10 August 2006

5 things that may or may not be about avant-garde cinema


I'm far, far behind in my entry for the acclaimed Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, which you can learn about here. My internet's been out of commission for the past week, so I'm just now getting back on-line.

Anyway, I'm not exactly an Avant-garde expert, but I like to participate, so here goes. My method is simple. I did a tiny bit of research. Then, I went fishing in Maine for a week and wrote the bulk of what you'll see below. When I got back to civilization, I checked for spelling and accuracy and finished it up. So, there's a large element of flying blind, but hopefully it'll be interesting all the same. And if it isn't, I'll claim that I misread it, and that instead of writing about Avant-garde cinema, I wrote an Avant-garde blog entry about cinema. Or something.

Quick note: uses of the words "weird" and "normal" and the like aren't intended to be derogatory. It's meant to reflect what someone who knows virtually nothing about the cinema arts would think of something.

1. How Jean-Pierre Jeunet did a film involving the avant-garde without once being "weird".

The Googlist in me, when beginning to formulate an entry for the Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, turns first to his favorite search engine for information on the topic at hand, so as to not look like a damn fool on the worldwide web. In doing so, I learn that the term itself derives from the French for vanguard, which is "a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores [sic] the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow."[1] This sort of tidbit, while only slightly helpful in real life, is pure gold for a Googlist, as it is at the same time obscure, pretentious, and interesting.

But in applying the information, my mind jumps not to an examination of how this relates to the art form itself, but to a French war film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004). The film takes place during WWI when Audrey Tautou's one true love goes off to war and is later assumed dead--news that everyone accepts as true except Tautou, who believes deep down her love is alive. The whole thing is romantic and melodramatic and a bit sappy in places, but the battle scenes border on brilliant. Jeunet uses the same stylistic flourishes that were cute in Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001) and finds a way to make them show the horrors of war.

The film itself is somewhat underrated on this side of the Atlantic, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it isn't Amélie. It is, however, a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two hours, assuming that you're the type that finds two hours of subtitles enjoyable (and if you're reading an entry in an Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, that's a pretty safe bet.) It isn't avant-garde in any real sense (other than a historical one), but these are the fractured paths my brain takes.

2. The time my French film was the only "normal" thing playing.


I'll admit that my experiences with avant-garde cinema is limited. I reviewed Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929), which I found fascinating, and I have a copy of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) somewhere in my apartment that I haven't yet watched. The only other purely avant-garde cinema I've seen that I can pinpoint[2] is local works that have shown at functions I've attended.

And as someone who fully supports all local art, let me just say this: it's been pretty much terrible. But what you have to realize is that virtually all local art--mine included--is terrible. If I see twenty plays in a year and more than three are pretty good, then that's a great year in local theatre. Hell, I've pulled out my iPod during plays. Most local films are only tolerable if you know the people involved or are drinking heavily. Local music is better, but that just may be that I'm biased toward singer-songwriters. The best local films are ones I can watch more than five times without being bored out of my mind, and none of them have been avant-garde. One was somewhat experimental--Rue Snider's The Bar is a Beautiful Place, but it had some really good music.

The two avant-garde pieces that stick out were the ones that accompanied my films in the February 2006 Film Kitchen[3]. One of them consisted of three 30-second that were meant to show alongside a performance artist. There was a popcorn kernel popping and a quarter spinning and something else, each given the evocative title, Untitled. They looked cool enough and they were well done, but they didn't accomplish anything. They served no purpose whatsoever. They were just, "artistic". Horay.

The other film on display was a mixture of low-grade film and video footage from this guy's trip to Africa to attend a wedding. There was very little editing, just a bunch of footage from this guy's trip, essentially the sort of home movie someone would take of their trip to North Carolina. Where the footage was interesting was mostly in a National Geographic sense, where we were able to learn something about the customs and rituals of this wedding, but other than that small bit of info, it was awful. Just an endless stream of boring raw footage, done with little to no purpose or direction.

But that's not why I bring this event up. He also showed a much shorter, "finished" film that was clearly aiming for the avant-garde. It closed with a 30-second shot of an insect crawling out of a small circle of pebbles--by far the most interesting 30 seconds of all his footage. Afterward, someone in the audience asked him about the significance of the shot, assuming that it must have some meaning, but the guy just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I thought it would look cool." And therein lies my problem with the bulk of the second-tier avant-garde cinema: I can't shake the feeling that most of it exists purely to "look cool", which is about as self-indulgent as a filmmaker can be. If the goal isn't to experiment, to attempt to advance at least the filmmaker's skill, then some consideration should be given toward the audience. But, too often (and this is also a problem with second-tier narrative films, but to a lesser extent) what we're watching is either art for art's sake or something that looks cool. Either way, they're made for an audience of one. And if that's the goal, to do stuff you think is fun, then by all means, go for it. But if you're going to be showing it in front of an audience, then you have to try and consider what they might enjoy. Otherwise, you're like those people who show you two hours of their summer vacation, nearly all of which is their kids running around on the beach. No one wants to see that.

3. Joe Castiglione as background music.

Being a narrative guy, I tend to view the avant-garde in light of how it might come to serve the methods of storytelling. Sure, it's interesting when Luis Buñuel cuts an eye, but what does that really do? Can we use it to advance our common film language? Does it show us a new method to be used in other ways? Maybe. I don't know that without the Buñuel film Kieslowski thinks to use those haunting shots of Juliet Binoche's eyes in Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993) or that J.J. Abrams uses the close-up of an eye to open the pilot episode of Lost. It's impossible to tell, really.

But what interests me most about the avant-garde (which, yes, I need to explore more than I have) is when it's used for dramatic effect in a "normal" film, often in ways we never notice. And for that, I submit for your approval Todd Field's use of Red Sox radio broadcasts as ambient noise in In the Bedroom (2001).

There's been a great number of films set in the great state of Maine, but few (if any) have been smart enough to use Red Sox broadcasts as background noise nearly as effectively as Field did with his expert portrayal of murder in a small Maine town. Part of it, I suspect, is that it's easier to just use normal music. But as anyone who's spent as much as a week in midcoast Maine in the summer can tell you, the familiar voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano are as much a part of the atmosphere as pine trees, ocean breezes, and the accent. Those games, formerly broadcast on Coast 102.5, could be heard nearly everywhere you went. Whenever I'm back in Maine, it's one of the first things I listen for, it's one of those things that never go away, one of those things you don't realize until you're gone. Yet, you almost never hear them on film. Why?

The simple answer (and probably the most accurate) is that conventional film wisdom says that something like a baseball broadcast can distract from the action in the scene. Yet, in some of the tensest scenes, Field has that radio going, letting Joe and Jerry fill the space like they do all so often. It isn't a distraction at all. Instead, it keeps the film grounded in a tranquil reality, even as people are held at gunpoint. There's something about baseball on the radio that has a calming, almost therapeutic effect, as anyone who's listened to Vin Scully will tell you.

Consider that Tom Wilkinson's character, while in the process of avenging his son's death and "solving" the problem of the killer being out on bail, tells him to turn on the radio and find the game. Is he that devoted a member of Red Sox Nation that he absolutely has to know the score? Of course not. He's nervous as hell and looking for something, anything, to take his mind off what he's doing. So they listen to the game and let all that tension just sit there between them. Few directors would let them do that.

4. How Buster Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, and Richard Linklater are more avant-garde than anyone will admit.


If the real goal of avant-garde cinema is to push boundaries and open new lines of cinematic thinking, then why is it that the label is never applied to the filmmakers who do so within the context of a larger project, where the risk is theoretically greater? Is not melding an avant-garde technique into a larger project a boundary in and of itself? Otherwise the experimental accomplishes nothing.

Therefore, is it not avant-garde when Coppola uses garbled sound in The Conversation (1974), showing us a stunning sequence where several hidden microphones struggle to record a simple conversation? The technique had been done before, sure, but rarely to such a dramatic effect. We hear bits and pieces and that's enough to send our man Gene Hackman after the truth, but some of the most interesting scenes in the film are the ones where we watch him clean up the audio.

More impressive than that is Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924), perhaps one of the most amazing uses of jump cuts in all of cinema. No doubt influenced by the work of Eisenstein, Keaton shows us a scene where the hero finds a scene changing as he exists in it. Each cut puts Sherlock in a completely different world, be it a desert or a safari or a snowbank. The whole thing is so seamless (done with surveying equipment and the naked eye) that you'd almost swear there was at very least rear-projection at play. But there isn't. Instead, it's an application of Eisenstein's jump cuts for comedic effect.

The most recent (and probably easiest to spot) is Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), the first feature film to employ rotoscope animation. The technique of drawing over live footage is nothing new. Disney animators had done it years earlier and animator Bob Sabiston's Snack and Drink (2000) had used it as well, but none had ever used it as extensively as Linklater did. The jump from a 4-minute short to a 90-minute feature is a large one, and the success of Waking Life paved the way for Linklater's Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006).

The point is that all three of these films employed avant-garde cinema in the purest sense of the word, incorporating new art forms and techniques into mainstream films, which is really what the avant-garde is all about.

5. An important film can be terrible, and that's perfectly fine.

I'll make this short: the real value in something like avant-garde cinema lies not in how good the film is, but in how good it makes the films that follow it. Like those French forces, the cinema exists to push boundaries, to scout out new terrain so that the larger army might benefit. But if the avant-garde isn't moving forward, isn't exploring the terrain, then it's pretty much worthless. To stay with the military theme, it's AWOL or, as some might point out, it's just artistic masturbation.

Really, it makes no difference if an important piece of avant-garde cinema is one of the worst things ever put on film, as long as it's exploring that new terrain. Otherwise, why bother?

[1] Source: Wikipedia.

[2] I've seen some "hybrid" stuff, for lack of a better term, and some things I don't remember enough of to be able to figure out what they are. Oh, and I saw the Luis Buñuel film with the eye. It made me sick. I have a weak stomach.

[3] Film Kitchen is a Pittsburgh showcase for local cinema.


ryan said...

Nice post, even if I didn't have time to read it all yet. Have you ever read David Sedaris's piece (can't remember which book) about taking speed and its affect on his performance art? Quite telling, and his attitude toward avant-garde seems similar to yours. Something about thinking in the past that dragging a cash register through the woods would be profound.

lucas said...

i think i've read that. besides the fact that Sedaris is awesome, he makes a good point. i'm never surprised when some of these guys reveal their "influences" (that is, not the really talented ones, but the hacks)

Squish said...

After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you'd like to be a part of it:


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