Two decades earlier, the avant-garde had time-shifted cubism and Dada into film history (both movements were essentially over by the time artists were able to make their own films). By the 1940s, a new avant-garde again performed a complex, overlapping loop, reasserting internationalism and experimentation, at a time as vital for transatlantic art as early modernism had been for Richter's generation. Perhaps the key difference, as P. Adams Sitney argues, is that the first avant-garde had added film to the potential and traditional media at an artist's disposal, while new American (and soon European) filmmakers after the Second World War began to see film- making more exclusively as an art form that could exist in its own right, so that the artist-film-maker could produce a body of work in that medium alone. Ironically, this generation also reinvented the silent film, defying the rise of naturalistic sound which had in part doomed its avantgarde ancestors in the 'poetic cinema' a decade before.
Curtis, David ( 1971), Experimental Cinema.
Drummond, Phillip, Dusinberre, Deke, and Rees, A. L. (eds.) ( 1979), Film as Film.
Hammond, Paul ( 1991), The Shadow and its Shadow.
Kuenzli, Rudolf E. (ed.) ( 1987), Dada and Surrealist Film.
Lawdor, Standish ( 1975), The Cubist Cinema.
Richter, Hans ( 1986), The Struggle for the Film.
Sitney, P. Adams ( 1974), Visionary Film.
I am the serial. I am the black sheep of the picture family and the reviled of critics. I am the soulless one with no moral, no character, no uplift. I am ashamed. . . . Ah me, if I could only be respectable. If only the hair of the great critic would not rise whenever I pass by and if only he would not cry, 'Shame! Child of commerce! Bastard of art!'
('The Serial Speaks', New York Dramatic Mirror, 19 August 1916)
It is rare indeed for a promotional article in the 1910s to lapse, however briefly, from the film industry's perennial mantra, 'We are attracting the better classes; We are uplifting the cinema; We are preserving the highest moral and artistic standards . . .' Probably few readers ever took such affirmations as anything more than perfunctory, and dubiously sincere, reassurances to a cultural establishment that approached the cinema with an unpredictable mixture of hostility and meddlesome paternalism. Nevertheless, it is unusual -- and telling -- that a studio mouthpiece (in this case, George B. Seitz, Pathé's serial tsar) should see fit to abandon the 'uplift' conceit altogether. Clearly, it was impossible even to pretend that the serial played any part in the cinema's putative rehabilitation. The serial's intertextual background doomed it to disrepute. Growing directly out of late nineteenth-century working-class amusements -- popular-priced stage melodrama (of the buzz-saw variety), and cheap fiction in dime novels, 'story papers', feuilletons, and penny dreadfuls -- the serial was geared to a decidedly lowbrow audience.
As early titles like The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine, The House of Hate, The Lurking Peril, and The Screaming Shadow make obvious, serials were packaged sensationalism. Their basic ingredients come as no surprise: as Ellis Oberholtzer, Pennsylvania's cranky head censor in the 1910s, described the genre, 'It is crime, violence, blood and thunder, and always obtruding and outstanding is the idea of sex.' Elaborating every form of physical peril and 'thrill', serials promised sensational spectacle in the form of explosions, crashes, torture contraptions, elaborate fights, chases, and last-minute rescues and escapes. The stories invariably focused on the machinations of underworld gangs and mystery villains ('The Hooded Terror', 'The Clutching Hand', etc.) as they tried to assassinate or usurp the fortunes of a pretty young heroine and her heroboyfriend. The milieu was an aggressively non-domestic, 'masculine' world of hide-outs, opium dens, lumber mills, diamond mines, abandoned warehouses-into which the plucky girl heroine ventured at her peril.
Serials were a hangover from the nickelodeon era. They stood out as mildly 'shameful' at a time when the film industry was trying to broaden its market by making innocuous middlebrow films suitable for heterogeneous audiences in the larger theatres being built at the time. Rather than catering to 'the mass' -- a homogeneous, 'classless' audience fancied by the emerging Hollywood institution -- serials were made for 'the masses' -- the uncultivated, predominantly working- and lower-middle-class and immigrant audience that had supported the incredible 'nickelodeon boom'. Oberholtzer again offers a sharp assessment:
The crime serial is meant for the most ignorant class of the population with the grossest tastes, and it principally flourishes in the picture halls in mill villages and in the thickly settled tenement houses and low foreign-speaking neighborhoods in large cities. Not a producer, I believe, but is ashamed of such an