Idiom is proud to present Keith Sanborn’s manifesto, “Modern, all too modern,” which remains as provocative and intellectually invigorating today as it was upon its initial publication in 1988. The author has appended the text with brief notes where necessary; it is otherwise presented in its original form.
Lenin to Lunacharsky: “Amongst our people you are reported to be a patron of art so you must remember that of all the arts for us the most important is cinema.”
Goebbels on Potemkin: “It is a marvelously well-made film, and one which reveals incomparable cinematic artistry. Its uniquely distinctive quality is the line it takes. This is a film, which could turn anyone with no firm ideological convictions into a Bolshevik. Which means that a work of art can very well accommodate a political alignment, and that even the most obnoxious attitude can be communicated if it is expressed through the medium of an outstanding work of art.”
Film is the most modern of the arts. Its powers and structure have served as a paradigm for the arts of the twentieth century, from Balla’s strolling dog to Duchamp’s descending nude. Film was fated to play a central role for modernist utopians from Lenin to Goebbels, from Eisenstein to Riefenstahl. For the first half of the twentieth century it represented something more than the degree zero of technology, it projected the fundamental myths of the new Metropolis, resolving their complexities in Chaplin’s sentimental “The End” or Vertov’s reflexive “Kinets.”1 As we have passed beyond modernism, film has become the victim of its own paradigmatic modernity.
“The cinematographe is an invention without a future.” —Louis Lumière, 1895.
“The cinematographe is an invention without a future.” —Hollis Frampton, 1971.
In 1988, the cinematographe is not only an invention without a future, it is an invention without history. For when the cinematographe superceded its identity as a mechanical technology, history was superceded by what Frampton called “metahistory.” But in deploying “metahistory,” we must keep in mind our position in the labyrinth of etymology: just as “metaphysics” first meant “the works which follow the physics” [in the writings of Aristotle], so “metahistory” first means “the work which follows history.” In the inevitable montage of temporal successivity, metahistory will necessarily be taken as commentary on that which came before, but it should not be assumed from the outset, that its ambition is to contain its object in succeeding it. It is a question of developing a strategy for comparing the incommensurable: what comes before and what comes after.
The avant-garde is dead. Long live the avant-garde.
The death of the avant-garde coincides with the death of modernism. For film, that was sometime between 1973 and 1978, at the latest, though the five year span a decade earlier suggests itself as well. Unfortunately, it was only in 1987 that the voice of the critics began to register any notice.
“When stupidity reaches a certain level it becomes public offense.” —Ezra Pound, before 1920
Sitney’s Visionary Film constitutes a kind of dictionary of received ideas for the avant-gardiste. It is high modernist in design, nationalist if not provincial in outlook, sexist in its particular omissions, and ethnocentric in the formalist circumscription of its discourse. We are presented with the search for form as the telos of cinema. We are shown how all important, i.e. European, film historical roads lead in the post-war era to New York, though San Francisco is mentioned as a kind of exception, which proves the rule. We are told of Carolee Schneeman only that she was an actress in a Brakhage film. We are told that Joyce Weiland was alive but not what she films she made or what they might have meant. And we are told nothing about Mary Ellen Bute, Barbara Hammer, Yvonne Rainer, Barbara Rubin, Chick Strand, Germaine Dulac, Esther Shub, Gunvor Nelson or Anne Severson to name only an obvious few. St. Maya is the exception, which seems to prove an implicit rule. The few persons of color admitted to the discussion, must be able to “pass” formally. Homoeroticism is filtered exclusively through considerations of myth and form.
Visionary Film2 is the master logocentric narrative of a closed pantheon of form. In spite of its author’s denials of a project of totalization, it is essentially an extended explication of the post-war segment of the collection of the Anthology Film Archives. As a justification of the choices for the eternal pantheon of film form, it becomes a project to foreclose discourse and downplay difference. By obscuring difference along the margins of film practice, the institutionalization of Sitney’s views has retarded the recognition and to some extent even the creation of a cinema of resistance. Sitney, however, is not alone here. Even the deliberately Eurocentric, reverse colonialism of Le Grice’s formalist Abstract Cinema and Beyond—written to limit the damage of the onslaught of the Sitney-Mekas great American art machine—comes up short on the score of recognizing sexual and ethnic difference. But these are not simply the ethical and aesthetic limitations of particular individuals, they are the symptoms of an intellectual period style. Modernism, nationalism, sexism and ethnocentrism—while not related by pure synonymy—must finally be recognized as part of the same master lexicon to be resisted and overcome.
Time: the late 1970s.
Brakhage: “I’m planning to give a lecture on the theme ‘No woman ever made an important work of art.’”
Frampton: “You do and I guarantee you, I will personally make certain that you’ll have Judy Chicago in your audience to dispute the point.”
The lecture was never given.
History is always ironic or perhaps never so. What insight can be gained, then, from the observation that Triumph of the Will, easily the most widely known and highly praised fascist film in history, a prime vehicle for the dissemination of the century’s most evil and transparently patriarchal ideology, was made by a woman? How is it that the sterile kitschy beauty of Riefenstahl’s films has elevated her to the status of the most famous and perhaps the most respected woman ever to make films? And what of the attempt to reclaim her for the modernist pantheon of the avant-garde through a strictly formal consideration of her work when Esther Shub is ignored? Shall we call “ironic” her success at playing the game of history with the boys? How shall we evaluate her repeated and repeatedly exposed deceptions concerning her relation to the National Socialist party? One upon a time there were facts. Occasionally there are still.
Now at the Metropolis: Part I of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia vs. James Nares’s Rome ’78. The Aryan neo-nude meets the togas of simulation! Texas Death Match Rules.
During the question and answer period of a recent panel discussion in New York on the Responsibility of Representing the Other, a white male European in the audience questioned what he saw as the hyperintellectuality of Trinh T. Min-ha’s treatment of the Africans she filmed in Reassemblage. He especially objected to her voice-over commentary. He offered Leni Riefenstahl’s book on a certain African people—he couldn’t remember their name but he said it didn’t matter—as a counterexample of a more direct, accessible practice. Eye brows were raised and mouths opened by not a few members of the audience and of the panel. Min-ha with some puzzlement admitted her film could be thought of as an “art film” in the context of ethnography, but had little to say about the alterative praxis offered by the example of Riefenstahl’s book.
A differing response came from Sarah Maldoror, a Black woman born in Guadeloupe, living in France and making films in Africa. Though I cannot say with certainty that Ms. Maldoror entirely understood the remarks because she spoke only in French (her remarks were translated into English by another woman) and the question was posed in English, I can say that her response was exemplary and unexpected. Maldoror first informed her interlocutor that the people in question were the Nuba. She then continued to say that while she thought Riefenstahl detestable for her relationship to German Fascism and her stand with respect to Israel, she found her book wonderful. Michelle Wallace, a Black American writer and the moderator of the panel, queried Ms. Maldoror whether she did not find the book to be racist in its representations. Maldoror responded that she did not, saying that the matter was quite straight forward: Riefenstahl had gone to Africa and photographed these people. Maldoror explained that she found the images Riefenstahl had created quite beautiful, those of the men in particular. Queried again by Ms. Wallace, she simply responded, “The images are beautiful and I’m powerless against them.” A member of the audience who spoke “as a German woman” expressed her repulsion at the images saying they only celebrated power and violence. Clearly one Other’s Other is not another Other’s Other. Or is it?
“I had to shoot him. He had too much control over my life.” —Valerie Solanas, 1968.
Andy Warhol began to make films in 1963, the year Zapruder shot Kennedy on film. Warhol’s own five year plan for film was completed in 1968 when he himself was shot by a woman who had acted in his films. Warhol survived all the shooting, but he is now permanently dead.
Film is not dead, He is just marvelously sick. Film is famous. Film is dead.
In the mid 1970s Hollis Frampton was given a tour of Buenos Aires by the National Librarian of Argentina. Borges proceeded with an elegant and measured gait from slums to governmental palaces, noting in critical and loving detail the history and sociology of each section of the city they visited. In the course of that tour, Borges, who was already blind, on several occasions lifted his cane to draw attention to architectural details of buildings, which no longer stood. Frampton, whose passion for knowledge and whose stubbornness for being correct are well-known, made no attempt to disabuse him. For Frampton could never quite determine whether Borges was unaware of the changes, or that he chose to ignore them, or that he was constructing for the benefit of his interlocutor (i.e., Frampton) an ironic imaginary city from the convergences and divergences between the ocular evidence and the notations of his own mind’s eye.3
To celebrate the death of the cinematographe and of the avant-garde, Frampton conceived his metahistory, Magellan. At first glance, the project seems to share the utopian ambitions we have come to associate with modernism. But this Utopia is not a capital of purity, of pain, of vision, of a century, or even of an art, but an invisible city at the center of a rich labyrinth of quotations—filmic and otherwise—where every street opens onto an infinity of other streets and each of those streets implies another vast imaginary city. Our loss of Frampton is irreparable as it was inevitable. And while we are the poorer for the loss of the completed cycle, its particular state of determinate incompletion only underscores its congruence with the postmodern city it resembles. For it is not fragments shorn against Frampton’s ruin, but a map of the circular ruins of our culture drawn from fragments.
The “new talkie” proudly traces its paternity to Godard; in so doing it betrays its ignorance of Godard’s own questionable origins. Praise among English and American academics (e.g. Wollen) for Godard’s bourgeois Sunday-Maoist recuperation of the formal devices of Situationist film has been possible, first, because it coincides with the impostures of those academicians and, second, because Situationist film remains virtually unknown outside of Paris.
The Situationist International is dead. Long live the Situationist International.
Contrary to popular belief, Guy Debord was not the only member of the Situationist International, nor the only Situationist to make films. But as a central figure in the group, his case may still serve as illustration.
When the man who backed most of Debord’s films and created a special theatre for screening them was assassinated several years ago, Debord withdrew his films from distribution. In recent years, Debord has refused to allow his films to be shown in public except under conditions so extraordinary as to be impossible in practice to fulfill. He has gone to great lengths to isolate himself from those interested in his work: using a post office box in the Massif Central while he was probably living elsewhere, demanding lengthy and exacting descriptions of the screening conditions, seldom even responding to the requests. In constructing an elaborate protective maze, he has labored to preserve his films from the fate of all films as they enter the discourse of history. He has attempted to prevent recuperation by the agents of the spectacle: mannerist feature filmmakers such as Godard, advertising hacks such as Godard, the historians of the “avant-garde.” The films were made at a specific time for a specific purpose. Perhaps Debord believes that their time has simply passed as the time had passed for the Situationist International when its members chose to disband it. Perhaps his films have become films without a present and without a future. Left with the bare fact of their historicity, he chose erasure, an act of metahistory perversely reminiscent of Warhol’s withdrawal of his films.
It is all too easy to attribute to Warhol purely economic motives for withdrawing his films. He took them off the market—say the dictates of the Warholian logic of commodification as they are officially and vulgarly understood—in order to make them scarce, to make more money with them later. Probably, he just got bored with them and wanted to move on without dragging so much of his personal history around with him. An act of strategic self-erasure perfectly congruent with the aesthetic of commercial anonymity of his factory system paintings and of the films themselves, performed to enable him to move on, to travel light, to accommodate the demand for the new which drives the logic of the art work as commodity. Warhol, in fact, had allowed the films to sit neglected for many years, ignoring several offers to put them back in distribution. When he finally acceded to the offer from MOMA for the entire lot, he was surely aware that this would permanently alter their commercial exploitability for the 60s underground revival and assure their embalming as film historical corpses. But then history is an expensive commodity and Andy actually managed to manufacture and sell it, as well as to collect it.4
Debord, we might assume, withdrew his films from an excess of intellectual scruples, yet the effect is the same. Just as Warhol’s films have existed mainly in books for the past 20 years, the films of Debord are accessible now only in book form through his Oeuvres Cinématographiques Complètes in French, two scripts translated in the Situationist International Anthology, and two other extremely rare publications in French. Through the absence coded into their shadowy presence, Debord’s films have assumed the status of myth, the secret map to the buried origins of postmodernist film practice in France, much as Warhol’s films, in their obscurity, have held the allure of the lost Ark of the underground, the sacred treasure of the postmodern here.5
Now that Warhol has attained the perfect biological anonymity of the dead and his films are receiving their first significant exposure in twenty years, we can begin again the endless ritual of bringing their secrets to light. Unseen, they have captivated many; their position in our imaginary will be altered as they pass from the underground to the museological mausoleum. This is hardly cause for alarm, however, since necromancy and necrophilia are the filmgoers favorite vices.
For the living, concerned with the practice of everyday life, however, it is unfortunate that Debord, in protecting his own work unsuccessfully from the ravages of recuperation, has deprived his contemporaries in France and abroad as well as his historical successors of the insights his work might offer. The occultation of these films has preserved the historical integrity of the work at the ironic cost of inflating their fetishistic value as intellectual commodity. Meanwhile, Godard, in King Lear, explicitly and with unintentioned irony reveals himself to be the Woody Allen of France, Barbara Krueger recycles Situationist form as she laughs her way to the bank and the biennial (“Shop til you drop”) and Robert Longo is taken for a critic of the society of the spectacle instead of its hypostasis. But who can blame Debord? In the current cultural climate, offering one’s life work to one’s contemporaries—let alone to one’s historical successors—has all the attraction of binding and offering oneself for gang rape, vivisection and piecemeal transplantation.
“Plagiarism is necessary; progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with a true one.” —Lautréamont, 1870.
“Plagiarism is necessary; progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with a true one.” —Debord, 1967.
Patti Astor, star of Eric Mitchell’s Underground U.S.A., founded the ephemeral and influential Fun Gallery on East 10th street in New York in the early 1980s. During the height of her influence as a dealer, she would find herself deluged with slides from unaffiliated painters from all over the country. Rene Ricard, a veteran of the Warhol scene turned critic and a co-star in the Mitchell film, summed up the situation this way in his “Pledge of Allegiance” to the Fun stable of the period: “Nobody wants artists. Artists are supposed to create a culture around themselves to be noticed, set off drumbeats in the jungle, then get a gallery. Nobody wants to see slides; they’re a pain in the ass. Open your own gallery. You can have your own fun. Start your own war.”
Makers of film on the margins perform many rituals of complaint; the litany includes: lack of money for their films and other vices, lack of audiences, lack of critical attention, lack of position. The complaints are all more or less justified. I have performed them dutifully myself; they come with the territory. But the time has long passed for looking to the Sitneys, the Taubins, the Campers and the Hobermans of the world for intelligent critical response to film or anything else. Start your own magazine. Write your own reviews. Build your own audience. If there is a cinema of resistance that perseveres in the midst of the wake for modernism and the “avant-garde” then it must speak with its own voice or not at all. Because if you’re waiting for just that review that will put your career over the top, you are waiting for hell to freeze over and deserve to. The lame will walk, the blind see, the deaf hear and a critic will pass through the eye of a needle before a writer for the Village Voice will depart one word from the perpetuation of a tired official journalistic anti-decorum.6 And should that review come bearing a resemblance to your intentions, I advise you to write it off to coincidence or to Nancy Reagan’s horoscope, or to pause and reflect just where you went wrong.
Deconstruction is dead. Long live deconstruction.
For deconstruction: Within the few short years since his death, research has brought to light Paul De Man’s carefully concealed collaborationist past. It now seems that Heidegger was a better Nazi than previously thought. Nietzsche—betrayed by his sister and bastardized—was at least dead before his corpse was handed over to the party. Though his pathological ambiguity, sweeping generalizations and sexism continue to be his downfall, Nietzsche was outspoken against anti-semitism during his lifetime. De Man and Heidegger were very much alive when they spoke out respectively against Jews and on behalf of the party. Derrida has travelled along many of the same intellectual paths as Heidegger and De Man; he assisted in the French reanimation of Nietzsche in the 1970s. While it seems unlikely that Derrida will simply lie down and die as deconstruction enters history as a dead form of literature, one may well wonder what awaits his eventual reanimators. For history refuses to be subjugated to literature. It has a way of leaking out around the edges, trickling down the bindings onto the shelves, and staining the library floor. Someone notices sooner or later. It returns where repressed and with a vengeance.
Baudrillard is dead. Long live Baudrillard.
Q: How did Professor Baudrillard of the University of Nanterre spend the spring of 1968?
A: The records have not yet been uncovered, but it is important to find out now as the consequences of his passive nihilist stance come to be tested.
For nearly 20 years, Baudrilliard’s idée fixe has been to discredit Debord’s analytic model of the “society of the spectacle.” So many trees have died, so many careers have been made in the art world and academia simply because the Situationists recognized Baudrillard in 1967 for the modernist he remains. He has spent his career trying to deny that relegation to the realm of dead history. While his currency as an intellectual pop star is unquestionable, his strategy of the transcendence of history through a literary eternal present is problematic at best. While few doubt that the past 20 years have departed radically from the previous 100 and many affirm that history may be a thing of the past, even the law of entropy dictates the concrete passage of time.
The decentered subject, which inhabits the Baudrillard world, is allowed no distance between himself and the world. He cannot be alienated because she is “always already” alien. There is no longer an inside and an outside set at a critical distance from which to judge. With the collapse of this distance we are left with the “ecstasy of communication” and with “seduction,” the play of attractions between decentered self and other.
In exploring this relation, Baudrillard focusses his critique with an attack on the allegiance of one strain of feminist thought to the self-representing subject. Baudrillard speaks of “feminist naïveté” in analysing “feminine striptease” in advertising as a form of “prostitution.” It is just “putting on an act,” a kind of simulation. For where everyone and everything is equally alien, “alienation” can carry no meaning. But if there is no space between consciousness and the world for self-representation, precisely how can one “put on an act”? How can simulation be possible without a void between consciousness and an imaginary? But accepting this most “melancholy” of all possible worlds, we find nonetheless that some Others are still more incommensurable than others.
A methodology banal in its anti-subjectivity—American behaviorist industrial psychology—informed us long ago that an advertising message need neither be consciously registered nor remembered in order to affect our behavior at critical moments. Some circuits of power are not reversible with the turn of a phrase or the touch of a finger on the remote control. We are left with yet another attempt to recuperate the fashionable discourse of sexual difference for a master literary if not simple-mindedly logocentric narrative. Baudrillard here has performed yet another critic’s paraphrase of Rimbaud. He recycles “Je est un autre” quite directly, changing “Je veux devenir nègre” to “Je veux devenir femme.” Baudrillard’s claim of the reversibility of the terms as a facet of current socio-economic life is at best a masturbatory fantasy.
The strategy of Baudrillard’s rhetoric in presenting his world view is to collapse the dualistic oppositions of language itself (metaphor vs. metonymy or similarity vs. contiguity) to an aphasic superimposition. Similarity disorder simulates contiguity disorder. The threatened triumph of metaphor explodes into isomorphic holographic fragments placed in vertiginous atemporal contiguity. Or, to summarize the observations of Meaghan Morris: beneath the ecstasy of communication, we find the ecstasy of description, beneath the ecstasy of description, a kind of hyperrealism, and beneath this hyperrealism, a kind of hype. In the posture of a McLuhanesque nihilist, Baudrillard seems willing to take the media’s things for words about the status of the global village, while ignoring the concrete aspects of its economy, multinational capitalism. See no production, hear no production, speak no production. The third world is reserved for exotic vacations.
If there are still those who persist in believing that Baudrillard’s critique may offer a solution for film to the endgame of modernism, let us consider Baudrillard’s particular sense of just what is important about film: “This collusion between images and life, between the screen and daily life, can be experienced everyday in the most ordinary manner. Especially in America, not the least charm of which is that even outside the cinemas the whole country is cinematographic. You cross the desert as if in a western; the metropolis is a continual screen of signs and formulae. Life is a travelling shot, a kinetic, cinematic, cinematographic sweep. There is as much pleasure in this as in those Dutch or Italian towns where, upon leaving the museum, you rediscover a town in the very image of the paintings, as if it had stepped out of them. It is a kind of miracle which, even in a banal American way, gives rise to a sort of aesthetic form, to an ideal confusion which transfigures life, as in a dream. Here, cinema does not take on the exceptional form of a work of art, even a brilliant one, but invests the whole of life with a mythical ambience. Here it becomes truly exciting. This is why the idolatry of stars, the cult of Hollywood idols, is not a media pathology but a glorious form of the cinema, its mythical transfiguration, perhaps the last great myth of our modernity. Precisely to the extent that the idol no longer represents anything but reveals itself as a pure, impassioned, contagious image, which effaces the difference between the real being and its assumption into the imaginary.
All these considerations are a bit wild, but that is because they correspond to the unrestrained film buff that I am and have always wished to remain—that is in a sense uncultured and fascinated. There is a kind of primal pleasure, of anthropological joy in images, a kind of brute fascination unencumbered by aesthetic, moral, social or political judgments. It is because of this that I suggest that they are immoral, and that their fundamental power lies in this immorality.” (The Evil Demon of Images, pp.26-27.)
Et tout cela sortait de ma tasse de thé. From the preceding two paragraphs it would appear that M. Baudrillard does on occasion when abroad leave his cork-lined motel room for a drive to the 7-11. The filmic variant of his project might be formulated as a combination of “Je est un touriste” and either “Je veux devenir americaine” or “Je veux devenir image.” The latter two seem nearly synonymous for him. And while the forgoing text is moderately amusing as an exercise in colonialist provocation of an Australian university film audience, it is hardly novel. In view of the fact that the Australians have considered Baudrillard much more closely and critically than most Americans, one wonders whether those words were not the occasion for the ultimate discrediting of his project there among the film community where his work seems particularly to have flourished. [See Seduced and Abandoned: the Baudrillard Scene.] It is somewhat ironic that here, at yet another arguable Antipodes from both France and Australia, the Baudrillard scene has been confined almost entirely to the realm of the so-called “visual arts.” To circle back to the text above for a final if not definitive pass: while the power of film to fascinate is undeniable, one wonders whether Professor Baudrillard would respond with the same blithely melancholic indifference to the brute leveling of the distinction between the imaginary and the real historically effected by Triumph of the Will, or Der ewige Jude. Perhaps in our era hyperbole is its own reward.
Tonight on Channel 4 at 3: I Walked with a Zombie and Baudrillard visits Disneyland.
We could always have an ocean ending.
The pope is resting comfortably in his private offices, daydreaming about the Avignon papacy and the French Riviera, when his chief nuncio with unusually abbreviated ceremony enters. “Your Holiness, Your Holiness. I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” The Holy Father responds: “My son, my son. The Gospel means ‘good news’ so let us have the good news first.” The nuncio: “It’s the Second Coming, Holy Father and Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to take away the sins of the world, is on the phone and wants to talk to you.” The pope: “My son, my son, with such joyous and momentous news for which Christians have been waiting nearly two millennia, what could possibly be amiss?” “Well, Your Holiness,” answers the nuncio, “She’s calling from Salt Lake City.”