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By happenstance I am in Ann Arbor now, and last night attended the opening night party and screening of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.  It is their 51st anniversary since George Manupelli began it way back then.  One year older than my film-making.   For some decades it reigned supreme as a festival championing the avant-garde and experimental work, both in the US and the world.  Back in 1989 I won “Best of the Festival” award with Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses).    If memory serves me correctly (sometimes it doesn’t) at some point in the late 90’s, as digital video was beginning to take hold (I started with it immediately as it came out, in 1996) I think I had an exchange with the festival – as I also did with the Berlin Forum – about their unwillingness to accept digital video on an equal footing with celluloid.  I pointed out to both Ann Arbor and the Forum that, like it or not, digital was the wave of the future, and that especially for those in the experimental/avant-garde/political realms they tended to champion, if only for economic reasons, people would use it in lieu of film.  I did so, but I also did so for aesthetic reasons.    Since that time neither festival has seen fit to accept one of my films, though I did send them, and the Forum people now can’t even bother to reply to a letter.  Even though the kind of work I do, is, well, right up their allies.   Seems there are thin-skins running these things.


6680556157_23451494d9Michigan Theater, home to the Ann Arbor Film Festival

I do admit to having said, in cold public print, on the basis of a few visits both to Ann Arbor, as a spectator, and also the EX-is festival in Seoul, where I was on a jury some years ago, as well as other festivals that show such work, like Rotterdam, that for the most part the “avant garde” has degenerated into the “derriere garde.”  And as well it has been academicized, which almost always results in prompt rigor mortis.  You can’t teach “avant garde” but that is what many film and art schools do, and the result is young people churning out re-makes of what was once avant garde, and is now old and when done, pure cliché.  Witness the computer made scratches, frame flares, and celluloid dirt software which these nostalgists sometimes use.   Similarly the basic aesthetic of most such films is firmly rooted in an avant-garde running from the 20’s to the early 70’s and is seldom anything more than an endless regurgitation of these.  Just like the visual arts world.  [Last night at the party a woman who I’d met some years ago here, came up an commented on my acidic comment on the Austrian A-G filmmaker whose name I forget, who makes 35mm government-funded so-called avant-garde films in a sort of Hollywood gloss big money manner; and apparently I’d commented on her own animated film which had shown and I’d said, in a public forum, “what’s it doing here.” Me and my un-PC mouth.]


So last night, after the party subsided – a party which I joked to my friend Markus Nornes seemed to indicate they should change the festival’s name to “The Geriatric Festival,” given all the white-hair, paunches and grey-beards which seemed to be the majority in attendance – we went to the movies.  On filing into the wonderful Michigan Theater, itself a perfect example of once-upon-a-time nostalgia, the audience on a quick scan appeared to have a median age of perhaps 50.  Not too many young people (though some) and a preponderance of pretty damn old people – like myself.  So after the formal festival opening comments, the films rolled.  Of a program made up of eleven films, each running from 2 to 30 minutes, I have to say there wasn’t one which I would call “experimental” or “avant garde” in any meaningful sense.  Each was either an exhausted re-run of films I have seen 100 times (pixillated this, smashed and mashed filmic detritus as “style,” or run-of-the-mill animation, usually a bit on the messy side.)  As well there were a few nicely made documentaries, one of them being I thought the best film of the evening, never mind being neither experimental or avant in any way.  It was titled, after the robotic surgery tool which it expertly, in a documentary sense, showed being worked, da Vinci.   A formalist documentary in a similar manner to Geyrhalter’s excellent Our Daily Bread.



DAVINCI_still-4-480x259Da Vinci, by Yuri Ancarani

And, since I am here in an academic setting, perhaps I should do a dry little dissection of our dear old “avant garde” and why, perhaps, it is due for an autopsy.  In the last decades, whether in the arts, or in politics, or economics (as if they could be separated from one another !), there has been a profound shift to the “right,” towards conservatism:  money calls the tune, be it in the corporate sponsors of the Ann Arbor Festival (or others), or the hallowed halls of academia, or the glossy glamor laden galleries which deal with so-called “art.”  Within the academic world where theories are spun to explain everything, however incorrectly, and where the rapid flow of fashion would embarrass a cat-walk in Paris, the 60-70’s tilt to the left morphed into deconstructionism and settled nicely in post-modernism.  It signaled a kind of exhaustion, a tossing up of the priests’ hands as it was exclaimed, “well dang, it’s all relative.”  A kind of perverse inversion in the ivy halls of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values, wherein there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, and political correctness renders all such inclinations, well, “wrong.”  The PC police charge in at the least hint of a real opinion or suggestion that, well, the emperor is wearing no clothes.   In quick turn culture and art become a pastiche of the past, a mix-down of what was, and this is fobbed off as “the new.”   The near-shopping malls which greet one on exiting a major or even minor museum make the point: we consume, therefore we are.  Post-modernist “thinking” feeds the maw of this machine perfectly, while within it, it is imagined it is a critique.  Thus, the festival here will in the same breath present one of the grand old men of the American avant garde, Pat O’Neill, while at the same time feating Ken Burns.  Go figger.  It fits exactly with an item I read a week or so ago, in which the San Jose Cinequest Festival, which on its first outing in the early 90’s anointed none other than myself as their first “maverick” this year feated Harrison Ford as their newest “maverick” and in their listing of other such named souls, now a roster of mostly Hollywood names (J.J. Abrams, Kevin Spacey, William H. Macy, Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jackie Chan, Sir Ian McKellen, Edward James Olmos, Robert Wise, Alec Baldwin, and Sir Ben Kingsley),  they seem pointedly to have deleted mine.  I seem well on my way to becoming a good old USSR-style “non-person.”  Silicon Valley pays their bills and it appears their concept of a “maverick” has been similarly plasticized.

So, to calm my soul after these observations, in a few hours I will go see, again, Nathaniel Dorsky’s recent film, August and after, which is decidedly not an experimental or avant garde work, as Nathaniel, after a life-time of work and development, knows exactly what he is doing and how to do it, and why he is doing it.  He makes very very high grade “art.”

dorsky_BalloonsDarkNathaniel Dorsky’s August and after

And then, along little cinema notices, I’ll add that I accepted invitation from Jeonju festival not only for The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, but now also for Coming to Terms.   More on this later.

[After seeing Nathaniel’s film, which makes 18 minutes seem like more than 30, not because it is boring, but because it makes “seeing” so intense, and expands time in doing so.  Then saw what seemed to be a film-essay by Luke Fowler, Brit, The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, which was about academic historian EP Thompson, of fame large enough I knew of him.  For a while the modest, conservative, quirkiness held me, but then the flare-outs, once signifiers of an admission/consciousness of the material of the medium one was using, and other A-G clichés began to tire and their meaning as a pathetic nostalgia took over, and the Anglo-voiced academic discourse began to whither into the actual retro-grade exercise in some kind of not-very-interesting peculiarly English masturbation.  On reading the catalog notes now I see that my friend Peter Hutton did some of the camera work.  Also cited in the catalog notes is mention of Raymond Williams, a fellow left-leaning academic along with Thompson.  My friends of the now-defunct Cinema Action – Ann and Eduardo Guedes (the latter deceased some years ago), and Schlacke Lamche – made a much more effective and interesting film on Williams, So That You Can Live, back in 1982.  It’s aesthetics, while hardly “avant garde” were more radical and meaningful than Fowler’s exercise in faux avant-gardism.]


  1. Some sort of alternative system needs to be created to mercilessly supplant the old one. The gatekeepers have gotten too comfortable and chummy with each other.

  2. ” The near-shopping malls which great one on exiting a major or even minor museum make the point: we consume, therefore we are. Post-modernist “thinking” feeds the maw of this machine perfectly, while within it, it is imagined it is a critique.”

    Two academics who I hold very dear and who have both run into huge trouble for their opinions, David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, both go into the rather sinister unconscious relationship of “post-modernism” to the emergence of post-industrial capitalist societies in “The Condition of Postmodernity” and “Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” respectively. I’d recommend Harvey’s book more enthusiastically, though they’re both excellent.

  3. I agree about the intrusive marking of the medium, but otherwise think that maybe you’re being a bit hard on this film. It’s a bit dense, but it conveys fascinating insights into the methods of a really committed socialist teacher, and the WEA (workers educational association) was a great creation of the British left. Fowler also made a really good film about R. D. Laing. The curiosity of his generation about the radicalism of yours may yet lead to something good …

    • Well, as someone who would raise the same questions of some of my own work (the essay films I’ve done on America), I ask, “who is the audience” and does it reach anyone outside a rather esoteric and highly limited cluster of people who are interested in British academic leftist history? Which probably amounts to a few hundred people. And in turn would half of those put up with the cinematic needless messing around with nostalgia markers? In theory, politics is for people, not a tiny little spectrum of specialists either in UK left-academia and/or so-called avant garde cinema? I think Cinema Actions film on Williams got close, and I would bet garnered a much bigger/better viewership than Fowler’s will. But, WTF do I know? I think I know we need to be a lot harder on ourselves than we usually are. Fox rules! My guys lost (I was a founder of Newsreel in USA), and lost really bad.

  4. This is a good question, but I’d pose it differently. Luke Fowler’s work has been seen much more widely than Cinema Action’s because he was nominated for the Turner Prize. His film about R. D. Laing was screened continuously for three months in Tate Britain, with packed houses on weekends. But the location of his work in this institution raises other questions about what is being communicated, how and to whom … But does all left-leaning work have to have directly political effects, or are indirect effects, such as provoking thought or giving people a break from Fox also important?

    • A few things: a) there’s a lot more people now; b) the “arts” have become a giant corporatized money-making communal brainwashing system, of which such things as the New Tate and Turner Prizes are emblematic; c) being coopted into such a mechanism is a dubious “radical” matter, and what I saw (I didn’t sit through the whole film, perhaps 20-25 minutes before a combination of boredom and exasperation with the meaningless adaptation of the tropes of 60’s AG got too irritating to tolerate) was a self-enclosed bit of intellectural masturbation, and not very interesting at that. The resort to the 60’s signifiers pointedly signals a bankrupt imagination. Post-modernism SUCKS. Whatever politics was being done it was too thin a gruel for my mind. I am sorry, but I want more, a hell of a lot more. This was febrile game-playing to me, but then most art of the last decades has been that – like the stridently political crap in some galleries of a kind that no one would read (Hans whatever his name is), and only the most self-deluded would imagine had any impact outside the white cube confines of a well-off class of art “consumers.”

  5. Oh well, as least you’re not going gentle into that good night!

  6. Alas, you can’t expect to be a true maverick like Phil Molyneaux,Chief Operating Officer of Sony Corp., which, as it happens, is a major sponsor or Cinequest… Obviously there is more than one path to maverickspiritdom.

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