist seeking to reach wider audiences."5 On this understanding, it is films with formal features that are familiar or recognizable from other art and popular culture that make them accessible. The commonplace association of accessibility with availability further identifies it with an immediacy of appeal, whether sensoryperceptual, phenomenological, or conceptual.

By and large, commonplace understandings of accessibility are what we have to work with. As far as the scholarly literature on experimental film and art is concerned, there is no critical-theoretical literature on accessibility. The reasons for this are ready enough to hand. From P. Adams Sitney's and Annette Michelson's writing on North American avant-garde film in the late 1960s and 1970s through to Carroll's writing in the 1980s and beyond, the common touchstone for any kind of theorization of avant-garde or experimental film has been modernism. The problem is not that thinking about modernism is in and of itself an obstacle to thinking about accessibility but instead that modernism has so often been associated by critics with difficulty. If we look beyond experimental cinema to critical commentary on modernism more broadly, we are overwhelmed in fact with instances of critics and artists identifying modernism with difficulty. Consider, for instance, Clement Greenberg's famous championing of difficulty in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" (1939). In comparing the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Ilya Repin, Greenberg wrote that "Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. …

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