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The Avant-Garde(s)

Without a doubt the most prevalent type of film manifesto comes from the cinematic avant-garde. This makes a great deal of sense, as manifestos-whether political, aesthetic, or both-can be seen in the first instance as a form of avant-garde writing, calling into being a new future. From the early twentieth century onward, film manifestos played a formative role in the way in which the avant-garde was understood. This chapter begins with the "The Futurist Cinema Manifesto" from 1916, a key early film manifesto made all the more relevant because of the disappearance of most futurist cinema films through loss and neglect. The various Russian formalist and surrealist statements all point to the way in which avant-garde practices allowed for filmmakers to conceptualize the cinema as a tool to release the unconscious, or allow for revolutionary transformation, moving away from the realist principles that the cinema embodies so well.

László Moholy-Nagy's "Open Letter" calls for a cinema determined not by capital but by artistic vision. This is a refrain that filmmakers will return to again and again throughout this book. Cinema determined by artistic vision is also the theme of Mary Ellen Bute's "Light*Form*Movement*Sound" and Jim Davis's "The Only Dynamic Art." Both artists, working in "Absolute Film," experiment with the cinema's capacity to capture light, and in their manifestos they argue that the cinema ought to be used to enhance and explore new ways of seeing.

In a different vein the French Situationist Guy Debord argues that the image had replaced the more traditional commodity at the heart of capitalism. In his 1968 manifesto and film Society of the Spectacle he states: "The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images." In the three manifestos Debord authored or coauthored contained herein, we see the development of his notion of situations; indeed, it is present in his first film manifesto, and his first published work, "Prolegomena for All Future Cinema." Debord's thought is picked up by a new generation of American avant-garde and experimental filmmakers in the 1990s. Far more concerned with the image "detritus" that surrounds and at times bombards contemporary culture, filmmakers like Peggy A[h]wesh, Craig Baldwin, and Keith Sanborn produced works that recycled the detritus images of contemporary culture into found footage films. Sanborn himself wrote one of the key avant-garde film manifestos of the time, "Modern, All Too Modern," modeled on the writings of Debord.

Other movements were far more polysemic than the surrealists, the Lettristes, and the Situationists. A key example is the New American Cinema movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The differences among George Kuchar's "8mm Film Manifesto," Stan Brakhage's Metaphors on Vision, Hollis Frampton's manifesto on metahistory, and the far more structural writings of Keewatin Dewdney on the "flicker film" speak to the heterogeneity of the American underground. Yet what united these filmmakers and their manifestos was a profound concern with alternative ways of seeing. And underlying this concern, despite the subsequent claims that some of these manifestos were apolitical and ahistorical, was the conviction that different ways of seeing the cinema meant different ways for spectators to see the world, perhaps even the world as it was and not how they, through indoctrination and ideology, thought they saw it. Indeed, the opening lines of Metaphors on Vision point to this in a dramatic formulation: "Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?" Here Brakhage is not speaking of the cinema but of perception itself; cinema, therefore, is just a medium through which to rediscover the process of seeing.

Nick Zedd's "Cinema of Transgression" manifesto points toward the third wave of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking in the United States and demonstrates the profound influence of the punk aesthetic on experimental film in New York during the 1980s. If punk is a rebellion against older, corporatized forms of music and art, the "Let's Set the Record Straight" manifesto, issued at the International Film Congress in Toronto in 1989, points to the large schism that had developed between the old guard of the avant-garde and the new generation of American and Canadian experimental filmmakers. In contrast, Jonas Mekas's "Anti-100 Years of Cinema" manifesto derides the celebrations of the cinema's first century that nevertheless neglect the avant-garde, old and new.

The final manifesto comes from Canada and points to the ways in which the avant-garde and experimental cinema is being reimagined through the development of alternative forms of pedagogy and the development of local ateliers. Philip Hoffman's Independent Imaging Retreat in Mount Forest, Ontario, foregrounds the artisanal aspect of experimental filmmaking and supports not only the screening of new avant-garde works but their production as well. Avant-garde cinema can only be truly understood through an understanding of the manifestos produced by artists, and these documents point to the controversial, visionary, and deeply political nature of the avant-garde.

The Futurist Cinema (Italy, 1916)

F. T. Marinetti, Bruno Corra, Emilio Settimelli, Arnaldo Ginna, Giacomo Balla, Remo Chiti

[First published in Italian in L'italia futurista, 15 November 1916. First published in English in R. W. Flint, Marinetti: Selected Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972).]

"The Futurist Cinema" manifesto argues for a total cinema, decrying the cinema of newsreels and documentaries as a shoddy subsection of the dramatic tradition. Thus, the writers call for a cinema of "polyexpressive symphony" that, through poetry and analogy, creates a cinema capable of a vast range of expression, while standing on its own as a distinctive art form. The futurists' critique of film's reliance on drama and its celebration of technology and the speed it brings to contemporary artistic practice foreshadows a line of attack present in many of the avant-garde manifestos to come.

The book, a wholly passéist means of preserving and communicating thought, has for a long time been fated to disappear like cathedrals, towers, crenellated walls, museums, and the paci