Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle

Christopher Higgs at HTMLGIANT recently posted this question: “If you were teaching a class on American experimental fiction, what texts would you choose, and why?” He went on to list a set of possible books for an “Introduction to American Experimental Fiction” course:

Ishmael Reed – Mumbo Jumbo
William S. Burroughs – The Soft Machine
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
Carole Maso – Aureole
Jean Toomer – Cane
David Markson – This Is Not A Novel
Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons
Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire and String

This post won’t be about adding or subtracting books from his list (although I’d suggest Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress over This Is Not a Novel, and Carole Maso’s The Art Lover or AVA over Aureole.) Rather, I want to talk about experimental fiction as a genre.

Because Chris’s question reminds me of a debate that comes up frequently in US experimental film circles…

Experimental film, like most recognizable (and recognized) genres, has its own canon of seminal texts. Thanks to scholars like P. Adams Sitney, we have today a fairly agreed-upon list of essential experimental US films, as well as a critical narrative that organizes and explains it.

Part 1: 1920s through the 1950s: A handful of early American experimental filmmakers made work largely influenced by European filmmakers like the Expressionists, Dadaists, and Surrealists:

1928: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber: The Fall of the House of Usher

1939–1956: Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions series

1936: Joseph Cornell: Rose Hobart

1943/1959: Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon

1949/1970: Kenneth Anger: Puce Moment

Part 2: Starting in the 1960s, the widespread availability of cheaper film equipment led to a “second wave” of American experimental cinema:

1958: Bruce Conner: A Movie

1962–64: Stan Brakhage: Dog Star Man

1963: Andy Warhol: Kiss

1963: Jack Smith: Flaming Creatures

1963: Shirley Clarke: The Cool World

1964: Carolee Schneemann: Meat Joy

1964: Jonas Mekas: The Brig

Part 3: Later that decade, the Structuralist, FLUXUS, and Flicker movements turned their artistic gaze inward, to formally explore the film medium itself:

1966: Yoko Ono: No. 4

1967: Michael Snow: Wavelength

1969: Paul Sharits: T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G

1970: Ernie Gehr: Serene Velocity

1970: Hollis Frampton: Zorn’s Lemma

(Note that for some of these directors, you can choose more than one film that’s representative—Schneemann’s Fuses instead of Meat Joy, for instance—so long as you include something.)

…Experimental film has continued since 1970, of course (although you wouldn’t always know that from some film classes or textbooks). And more recent scholarship, as well as DVD sets like Anthology Film Archive’s Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives, have helped flesh out the original canon, adding previously overlooked artists like Lois Weber:

…and Mary Ellen Bute:

…not to mention changing how we view formerly “non-experimental” artists like Robert Flaherty:

Edwin S. Porter:

…and Bubsy Berkeley:

…But the above list still constitutes the core of the US experimental film canon.

Whither Experimentation?

So what does this have to do with experimental fiction? Well, that oft-recurring question in experimental film circles is: When we say “experimental film,” what are we referring to? The established canon, or the tendency to experiment in cinema?

Experimentation as Historical Genre

On the one hand, we have a list of seminal works, which are taught in film schools, and which therefore teach film students what a “proper” US experimental film is. The canonical works define the style and range of such cinema: It is non-narrative (favoring surreal logic or structural organizing principles), abstract, often incorporates found footage, and also frequently involves directly treating the film itself (scratching it, painting it, growing mold on it, and so on). It often demonstrates some aspect of the film apparatus or filmmaking process, sometimes by taking a self-reflexive approach (foregrounding the use of the camera) or a conceptual approach (projecting through alternate substances, or projecting plain black leader, or projecting nothing but the projector light itself).

It comes as no surprise that the film students of today frequently make work that employs those techniques. The question then becomes: Are they making experimental films? Or are they making Experimental Films? And if it’s the latter, are they still making experimental films?

Meanwhile, another danger with recognized and known experimental films—with any experimental art—is that over time they can lose their rougher, more innovative edges. (I’m thinking directly of Adorno’s thinking here; see his Aesthetic Theory.) Beethoven was, in his time, avant-garde; today his music is used mainly to sell cars. And, as we have learned from examples like Porter and Flaherty, when experimental techniques are absorbed into the mainstream, viewers no longer perceive them as experimental (see also D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, cinéma vérité, …).

Due to several factors (including Hollywood’s long-held monopoly over distribution and exhibition, as well as the experimental film community’s historic animosity toward video), few of the above-mentioned filmmakers have to worry about their work ever becoming the cinematic equivalent of muzak. (Obscurity is a mixed blessing.) That said, even if the Culture Industry fails to repackage an artist’s work, it can still co-opt that artist’s techniques. Thus, as every film experimental student knows, the music video for Alanis Morissette’s Ironic (1995) stole from Maya Deren:

…as did the video for Milla Jovovich’s Gentleman Who Fell (1994):

…and, before them, Madonna’s Cherish (1989). Meanwhile, the opening credits of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) ripped off Stan Brakhage:

..and the “plastic bag” video in American Beauty (1999) was stolen from Nathaniel Dorsky’s Variations (1998):

(…although Dorsky himself has claimed that the shot is hardly original. And Dorsky is of course a more recent filmmaker, but I think my point still stands.)

Well, let’s not get bogged down in the argument that experimental art is the Prime Mover, or a world apart from Hollywood; we all know that experimental artists get as good as they give. The point I want to make here is that one doesn’t necessarily need to see Deren, or Brakhage, or Dorsky, or any of them, to be inspired by their work, or by their ideas. Their innovations—some of them, at least—have entered the larger culture. They have had influences.

No experimental work is ever wholly experimental, but I think we can see that Cornell’s Rose Hobart was pretty innovative for its time (even though Salvador Dalí accused Cornell of stealing the film from his subconscious). But today, chopping up found footage to make a new work is pretty old hat. An experimental filmmaker can’t coast along on just that—although many try to; attend any experimental film festival to see for yourself. Such artists are Experimental Filmmakers, and not experimental filmmakers: they work according to the proper conventions of an established tradition—the Experimental Film genre.

It's been fakery from the get-go.

Have you ever had a friend who’s written a metatextual story in order to point out that narration is a convention? Or worse yet, to prove how artificial narration is? I’ll confess to having been such a friend myself; my only excuse is that at the time I didn’t know that Barth, Barthelme, Coover, and scores before even them had done precisely that, and much more besides. (No one needs to make art that points out or proves how art is artifice—that was understood by even the cave-folk who painted Lescaux. Rather, what’s worthwhile even to this day is exploring the nature—and the beauty—of that artifice.)

In 2010 Lescaux yet dazzles, even as it disintegrates, but it and many other once-experimental artworks, while still beautiful, have grown familiar, and as such no longer challenge our expectations of what art can do. When we see them we think, “But of course art can be like that!” They have inspired legions of imitators and successors. They have become the foundations of traditions, of genres and of subgenres.

A fox’s trick, once observed by the farmer, will not get him out of the trap a second time. (The fantastic Mr. Fox learned this all too well.)

And so the fox has many tricks.

Criticism’s Role

Shklovsky wrote in Theory of Prose, “The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew” (17). Art has no telos, no location it’s trying to get to. An artist finishes her sculpture, or painting, or novel, or film, and then lets it out into the world (or tries to). Once released, if released, that object begins to live many lives.

What did Leonardo have in mind when he finished La Gioconda? (If you don’t know, then don’t worry—Dan Brown has figured it out.) Leonardo’s opinion, if he even had one, would be of great historical interest, but it wouldn’t change the fact that La Gioconda is, in my opinion, an image most often encountered on a t-shirt. Or in need of a mustache.

Robert Mitchum rules supreme.

Meanwhile, many less familiar artworks look strange to us now, by virtue of their having passed, for a time, out of popular favor. Artists well understand this, which is why they are ever looking backward, searching for once-popular ideas and forms that they can try making new. (We too often forget that “Renaissance” means rebirth.)

The critic should understand this as well, and not only because artistic progress is never strictly linear. Criticism is a story, a narrative, and in order for it to interest us then it too must not grow over-familiar. Each new generation of critics, and of audiences, demands at least a few new twists and wrinkles. Thus the recent Spectator list of the 50 most essential films elevated to #1…The Night of the Hunter.

That was a good twist: surprising yet plausible. As Roger Ebert responded:

Their selection passes my most important test: It is interesting. It contains ten titles that aren’t included in my ever-growing Great Movies Collection, and I am now inspired to consider them. In fact, my recent inclusion of Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” which would have become a Great Movie anyway, was given a nudge when my Spectator arrived in the mail.

I suspect that Rio Bravo made the Spectator‘s list because Quentin Tarantino has been one of its most vocal boosters—and so that film is now important for us in a way that it wasn’t fifteen years ago:

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with some of my film-watching friends (the ones whom I only ever see at the movie theater), and our talk eventually turned (as so many film conversations do) to the question of what Hawks picture is the greatest. I nominated Bringing Up Baby; others proposed Scarface, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Sleep, and, yes, Rio Bravo. (These are the conventional choices.)

But then one of our number insisted that it was Monkey Business. “Monkey Business!” the rest of us exclaimed. “Monkey Business!?”

He was certain that it was Monkey Business. “Or Ball of Fire,” he eventually conceded.

Experimentation as Innovative Principle

Meanwhile, today’s filmmakers continue to innovate, to experiment. I predict that right now, an enterprising young film student at the Pratt (class of 2013) is thinking to herself: “Stan Brakhage started scratching and painting on films before my parents were born; I’d rather not do that, it’s so boring! I like much better Roundhay Garden Scene, which is so much stranger—it’s so short, and so low-res. How can you even watch a thing like that? It challenges so many assumptions we have about cinema. And so I think I’ll try making something that’s more like that—I’ll use my iPhone’s camera to make a series of two-second movies…!” (At which point the student’s Experimental Film purist teacher might well gasp: “VIDEO?!”)

Such a student will be making an experimental film, not an Experimental Film. And that film may look little like the films made by Brakhage or Deren or Cornell—just as their films bore little resemblance to what had come before them. That is experimental art’s purpose, and power.

So if I were teaching a class on American experimental fiction, which books would I choose? Well, that would depend on whether I wanted to teach a class on Experimental Fiction, or experimental fiction—experimentation in fiction. The former affords far fewer choices than the latter.

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59 thoughts on “Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle

  1. I like how, when you watch Warhol’s ‘Kiss’ (and other experimental films like it), your mind can wander, and yet you might not feel as if you’ve missed anything.  I don’t think this is true of all experimental films (‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ requires sustained concentration), but maybe an important aspect of the experimental genre is its willingness to depart from the monopolization of the viewer’s (or reader’s) attention.

    • Yeah. When I first started watching films like Kiss, I felt very confused, because I wasn’t sure why it was taking so long for anything to happen. I was like, “Get to the point!”

      Then I realized that I was free to think while watching the film. There’s a way in which that’s very respectful to the viewer.

      After that, I started liking that kind of cinema a whole lot. It helped that I got used to the “slower pace.” (As I became a better viewer, though, I realized that a lot more was going on—there was a lot more to see—than I’d originally thought.) I now usually find films like Kiss fairly riveting.

      (This relates to Gass’s comment about the irreducibility of art, which I mentioned in my last post. If you think that Kiss is just about kissing, you’re liable to get impatient with it. “Get to the point!” But there’s a lot to see. You can’t just say, “Oh, they’re kissing.” You have to look at the whole manner of how that kissing is presented.)

      For those who like practical results: Watching films like this has affected my whole way of being. It’s made me more patient with art, for one thing. It’s also made me more appreciative of watching other people. For example, I went to see American Buffalo at Steppenwolf last night, and I didn’t think it was very good production, but I was happy to watch three human beings doing things for ninety minutes.

  2. this reminds me for some reason of one time in a class someone kept arguing how all experimental fiction (lowercases…) was postmodern. how hypertext didn’t matter, how the Internet has no influence b/c postmodern is so broad to include it. what i think they failed to grasp is that fiction is emerging (has emerged) that does not yet have a name or fit into those categories. so a class in experimental fiction? i’d teach whatever the moment ‘real world’ turned from being a documentary into a performance, or ‘the hills’ i guess.

    full disclosure: currently procrastinating from making corrections to thesis on house of leaves & hopscotch. i’d teach palefire, if on a winter’s night…whatever press that ronald sukenick guy is on. all this to say–i need to read kathy acker.

    another good piece of work, AD. these are great.

  3. Excellent post, Adam! Thank you for engaging with my question in such an interesting way. I like your move to cinema because I feel like both cinema and literature are working from the Aristotelian tradition, meaning that we should be able to talk about what is experimental in each of those artistic categories similarly.

    I like your distinction between “Experimental Fiction, or experimental fiction—experimentation in fiction.” This is certainly a nuanced distinction I plan to discuss with my students.

    btw, have you read Jakobson’s “On Realism in Art”? Here’s a link:

    http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/article/show/43

    It speaks to one aspect of how to think about the relative historical position of realism, in terms of potentially determining the locus from which to categorize the experimental.

    (on a side note, re: your comment above about slow cinema, have you seen any of Pedro Costa’s films? Man that guy makes Tarkovsky look hyperkinetic! I was surprised how much I enjoyed his films, but I really did. They had a retrospective of his work at OSU while I was there and he came to introduce his latest film and answer some questions. I was captivated.)

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for that link. It’s been too long since I’ve read Jakobson—and an issue of CONTEXT.

      I’ll be curious to hear more of your thoughts on Aristotle. I can already tell that you like the guy less than I do. I’m actually a pretty big fan of THE POETICS, although I’m less than thrilled with how a lot of people have used them. But, overall, I think I’m pretty Aristotelian…which might be no more than to say that I feel his influence very strongly.

      “the relative historical position of realism”

      Yes, this is something that’s so often overlooked by realists. Realism (capital-R Realism) is a latecomer to the literary game. It is one style among many. And it accomplishes certain things, and makes problematic others. It’s no better or worse than anything else. And it’s certainly not some end point in the evolution of the novel, or any kind of nonsense like that. I can’t believe people still go on about such things. (Do they also believe that the USA is the Greatest Country on Earth?)

      > Pedro Costa

      I’ve seen only COLOSSAL YOUTH, which I found riveting, and which I think is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I wrote a wee bit about it here:
      https://bigother.com/2010/01/08/brevity-part-2-long-takes/

      I need to get around to the others—and will once the Criterion discs come out.

      I envy you that you got to meet him. You can tell right away from his work that he’s up to great things.

      Cheers, Adam

  4. I haven’t dipped into the film section yet. But why are certain authors labeled experimental – which to some means ‘cool’ ‘intriguing’ – while some aren’t, possibly labeled ‘boring’ ‘more of the same?’

    Is subject matter a criterion for deciding what is experimental?

    Why is say Ben Marcus considered experimental and Richard Yates is not?

    • That’s a very good question. I think part of it has to do with how artists self-identify. John Gardner said he was a realist. He wrote GRENDEL; reconcile that with his claim. (Artists often do more than one thing.)

      Some people are more invested in categories than others. And they might have different criteria, at different places and times.

      For example, a lot of the experimental film people I’ve known, while very sharp in many ways, have also (for reasons inexplicable to me) been been very insistent on controlling who is and who isn’t an experimental filmmaker. (That’s part of what motivated me to write this.) They had very clear criteria for who was and who wasn’t part of the club.

      And they were often looking less for people who experimented in film, in a broad sense, preferring instead people who were working in the Experimental Film tradition (even if those people weren’t themselves doing anything experimental).

      …Not everyone is like that, of course. I think in this case it was part of a passive-aggressive, love-hate thing. They resented being ignored, and responded to it by fiercely patrolling their borders (if I may be allowed to psychoanalyze). I see artists doing this kind of thing a lot. (“Ray Carver wasn’t an experimental writer! He was a kitchen-sink realist!”)

      Terms like “realist” and “experimental” are useful in certain times and places, but they shouldn’t be treated like absolutes. I think there’s a lot of value in approaching artists from many different directions, different perspectives. How is Marcus a realist? How is Yates experimental?

      BTW, I’m very happy to see the renewed interest in Yates these days—thanks to Sam Mendes, I guess? REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a very odd book… (I haven’t seen the film yet.) I think that Yates is a wonderful writer, and was sad when the Authorities streamlined the canon, cutting him (and John Cheever) in favor of Updike. “John Updike’s the only Suburban Miserablist you’ll ever need!”

      Was John Cheever a Realist? He wrote “The Swimmer.” As well as the very strange novel BULLET PARK. And he certainly didn’t tell us a lot about his real life when he was alive. Indeed, his greatest literary work may in fact be his diaries—they’re certainly attracting the most interest at the moment…

      Dick Higgins made this “anti-absolute categories” point better than I ever will in his marvelous essay “Against Movements” (collected in his similarly marvelous book A DIALECTIC OF CENTURIES).

      • I loved/hated reading in the Yates bio about his rejections from Roger Angell of the New Yorker. “It’s so close. Please do try again.” Astonishing. I think Yates didn’t jockey for position as some others might have done, he didn’t give a fuck, and that’s what I like, plus the writing. Maybe they were jealous because he was so close to Kennedy.

        I want to call Yates experimental because he went into emotional terrain not so traveled upon. I know I’ll get crap for that, but – there it is. It’s subjective, I know.

      • Viola is great. I especially adore his full-scale installations (when I get to see them).

        I used to have a VHS copy of HATSU YUME (FIRST DREAM), which was on steady rotation in my apartment.

        Thanks for the link! It’s so much fun to see what’s on YouTube these days. I remember when you used to have to bootleg this stuff from Electronic Arts Intermix and the Video Databank… (which are most excellent and vital artistic institutions that everyone should visit and support).

        …Does WGBH still exist? Man, they used to fund and show the greatest stuff. I’ll have to look into them…

  5. I don’t like the nerdy side of Tarantino. I watched him talk about McCabe and Mrs. Miller and basically shrug off Altman, saying Warren Beatty deserved much more credit for how the film came out. Funny how Warren was much more freewheeling in that than anything else he did. So I can’t see it Mr. T.

    • In some ways Tarantino’s biggest contribution to film has been his work as a curator. I know it was thanks to him that I first saw Kitano Takeshi’s films (the Rolling Thunder VHS release of Hana Bi).

      His actual opinions about films seem to change daily. I know the clip you’re talking about:

      I’m not sure it’s fair to say that QT shrugs off Altman, but I do agree that it’s a quite stretch to claim that Beatty’s the “true auteur” of the film. (I think it’s also funny how QT doesn’t like the sound mix. I always liked that aspect of the film.)

      But I appreciate that, because QT introduced this film, somebody somewhere watched it who wouldn’t have otherwise. That trumps anything he says (and note that he kept that 16mm print). The man does a lot of work to bring films to people, and I really respect that.

      I’ll never quite understand why QT inspires so much animosity. He knows a lot about films, is passionate about films, and makes good films. I could understand if he was more of a hack or something, but… I suspect it’s because he “outgeeks” people. Or because he’s such a loudmouth. I don’t really care about what he says, because (I think) his actions speak much more loudly than his words. And I like his actions.

      Beatty’s pretty freewheeling in Bonnie and Clyde. He almost goes off the rails in that one.

      But nowhere else is he as deranged as he is in Bullworth!

      (Just kidding.)

      • That’s true Adam, he is using his celebrity for good purposes. Scorsese too.

        I like some of his actions, not others. Some of his dialogue is incredibly off, some not. The scenes between Travolta and Thurman in Pulp are pretty ordinary. Almost yawning. The overdose is much needed. The needle even more.

        Wasn’t Beatty kind of consciously-realistically acting in Bonnie – it is great, but great in the mode of Burt Lancaster.

        In McCabe he is less conscious of his star status. That might be Altman, and apparently he was falling in love with Julie Christie (who wouldn’t?). Yes, that’s it, falling in love makes you a better actor – it’s makes you a better human being too doesn’t it. You smile more, you give more, right? ha ha

        Also a tidbit on the commentary on the DVD. I only listened to ten minutes in the beginning but Altman relates how Kubrick called him and wanted to know how he shot Beatty lighting a cigar just before he crosses the bridge during the opening titles. How it went full red like an ember or something. Kubrick couldn’t grok that is just happened. I’ve heard that before about Stanely baby. He wants to know how how how.

        Modine is one of the few who worked with both directors. He said Kubrick should have smoked more pot like Altman did. I read the making of Nashville on subway rides a few years ago, more tidbits. Ironically they made it during the Watergate hearings. “The asshole got 670,800 votes…” – from Nashville – Lady Pearl

          • QT obviously loves cinema, and that shows through in everything he does. It’s hard, therefore, for me to dislike him, or his movies.

            I really like the point that Kiarostami makes at the end of this clip. Curt White says something similar regarding David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in his book The Middle Mind (2002):

            White argues that what we find most disturbing about Blue Velvet is because “it neither condemns nor condones the multifold malice it depicts”: “Lynch seems to suggest that we ourselves are ambivalent about the evil represented by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank’s evil is both attractive and repulsive” (194):

            The only explicit gesture toward the Good that Lynch allows us is the cloying vision of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). With church organs oozing in the background, Sandy says, ‘Thousands of robins flew down and they brought this blinding light of love.’ But this robin, perched on the windowsill at the movie’s end, is too fake. This is such a stifled, bathetic, and altogether false robin that its premise is revoked in laughter in the instant it is introduced. The fake robin is a way for Lynch to say, ‘I don’t know how to express what stands opposed to Frank. But I have the unhappy duty to tell you that it is not robins, not beautiful tulips before a white picket fence, and not the red reassurance of a fire truck with a Dalmatian. I won’t lie to you.’ (195)

            White continues:

            It is true that Lynch does not and probably cannot articulate an ethical/political ‘position’ in opposition to Frank. He cannot create a literal politic. Lynch’s notion of the Good is inarticulate. It is sublime. If it is to be found anywhere, it is in the formal art of the movie itself. That is his ‘objective correlative’ for the Good. Frank’s evil (and America’s violent sexual desire is confronted most effectively by Lynch’s style, his cinematic voice. His style does not appease or indulge Frank’s chaos. It is not a style that says, as Frank does, ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves.’ Rather, Lynch’s style is elegant and carefully framed. […] In Blue Velvet, Frank’s evil is mastered by Lynch’s art. (195–6)

            • Is Lynch having Frank’s character killed enough condemnation? Bad people eventually die. Karma. It happens in real life and film. The robin is another story isn’t it? He is jolting us into another direction. The robin makes us laugh because it is so fake as White says.

              But compare the end of Taxi Driver – he reaches to the rearview mirror to adjust it with those wild eyes – menace still lives or something like that. But that’s not enough for Lynch, menace still lives is a horror film cliche, the twitch of the compacted Christine (car), the hand coming out of the ground in Carrie – but Lynch furthers things and that’s why it’s so unmistakeable. The images speak. Color speaks. White, white. Blue, blue. You know, motion pictures, the pictures speak, they touch our unconscious – I can’t explain it. Just watch (from about 6:30 on):

              • I don’t think of Frank’s death as Lynch saying evil has been defeated—who believes Sandy’s dad when he says “It’s all over”?—or even as a judgment. Indeed, it says something that Jeffrey shoots him—and that he ambushes Frank like he does. It may be a familiar ending, but it isn’t really a moral victory. Lynch’s austerity drains it of catharsis.

                And then there’s that shot of Jeffrey on the chaise lounge. It’s obvious that we’re meant to feel disdain for him—that for a moment we’re supposed to imagine that he’s married Sandy, and now they’re living “good” lives in that neighborhood. But Jeffrey still has all those experiences and desires inside him. (“He put his disease inside of me.”) And Dorothy is reunited with her son, but as she herself tells us, “I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” And then we can see it, too, hanging before us like a funeral shroud.

                I think Curt White’s on to something in his reading: the Good presented in the film is mostly ineffectual against Frank’s evil. They’re wimps! Who wants to be Jeffrey? Or Sandy? We may not want to be Frank per se, but he seems the most alive out of everyone in the film.

                But the form of Blue Velvet—the artwork as a whole—stands opposed to Frank. Frank could never make Blue Velvet; it stands beyond him. That isn’t a metafictional twist or anything; it’s just the observation that the whole of the work is important, and can be considered in one’s reading.

                And I think that’s a very clever insight.

                • Right. But I said ‘condemnation.’

                  Villians have often been the most alive? Richard III, Iago, Alex, The Judge (sorry, but Cormac is being dragged into this, yes), the Jokers – they’ve all been seductive and alive. It’s a propulsion technique, right? Are there stories or films where the villian isn’t really alive? There must be. Jeff Bridges in that remake The Haunting? is pretty comatose.

                  Chaos reigns? (I’m trying to get your goat, maybe)

                  I don’t think it’s ‘obvious’ that we are to feel disdain for Jeffrey in that scene. We are flawed people. We make mistakes. That’s what makes his character so pungent and palpable. I see it more about illusion, of course menace still and will always exist, but sometimes we can get through it for a while, and listen to the birds and have a fresca.

                  • > Right. But I said ‘condemnation.’

                    Ah, yes, you did. Well, is Lynch condemning Frank by having Jeffrey shoot him? Maybe. I’m not sure. I prefer White’s reading that Lynch is ambivalent to Frank. He obviously finds Frank attractive, even as he’s repulsed by him. I know I feel that way about the guy.

                    Frank is clearly the most interesting character in the film. (Dean Stockwell’s is second.)

                    (This is a tangent, but I really love Lynch’s fondness for casting former child actors in his films. We forget now that, at that time, Hopper and Stockwell were both “washed up” former child actors.)

                    > Chaos reigns?

                    It doesn’t, though. Blue Velvet is anything but chaotic. Frank is chaotic, but the film contains him, supercedes him. That is White’s very point. (Lynch doesn’t make the film that Frank does, assuming Frank could even make a film.)

                    > I don’t think it’s ‘obvious’ that we are to feel disdain for Jeffrey in that scene.

                    Sure. I do feel disdain for him, though, and for Sandy. They’re both milquetoasts. Jeffrey’s more interesting when he’s being honest about his conflicted inner nature. The better scene is when Dorothy shows up naked on the front lawn. Then Jeffrey can’t hide who he is, or what he’s done. He can’t lounge on the chaise lounge, his future potbelly evident, while the fireman waves and the robins sing. I do think that Lynch is being ironic here, and not 100% behind his ending.

                    Menace still exists; it exists right there in that very household. Lynch would be more explicit about this in Twin Peaks, with the character of Leland Palmer. (And with Laura Palmer herself.)

                    • Chaos reigns – a reference to Mr. Von Trier.

                      I agree with your point about the film containing Black.

                      I would find it hard to like a film if I wasn’t behind the seeming protagonists. But that’s just me.

                      The lawn scene is the key scene, but he admits his wrongdoing.

                      Yes menace and ignorance in the household. The aunt saying, I wouldn’t want to eat a bug. But I think Lynch was too much in a spell to be only ironic in the ending. It is sublime (see prior comment with clip) and I like this definintiion of that word, websters ” to cause to pass directly from the solid to the vapor state and condense back to solid form”

                      It’s a collage of images, some we have seen before, some not, but the dreamy music and the saftey shown is not entirely false. (And Kyle M. is too stringy ever to end up pot-bellied, Please don’t google recent images, I may be wrong! ha) It’s not a pat ending. It’s a painterly ending, an Antonioniesque ending. Those images erase intellect (and Lynch certainely is more of a visceral artist than a heady one, he’s said as much, very intuitive) they surpass intellect, for me. They cry not to be analyzed. Je refuse Adam, je refuse

                    • Ah, but painting can also be analyzed! (Right Edward?)

                      I think that the work can be all the things you say, and still be sublime, and still be anlayzed. Criticism and analysis don’t interfere, for me, with those other things.

            • I might be departing from White’s argument, but I like the idea that the artist can articulate an “ethical/political” position through form alone. There is something dangerous about this idea, but not gratuitously dangerous. Lynch risks estranging audiences through his lack of interest in seeing ‘bad guys’ brought to ‘justice,’ but he doesn’t assume a nonchalant attitude toward evil. In ‘Inland Empire,’ for instance, the lack of clear connections between violence and consequence, or mystery and explanation, is tempered by the patience with which the camera moves. So that form becomes a means by which we can describe Lynch’s attitude toward his subject.

              An aside: I remember seeing an interview with Patricia Arquette, who starred in ‘Lost Highway.’ She recounts how, during the making of the movie, she happened to say to David Lynch, in a sort of half-joking bewilderment, that he was the devil (or something like that), and she describes how much it upset him. In other words, the confusion in his art does not reflect an allegiance with moral chaos.

              • Hi Edward,

                I wouldn’t say that the artist “can articulate an ‘ethical/political’ position through form alone,” because I don’t agree with the word “alone,” but I do think the form is important. And that it’s often overlooked. But how something is said is as important as what is said.

                A lot of criticism, I think, makes the mistake of reducing syuzhet to fabula (to invoke the Russian formalists). That is to say, it values story over style. So critics say things like, “In that movie, Frank represents Evil, but he’s eventually shot, and so the film is condemning him.” (Sorry, Greg.) But that’s just looking at story (fabula). You still need to look at how that story is actually presented (syuzhet).

                When I watch the ending of Blue Velvet, it really does seem to me that Lynch is being ironic. Just look at that robin! And at that slow motion photography! And listen to the song on the soundtrack. Does anyone watch this and believe that Lynch is being 100% earnest? I’m not saying that he is opposed to these things. I’m sure he likes them, wants to believe in them. But White’s reading is perceptive: Lynch didn’t give us a real robin. He shows us a fake robin. And the characters see it as real. But we see it as fake.

                So I think we need to look very carefully at how Lynch presents everything to us. He’s obviously a director who cares very much about his film’s styles.

                I don’t think that Lynch is nonchalant at all when it comes to issues of morality. Indeed, I think he’s one of the most moral directors in Hollywood—meaning, every single one of his films is fundamentally about morality. He just doesn’t parrot the conventional views on it. Which is why he’s good.

                • Good point – there can’t be form alone, or content alone.

                  I wonder though if Lynch is ever ironic. The instances in his movies that could be perceived as ironic could also be perceived as sincere. Even the ‘fake’ robin might be seen as ‘hyper-real’; its little movements are so calculated that they ask us to believe in them rather than disbelieve in them.

                  I associate Lynch’s casting of Kyle McLaughlin with this tendency toward the sincere. There is something in McLaughlin’s face that exudes sincerity, whether it is there or not.

                  Consider Agent Cooper, the character he plays in ‘Twin Peaks.’ Remember how earnest he is in his fondness for coffee? He is so sincere that one is tempted to laugh at him. In fact, his sincerity (in the form of his love for Annie Blackburn) is his downfall. His body is possessed by Bob in the final episode because he is unwilling to leave her in the Black Lodge.

                  Consider also the name of the sheriff in ‘Twin Peaks’ – Harry S. Truman. When the audience first becomes acquainted with this character, we want to laugh at the joke Lynch seems to be playing. But as the show progresses, we almost forget who the sheriff is named after, or we begin to believe that the reference is sincere.

                  I feel similarly about the ‘Log Lady,’ whose psychic advice could easily be described ironically, but whose role in the plot turns out to be pivotal. There is something about the way Lynch opens his characters to ridicule that suggests to me his preference for sincerity.

                  • That could be. I do think he’s very sincere about some things. But I think he’s also ironic at times. He’s both! (That’s the tension in his work.) Characters like the Log Lady embody that tension.

                    I do think Lynch has a sense of humor. he just obscures it well. Which is to say, he doesn’t signal it in the obvious ways.

                    He learned early on that if you put a drone on the soundtrack, people will take you seriously.

          • So it seems Lynch almost made the best film of the 80’s, apparently Raging Bull beat it in the big list by NSFC, I think. And now by my own measure of looking at top of the decade lists, he has made the best film of the 00’s. He’s doing pretty good.

            • I wonder what my favorite films of the 80s are. (I don’t believe in having one favorite, and I don’t believe in one best.)

              Maybe something like this:

              1980
              Sauve qui peut (la vie)
              Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
              Stardust Memories
              The Shining

              1981
              Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior)
              The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough

              1982
              Blade Runner
              Koyaanisqatsi
              Perfect Lives
              Querelle

              1983
              E la nave va
              Eureka
              Nostalghia
              Sans soleil (Sunless)

              1984
              The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

              1985
              Brazil
              Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond)

              1986
              Blue Velvet
              Caravaggio
              Hannah and Her Sisters

              1987
              Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)
              Radio Days
              The Belly of an Architect
              The Princess Bride
              Yeelen (Brightness)

              1988
              Ashug Qaribi (Ashik Kerib)
              The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
              The Last Temptation of Christ
              Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)

              1989
              Crimes and Misdemeanors
              Do the Right Thing
              Santa sangre

              …Favorites, mind you, from an older list. Probably in need of some updating.

              At the moment, I think my favorite film of the decade is probably Varda’s Vagabond.

              Raging Bull doesn’t even make my list. I like it and all, but it’s far from my favorite Scorsese.

              • Hey, Adam,

                Firstly, thanks for this phenomenal post among your others; reading ’em in succession is about as close as I’ve come to taking a film class. I’m curious to hear you effuse a bit about “Vagabond.” I just watched it recently for the first time and showed it to students of mine in a class relating film and literature. The students that I’ve spoken to so far weren’t enthusiastic, and while I’ve yet to suss out all the reasons just yet, I suspect from our early conversations that it’s because of the episodic plot, which refuses the rise and turn of character arc that most American sensibilities are accustomed to, and because Mona is herself a difficult character to sympathize with. Other reasons may be that the movie lacks flash–the French countryside and interiors are treated like handmade paper, but there’s nothing MTV about it that I can see, and a soundtrack that doesn’t offset the bitterness, but adds another dimension of dissonance. What impresses me is Varda’s incredible use of texture and frame-space…the famous walls that to some degree constrain Mona and make her freedom something of a conditional one, but also are incredible to look at–weathered, complexioned survivors that seem, in their way, indomitable. Also, of course, hundreds of cool details, like the clatter of bottles colliding as they descend a stairway. Anyway, literature is where I’m at home which is precisely one of the reasons that I’ve thrown myself into teaching this class, to force myself into those situations where I’m less comfortable and snappy at articulating a sensibility, and I’m still figuring out how to talk about this one.

              • You are surely a Woody man. Stardust gets a lot of flak. I just watched Crimes again. I never get sick of it.

                After Hours is one of my favorites. Such a light touch. And funny.

                No The Sacrifice?

                I’d put Fanny and Alexander in there.

                • My list is fairly embarrassing, I think. Ebert’s right when he says that what makes a list interesting is what it tells us about film, and about the critic. All my list really says is that I grew up in the US in the 1980s. Hence so much Allen and Gilliam, etc.

                  If I were revising it, and making it more of a “best of,” I’d take off Baron Munchausen and Buckaroo Bonzai, for certain. And all of the Allen except for Hannah.

                  And I’d have to revisit a bunch of films. I haven’t seen Fanny and Alexander in over a decade, and at that time I was just starting to watch Bergman. So I don’t know how I rank it, really. It seems important.

                  Same thing with The Sacrifice. I regard Tarkovsky highly, but that particular film was always toward the bottom for me. But I haven’t seen it in a long time. (I’ve also never seen the original ending, though I want to.) So I’d have to revisit it.

                  There are also lots of other films I’d have to look at. Cassavetes’s Love Streams. May’s Ishtar (which I’m planning to rewatch very soon.) Among other things. Once Upon a Time in America.

                • I love After Hours, too. Got to see it projected not too long ago. Great overlooked film!

                  On some days, Stardust Memories might be my favorite Allen film. Although I wouldn’t call it his best (because no one would ever agree with me and I don’t feel like fighting).

                  I like Crimes but it’s never been my favorite. I’m also not big on Match Point. (I vastly prefer Scoop, which I thought was tremendous. No one will ever agree with me.)

                  • Love Streams is on youtube. Saw it projected at BAM in Brooklyn.

                    What’s the original ending of The Sacrifice?

                    Get the 6 hour version of Fanny. It’s on criterion. It’s what was on Swedish TV all those years ago. I’d read the screenplay in 94 or so and had been waiting to see that version. Finally it came!

                    • I’m planning to rent everything by Cassavetes one weekend, and just watch it all in a row. There’s a new DVD of Husbands, for instance.

                      Apparently The Sacrifice had a scene after the now final scene (although now that I look for evidence of it, I didn’t come up with anything). Here’s what I’ve heard (but remain wary):

                      The scene is 15 minutes long and takes place in a hospital. It was part of the film at the premiere. And apparently after it was over, people thought it was a joke. They were like, “Andrei, the film obviously ends with that shot at the tree.” And Tarkovsky was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right,” and took it out. Or something like that. (Maybe like the now-deleted scene at the end of The Shining?)

                      Anthology Film Archives has a copy of that scene, and when they screen The Sacrifice they take a short break, then show that extra scene. But I’ve managed to miss every screening where they’ve done this.

                      Supposedly.

        • I think that time has shown that Pulp Fiction is not QT’s most interesting film. I myself prefer Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds to it. Maybe Death Proof as well.

          Wasn’t Beatty kind of consciously-realistically acting in Bonnie – it is great, but great in the mode of Burt Lancaster.

          That’s a very good observation. I hadn’t made that link, but you’re right.

          In McCabe he is less conscious of his star status.

          Also very true!

          I once fell in love with Julie Christie, but it only made me more of a bastard—just like George C. Scott in Petulia.

          • Can we start a George C. Scott appreciation site. Come on – The Hospital, Patton, Dr. Strangelove, Hardcore, The Changeling. I know I’m missing some.

            I saw the infamous sex scene in Don’t Look Now, is it infamous?

            Afterglow by Rudolph needs some more love. As does ‘Choose Me’ – I love Keith Carradine telling the flunkies at the bar that he used to teach poetry at Yale – and we believe it, kind of.

  6. I’m still boggling at the notion that there is a canon of experimental work.Isn’t this a contradiction in terms? To be an experiment, something must break away from the canon in at least one specific direction.

    Anyone dictating what counts as experimental, or specifying before the fact who can or cannot be an experimentalist, is surely stultifying the whole notion of experiment.

    The human urge to cling together in adversity, to be part of the group, is one of the reasons we have a canon. The human urge to break away from the group, to do something distinctive, is one of the reasons we have experiments. Can you really put the two together to have a canon of experimental work?

    • I think that there’s sense in there being a canon, in that it makes some sense to teach historical examples of the experimental and the avant-garde [by which I mean, having classes set aside for just them]. And sometimes those works do form a separate, coherent tradition. Experimental filmmakers usually know other experimental filmmakers, and exchange influences. For example, Snow, Frampton, and Gehr were definitely in conversation with one another.

      But they also directly influenced Peter Greenaway’s work, and he’s…a mainstream director? I suppose he is; his later work probably is. And Snow also influenced Kubrick. (The Shining steals some from Wavelength.)

      And so we see right away two problems with insisting too strongly upon the sanctity of that canon, and that tradition.

      One, it isolates it. Was Walt Disney not experimental because he went on to found Disney? (I consider his early work very experimental.) Maya Deren influenced many mainstream filmmakers (many music videos, it would seem). So did Kenneth Anger: Scorsese and Lynch are both clearly his descendants. (Interestingly, Lynch has claimed to not have seen Deren’s work until late; he could be lying, though. He also claims not to have seen Jacques Rivette’s work, and that’s clearly a lie.) (Lynch knows the value in being perceived as wholly original. He’s very good at selling himself.)

      So I think it’s important not to erect too high a barrier between the experimental and the mainstream. (Such barriers are usually erected for political reasons.) There is a constant interchange between all genres of filmmaking, and between filmmaking and other media.

      The second problem is, of course, as you and I agree, that it limits our notion of what we consider experimental. Thus, we see in Experimental Film Proper, painting on film is Experimental (no matter how often it’s been done), while narrative is never experimental (never mind the fact that many of the above filmmakers use narrative—Maya Deren, e.g.—they just innovate with it).

      Interestingly, in my experiences, it’s people on the experimental side who seem to most want to rope themselves off from everyone else. I think they do so to their detriment. (What good does it do to isolate oneself from funding and distribution and criticism? Or to not consider mainstream work with good ideas? Meanwhile, others will steal what they like from you, and claim it as their own. If no one knows who you are, then it will no longer be yours.)

      Art making is a social activity, and while isolation is sometimes helpful, in the long run I think we benefit from viewing artworks more communally. Disney certainly knew about Fernand Léger, and Len Lye certainly knew about Disney. It’s silly to pretend that Léger and Lye form some tradition unto themselves, apart from Disney. (And of course Disney had different intentions for his work—but so did Léger and Lye. Why do we obscure that?)

  7. Yes! Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a better book than This is Not a Novel (and I’d also take AVA over Aureole). Also, Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight is a much neglected experimental novel that doesn’t get enough love. It is especially worth teaching/reading during war time.

    • I’ll second Patchen! “The angel lay in a little thicket. It had no need of love; there was nothing anywhere in the world could startle it—we can lie here with the angel if we like; it couldn’t have hurt much when they slit its throat.”

      When I was first looking for a used copy of Moonlight, I couldn’t find one anywhere. But once I found one, I found them everywhere.

      (So once you find one, you keep finding them.)

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