by Al Razutis
It is with some amazement that I still hear the terms "avant-garde"
and "experimental" tossed around, usually interchangeably, by the
film community and worn out academics in search of something
interesting to augment their empty agendas. Every several years,
in cycles that are/predictable and tedious, a search is conducted
in Kanadian (reactionary) film theory as to "what is happening
NOW?", who is doing "important" work suited for inclusion in
the latest rehash on Kanadian "post-modernist" film. We still
read about the "pre-eminence" of landscape, photography and
alienation "mediating reality". The winters must be long, the
tundra everywhere and on everyone's introspective agenda. And yes,
there is always the reappearance of typically chauvinist rhetoric:
the truly Kanadian fixation on symbol, flag and outdated philosophies like Christian mysticism and the "ontological nature of the
photograph". None of this is surprising.
Throughout North America
we see a resurgence in fundamentalist thinking, ideologies of
alienation and a historicizing of mythological codes. Even the
unintellectual George Bush these days is wrapping himself in a flag,
uttering symbolic nonsense about "mainstream" Amerika and the
'glorious' past years, all the while dismissing realities like
poverty and drug financing as "minor errors in judgement"
Kanadian film theory, and its academic associations, is largely
irrelevant and unable to account for the many film practices.
Facing its theoretical impotence, it resorts to rhetorical havens (the
academic-tenured network of obfuscafors) in search for that which
is truly and only Kanadian: the alienated and apolitical landscape
artist pondering his/her own 'shroud of Turin'. Disseminated in
classrooms, anthhologies and conferences this fixation on an
antiquated metaphysics (structuralism in its most neurotic form)
is the last gasp of a dying ideology. But rather than die or be
forgotten it hangs on like some patient in a cancer ward, simply because there are no theoretical 'alternatives' for the
already intimidated film community to hang on to. Kanadian film
theory has produced a condition akin to a state cultural apparatus
without which most are unable to work.
After nearly two decades of working outside of and within various
academias, teaching, writing and filmmaking, I see the cultural
and intellectual (film) paralysis gaining ground. Those who could
in the same breath invoke "The Post-Modern Scene" - its "excremental
culture and hyper-aesthetics" along with alienation, landScape and
ontological "nature" abound. Ironically, there is a conjunction
"between those who have nothing to say" and the masses who do not
speak. Sadly, there is an "ominous emptiness of all discourse",
a condition that is submerged under the weight of the ongoing
Kanadian identity crisis and its own "nostalgia for a sublime
transcendent" (the genius in search of his own 'self' in a by-gone
Rear-Guard Looking for its Avant-Garde
NETWORKS OF INFLUENCE are the typical output of institutions
in pursuit of consolidating their power/influence. These networks
in film culture are found in university film associations, their
critical journals, their conference activities and film curators
eager to ape the latest in-vogue 'discourse'. Rear-guard ideologies
are essentially conservative, venerating bourgeois mythologies of
utopia and alienation (of the individual in crisis). Universities
by their very design, promote a conservative attitude towards
culture and represent the best resistance to culture shock, transgression, disruption (of norm), radical change. Within academic
hierarchies are the conditions which are most resistant to avant-gardism. Film departments with theit abundance of equipment, library
resources and salary, base are current havens for many filmmakers,
experimental once, now retired. I have seen enough examples of
filmmakers, once creative and courageous, now retired in art colleges
or universities to make me wonder how long their charade of 'pro-gressive' education can go on. In one particular case, I witnessed
an old aquaintance of mine turn to education for the purpose of
steady income, seduction of his female students and continuation of
creative bankruptcy, which was only punctuated by the sudden completion
of a rehash of (of his older work) for the purposes of presentation to
a Semiotics conference or to a panel on the state of the art.
What about the filmmaber who recently posed with a Canadian
flag (a penis substitute?) on the cover of Canada's film magazine.
For many experimental (and especially avant-garde) filmmakers this
would truly be the 'kiss of death'. The formula has always
worked and been the same: filmmaker discusses his/her work
as biographic preliminaries leading to name-dropping of current
personalities, self-inclusive theoretical paradigms and nationalist
symbology (the flag, landscape and mediation theories, self-image, etc.) "Raising the standard of experimental film?"
Bullshit. This is strictly self-promotion presumably leading
to more grants, screenings, invitations to speak, conferences,
inclusion in anthologies, tenure and promotion. The network
of rear-guard mentality masquerading as progressive (con-
servatives). The tendency to attach oneself to existing-fashionable theory and symbol is symptomatic of creative bankruprcy,
intellectual cowardice, if not laziness. Next year someone else
will rediscover the same old formula. Anyone who has read this
magazine has seen it for decades. And you know what? It works!
Because the "ominous emptiness of all discourse overwhelms the critically
incisive, the radical and unsettling factors of living culture.
What ever happened to the Lacan and New Narrative? One hardly hears about that anymore - it is out of fashion. Even feminists seem to have abandoned it now seeing "the lack" and "castration anxiety" for what it was: a cruel Freudian sexism that was ultimately anti-female in theory and practice. But how many experimental "theoretically informed" filmakers tried to ape that formula? How many analytical essays were written "informed by Lacan and Freud" before a collective amnesia took place? Yet, many of the perpetrators of this discursive fraud are now entrenched in universities,
along with their film noir and Hitchcock collections, along with
their English Department cronies (those who conveniently switched
to film studies and semiotics), along with their tenure and promotion.
I watched for years, in a film department I helped create (and which
I left), the networking of influence, the ideology of disinformation
that led to the consolidation of 'new narrative' vested interests,
curriculum control and low workload. I should have known better
than to assume that debate and discursive differences were possible.
After all, culture and education are big business requiring political acumen and a networking of theoretical interests (letters
of reference, publishing credits, etc.)
(Section deleted by editor)
What is at issue here is not only the vacuum of informed criticism
but its arrogance and effects on continuing film practice.
For what is most alarming now (to this writer) is that much of
the same old network is resurfacing to ask the question: "What
exactly is happening NOW in the international avant-garde film?"
(International Experimental Film Congress, 1989, Toronto, Canada).
They would be better off to ponder what is exactly happening with
rear-guard film and settle down for a week of outs from Canada's
'long suffering and christ-like filmmaker', the very same hero for
our excremental times.
In the meantime, the critical hacks will continue on, assured
of success by an apathetic and uncritical film community. Many
filmmakers will say, "why bother?...I'll get my turn on the cover
of Cinema Canada...I'll get my show and letter of grant reference."
The "gimme" mentality of mention, the kiss of death mistaken for
affection, the romantic quest for fame (there is no fortune to
be made here unless you get your university appointment folks!)
drives everyone into the asshole of what really is happening "NOW"
in film theory and practice.
As I perceive it, the choices facing most are:
Pass the toilet paper and sit in your cubicle until the sewer system plugs up (that is until the next academic conference).
Get used to smell of it all and maybe soon you'll develop an apetite for shit (symbolism, obfuscation, the flag, name-dropping, experimental film ghettos, travel grants to safe (sponsored) exhibition houses, mention in a sponsored/subsidized publications.
Become a clever plagiarist; make your work in a "theoretically informed manner" (don't forget the flag); act non-commital in all political issues and as soon regionalism, censorship or any number of causes arise make sure your work is included (along with an appropriate quote by you).
Or...finally free yourself of this and all kinds of bullshit and
be unconcerned whether you fit that school of thought or another,
whether your films are "modern" or "post-modern", Canadian, Kanadian
or international. Free yourself from determinations and the obligation to identify your inspiration as being the tundra, factories,
television, people and/or "Michael Snow". And free yourself from
intimidation by scribblers and quasi-theorists (they're looking
for a warm place to shit, you need not worry), and free yourself
from the notion that history and theory will exclude you.
And then, if you can free yourself from being Kanadian (or anti-
Kanadian, or un-Kanadian...) then you can discover your own praxis
and that creative imagination which is not celebrated in the
cancer ward of suffering romanticism.