Opsis Spring 1984
(Text only; photo-illustrations omitted)


Contemporary Film Theory, New Narrative and the Avant-Garde

by Al Razutis

"Language is the component of film which both threatens to regulate the spectator, assigned a place within the symbolic order, and also offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image."

Peter Wollen
The Field of Language in Film


"Every artistic dialogue that concludes in a decision to ostracize the word is disingenuous to the degree that it succeeds in concealing from itself its fear of the word - and the source of that fear: That language, in every culture, and before it may become an arena of discourse, is above all an expanding arena of power, claiming for itself and its wielders all that it can seize, and relinquishing nothing."

Hollis Frampton
Film in the House of the Word

It is uncommon to make films or talk about films without recourse to some aspect of film theory and its analytical models. Filmmaking, as labor, communication, expression and art, seeks to be understood by both affective and intellectual means, within individual and society. Film theory, on the other hand, is a speculative venture: It attempts to define possible forms for cinema and maps the present terrain in terms of these possibilities. Within contemporary film institutions, academic theorists are rapidly gaining ground as potent lobbyists for psychoanalysis, literary-based semiotics of film, and a kind of liberal-academic1 marxism. It is my intention, within this introductory essay, to explore some of the contradictions inherent in film theory itself, the manner in which film theory is attempting to expand and negotiate a relationship with avant-garde practice, and finally to deliberate on its use value for filmmakers.

We know that theoretical speculations have moved from the refined quarters of Academia to the more political arenas of critical publications, public debates and conferences, and the promotion of a select range of films. As venues shift, so do the theories: Structural linguistics has become highly psychologized through a return to "early Freud" (i.e. phailocentricity, dream work and language, sexual origins of neurosis, language as symptom); psychoanalysis itself is now highly socialized through the interventions (and speculations) of Lacan in whose work the psychic assumes societal and cultural proportions; aes thetics and culture are now invested with overt ideological values through the interventions of Jamesonian marxism. Most writers pronounce the current epoch to be "post modernist" and "post Lacanian" .

Does this new status of film theory, as a hybrid of specialized formulations, contribute to an increased understanding of film and its role in culture and society? Or is film theory assuming a status that is approaching a self-serving elitism that, to paraphrase Frampton, claims all that it can seize, and relinquishes nothing? The complexity of these questions is compounded by the many contradictions that reside within theory itself (e.g. phallocentrism and feminism, materialism and psychoanalytic essentialism, leftist academicism and marxism, etc.) and the fact that theory has little to say about the reality of film practice, the techniques and technology of film, the economics of cinema. In spite of its shortcomings, contemporary film theory exerts an increasing influence over film studies and curating. This influence tends to affect practice in a manner that can be both rewarding and oppressive. My intention is to identify both these qualities of film theory, and in so doing to issue a warning to the many curatorial perspectives that gloss over contradictions and appropriate theoretical language in an unthinking fashion.

The Hermetics of Film Theory

There is first of all the issue of specialization and the relationship of film theory to other disciplines. The desire to carefully examine an issue of practical and theoretical importance creates the conditions for the development of specialist languages (of analysis) which combine speculative knowledge and existing knowledge. Contemporary film theory obligates the reader to identify the very specific meanings behind such terms as "suture" , "subjectivity", "the lack", "enunciation", etc. and to recognize the source of each term.2 As axiomatic construction, theory tends to imitate logical procedure by using plausible inference to proceed from one axiom to the next. The narrow range of writers (mostly non- filmmakers grounded in studies of comparative literature) who are repeatedly used as source argument suggests both elitism and a hermeticism (recalling the "illuminati" of Medieval Europe) that obligates the reader to acquire this language and knowledge by special education.

To say that film theory resembles hermetics (a secret doctrine) is to implicate both its specialist-inaccessible language and more importantly its interests in combining non-scientific assertions with a myth-making that approaches the level of metalinguistics identified by Roland Barthes in his essay "Myth Today" in Mythologies. In much of film theory, we have the filmic event described in terms of the viewer's "subjectivity" - a subjectivity that is generalized within the psychoanalytic of neurosis, alienation, sexual differentiation, and identification. This psychoanalytic is guided primarily by a Freudianism (late 19th century, early 20th century) that was intended as a developing 'technique of the cure'. Freud's speculations (concerning ego, drive, complex) - enhanced by Jacques Lacan's fixations on mirrors and scopic registers, and societal equivalents - are 'cinematized' by the writings of Christian Metz and the many other psychoanalytic revisionists.

The Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic theory of film asserts that the viewer assumes a voyeur's role in experiencing film. We might take note of a concept like "scopophiia", promoted in Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", as indicative both of the extraction of concept from early (Freudian) psychoanalytic theory and of the generation of a cosmology of theoretical assertions concerning male and female roles.3 In Mulvey's essay, voyeurism and exhibitionism become part of a mechanism (which is part of the cinematic apparatus) whereby the classic cinema of the '40s asserts its perverse hold on male-differentiated viewers - a model that forever excludes a 'place' for women in cinema and always defines cinema and language in male terms. Mulvey's "seminal" essay (and we can guage how important it is by noting the constant reference to it in film studies journals)4 defines cinema in terms of male/female, sadist/masochist, voyeur/exhibitionist, binaries, and tends to provide 'reasonable cause' for the many attacks on classical cinema that follow. Her theoretical arguments rest specifically on Freudian speculations concerning "component instincts". Is "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" theory, analysis, science, or rhetoric?

I suspect it is rhetoric posing as theory which itself attempted to extract knowledge from the science of the early 20th century. But the fact that this psychoanalysis of film has less to do with contemporary psychology than it has to do with comtemporary film does little to influence its proliferation. The terms under which film theory becomes rhetorical are precisely the terms under which it is meant to serve a political program. Mulvey's aim was to destroy a conception of "pleasure" and to substitute a kind of "not-to-be-looked-at-ness" for any female representation that produces voyeuristic tendencies in men. Mulvey the cultural and social critic invokes Freudian psychology and speculation concerning "scopophilia" to transfer pleasure to the side of sadism and fetishism - that is, cruelty and the mechanisms of "castration-disavowal-fetishism". She then illustrates her theory with appropriate examples from the psycho-pathological cinema of Hitchcock.

We could ask what her "destruction of pleasure as a radical weapon" intends to accomplish. Are we seeing in feminist film theory a revival of Puritan interests aimed at imbedding in male readers a guilt complex, anxiety, repression and a sense of transgression? Does this rhetoric-as-theory propagate a sense of moral outrage in female readers that is interdependent with their sense of cultural exploitation and political helplessness? The answer to both questions is affirmative. Mulvey's view of sexual differentiation is both essentialist (it proposes fixed binaries) and deterministic: Ideology structures language which structures the unconscious (as per Lacan and Louis Althusser). Its reliance on psycho-pathology to illustrate its theory of the neurotic ("sexually imbalanced") subject is but a further example of the narrow confines within which this theory operates.

As will be seen later in this essay, the obsession of film theory with Oedipalized subjects and sexual differentiation (qualities approaching near universalized proportions) produces the inability of film theory to apprehend the present. It is as if the classic cinema of the '40s maintains a guiding influence in the development of a theory of film for the '80s, with the result that the place of avant-garde film is even more the place of exclusion and non-status.

Rhetoric: Discourse and Authority

Rhetoric is concerned not with truth but with pragmatics and behavior. It attempts to employ 'invention' (ethical, emotional and demonstrative proofs) in support of its primary aim of influencing the listener/reader. As Bill Nichols (Ideology and the Image, p.178) posited: "Rhetoric is concerned with pragmatic questions, with how an argument can be made persuasively; it leaves decisions about its ultimate truth to other disciplines... As such, rhetoric in the broadest sense serves as a vehicle of socialization, a mediation between self and other. A logical extension of this placement of rhetoric demands our recognition of it as a signifier of ideology:" I have attempted to briefly identify two concurrent problems with film theory: specialized and restricted discourse, and a kind of anti-scientific grounding that leads us to treat speculations as if they were facts. That feminist psychoanalytic theory of the kind mentioned tends to occupy this rhetorical domain, borrowing from patriarchal concepts only that which will be useful to use against patriarchy, underscores once again how close the relationship is between 'analyst' and 'patient', and between theorist and filmmaker (in some cases one and the same person). As a "vehicle of socialization", rhetorical construction obligates us to examine, at least briefly, the terms under which it operates.

There is first of all the problem of who is speaking and for whom. Theory-as-rhetoric has tended to assume a cosmopolitan conceit towards the many film cultures existing in the experimental cinemas of the world. This cosmopolitanism, thriving on international film conferences and festivals, incorporates European film studies (through translation) as an authoritative discourse, one appropriate to North American experimental and avant-garde cinemas. However, the North American experimental and populist cinemas are not coexistent with a contemporary film theory that was developed in France (under the influence of Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Metz), spilled over to the U.K. in the '70s (institutionalized at the B.F.I. as a production model), and only recently became North Americanized and supported in predominantly Eastern-based film studies programs.

This is not xenophobia but rather the suspicion that a contemporary film theory that has been developed in almost complete ignorance of cultural practice (underground cinema of the '60s may serve as an example of counter-culture and subversion which is hardly understood or referred to in theoretical circles) may be mostly irrelevant. P. Adams Sitney pointed out a parallel example when he noted in Visionary Film, p.viii) that the "auteur theory" imported from France was in response to the loss of directorial authority in American films. (The effects of this theory are still felt in the endless reinvestigations of Hawks, Hitchcock, etc.) Surveying some of the pronouncements on avant-garde cinema, under the varying headings of "structural film", "structuralist-materialist film", etc., I am struck by the investment in paradigms of 'importance' that represent little of the plurality and state of the art in North American experimental cinema. (An example of this is contained in Peter Wollen's discussion of "The Two Avant-Gardes", which compares Gidal's position to Godard - a comparison hardly sufficient for applications to North American practice and theory.)

Another problem, related to unfamiliarity but attesting to strategies of containment, arises from theorists' reductive practice of describing plurality in terms of paradigms of singularity and containment. We know that cinema and film are not products of a single culture but of many cultures and sub-cultures, and these exhibit fissures along ideological, aesthetic, social and racial and linguistic lines. We can readily appreciate the differ nces that experimental film exhibits relating to image-orientation, music-orientation, language and signification. Many of these differences and distinctions are erased in theoretical speculations that position experimental film within modernism, within post-modernism, within narrative and various structuralisms. This interest in singularity, containment and paradigms serves to generate a particular strategic center for the debate between filmmaker and theorist-critic, a center that is demonstably of the critic's choosing. For example, Noel Carroll's essay on Yvonne Rainer ("Interview with a Woman Who..." Millenium Film Journal, #7-9) leads off with the proposition that "structural cinema" and the "mish-mash of amateur theorizing" that supported it is bankrupted, now to be replaced by the "New Talkie" exemplified by Rainer's films. This is the theorist-critic as authority, as spiritualist medium, as sage, and the issue is not whether Rainer's films are interesting, but how we are now to contextualize them. Obviously, from Carroll's essay, the new context is provided for us, as well as the authoritative perspective which accompanies it. It is never clear, however, how appropriate this new context is to the practice of experimental film as it really is, a practice that does not wait for theoretical inventions to describe a place for it. What is clear is that the proclamations of "new narrative" tend to facilitate and consolidate the theorists' position in the ideology of contemporary film.5

In some cases we can see a theory attempting to find suitable illustrations (in film); in others illustrations attempt to find a theory. The resultant vehicles for socialization may take the form of a feminist psychoanalytic theory of maternalism (of the kind found in Mary Ann Doane's writing on "plenitude")6 — elevating the fatherless mother-child "dyad" to new levels of bliss and containment - or simply attempt to effect control by maintaining the inevitability of 'new narrative' and the return to the primacy of word over image. Here, we could notice the Freudian task of psychoanalysis ("to bring the unconscious under the domination of the preconscious") finding fulfill ment; here also we can see the kind of "house of the word" that much of film theory aspires to construct and inhabit.

The New Winter Palace

Rhetorical inventions, signifying ideological positionings, are equally capable of presenting prescriptions as if they were descriptions. For instance, we might see a film described in terms of what it ought to be, not in terms of what it is. (The viewer's subjectivity is of course taken into account, but I am referring to a more severe misrecognition.) In fact, in the history of avant-garde cinema there is a growing predisposition to construct a theory, as prescription, around a single author, usually around works containing both ambiguity (of meaning, intent) and minimal expression and content. I am reminded particularly of the films of Michael Snow, which have been elevated to dizzying heights on the basis of competing assertions and radically differing ideologies. Never before, it seems, has so much been said, in so many different ways, about so little: Hollis Frampton, we might recall, compared Snow with the "man who carved the Sphinx"7. However amazing the fraternity of structualists may be, it is equally astonishing to read analyses of Snow's work that are conducted on the basis of contradictory assertions and differing ideologies. To briefly illustrate the point (and I don't wish to conduct exhaustive archaeology in this dead zone) I would like to cite some excerpts from the commentary of a radical-leftist theorist, Pam Cook, and a right-wing idealist, critic Bruce Elder, both praising Snow's work for what seem to be incompatible reasons.

Pam Cook, writing in the B.F.I. Production Catalogue (1978) in an essay entitled "The Point of Expression in Avant-Garde Film", called for an end (a "dispersal") to individualist film efforts and praised those films which exemplified this kind of dispersal. Her anti-individualist stance is understandable: The essay attempts to place a newly emerging leftist British avant-garde cinema (e.g. Riddles of the Sphinx by Mulvey and Wollen) within an international context, appraising its worth, applauding its marxist praxis and departure from bourgeois fine arts. What is surprising is that she uses bourgeois fine arts (Frampton, Snow) in a tentative description of "dispersal" of the personal - surprising because it is precisely these artists who have cultivated the cults of structuralist personalities (the 'letters to and from', the heroic conceits of art accomplishment, the artist as 'prophet' and 'sage', etc.).

In presenting her argument, Cook contends the following about Wavelength: "Snow's Wavelength performs a... dispersal of the personal...the importance of the structural/minimalist break with the romantic individualism of Brakhage is to be found in the act of splitting, or dispersal:' (By this we may infer that Wavelength features a breaking down of subject, a separation between sign and object, and a dispersing of 'authorial' point-of-view.) Cook's defence of Snow and structualism seeks to draw attention to the "marginal" value of the individualist aesthetic; its inability to influence or subvert dominant film culture. Her defence of Wavelength suggests that structuralist aesthetics (the aesthetics derived from the machinery of film, the apparatus of cinema, processes of perception, theorizing film 'language' and signification) somehow advance the cause of leftism in culture. In making this judgment, she asserts the virtues of the "autonomy of the zoom as a structuring element above personal discourse". In other words, the machine of cinema - in this case represented by a 45-minute film comprised of zooms, filter changes and anti-dramatic asides - is seen to advance the politics of the depersonalizing of culture. In elevating the zoom (and one could assume other mechano-structuring elements of film) above personal discourse - above lyricism, romanticism and the kind of 'visionary' (ecstatic) cinema of Brakhage - Cook attempts to directly displace the latter from history and culture. Yet, in this act of displacement, she obviously over looks Snow's own metaphysical interest ("Wave length is metaphysics..." 7, he once stated in a moment of philosophical introspection)8 and the possibility that Snow simply fetishizes the basic cinematographic apparatus.

As both a minimalist and reductive work, Wavelength teases the theorist with its inclusions of narrative fragments and encourages a 'surplus' of readings by limiting expression and content to a series of paradigmatic formulations and conventions - conventions of extended duration (Warhol), reductive structure-shape (minimalism), 'self consciousness' (modernism), intertextuality (modernism) and it is this "aesthetic overcoding" that gives the "impression of saying something that is semantically rich"9. While we can see that multiple and differing readings are encouraged, it still remains a mystery as to how minimalist works stimulate well-intentioned leftist critics like Cook into making embarrassing political speculations on the role of this work in culture.

Less mysterious are the idealist and religious speculations that arise in the writings of Bruce Elder. Elder too has constantly valorized Snow's work on the basis of its "dispersal" and "decentering", and because it is committed to "analyzing the nature of the photograph". Elder's arguments (as seen in his writing and curating) are neither original nor insightful, yet they serve to re-promote Snow's work under a variety of wandering and shifting contexts. The language that Elder has borrowed ("decentering" and "dispersal") from authors like Cook is presented in rhetorical arguments that situate Snow's (and by implication Elder's) work as the necessary (i.e. tautological) output of modernism and post-modernism. Where Cook had attributed to Snow certain modernist tendencies, Elder sees it as exclusively "post-modernist"; where Cook saw in Snow's work the politics of aesthetic reform, Elder sees in the same work metaphysics, religion, and aspects of "Ultimate Reality".

Elder's arguments are ultimately reductive, employing phenomenological reductions (to invariants) in the metholodology of analysis, and follow directly from descriptive definitions of cul ture. In "The Photographic Image in Canadian Experimental Film" (Film Canada #97) he offers the following definition of "post modernism":

"The proponents of post-modernism have proposed, for example, the dissolution of notions of mediumistic purity and instead have advocated the constructions of forms that employ attributes of one medium in works realized in a different medium". In other words, were an artist engaged in 'multi-media' work, where the attributes of one medium (painting or photography) were conveyed to another medium (film), he/she would by Elder's definition be necessarily "post-modernist". Elder's conception of culture is almost geometrical: "Modernism, in sum, was a centripetal doctrine: it turned the artwork in upon itself. Post-modernism, on the other hand, is a centrifugal doctrine: Its techniques are techniques of 'decentering' or 'dispersal". He further maintains that art is a philosophical enterprise situated between being and nothingness in a kind of teleological current that either turns in upon itself (becoming "nothing") or disperses (becoming consciousness and discourse).

There are several problems with Elder's theory. First, it borrows from an ontological base ('being and nothingness') that is hopelessly outdated and culturally irrelevant. Greenberg's "modernism", tied to Bazin's "photographic trace", circulating around a teleological fall into "nothingness", can hardly account for the full range of modernistic art and photography's departure from fascinations with being and reality. "Modernism" has been described in other terms which tend to implicate language in a more direct manner: Wollen, writing in "The Two Avant-Gardes", maintained: "One of the main characteristics of modernism, once the priority of immediate reference to the real world has been disputed, was the play of allusion within and between texts". The play between photography and film, as intertextual discourse, would be to Wollen a modernist enterprise whereas for Elder it is strictly post-modernist. The extensive multimedia interests of surrealist, dada, constructivist, futurist (and many other) art movements would for Elder be outside of modernism since they never could be accomodated within his reductive paradigms - paradigms which serve only to recontextualize the cultural base of Michael Snow's use of photography in film (and by implication Elder's own use of written text, photography, film image, mathematical scribblings, etc.).

Were this simply a matter of definitions then the issue could be largely overlooked. A bigger problem is Elder's skilful manipulation of theoretical terms and the construction of a rhetorical discourse (complete with value systems and hierarchies) that relies on making the abstract (the theoretically speculative) concrete, attributing to "absence" a "presence", to duration (in film) a "History" - in other words, reification and the formulation of aesthetic essences outside of history and society. To Elder, it matters little what the photograph or image is of. What is important is that photography essentially (to Elder) conveys an "absence" and a "desire" emanating from this absence.

He asserts: "Quite simply, post-modernists contend that the special interest evoked by a rep resentational image results from the fact that it presents the appearance of an object other than itself". Here, "special interest" is asocial, ahistorical, outside of the relationship of the image to the conditions of its production - here, "special interest" is in the splitting of object and sign, an abstract kind of "otherness" that is reminiscent of Lacan's theory of alienation and language. In fact, Elder seems to borrow directly from Sartre and Lacan without acknowledging it. In a moment of tautologizing theoretical constructs Elder proposes: "The 'Other' cannot retain its 'Otherness' when it is actually present. Inherent in the very concept of 'Otherness' is the idea of absence".10. What Elder is attempting to rationalize in Snow's work is the minimalism of expres sion and content (the protracted durations which take "shape", for example), in which an "absence" becomes a "presence" and then (if one can believe this theorizing that oscillates between two rhetorical poles) is interpreted by the viewer as "absence".

As Elder attempts to explain: "These structures, then, lead one out of the confines of the present into the past and the future, away from what is actually given towards that which is furnished only by reflexive acts of consciousness: away, in short, from presence towards absence!' As I interpret this statement, and as I would apply it to Wavelength (and its splitting and dispersal), we begin with film, a medium based on photography, which is based on the paradox of presence/ absence, and throughout the protracted duration of a 45-minute zoom (complete with film effects/ color changes, dramatic asides) we sense that its "presence" becomes "absence", a process which informs us of our own "reflexive consciousness". To say that this is "reflexive cinema" is to suggest that a viewer contending with minimalism comes face to face with the "absence", as if that condition in itself guaranteed a critical positioning and knowledge. It is an empty epistemology, pretending to offer substance while maintaining the primacy of an empty signifier. If this is post-modernism, then Warhol's Empire or Sleep was quintessential of this aesthetic. But I think that Elder is not only confusing himself (as well as us) by his tautological arguments, contradictory inventions, but is also (and shamefully) fabricat ing a theory from the dismembered speculations of a long-dead philosophy of ideals and essences.

One might ask how this theory of "absences", borrowing at will from psychoanalytic (Lacanian) speculations of split-subject ('the I who speaks is not the I who is mentioned'), relates to consciousness and metaphysics. In a particularly telling moment (in Cinetracts #7, p. 4) Elder offers: "The religious dimension of Snow's work is rooted in his conception of self, which can be glimpsed in the equation he draws between consciousness and Ultimate Reality. I don't think that it would be going too far to suggest that this reality which undergoes change without itself being changed has the attributes which the Christian followers of Husserl ascribe to the soul".

Thus, on the one hand we have seen that Snow's zoom produces a 'political effect' (in Pam Cook's argument against individualism), that his dispersal and decentering is tied to the politics for social change. On the other hand we see that Snow's work produces a profoundly religious effect in Elder. I don't think it would be going too far to suggest that these critical reflections on the same work represent "The Emperor's New Clothes" applied to cinematic discourse, whereby rhetorical inventions concerning "modernism", "post-modernism", "dispersal", "decentering", and "absence", "Other", "Ultimate Reality" serve no other purpose but to decorate an otherwise empty premise that theorizes for its own sake.

The mish-mash of theorizing (to use Noel Carroll's term) that surrounds Snow's structuralism, and the work of many other reductive artists, is remarkable only in its insistence on value and credibility arising from cultural and historical value systems, systems alreadly inbedded in the arguments themselves. What is shameful is that the reductive strategem (as in Wavelength) is given both a political value and a depoliticized status (of the kind Elder accords it) without deference to the plurality of cultural forms that exist around it. To falsely politicize a formalism, as Cook does in her essay, is to create a process whereby art is arbitrarily included in political theory for the purpose of short-term gain. This process actually depoliticizes the work itself since its attributes are reduced to rhetorical inventions on the part of the writer. Conversely, to depoliticize the art - to assign it abstract values, a non-history, as Elder has attempted is to doubly rob the avant-garde of its subversive capacity, since the reader may misinterpret this new "post-modernism" as being outside of history and society, in a kind of aesthetic twilight-zone of "Ultimate Reality". The degree to which writers and curators like Elder are capable of playing both sides of the game is perhaps suggested in the last statement of his essay on post-modernism, where he expects "political issues to come more and more to the fore in the work of the new avant-garde". Let us hope that the "political issues" that he intends to bring forward remain more and more in the back ground, for it would be even more intolerable to see Elder's "post modernism" now assume the added attributes of Emperor as 'progressive politician'.

The New Narrative Conference

To observe contemporary film theory operating 'in vitro' is a rare situation, considering that most of its activities are contained within bound covers or emanate from editorial collectives. Much of the theory that I have identified has emanated from an international group of writers which include U.S., English, and French participants, who have met in what were termed "Milwaukee Conferences". It was on the occasion of their most recent meeting, at the New Narrative Cinema and the Future of Film Theory conference convened on September 29, 1983 in Vancouver, that the current pulse of film theory could be measured. The shift to Vancouver was organized and directed by Kaja Silverman and sponsored by Simon Fraser University. In keeping with the models established by the Milwaukee conferences, the presentations were dominated by academic readings of papers (on topics such as "Spectacle and Spectatorship", "Narrative", "Cinema and the Social" and "Avant-Garde"). The conference participants (the invited) included Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Patrician Mellencamp, Teresa de Lauretis, Michael Silverman, Paul Willemen, Thomas Elsaesser, Rosewitha Mueller, Judith Mayne, Phillip Rosen, Bill Wees, and others.

The topics and papers were clearly organized around a psychoanalytic and feminist semiotics that sought to contextualize and examine both dominant-commercial and experimental cinema within the same "problematic". The conference sought to engage with filmmaking on the basis of a selected number of films that were featured in a manner parallel to the papers and punctuating the readings. The necessarily limited range of works selected by Silverman spanned a decade and a half of experimental film, and was weighted heavily in favor of her declared interests in measuring the development of structualist materialist cinema towards a "new narrative" avant-garde cinema.11' In that sense, the films were carefully chosen examples of a limited range of issues that the theorists might wish to (if they wanted) explore. As it turns out, this grouping consistently demonstrated both a bias towards narrative story-telling, with an implied 'return' to the more conventional systems of identification and anthropomorphic scaling, and a conception of avant-garde evolution that is largely in keeping with Carroll's assertions (after Wollen) that the "New Talkie" is the heir-apparent to the structuralist film enterprise.

However tempting it may be, I am going to abandon any review of the films for reasons which will become immediately obvious. Within the conference, with the noted exception of Mulvey and Wollen, the filmmakers were limited to extremely brief and rather incidental introductions. Thus limited, none of the filmmakers could adequately describe or theorize about their work. (The reasons cited for this limitation were "budgetary" but we may infer that they were political as well.) Secondly, to review the films would require more than an entire issue of this publication. Since the theoretical papers are scheduled for publication elsewhere (in the normal manner of conference publications), a specific examination of their contents is impossible. I think it is important, however, to comment on some of the main theoretical issues raised at the conference, issues that will more closely identify how theory appro priates and neutralizes practice. I will attempt to demonstrate that the fundamental errors contained in psychoanalytic speculation are now compounded by errors in cultural speculation. The inability of contemporary film theory to ade quately understand and theorize avant-garde film practice is further compounded by the prevailing assumptions (in film studies) that narrative cinema represents the true cinema of culture ("the purpose of film is to tell stories", Metz once said). Thus the marginal status of experimental avant-garde films is largely due to their inability to 'invest' in narrative.

The manner in which film theory neutralizes aspects of experimental and avant-garde film is complex, since much of this theory derives from the many theoretical models (the psychoanalytic, historical, linguistic, social and cultural) which it constructs as 'surrogates' for practice. While we might perceive a slow shift in interest to avant-garde cinema (a shift long overdue), the interest itself should make us wary since it is accompanied by an academicism that still has difficulty contending with the "real" of film practice. This problem becomes most apparent in critical methodologies which use leftist-academic or marxist language in their attempts to critique art and language. The contradictions arising from a theory of the hypothetical critiquing a practice of the actual provide the basis for an attempt to identify an untenable praxis and unworkable problematic of contemporary film theory.

Old Antipathies and Reconciliation

Antipathy between image and word is not new. This antipathy, at times seen as cultural and political antagonism, crosses populist/fine arts boundaries affecting such diverse practices as theatre-scenography, visual arts, video and film. It can be seen in the Socialist Realist vs Formalist debates, in surrealist attacks on narrative, in various avant-gardes, and is evident even today in the tension between rock music videos and the more conventionalized populist narrative features. The antipathy exhibits cultural features that affect preferred modes of sign production, textuality (and conception of text and discourse), and can be seen as influencing the psychoanalytic and language formation (discussed later in the section on Wollen's writings). That this antipathy produces a 'dynamic' for cultural change (and exchange) is necessarily tied to the calls for a 'permanent revolution' in both form and content that emanate from the avant-garde. The anti-word (and anti-sound) cinema of Brakhage - the cinema of perception, and ecstatic vision unmediated by language - is as necessary to the 'dynamic' as is its counterpart, the theorizing linguistic cinema of structuralism and reflexive narrative. A permanent revolution does not revolve around the same poles however, and the cinema of Brakhage, as the cinema of structural ism, is not necessarily the cinema of the contemporary avant-garde. The question, then, arises: What are the cinemas of today? And what dynamic are we to examine? It seems, if we are to use film theory as an example, that the dynanic is now being described in terms of the failure of a marginalized avant-garde to 'adapt' to narrative and populist cinema.

The misunderstanding of the differences and conflicts between populist and experimental avant-garde cinemas was one of the initial errors of the conference. In her opening address to the conference, Kaja Silverman sought to reframe the historical and cultural antipathies between the counter-culture and dominant film culture, between avant-garde and populism, by calling for an end to hostilities and an acceptance that both cultures reside within the "same problematic". Her views echoed Frederic Jameson's call "to reawaken...some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity (and) meaningful Marxist intervention in contemporary culture" by going beyond binarism and opposition. This call to experimental avant-garde filmmakers to give up their 'contrariness" and to embrace narrative (in its Oedipalized forms), as a measure of socialization, was to be echoed by conference participants whether they were referring to psychoanalytic issues or the reintroduction of narrative "realism" (e.g. Rosewitha Mueller on Brecht and Narrative).

In a particularly telling gesture, and borrowing from Frederic Jameson, Silverman proposed that "experimental and popular texts are different ways of responding to the same aesthetic, social and psychic problematic" and that "antithesis between them can thus be maintained only so long as history is excluded as a term of the analysis." By invoking the Althusserian problematic as a kind of general frame of reference, she sought to reconcile the differences within an all-inclusive discourse. While the motives are not at issue here, her proposition inherently conflates populist, experimental, idealist, verbal and nonverbal cultural practices, with the result that textuality, materials, sign production, conception of language and signification are now assigned to a relativism that borders on reductivism.

Dissatisfaction with antipathy and binarism in film theory results from an attempt to go beyond the culture/counter-culture concepts proposed by Wollen in his 1972 essay "Godard and Counter Cinema" or the conception of symmetrically opposed avant-gardes in "The Two Avant Gardes". In the first essay, Wollen identified the codes of his "counter cinema" (the cinema of Godard) as being symmetrically opposed to the codes of dominant cinema.12 This symmetry and opposition had limited use-value, for once the cinema of Godard is 'exhausted', so are the issues of this tentative form of opposition. (We might ask, opposition to what type of classical cinema? The '40s? The '80s?) Similarly, the "two" avant gardes of idealist and political proportions, of painterly and theatrical origins, are also binarisms that no longer suffice. But dissatisfaction with tentative models cannot be displaced in favor of a conflation of differences, wherein the "problematic" is all-inclusive and the theory of this problematic assumes such omniscient pro portions. The danger and error in Silverman's remarks is contained in the assumption that lumps "modernism" with the avant-garde and totalizes experimental cinema in terms of inversion and denial (of narrative cinematic forms). Thus, the phrase "different ways of responding to" suggests a further depoliticized (and we have yet to even talk of "antithesis" as political and economic!) oppositional status of the kind normally attributed to bourgeois fine arts "modernisms".

In fact - and our suspicions are confirmed within the Jameson essay, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture", (to which Silverman refers - the characteristics of modernist (and by implication avant-garde) art are here being seen in terms of a "reactive process" which arises as a "symptom and a result of cultural crisis". For Jameson, the modernist interests in formal subversion, anti-commodification and innovation are likened to the privileged daydreams of an elitist practice. Jameson sees modernism as producing "compensatory structures of various kinds" which have little impact on culture and society. In this light we can understand what Silverman means by "different ways of responding", and also why "new narrative" and not the avant-garde represents the focus of this whole problematic - a focus that is logocentric and subject to literary preconditions which inherently define the imagistic and musical as "not words".

The Silverman conference position, the organizer's position as it were, avoided the conception of a more politicized avant-garde by suggesting that the necessary development of "new narrative" was the result of the collapse of structuralism and structuralist-materialist film-making. "History as a term of analysis", it was suggested, would guarantee the end of antipathy and conflict. We could note that during the conference, Patricia Mellencamp's questions repeatedly strove to insert this term in discussion; Rosewitha Mueller's investigation of Brechtian realism celebrated historicizing influences. But what kind of historical perspective are we talking about? I would submit that "history" in this instance is a discursive construction that operates on the basis of inclusion/exclusion (of films and filmmakers) and with a particular view towards progress and development in film culture. Silverman's conception of avant-garde history serves to underline my point:

"During the seventies, experimental filmmakers repudiated narrative, concerning themselves instead with what might be called the 'materials' of their medium - with such things as the texture and vulnerability of the celluloid, the dimensions of the frame, the relation of sound and image. By the end of the decade this investigation had largely exhausted itself. Many avant-garde film makers felt the need to intervene more directly in the social field by articulating viable alternatives to dominant cinema. Influenced by recent film theory, those filmmakers took a renewed interest in narrative...the result has been a wide variety of experimental films which in one way or another tell a story..."13

That the above statement arises from an earlier proposal for the conference is both interesting and revealing of a conception of avant-garde his tory that is predictably located within the dominant cinema (narrative) problematic. Not only is experimentation with 'materials' seen as a dead end, but it is also less "viable" than the return to storytelling. Silverman's position overlooks the ongoing presence of lyrical, autobiographical avant-garde works, poetic structuralism, or any number of diverse forms of expression that coexist in North America.

A more serious error in her position, and in the guiding principles of the conference generally, was the fact that she (as most film theorists) overlooked the politics of the conflict between avant-garde and populist cinematic practices. While there may be a bourgeois fine-arts film avant-garde, tied to gallery interests, there is also a political and subversive avant-garde whose interests are to undermine the control and authority of both bourgeois values and the appa ratus of culture that is predicated on speculation and gain (through commodification of cultural artifacts). They are hardly one and the same thing, the latter having less to do with structual ism and "new narrative" than with revolution and subversion of values and systems.

Silverman's problems with the 'problematic' reveal a general misconception of the differences inherent within the many avant-gardes and between the experimental and populist cultures. The experimental avant-garde (and we might think of Benning's Him and Me as an example) does not owe its existence to mass-culture norms of narrative. Nor does it act in simple negation of these norms. A sufficiently informed reading of these non-literary works may reveal textual strategems at work which point to fundamental (though not exclusive) differences in culture and expression. It might be useful to recall Lotman's dual culture model14, which specifies distinctions between the grammatical and textual cultures, between content-oriented and expression-oriented cultures, for an understanding of how works of a "non-narrative", "non-verbal" and "non—populist" kind differ from narrative models.

If we can't see the distinctions, cultural and political, formal and substantive, between experimental and populist films, then the term "new narrative" is more meaningless than at first anticipated. For, while we can appreciate Godard's contributions to anti-illusionist and deconstructive narrative cinemas, there are few theorist- critics who would contend that his work was experimental and that the problematic his work inhabits, along with the problematic of Hitchcock and Hawks, is the "same" as either the problematic of Michael Snow's films or that of the politically subversive avant-garde.

New Narrative: The Cinema of Oedipus and Alienation

When Andre Breton argued that "you can only transform man's condition by taking account of his subjective state...otherwise communism simply creates other forms of alienation", he was not only informing the Communist Party of France of the surrealist 'use value', but also situating art generally within psycho-social contexts which are as relevant now as they were in 1927. The first problematic is precisely subjectivity and alienation, the construction and disperal of the "I", the investment of aesthetic shares in the narratives of alienation and unpleasure.

The cinema of Mulvey and Wollen is well known for its concern with and fixation on distance, alienation, the splitting of sign and object/referent, and the "destruction of pleasure as a radical weapon". It is also a feminist cinema that situates language and expression as a 'patriarchal problem' which must be resolved purely on the terms of feminine identification, subjectivity, and psychoanalytic discourse. Techniques of fragmentation, non-identification, overt theoretical gestures, and stereotyping (typage) of male roles inform much of their praxis. To be 'instructed' by cinema is a proposition that his torically arose from Brecht and was transmitted through Godard. As a form of art it also died at the hands of the Stalinist Socialist Realists, who decreed laws of iconic representation and political content. In the cinema of Mulvey and Wollen, theoretical construction subordinates aesthetics and style, so that the textual and discursive fea tures of each film constitute its predominant mode of communication. Their films also elicit 'theoretically informed' imitations Thriller (Sally Potter), Empty Suitcases (Bette Gordon), Splits (Leandro Katz) being examples of unsuccessful attempts to restate the theoretical premises of the theoretically informed theoretical cinema. To say that the process is tautological would be an understatement; to identify theory as acting in complicity with the promulgation of an anxious 'cinema of unpleasure' is merely to state the obvious. The destruction of pleasure and identification as a radical weapon suggests a somber strategem: transformation of culture by denial and compulsion (to repeat). It is not surprising that criticism of this cinema of alienation, a cinema of overdetermination, has also come from the left. Writing in Fuse (Sept. 1982), Varda Burstyn offers the following criticism:

"The problems with the structuralist school lie rather with their more general conception of 'consciousness' (a term that includes the unconscious in its scope) and with its specific relation to ideology. Whereas, for most radical thinkers, the dominant ideology, encoded in language, symbols, myths, is (despite longevity and intransigence) ultimately a human construction and therefore amenable to human action, that is to change; for the structualists, "ideology" or language constructs us. For them, all human relations (including the infant/parent dyad) are so toroughly imbued and overdetermined by this ideology that no aspect of human existence is ever seen as evading or escaping, even partially, these formative influences. Consequently, no aspect of human consciousness (unconscious, preconscious or fully conscious) is anything more than a product of the dominant ideology".

Burstyn is arguing precisely against the kind of "structuralism" that has emanated from the European schools of anthropological theory and psychoanalysis, influences which are fully realized in the work of Mulvey and Wollen (as representative of the B.F.I. doctrine of the mid-late '70s), and aped in the more derivative (and more 'unpleasurable') works like Thriller or Empty Suit cases. What is at issue in Bursyn's arguments is reification, whereby (and in accordance to structuralist-psychoanalytic interests) theoretical constructions (the "Symbolic", the "Father", the "Law", the "Lack") are accorded a status superceding the corresponding realities themselves (language and culture, father, privilege of class or power, alienation). In Bursyn's words, "The so-called art which has been produced under the aegis of this system, has lacked, discouraged, refused a certain kind of emotional connection with its audience. Because the feeling of pleasure, and therefore its opposite, are regarded as something completely constructed around the seductive gratifications of ideology, artistic means of appealing to and mobilizing pleasure are rejected".

The web of overdetermination, in its alienated and constricted form, is perhaps the reason why Mulvey and Wollen have chosen to abandon their earlier positions and now are working in more populist-oriented forms (as shown in the conventions of axis, eye-line match, continuity, character development, and decoupage editing of The Bad Sister.) Their recent work (discussed elsewhere in this issue) features a return to a narrative of the fantastic, a narrative of the symbolic, and shifts between the imaginary-unconscious domains of image and identification and the more properly 'realistic', coded-in-language realms of plot and narrative. This process of narrativizing the psychoanalytic by creating characters and conditions which represent psychic formations continues their declared interests (declared in 1977 when they made Riddles of the Sphinx to "return to Oedipus" and to subvert the very same patriarchal Oedipus.

Within the conference, it was Teresa de Lauretis' presentation (an essay tentatively titled "The Riddle of the Sphinx, Part II") that focused the call for a 'return to Oedipus'. She forcefully maintained that the avant-garde "can no longer deny narrative" and that it must become "quite Oedipal, Oedipal with a vengeance, for it would seek to represent precisely the duplicity of the Oedipal scenario and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it". For de Lauretis, film theory is capable of assuming the role of the "Sphinx" (that which asks questions) in its interrogation of cinematic narrative, to which she (in agreement with Stephen Heath) attributes "Oedipal logic".

These last attributes of film theory are revealing of its current desires, desires for anti-Oedipalized narratives and the exegesis of such texts. They also indicate recurring problems for a non-narrative avant-garde which cannot hope to 'atone for the sins' of dominant cinema. (If it could atone for those sins, why should it?) In de Lauretis' views (as in Heath), the avant-garde's turn to Oedipus will serve to undermine the culture of Oedipus: partiarchy. But this narrativization of the avant-garde through an extension of the psychoanalyst's search for a cure betrays a logic which itself has perhaps produced the illness. Is not one of the fundamental and underlying premises of feminist psychoanalysis the conception of language (patriarchal and symbolic) as the 'cause' of the problem? Is not the exclusion of women from classical dominant cinema the result of the classic text constructed along Oedipalized lines? What can the avant-garde offer as an antidote to classical text films? Surely not the inversion of classic 'narrative space', for that would be simply the inversion and denial of the same. We have argued previously that the experimental cinema of the avant-garde cannot be conflated within the same problematic that populist narrative cinema occupies.

The obsession with Oedipus and the Sphinx, which psychoanalytic film theory has now demonstrated for almost a decade, is perhaps a call to return to matriarchy and maternalist theories. It was at these crossroads, before Thebes, that matriarchy fell and patriarchy was established, and it is precisely 'back to that place' that many feminist film theorists would lead us, all the while demonstrating how perverse and unsatis factory Hollywood illusionist cinema has become. But I think this "return" is impossible - a return to narrative of Oedipus or a return to matriarchy, for implicit in any kind of return is a belief in essential qualities (Neo-Platonic ideals) that require reified abstractions ("essences") to come into play. To get beyond patriarchy, and most of us agree that both patriarchy and matriar chy are unacceptable, is to get beyond the Oedipalized narrative.

Praxis: Art, Language and Culture

For Wollen - and we may refer to the many essays he has written on the subject - the place of language in film and in culture is crucial: It is the site of differentiation, identification and subjectivity. In "Ontology and Materialism in Film" (1976) he wrote: "The presence of language must signify, of course, the passage from nature to culture, the intervention of human agency, the currency of thought". Here, language is seen as both necessary to culture and its problem (language's privileging capacity, power, its conceptualization of split and difference). Levi-Strauss, like Lacan, also spoke of culture arising on the basis of prohibition (of incest). The psychoanalytic interest in language, as constituting the sym olic order, and indicative of the formation of the ego, as representing the relationship between individual and society, is of obvious use value for narrative filmmakers.

Thus, the relationship between the unconscious and conscious, between image and word as it were, is of current and paramount importance to Wollen. In "The Field of Language in Film" (October #17, Summer 1981) he wrote: "In fact, however, it is precisely the interface between image and word which concerns us. It is here that sexual difference, the subject of our films, takes shape. To restrict ourselves to the imaginary would be to restrict ourselves to the (prolonged) pre-Oedipal phase which, even if it could be interpreted as a form of resistance, would involve, in psychoanalytic terms, both a repression and a regression, and in political terms, a flight from the society in which we are in fact living and from history. To restrict ourselves to the symbolic, on the other hand, would involve a denial (or, at least, an undervaluation) of the persistence of the pre-Oedipal and of the imaginary within and alongside the symbolic, ceaselessly structured by it yet escaping it in the form of desire. This would be to deny history in another way, by revoking wish and memory in their full force".

Wollen's dialectic of imaginary and symbolic orders conforms in part to the Althusserian conception of a "dialectic of consciousness". However, we should recall Althusser's statement that "strictly speaking, there is no dialectics of consciousness which could reach reality itself by virture of its own contradictions...for consciousness does not accede to the real through its own internal development, but by the radical discovery of what is other than itself" (For Marx, p. 143). The limitations of the imaginary, the personal, the autobiographical, cannot be specified without recourse to an audience, that is to society. Thus, even the most "personal" and unconscious of film efforts have a real and dialectical relationship to the society within which they reside. Wollen's position is to attempt a more overt dialectical relationship within the work, an expression of, let's say, the relationship of identification to voice, image to word, gender to textual construction. This strategy, of more directly acknowledging the workings of language and expression, is both a matter of emphasis (emphasis on image or language) and the desired outcome of a more politically oriented avant-garde practice which is less interested in 'purity' and 'nothingness' (that is, essences) and more involved with discursive processes and relationships to a society.

There are two lacks in Wollen's position that need mention. First, the dialectics of consciousness and language cannot successfully negotiate a relationship with the viewer if the underlying psychoanalytic (Lacanian) premise of 'alienation' is employed. Languages of alienation, obsessed with the limitations, endlessly foregrounding their artificiality, produce alienated audiences. Secondly, the dialectics of consciousness and language cannot account for a real dialectics of production, reproduction, history and cultural conflict between dominant and subordinated forms of production and exchange. The psycho linguistic model talks of "subjectivity" and identification without being specific and real. In that sense, it is closer to an idealist dialectics operating always to produce, and never satisfy, need and desire. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that the dialectics of "poverty" and economic exchange are of greater importance to many experimental filmmakers than a "dialectic of consciousness".

The Future of Film Theory

The problems with the psycho-linguistic model indicate one of the problems of the conference: y denying and excluding discussion of economics, political strategems, and the relationship of avant-garde film to academic institutions (those who sometimes rent or purchase these films), we run the risk of falsifying the conditions under which "new narrative" and the "future of film theory" could be properly assessed. The "reality of film practice" is rarely acknowledged in film conferences. Rather, primacy is given over to speculations on viable and non-viable models for an equally hypothetical enterprise that doubles as 'praxis'.

The dilemma of film theory lies not only in its internal contradictions and lack of relevance to much of film practice, but also in its status within dominant and established orders (like the university), a status that potentially undermines and neutralizes the possibility for film to subvert dominant orders. Felix Guattari, interviewed in Semiotext(e) (Vol.2#3, 1977) posed the dilemma in an uncompromising way:

"Reread Marx, return to Freud, assure their peaceful coexistence...a whole program! And then isn't it marvellous to be able to serve the people this way, on the sole front of 'theoretical combat' without having to leave our lecture hall or our office?... The academician always returns to the same devices for shunning reality, by taking refuge behind the exegesis and interpretation of texts. But behind Marx and Freud, behind "Marxology" and "Freudology", there is the shitty reality of the Communist movement, of the psychoanalytic movement.. .Marxism and Freudianism, carefully neutralized by the Institutions of the workers' movements, the psychoanalytic movement, and the university, not only no longer disturb anyone, but actually become the guarantors of the established order, a demonstration via reduction to the absurd, that it is no longer possible to seriously unsettle that order".

One can say that behind 'Marxology', 'Freudology', 'modernism', 'post modernism', and film theory generally, there is also the shitty reality of the experimental film movement(s) and its avant gardes. These realities are many times neutralized and displaced in favor of the "theoretical combat" that emanates from lecture halls and in conferences. If, as Guattari proposed, film theory can become the "guarantor of the established order", an order that avant-garde practice attempts to unsettle, then it would demonstrate itself as oppositional to this film practice. This is not to say that film theory generally is the problem, for no practice can exist for long without theory and in total defiance of theory and knowledge. The problem is what kind of theory do we need to inform and be informed by experimental new narrative?

To end as a beginning: There is no film theory, contemporary or otherwise, that is adequate to the needs of the many film avant-gardes. Psychoanalysis has discredited itself on the basis of its binarist sexist reductions, its assumptions that language is symptomatic of neurosis, its universalizing of Oedipus and castration, and it has dragged much of structural linguistics and semiotics down with it. Film theory has yet to contend with the physical fact of avant-garde cinema, its status as cultural production, its economics and politics, or the dialectics of its production, reproduction and exchange. Issues of complicity with bourgeois fine arts and subversion of dominant culture still loom on the horizon of avant-garde praxis. These issues are not resolved in conferences which use experimental cinema as illustrative semantic markers for theoretical debates.

To resolve some of the questions we must finally get off the modernist and post-modernist bandwagons, steering clear of idealized speculations concerning "being and nothingness", essences and "realities". To seek out a theory of film that includes the participation of non- arrative and non-verbal cinemas of experimen tation is to situate the seeking elsewhere: In environments that are not hostile to image and expressivity, in environments that are not predisposed to the literary and psychoanalytic. Perhaps then, in the ghetto rather than in Eden, will the "symptomatic value of the avant-garde" (to use Silverman's words) be finally appreciated and understood.


1. One of the issues central to this paper is whether a blend of academic studies and Marxist ideology, a blend arising and supported in liberal arts institutions, can participate in any kind of subversion of the dominant cultural order. Academic film theory, divorced from actual film production, tends to treat all cultural processes as if they were 'discursive' constructions. We have seen, all too often, historicizing and theorizing influences on subversive art (e.g. political avant-garde) that tend to neutralize these art forms by absorbing them into a study of abstractions.

2. The elevation of the viewing subject in terms of a 'theory of the subject' is nowhere better exemplified than by the writings of Stephen Heath. In his essay "On Suture" (Questions of Cinema) , Heath offers the following 'hermetic' decription of image and signification:

"What then operates, classically, is the effacement (or filling in) of the absence, the suturing of the discourse - its movement as in a continuity of articulation - by the reappropriation of the absence within the film, a character in the film coming to take the place of the Absent One posed by the spectator; suture as 'the abolition of the Absent One and its resurrection in some one': 'the pure field of absence becomes the imaginary field of the film and the field of its imaginary'..." This hermetic doctrine, caring less for production and the discourse of the film (in question), tends to conflate all issues (concerning an idealized viewer) in terms of "suture" and "subjectivity", and requires of the reader an intimate (initiate?) knowledge of Jacques Lacan, Daniel Dayan, and all the many others who have traded in psychoanalytic revisionisms, particularly those concerning castration anxiety, or, as it is now termed: "the lack".

3. Mulvey's often quoted and largely outdated essay draws on Freud's speculations concerning the "component instinct" associated with the pleasure that children derive in looking at others: "scopophilia". In Freud's writings, scopophilia tends to be speculative - at least tentative; in Mulvey's writing this concept becomes a fundamental "fact". In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" she asserts that the "cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking", and that this "pleasure" is indicative of the operation of the scopophilic instinct and its binary (voyeurist/exhibitionist, sadist/masochist) outputs which act upon the male's castration anxiety and the female's penis envy. Freud's conception of "pairs of opposites" (active/passive) that characterize instincts/drives contains a fundamental assertion that places women on the side of the passive and men on the side of the active. This is the essentialist conception that Mulvey transmits in her writings, a conception derived from the following assertion by Freud (in Three Essays on Sexuality):

"Indeed, if we were able to give a more definite connotation to the concepts of 'masculine' and 'feminine', it would even be possible to maintain that libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature." Thus Freud situates women (the 'feminine') as possessing instincts with "passive aims", as in exhibitionism (passive) or masochism (passive). The woman, "bearer of the look", bearer of children, wishing to "possess a penis", is the feminized woman of Freud/Mulvey.

4. Mulvey's work is both valorized and recirculated. E. Ann Kaplan, writing in Millenium Film Journal (#12) offered the following:

"Considering critical work and films together, Mulvey and Wollen have had a significant influence on both film theory and film practice. Laura Mulvey's seminal essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" , must be the single most-quoted piece in feminist film criticism...".

5. The semiotics of theory bears a striking resemblance to the semiotics of rhetoric and code production that Umberto Eco identified. Writing in A Theory of Semiotics (p. 290), he offered the following set of identities for ideology and code: "Ideology is therefore a message which starts with a factual description, and then tries to justify it theoretically, gradually being accepted by society through a process of overcoding. For a semiotics of codes there is no need to establish how a message comes into existence nor for what political or economic reasons..." Film theory, as ideology and code, if limiting its examination to signification processes, has equally little need to establish how a message (film) comes into existence (production).

6. Doane, writing in Yale French Studies (#60) in an essay entitled "The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space", offers the following non-scientific maternalist view of "voice" and sexual difference: "Yet, the imaginary unity associated with the earliest experience of the voice is broken by the premonition of difference, division, effected by the intervention of the father whose voice, engaging the desire of the mother, acts as the agent of separation and constitutes the voice of the mother as the irretrievably lost object of desire. The voice in this instance, far from being the narcissistic measure of harmony, is the voice of interdiction." This is nothing short of universalizing the maternal and sexual difference as necessarily affecting language and expression.

7. Frampton's comments are contained in Form and Structure in Recent Film (Vancouver Art Gallery/Talonbooks, 1972), and read in part: "One of the little more than a dozen living inventors of film art is Michael Snow. His work has already modified our perception of past film. Seen or unseen, it will affect the making and understanding of film in the future. This is an astonishing situation. It is like knowing the name and address of the man who carved the Sphinx." What is astonishing is the extreme to which structuralists have gone praising their own reductive accomplishments. Considering that Snow is neither technician nor inventor, Frampton's astonishment is only surpassed by our own.

8. P. Adams Sitney, writing in Visionary Film (1st ed., pp. 413-422) tends to identify and support Snow and Michelson's positions on the phenomenology and metaphysics of Snow's work. Snow's analogizing of Wavelength and "metaphysics" is contained in "Conversations with Michael Snow", Film Culture #46 (Mekas and Sitney). Snow's interest in conveying through film an analogue for consciousness is contained in another statement which reads: "My films are attempts to suggest the mind to a certain state or certain states of consciousness. They are drug relatives in that respect" (p. 419). These descriptions hardly fit the requirements normally associated with leftist materialism or conversely "historical constructions" of the kind proposed by Elder.

9. A discussion of aesthetic overcoding is contained in Eco's A Theory of Semiotics (pp. 268-270), one of the few texts on semiotics which does not grovel in psychoanalytic speculation.

10. "The Photographic Image in Canadian Experimental Film", Film Canada, supplement to #97, p. 60. Elder's position is a rework ing of his curatorial statements for the 0 Kanada exhibition in Berlin (1982), and his curatorial statements for Canadian Images (1983). As Elder states at the end, "It is reprinted courtesy The Canada Council" - the agency that has subsidized many of his writings and productions.

11. The film program featured what could almost be termed an invented chronology of experimental film's progression towards "new narrative". "Structuralist" and "structuralist-materialist" work could be seen in David Rimmer's Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper and Surfacing on the Thames, although Rimmer also included Fracture, Real Italian Pizza and Al Neil: A Portrait to broaden the spectrum of his presentation. Further diversity, including examples of both mytho-poetic cinema and a more overtly politicized linguistic-structuralist cinema, was represented in Razutis' Visual Essays: Origins of Film and excerpts form Amerika. Silverman's selection also included films of a more overtly textual kind, wherein the construction of a linguistic subject (a subject in language) is foregrounded within an ambience of image and word texts. This type of work was represented by The Central Character by Patricia Gruben, and Fool's Gold and excerpts from illuminated Texts by Bruce Elder. The inclusion of Elder's work, as an extension of his political and aesthetic views, was clearly an anomaly within the more 'leftist' orientation of the conference, although in some instances Elder's work tended to confirm the suspicions of theory that avant-garde film contains reactionary elements.

Proceeding from the more formal(ist) to the more traditional narrative-contentist films, Silverman selected Storytelling by Kay Armatage, Maev by Pat Murphy and John Davies, Variety by Bette Gordon and The Bad Sister by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. This grouping invariably contained a reinvestment in narrative storytelling, with a return to more conventional systems of identification and anthropomorphic scaling.

12. Wollen's 'code' of counter cinema decomposes into various sub-codes which maintain an oppositional form (as 'pairs of opposites') to dominant cinema (illusionist) codes. For example, he notes the following pairings, "Identification vs. Estrangement, Closure vs. Aperture, Pleasure vs. Unpleasure", in the development of his conception of one form of counter cinema practice.

13. This view, not stated in this form within the conference presenta tion but contained in an opening paragraph of a proposal for the conference, is nevertheless useful in assessing the notion of avant-garde problematics as contended from the film-theoretical point of view.

14. Lotman's cultural models, the "textual" and the "grammatical", are reviewed by Eco in A Theory of Semiotics, pp. 137-139. My application of these models to art practice is the result of my interest in positioning textual cultures (such as those arising outside of literary predispositions) in positions of distinction from grammatical cultures, for the purpose of identifying how one affects the other in matters of code formation and signification. One could see the difficulty experienced by film theorists (grammatical and literary in their formation) in apprehending visual arts of a textual-oriented culture, and vice versa.

Opsis Spring 1984

Related topics in Opsis Vol. 1, No. 2/3, 1985:

Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism... by Al Razutis
On-Line articles from OPSIS