Tom Gunning has famously analyzed early film as constituting a “cinema of attractions”: before the conventions of narrative cinema were fully developed, what mattered was less narration than sequences of attractions. Early cinema was heterogeneous in character, mixing various modes of presentation and without the kind of formal and narrative consistency that one has grown to expect of "classical" Hollywood cinema.
What are the characteristic formal traits and screening conditions of early cinema before 1907? Is it possible to define a particular kind of audience in the context of a cinema of attractions? In what specific form or manner was this audience addressed? How would one go about reconstructing a "typical" cinema of attractions event?
2. Absolute Film/Dada (1925)
As Gunning described the cinema of attractions (see above): “it is a cinema that bases itself on the quality that Léger celebrated: its ability to show something.” The invocation of Léger immediately links the cinema of attractions to the historical avant‐garde, which may be said to form its double, its moving shadow. Thomas Elsaesser has further developed this connection, arguing that it is the mode of exhibition, not any stylistic traits, that defines dada cinema. However, there are few programs of “Dada film” that allow themselves to be reconstructed, with one major exception: On May, 3, 1925 the matinee Der Absolute Film took place at the UFA theater in Berlin, which included films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Walther Ruthmann, Fernand Leger, Rene Clair and Francis Picabia.
To what extent did the notion of a cinema of attractions indeed remain operable within avant-garde film? Are the conditions of exhibition indeed determinant in the case of dada cinema, as Elsaesser proposes? How are we to explain the co-presence of “absolute” or abstract film (Richter, Eggeling, Ruttmann) within a screening program that contains a more typical “Dadaist” film, such as, as Clair and Picabia’s Entr’acte? What can we establish about the screening program at the UFA theater in Berlin? Where other, similar programs organized in Germany or elsewhere?
Note that not only Entr'acte (image), but also films by Ruttmann, Hans Richter and others can be found online, on YouTube and on a site such as UbuWeb: http://www.ubu.com/film/
3. The Ciné-Clubs in France (1920s)
The cine-clubs in France were not only instrumental in forging the first “history” of the still youthful medium of cinema, but also in granting it artistic status. At the same time that modernist art was gripped by the rappel à l’ordre in France, a comparable conflation of classical and modernist ideals was articulated in the context of so-called “Impressionist” and “pure” cinema. The newly established cinema‐clubs and film journals, run by filmmakers and theorists such as Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, Ricciotto Canudo, presented anthologies of films past and present, often by mounting excerpts together of early cinema, classical cinema and European ‘art’ cinema. Some examples are Jean Epstein’s Photogénie, which consists of various out‐takes and non‐fictional material and was commissioned by Jean Tédesco (editor of the Cinéa journal and director of
the film program at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier), and Julien Duvivier & Henry Lepage's Machine à refaire la vie (1924), which is described as the first film to take the production and history of film as its object. Such compilations offer an argument concerning the specificity or essence of the filmic medium, which was opposed to the melodramatic cinema coming out of the major studios in France and Hollywood.
Choose one of the new ciné-club theatres (Studio des Ursulines, run by Armand Tallier; Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, run by Jean Tédesco; Club des Amis du Septième Art, founded by Ricciotto Canudo) as a case study. What did their programs consist of? How did they attempt to establish a certain idea of cinema – its past and future – and what kind of audience did they envision for cinema? In particular, is it possible to reconstruct any of the compilation films created during this period? An alternative to researching a ciné-club, would be to investigate the film programs organized by Ricciotto Canudo at the Salon d’Automne (1921‐24).
4. Joris Ivens (1930s)
The 1920s were marked by two increasingly conflicting tendencies: the fight for film as an autonomous art on the one hand, and the attempt to use film to shatter the sphere of art and to activate the viewers. Peter Wollen later conceptualized this split and its equivalent in post-war independent film in his account of “The Two Avant-Gardes.” One could also restrict the term avant-garde to the second tendency, and name the first modernist. In the Netherlands, this modernist tendency was strong in the Filmliga, which attacked commercial mainstream kitsch and sought to create a restrictive cannon of film-as-art.
In the Netherlands, there was a strong modernist-formalist presence in the Filmliga, which attacked commercial mainstream kitsch and sought to create a restrictive cannon of film-as-art. Joris Ivens was an important member of the Filmliga. At the inauguration of De Uitkijk as the Filmliga's theater in 1929, Ivens’ film study Heien was shown as a short subject before Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc. That year Heien was also shown in Filmliga programs with Charlie Chaplin films as well as Jardin du Luxembourg (Mannus Franken) and Kabels leggen (J. Claudinghk). A screening in Leiden swapped Chaplin for Un Chien Andalou. Ivens’s work in the late 1920s and early 1930s was marked (like that of contemporaries such as Hans Richter and the great Soviet directors) by a tension between modernist formal innovation and political commitment. In 1930-31, in a context that was rather different from the elitist Filmliga, Ivens re-cut newsreels for the communist VVVC, to be shown at the organization’s meetings, where his film on the Communist paper De Tribune was also shown. In 1930s, films by Ivens made for the Algemene Nederlandse Bouwarbeidersbond 9a trade union) were shown in De Uitkijk. While his VVVC newsreels are lost, these trade union films have recently been rediscovered by Beeld en Geluid. In addition, Ivens worked for companies such as Philips.
How did Ivens’s films function in different contexts? What kind of screening conditions prevailed, and how did the films relate to these conditions? What was the expected, "ideal" audience behavior? To what extent can one reconstruct these séances?
Several of Ivens' early films can be found online.
5. Joseph Cornell (1949)
Several of Ivens' early films can be found online.
5. Joseph Cornell (1949)
On January 2, 1949, Joseph Cornell screened a program of early “varieties” and “fantasies” (from producers including Pathé, Lumiere, and Mélies) at the “Subjects of the Artists” school, an initiative by a number of Abstract-Expressionist painters. Cornell looked back nostalgically to a lost cinema of attractions—attempting to retrieve the magic of the silent film, its wondrous sights and brooding heroines. This was far from the only time Cornell screened materials from his rich collection of historical films. In addition to such screenings, Cornell also integrated such historical films into collage films—and with Cornell it is not always clear where “film program” end and “collage film” begins. Cornell’s approach to film had fully crystallized by the late 1930s, and in many ways it had been shaped by the Parisian Surrealists. However, his practice also points forward to post-war independent and artists’ film in New York and elsewhere. If Marcel Broodthaers would, as Rosalind Krauss put it, return to “the promesse de bonheur enfolded in cinema’s beginnings,” in doing so he also returned to Cornell.
What does a study of Cornell’s chosen films reveal about his take on early cinema? In which context(s) did he operate? Can some of Cornell’s collage films be seen as film programs?
Image: Joseph Cornell, Jack's Dream (ca. 1938). Check YouTube and UbuWeb for Cornell's montage films.
6. New American Cinema Exhibition (1960s)
During the sixties a tension emerged between a procedure of “direct cinema” or “cinéma verité” which sought to locate film within a socio‐political reality—in an attempt not only to record but also to actively shape this reality—and, on the other hand, those who pursued a modernist mode of self-reflexivity. To a degree, these two contrary tendencies could live in a form of uneasy co‐existence in the earlier parts of the decade. For instance, New York became a hotbed of “independent” filmmaking during the 1960s and here the cinematic apparatus functioned as a means of formal invention as well as social resistance in the work of ‘underground’ filmmakers, such as Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. Jonas Mekas was instrumental in showing the work of these filmmakers, which resulted in frequent police raids and the confiscation of the films by the authorities. As the decade progressed, however, the newsreel movement and the “independent” filmmakers moved further apart. Jonas Mekas was criticized for not making a clear choice between the formalist and political avant-garde. In Europe a similar dynamic developed around X-Screen—a film house run by Birgit Hein, among others.
During the mid-sixties the New American Cinema exhibition traveled through Europe, visiting many cities. Organized by Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney 1960s, it functioned as a controversial showcase of the dominance of the American avant-garde on the international scene. What did the New American Cinema Exhibition consist of? Can we perceive any of the tensions between the political and formalist tendencies in American avant-garde film? How was the exhibition received in Europe?
A related topic: How does the American situation compare to the X-Screen initiative of Birgit Hein? Was it seen as a complement or an alternative to the avant-garde project of Mekas and Sitney? One could focus on such events as the presentation of the Viennese avant-garde during the first screening at X-Screen. The members of the Viennese avant-garde had deep, if conflicted relationships with the New York scene of avant-garde film. And also the second screening of films in 1968 which consisted of films that were withdrawn from Oberhausen film festival out of protest. How did X-Screen negotiate the split between ‘formalist’ and ‘political’ avant-gardes? And how could one make this tension visible for a contemporary public?
7. Paris May-June 1968, Fodor Museum, Amsterdam (1969)
During the student uprisings of May ’68 a brief efflorescence of direct cinema occurred with the film camera hitting the streets of Paris. The so-called Etats généraux du cinéma français sought to establish an independent cinema by representing the revolution by its participants and for its participants creating as near to a feedback loop as possible. Only a year later a program of May ’68 filmmaking took place at Museum Fodor in Amsterdam, curated by Tjebbe van Tijen who collaborated with Jeffrey Shaw on expanded cinema projects and later founded the Documentation Center of Social Movements at the University Library of Amsterdam.
What is actually known about the films that were shot during these few months between May and June 1968? How were they presented, where and to whom? How did Fodor present the event of May ’68 when it was still fresh in the cultural memory of the period? Is it possible re-establish the original format of the screenings insofar as they took place in ’68? An additional question may be how contemporary artists and filmmakers reflect on the film culture of May ’68, not only by audio-visual means but also by how they present their work. An example: Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s Après la reprise, la prise (2009) .
8. Projektion: Prospect 71
In the years around 1970s, a third option existed alongside Peter “two avant‐gardes” of formalist/structuralist film and post-Brechtian countercinema. This tendency not only established a cross-reading of the formalist and post-Brechtian positions, but also engaged a gallery rather than the conventional cinema context of exhibition. This so-called “post-Minimal” film established a complex dialectic between artistic and filmic practices, originating, among other places in the early films of Andy Warhol and the serial objects of Minimalism, while drawing freely on the history of avant-garde and art cinema as well. Whereas film installations and video projections have become integrated within the gallery and museum space since the 1990s, post-minimal film presented an anomalous presence within the gallery. Museums were slow to rise to the challenge of accommodating such works within their space. Starting with Projected Art (Finch College, N.Y.C.) in 1966, a series of museum exhibitions were either devoted to projected work or included film projections (e.g. Information, Documenta 5), however the film screenings were generally presented in a separate space or even off-site in a cinema. Furthermore, avant-garde film was generally differentiated from artist’s film, culminating, for instance, in the Film as Film exhibition of 1977, organized by the German exponent of structural film, Birgit Hein. Prospect 71: Projection (Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, 1971) was perhaps the most ambitious attempt of the period to organize a museum show around the contemporary phenomenon of artist’s films. Prospect 71: Projection not only revealed the internal contradictions of such a show—contemporary critics complained that it would take 30 to 40 hours in order to see the more than 100 projections—but also the limitations of the séance model.
To what extent was Prospect 71: Projection an exceptional event, situating film projections in the museum and outside a film theater? Are there any historical precedents? What kind of film was shown? Were films organized in programs or shown as independent works? Do the twin categories of avant-garde film supplied by Peter Wollen apply to this situation? Can we establish how the films were actually shown? How was the exhibition received at the time? How would one provide a contemporary audience a sense of this exhibition without being able to reconstruct the whole setting?
9. Marcel Broodthaers (1970-75)
Even before Marcel Broodthaers started to exhibit his first objects during the early 1960s, the Belgian artist showed a profound interest in the medium of film. Following in the Surrealist tradition of the written cinepoem, his first actual film was shot in 1957 and devoted to Kurt Schwitters. In the following years he would make several works, which contrary to the medium‐specific approach of structural film, established various cross‐sections between the disciplines of painting, sculpture and writing, returning to the formal heterogeneity and mixture of genres typical of the cinema of attractions. Significantly, in the context of his famous museum fiction, the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (1968‐72), Broodthaers would organize screenings in which his own films were interwoven with excerpts from slapstick movies, newsreels and publicity material, thereby connecting his own exhibition practice to the anthologizing impulse of the ciné‐clubs. Yet rather than striving to establish an essentialist reading of cinema, as in the cine‐club movement, Broodthaers’ compilations return us not only to the heterological procedures of Dadaist or Surrealist cinema, but to the performative methods of the showman of early cinema, who sought to create an effect of diversity, rather than homogeneity, of the cinematic apparatus. Research may focus on the following gallery projects by Broodthaers: Film als Objekt – Objekt als Film (1971); Fig. 1 Programme (1973); Films, Dias et Photos (Une contradiction entre le mouvement et le statisme de l’image) (1975).
What kind of material (objects, photographs, films) were combined during these exhibitions? For instance, Broodthaers would show a compilation movie, Rendezvous mit Jacques Offenbach (1972) during such occasions. What do such compilations and installations indicate about Broodthaers’ relationship to the history of cinema and its categories of documentary, narrative and modernist film? Is it a question of yet another return to the cinema of attractions? How does he conceive of the function and place of cinema in contemporary society? Furthermore, how does the principle of compilation carry over onto his practice as a whole? For instance, Broodthaers not only combined his own films with ready‐made material, but continuously re‐edited and re‐configured his films and slide sets from one venue to the next. We have recently seen many reconstructions of Broodthaers installations, but how would one approach representing the installations mentioned above?
Image: Marcel Broodthaers, invitation for Films, Dias et Photos (Une contradiction entre le mouvement et le statisme de l’image) (1975).
10. Barbara Bloom, Nachtvoorstellingen (1977)
If post-Minimalist artists’ film was often meant to be shown in exhibition spaces, even if institutions were rarely up for the challenge, several artists of the so called “Pictures Generation” (named after Douglas Crimp’s 1977 Pictures show, but encompassing a wider selection of artists) examined the dispositif of the cinema itself. In creating alternative séances that often showcased Hollywood or major European films, these artists refrained from creating a separate “artist’s cinema.” Instead, they inserted themselves in a system of film distribution and a way of film viewing that, while seemingly immovable, was already on its way to becoming archaic. The age of home video was around the corner.
In 1977, the American artist Bloom organized “nachtvoorstellingen” (late night screenings”) of The Big Sleep in Amsterdam, and of the French film Le Cercle rouge in Groningen. In the latter case, the focus was on the phenomenon the late-night screening itself, with Bloom programming the entire event, including lobby cards and commercials. In both cases, Bloom subtly manipulated the main features. Her take on The Big Sleep also made it onto video; this tape, The Big Sleep 2, is in the collection of the NIMK. Bloom’s interventions can be related to projects by other “Pictures” artists, such as Louise Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture (1979), in which cinemagoers could hear but not see a Hollywood film (The Misfits, in the original 1979 version). Such projects appear to exemplify a development identified by critic Craig Owens in post-Minimalist and Pictures art: a shift of emphasis from work to frame, resulting from the post-structuralist critique of authorship and meaning. What is a film without the whole cinematic set-up that frames it?
What operations did Bloom perform on her chosen films, and what can be said about her choices? What kind of press/critical reaction did these séances garner? What is their place in the field of “cinematic” practices in art in the 1970s?
11. 12 Films: A Selection by Visual Artists (1979)
For this project organized by De Appel in Amsterdam, which ran from 29 Nov to 12 Dec 1979, eleven artists and an artists’ collective were invited to select a film that would be shown in 6 Dutch theatres. Among the participating artists were Barbara Bloom (who selected Godard’s Alphaville), Dan Graham, Sherrie Levine, Raùl Marroquin, and David Salle. The films were shown in theatres in Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, The Hague, Middelburg and Rotterdam. A similar project, featuring some of the same artists, took place at Hallwalls in Buffalo, New York, in 1987: Picture This: Films Chosen by Artists.
What is the spectrum of films selected, and what if any justification was given for the various choices? Do artists use different strategies for presenting/contextualizing their choices, for instance in the catalog? Can we make qualitative distinctions—and if so, on which grounds? Are there significant differences between the De Appel and Hallwalls projects? How did the institutions present the projects?
12. Ulises Carrión, Lilia Prado Superstar (1984)
"Under the motto Lilia Prado Superstar a unique film event is being organized, to be held first in Amsterdam, then in Groningen, Arnhem and Rotterdam. Five Mexican films from the early fifties will be shown in a single day in the presence of the star who plays the leading role: Lilia Prado. She is coming to the Netherlands from Mexico especially for this occasion. The extraordinary thing about the event is not only that the initiative came from De Appel art centre rather than from the film world, but also that this ‘superstar’ is totally unknown in the Netherlands! The event is a project of the artist Ulises Carrión, who travelled to Mexico for this purpose and, after a long search, selected five films from the period 1950-1952. He also ran into the star of the five films, Lilia Prado, now in her fifties, who is still active in film, television and on the stage. With a project like Lilia Prado Superstar Carrión attempts to recall his own culture - his past - and place it in the present, his goal being to share that culture with the society in which he now finds himself." (Press release De Appel)
How did various media respond about this festival showcasing an unkown “superstar”? (How) did this séance project function in different (art, film, media) contexts? (How) did Carrión contextualize the project?
Image: Lilia Prado publicity still from the De Appel archives.
Image: Lilia Prado publicity still from the De Appel archives.
The “relational turn” in the art of the 1990s saw a number of artists pay increased attention to the social parameters of film and video screenings in exhibition spaces. Bean bags, beds, second-hand furniture, all kinds of cabins and booths and even cars proliferated as artists re-examined and reconfigured the film séance in a culture in which traditional cinema screenings were increasingly marginalized and DVDs and online streaming became ever more dominant. One example of such projects is Cinéma Liberté/Bar Lounge (1996, ongoing) by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon, described on the site of the Whitney Biennale as “consisting of films that have historically been censored for political reasons in the country in which the work is installed, and a seating area where complimentary refreshments are served. Transforming the exhibition environment into a social forum, this installation invokes concepts of political, social, and artistic freedom. It has been made possible by the generous contribution of illy caffè.” Other works that are relevant in this context—though sadly lacking in sponsorship from illy—are Bik Van der Pol’s Sleep with Me (1997) and sunsetcinema (2007, with Apollonija Sustersics) and Phil Collins’ Auto-Kino! (2010).
How meaningful are “family resemblances” between such projects? Do they amount to a contemporary reinvention of the film séance? What are the relationships of the different projects with historical models and practices?
Image: Phil Collins, Auto-Kino! (2010). Top image: Bik Van der Pol, Sleep with Me (1997).