Books about Experimental Cinema – On the Eve of the Future – Realizing the Witch

Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible, by Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers, New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film, by Annette Michelson, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

The usual labels for unusual cinema are not much good. Avant-garde connotes an “advance guard” of moviemakers, implying that there’s such a thing as “progress” in the arts, which there isn’t, and that the likes of Steven Spielberg and Patty Jenkins may someday “catch up” with the likes of Jack Smith and Su Friedrich, which is ridiculous. Experimental isn’t much better, since good filmmakers don’t tinker and fiddle with materials like chemists or alchemists in laboratories, hoping to stumble on some happy combination that rises to the level of art. Terms like “personal” and “poetic” are even worse.

But those are the words we’re stuck with, and we do need labels for moving-image art made outside the mainstream. Like many other critics I go with avant-garde in some instances – at least it has a pedigree, dating back to André Bazin and beyond – and experimental in others. Certain screen artists (the venerable Ken Jacobs and the rising Ryan Trecartin, for example) do seem a bit like mad scientists at times, pushing the boundaries of cinema to places where they’ve never been before. Even these figures are hardly “experimental,” though, since they clearly know exactly what they want to accomplish when they embark on their activities.

Having denigrated the handiest terms, I’ll now acknowledge the utilitarian virtues – flexibility and adaptability – that make them useful identifiers of works as different as the ones discussed in the new books named above. In her most recent volume, On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film, cinema scholar Annette Michelson uses “avant-garde” to designate what she calls a “persuasion” of personal, independent, artisanal cinema extending from the French and Soviet avant-gardes of the 1920s through the works of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Andy Warhol, Peter Kubelka, Ernie Gehr, and other figures, many of whom she discusses at length or in passing. In their monograph Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible, social anthropologist Richard Baxstrom and medical anthropologist Todd Meyers focus on a single film, Häxan, a Swedish production by Danish director Benjamin Christensen, released in 1922 and reissued in a truncated 1968 edition with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz-inflected music track. As an eclectic mixture of documentary elements, art-historical images, reconstructed events, and flamboyantly fictional scenes, Häxan is as unconventional as many films in the lineage of Anger, Brakhage, and Warhol, and if Deren had completed her epic ethnographic film about Haitian religion it might have had a distant kinship with Christensen’s movie, jumpy and undisciplined though the latter is. In their different ways, On the Eve of the Future and Realizing the Witch both deal with films that are avant-garde in the most imaginative sense, experimenting with cinematic form and content in venturesome and knowing ways.

Michelson was a founding editor of October and a founding professor of the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, where I studied with her. In these and other capacities, she has exerted enormous influence on moving-image scholarship without having published very much between hard covers. On the Eve of the Future brings together essays written between 1971 and 2001, some for October or Artforum, some for other outlets. The title comes from the 1984 essay that opens the collection, “On the Eve of the Future: The Reasonable Facsimile and the Philosophical Toy,” itself a “gesture of homage” to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the author of the 1886 novel L’Ève future, in which Thomas Edison bestows a female android upon an unhappy English aristocrat. Michelson salutes Villiers’s tale as “one of the most witty and sumptuous erotic texts in Western literature” (xx). I find it more problematically misogynistic than sumptuously erotic, but I take Michelson’s excellent point that the novel’s obsessive concern with the Eve of the Future anticipates today’s film-theoretical fascination with “the frequent shooting and editing of the female actor – largely in close-up – as the object of the male gaze” (xxi).

The other, equally apt significance of Michelson’s title lies in its steady concern (except for an essay on Martha Rosler’s work) with 16 mm film, the medium of choice for avant-gardists until the ascendency of video in relatively recent times. Filmographies in 16 mm constitute “a historic and recent avant-garde on the eve of the future,” Michelson writes (xxi), and so they do, although this is an avant-garde that few critics, scholars, or theorists have taken as seriously, studied as rigorously, and written about as brilliantly as Michelson has done for lo these many decades.

In several essays, most notably “Poetics and Savage Thought: About Anagram,” she focuses on Deren’s theory and practice. In another, “Rose Hobart and Monsieur Phot: Early Films from Utopia Parkway,” she explores Joseph Cornell’s extraordinary cinema, introducing her thoughts with a disarmingly personal anecdote. Not unexpectedly, her close friend Hollis Frampton figures importantly in some essays, among which are “Time Out of Mind: Frampton’s Circles of Confusion,” originally published as an introduction to Frampton’s incisive book of that title, and “Frampton’s Sieve and Brakhage’s Riddle,” first published in 1985. The 1967 masterpiece Wavelength, a perennial fixture on my list of the greatest films ever made, and the radical 1971 opus La Région centrale are the chief subjects of two major essays about the Canadian artist Michael Snow, which Michelson perceptively relates to key works by Snow in other media. Her exhaustive analysis of Harry Smith’s exhausting 1962 animation The Magic Feature, also known as Film #12: Heaven and Earth Magic, announces its psychoanalytic bent in its title, “The Mummy’s Return: A Kleinian Film Scenario.” The book’s presiding spirit seems to be Marcel Duchamp, who looms especially large in the 1973 essay “Anemic Cinema: Reflections on an Emblematic Work,” and Michelson closes the volume with “‘Where Is Your Rupture?’: Mass Culture and the Gesamtkunstwerk,” a meditation on Warhol, Brakhage, cultural studies, the “resistant spectator,” and various related subjects, adding up to what I have long considered one of the most aesthetically, politically, and philosophically astute film-studies essays yet written. Also present are “The Art of Moving Shadows” and “Gnosis and Iconoclasm: A Case Study in Cinephilia,” essays with strong historical leanings

Michelson’s commentary ranges easily from the rarified precincts of nonnarrative cinema to musings on Andrew Sarris and auteurism, pop art and collage, and Sigmund Freud’s famous patient Daniel Schreber and his once-famous father, Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, a medical and educational reformer whose disagreeable gizmos for controlling unruly bodies provide some of the most striking images in this superbly illustrated book. I don’t share all of Michelson’s tastes – her enthusiasm for Rosler exceeds mine, for instance – but her learning illuminates almost every page. On the Eve of the Future will stand as her most important legacy.

“I am an experimentalist,” Christensen once declared, and he hoped to join Häxan with two never-completed sequels – “Saints” and “Spirits” – in a trilogy relating religious thinking to the rise of the modern age. Häxan can be seen as an uneven, uneasy mix of documentary and fiction that never jells, or as a boundary-breaking work that elides epistemological borders more suited to mass-audience entertainment than to avant-garde expression. Realizing the Witch makes an interesting case for Christensen’s movie as both an experimental film and a film experiment that not only depicts but seeks a sort of intellectual and artistic union with the phenomena – witchcraft, Satanism, demonic possession, and psychiatric conditions seen by science as causative agents for “supernatural” behaviors and beliefs – that it studies.

Sketching out Christensen’s “representational strategies,” Baxstrom and Meyers trace them to an array of “scientific, historical, avant-garde, [and] literary” sources. It isn’t entirely clear what “avant-garde” means in this list, but Häxan is definitely avant-garde as a movie; indeed, the rejiggered 1968 version, engineered by Beat fellow traveler and “underground” filmmaker Antony Balch, is less spacey and outlandish than the original. As for Christensen’s attitude to the film’s baleful topic, the authors try to steer a middle course in characterizing it. The filmmaker “never fully comes around to admitting that he does, in fact, believe,” they write in a postscript. “And yet, like those figures he depicts in Häxan, he must believe,” at least in a “rhetorical sense…more accurately described as a tangle with what [Gilles] Deleuze calls ‘the powers of the false,’ making way for an uneasy but equally unambiguous truth” that the anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has described as (in Baxstrom and Meyers’s paraphrase) the “epistemological doubling of belief and doubt always integral to the steadfastness of truth and act of believing” (212, emphasis in original; Deleuze 126). This conclusion strikes me as rather slippery, and the book as a whole seems to slide among tantalizing possibilities without quite clarifying where it ultimately stands on Häxan as historiography, anthropology, sociology, theology, or cinematic art.

My reservations notwithstanding, Realizing the Witch is the product of thoroughgoing research, which is especially apt given the large amount of research that Christensen himself did before putting Häxan before the camera. Baxstrom and Meyers present interesting takes on anthropological theory (Bronislaw Malinowski, James Clifford) and make fascinating linkages between Christensen’s film and Jean-Martin Charcot’s pioneering documentation of hysteria and other psychiatric ailments, exemplified by many of the book’s well-chosen illustrations. And while the authors are anthropologists, they have enough film-historical savvy to discuss Häxan in connection with a wide range of other movies. Prudently disclaiming any direct influence on Universal’s horror cycle of the 1930s – it’s unlikely that anyone in Hollywood saw Häxan until many decades after its release – the authors see Christensen’s film as an antecedent of major experiments in ethnographic cinema by Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner, Harun Farocki, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and as a wayward cousin of such fantastical Scandinavian films as Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956), and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009).

At its core, Realizing the Witch is an investigation of how a flawed yet haunting avant-garde movie can be seen as a swirling, fragmented brew compounded from the paradoxical sense and nonsense, reason and imagination, and science and superstition that have collided in Western thought since long before epistemological theory was born. Häxan is not great art, but it is a great artifact to investigate and ponder, as Baxstrom and Meyers persuasively show.


Works cited

  • Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Gelata. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). [Google Scholar]
  • Luhrmann, T.M. “A Hyperreal God and Modern Belief: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind.” Current Anthropology 53: 4 (2012), 371–395. 

written by David Sterritt

source: Quarterly Review of Film and Video

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