Amateurism and the Avant Garde

Nick has recently raised some important questions about the potentially false divide between the post-World War II avant garde and post-war home movie practices. Chris questions some of Nick’s arguments, stating that the difference is not merely discursive but registered in the films themselves.

I’m inclined to side with Nick in this discussion in that the framing narratives of DIY amatuer film production in the 1940s-60s are relatively similar to those found in some avant-garde film practices:

Both operated outside the realm of Hollywood. Both worked in genres that were largely absent from the big screen. Both experimented with the camera and openly embraced a logic of mistakes and trial-and-error. If today we associate the cinematic avant garde from that period with a handful of names, then this must be due, in part, to the movement’s self-canonization, which was made possible largely through writing

Nick’s comments primarily seem to emphasize production issues (how to use the tools available to you as a filmmaker) and have less to do with the individual content of the films. In other words, I don’t think the avant garde’s later “camp-ironic quotation” of the home movie matters as much as the practices themselves and how the filmmakers in both camps understood themselves. Nick’s arguments about self-canonization also seem persuasive to me, although I recognize my own complicity as a critic/scholar in replicating that canon, especially after attending a screening of some of Stan Brakhage’s films at the National Gallery of Art yesterday afternoon.

I think Nick’s questions about avant-garde and amateur practice are significant, and my still incomplete article on Capturing the Friedmans seeks to tackle some of these issues, especially regarding the documentary’s ambivalent relationship to the family’s extensive collection of home movies, most of which were taken in the post-WWII context that Nick discusses. The discourses that Nick is unpacking, in my reading at least, can have profound implications for how we think about practices of filmmaking, including the politics of memory often associated with amatuer filmmakers, many of whom saw their practice as a means of remembering and recording family life.

4 Comments »

  1. McChris Said,

    July 24, 2005 @ 3:07 pm

    I’m not sure I’m ever going to formulate my ideas about this, but when I saw Nick’s post yesterday, I immediately thought of Patricia Zimmerman’s Reel Families which we read selections from in a seminar I took last semester. She discusses how consumer movie equipment was marketed as a tool for documenting the private sphere (duh, home movies) rather than a tool for public engagement. Of course, she provides examples of how media and advertising constructed this amateur/professional, public private split. She does acknowledge a home-movie aesthetic in art film, but her emphasis is on subject matter, rather than form.

    I’m not sure if the adoption of home movie forms by the avant-garde is entirely due to camp. Much of the 1970s wave of feminist filmmakers use home-movie style footage, and it seems to be more about exposing or reclaiming the private sphere than irony.

    I’ve got a lot more going on in my head about this, so maybe I’ll try to put it all together on a blog post

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 24, 2005 @ 11:05 pm

    McChris, I also thought of Zimmermann (and James Moran’s There’s No Place Like Home Video, which mines simlar territory), but never got around to developing that argument in detail. Both Zimmermann and Moran highlight the ways in which consumer discourse (how-to books, etc) influenced use.

    The connection to feminist experimental film, which consciously promoted the domestic as worthy of documentary focus, is also a useful one.

  3. Nick Said,

    July 25, 2005 @ 4:00 am

    Chuck and McChris,

    I really appreciate your discussion and comments–I’m going to have to look at Capturing the Friedmans again. The Zimmerman book is pathbreaking, and although he doesn’t address amateur cinema in the way it has come to be known, Charles Musser in his book The Emergence of Cinema details in glorious detail the many “non-professionals” who worked on the creation and distribution of movies in the early days of cinema. I’m going to have to check out the James Moran book.

    I’m curious as to the extent that these two worlds–the avant garde and the amateur–overlap. In general (at least in most film studies approaches) they are kept fairly distinct. And they are in many ways. Yet this distinctness is very much a product of the discourses that define them, which is maybe why a film like Blair Witch is on one level emblematic of the blurring of these boundaries…

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 25, 2005 @ 1:15 pm

    I was very impressed by the Moran book, so I’d certainly recommend it. I’ve had the Musser book on my shelf for several years (not even sure anymore how I ended up owning a copy), so this gives me a good reason to flip through it.

    “Blair Witch” is certainly an interesting case in terms of blurring these boundaries….

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