Structural Film Anthology (1976)

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Published to coincide with the series of 18 programmes, Structural Film Retrospective, at the National Film Theatre, London, in May 1976. Published by British Film Institute, 1976. 140 pages. Why not download the lovely PDF?

Contents

Introduction
Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film by Peter Gidal
Abstract Film and Beyond by Malcolm LeGrice

Filmmakers
Malcom LeGrice by Peter Gidal, Gordon Gow, Jonas Mekas
Michael Snow by Simon Hartog, Annette Michelson, Peter Gidal, Michael Snow
Kurt Kren by Malcolm LeGrice
Hollis Frampton by Peter Gidal, Hollis Frampton
Ken Jacobs by Lois Mendelson, Bill Simon
Mike Dunford by Mike Dunford
Paul Sharits by Paul Sharits, Peter Gidal
David Crosswaite by Peter Gidal
Peter Kubelka by Jonas Mekas
Peter Gidal by Deke Dusinberre
Birgit and Wilhelm Hein by Birgit Hein
Gill Eatherley by Gill Eatherley
George Landow by George Landow, Fred Camper
William Raban by Peter Gidal, John Du Cane, William Raban
Roger Hammond by Peter Gidal
Fred Drummond by Verina Glaessner, Fred Drummond
Mike Leggett by Roger Hammond, David Curtis
Tony Conrad by Malcolm LeGrice
John DuCane by John DuCane
Joyce Wieland by Regina Cornwell
Afterword by Ben Brewster

Afterword by Ben Brewster
The following review of Structural Film Anthology appeared in Screen, Winter 1976/77.

In “’Ontology’ and ‘Materialism’ in Film” (Screen v 17 n 1, Spring 1976), Peter Wollen argued that the joint concern of North-American filmmakers such as Paul Sharits and European ones like Godard with a critique of cinematic illusionism diverged in their respective emphases on the machines producing the illusions, the camera, the gate, the celluloid, the printer, the projector, the screen, and on the signifying process designated in those illusions, the discursive processes of films, their codes. The first emphasis tends to cut film off from its immediate and explicit involvement in ideology into a closed circle of self-reference; the latter to make that involvement the centre of the filmmaker’s practice. However, as well as divergence, Peter Wollen sees a tendency towards convergence in the increased interest of the North Americans and their European counterparts of the Co-op movement in signification and an apparent decline of the other European avant-garde.

The Avant-Garde Event at the (1976) Edinburgh Festival was organized with this possible convergence in view. Filmmaker participants largely represented the North American independents and the European Co-op movement. However the convergence did not take place, and the divisions did not conform to the material/signification opposition. The first session, on the notion of the avant-garde, divided the Europeans from the (predominantly New Yorker) North Americans, who interpreted the criticism offered as ‘no different from Tom Wolfe’ (Sharits) and resented the implication of political irresponsibility. Subsequently, the difference, which might have been no more than a matter of local loyalties, took on a more complex political colour, expressed most clearly in the opposition between Joyce Wieland and Birgit and Wilhelm Hein.

In her new film, The Far Shore, Wieland has attempted to make a genuinely Canadian film (as opposed to a US film), made with Canadian money, technicians, actors, story, distribution and for a Canadian mass audience. In so doing she has abandoned the modernism characteristic not only of Sailboat and 1933, but also of films with similar political preoccupations to The Far Shore such as Solidarity and Pierre Vallieres. It is as if the political and aesthetic sides of her projects were separable. Sharits’s aim to emulate Rembrandt in making great works of film art is simply the other side of the coin. For the Heins, on the other hand, the modernism is the political point; information pure of any ulterior motive in communication is the definition of the aesthetic message and the purity represents the freeing of the recipient from ideological imposition. Hence the problems are those of dissemination and of overcoming the mystification of proletarian film goers. Wieland adapts her aesthetic to a political problem seen fundamentally in terms of distribution; the Heins treat distribution as a secondary problem subordinate to the fundamental one of aesthetic strategy.

Much of the work done by the filmmakers of the European co-ops and that of most of the North American filmmakers represented at Edinburgh could be argued to fit into the category defined in 1969 by P. Adams Sitney to place a new type of films after those of Brakhage and Warhol, being made predominantly in New York, but also elsewhere in North America and in Europe: ‘Structural film.’ In May and June of 1976, the National Film Theatre in London held a short season of films under this title, organized by Peter Gidal and accompanied by a booklet edited by Gidal containing interviews and criticism of the filmmakers represented and providing a cross-section of views on structural film. The season thus presented a wider range of this trend of filmmaking and the anthology a less polemical set of terms for its analysis than has been possible at Edinburgh because of the wider scope of the notion of avant-garde adopted there and the confusion of many of the discussions.

However, it cannot be said that the immediate of season or anthology is to dispel the kind of confusions that dominated Edinburgh. One of the virtues of both the season and anthology is the fact that Gidal aimed catholically to include representations of most work has been labeled ‘structural’ and most kinds of discussion of such work; he is at pains to point out that inclusion in either does not represent an endorsement on his part, and in his introduction, ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’, he attempts to define the tendency of contemporary filmmaking he would support, singling it out with the qualification ‘materialist’ and including a much smaller group of filmmakers and by no means all of the work of all of them.

Hence immediately there is a taxonomic problem. Sitney’s definition, essentially based on the perception of a concern for shape and duration in these films and the use of the strategies of fixed camera, flicker, loop printing and rephotography, has been outstripped by subsequent developments of filmmakers and films still classified as ‘structuralist’; many of the iflms in the season, for example, make minimal or no use of his strategies. Annette Michelson, discussing the New York filmmakers, notes that their films represent a break with the previous concern of American ‘alternative’ cinema from Maya Deren on to counterpose to the dominance of narrative in the Hollywood film a dominance of the poetic, reaching its apogee in the hypnagogic imagery of Brakhage, and that this break tends to throw filmmakers back on to problems of narrative (Anthology, pp. 38-44); Sitney’s ‘goal-directed duration’ has clear narrative implications in a film like Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and La Region Centrale, which lacks Wavelength’s clear directional pattern revolves (literally) around the problem of the source, the ‘centre’ of narration, with its unattencded mechanized universally mobile camera, visible only in its shadow, its movements accompanied by aural signals, in the midst of a wilderness. (…) Deke Dusinberre, in a piece on Gidal’s own Room Film 1973 in the Anthology and at greater length in an article in Afterimage n 6 ads to this that the North American structural filmmakers’ work tends to rely on metaphorical or allegorical reference and to depend on commentary to that effect such as is often provided in interviews and statements by the artist and criticism emanating from writers in close contact with the New York ‘school’; their refusal of this strategy marks off the English filmmakers linked to the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, who are, moreover, by no means homogeneous; those superficially closer to the North Americans, such as Gidal himself, represent an attempt to hew to a strictly ‘structural’ line, avoiding relapse into narrative or metaphor; others concentrate their work more in the projection situation as such (Malcolm Le Grice, Anthony McCall); and still others have developed a variety of filmmaking strategies where properties or processes of the object photographed, usually a landscape, in some way dictate the structure of the film. It is thus unclear to what extent ‘structural film’ still constitutes, if it ever did, a valid category for the classification of a group of independently made films, and what features might be taken as central to its definition.

Peter Gidal’s introduction to the Anthology is less concerned with taxonomy and more with defining and arguing for a strategy of his own, represented by his own work and that being done by some other filmmakers in England, and by some done a few yers ago now by North American ‘structuralists.’ The introduction has been criticized by Anne Cottringer in Afterimage n 6. She attacks Gidal for falling back on the ‘material’ side of Wollen’s material/signification opposition, and there are passages where this charge can be justified. However, the essay is complex and open to other readings. In other passages, Gidal insists that ‘the assertion of film as material… merely sets of another level of abstract (or non-abstract) associations… There are myriad possibilities for co/optation and integration of filmic procedures into the repertoire of meaning’ (pp 2-3). Hence the relapses into narrative and allegory noted by Michelson and Dusinberre, and Gidal himself adds another danger: emphasis on the pure act of making the film, whether documentation of it, representation of it by marks of its absence (leader to represent the time of the changing of the magazine, etc) or marked attempts to suppress personal intervention in the process (as in minimal painting and sculpture), merely re-establish the artist as object of identification. Valuable works are those that ‘escape’ through gaps left by these traps, instanced by Klee’s use of the ‘nearly empty signifier… the image taken does not have a ready associative analogue, is not a given symbol or metaphor or allegory’ (p 7). This may have occurred despite the artist’s own notions of his or her work, but the escape should rather be ‘an adequate solution of questions correctly posed in terms of materialist practice and theoretical embodiment’ (p 7). Hence the two quotations which close Gidal’s film Condition of Illusion: first a protest from Althusser against ideologies which purport to theoretical status but are merely adapted to a goal pre-determined outside them; then a passage from a novel by Samuel Beckett on the continuing necessity to speak despite its radical impossibility. Genuine theory is required if that necessity is not continually to project the filmmaker into the reproduction of ideology.

Gidal is right to emphasize the low level of theorization of other kinds of film than narrative, and his criticisms of Screen’s neglect in this respect are quite justified; but to demand of theory that it make possible a true reflexiveness in film as opposed to the false reflexiveness of the representation of the process is precisely to make the impossible demand – that theory should enable one to ‘watch oneself watching’ (p 10). The result is the tendency noted by Cottringer for the essay to fall back behind the quotations from Derrida is contains into a metaphysics of presence and consciousness of self.

Yet this comment is perhaps still too much to suggest that Gidal has made a mistake – that slightly clearer sight on his part would have put him on the right track. Rather the domination of the situation of independent filmmaking by the separation of aesthetic concerns and problems of distribution noted vis-à-vis the debates at Edinburgh last summer forces attempts to theorize into this problematic. The value of Gidal’s work and of that of some of the other contributors to Anthology is that in attempting to hold together a commitment to a revolutionary political position in filmmaking and the experience of filmmaking in the independent sector at the present time it forces these contradictions into the open and provides approaches for future work.