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American Narrative Art Film:
The First Thirty Years, 1949-1979

Loden is, even more than twenty years after the release of Wanda, still an undiscovered filmmaker, almost completely unknown to American critics and reviewers. One might attribute this to the fact that, following a long bout with cancer, she died at the age of 48 and lived to make only one feature-length film (and one short film that preceded it); but then to what should one attribute the neglect of the work of Mark Rappaport? Counting two half-hour television works, Mark Rappaport: The TV Spin-Off (1978) and Postcards (1989), Rappaport has produced nine films over a twenty-year period--Casual Relations (1973), Mozart in Love (1975), Local Color (1977), Scenic Route (1978), Imposters (1979), Chain Letters (1985), and Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992), yet his work is still unknown even to most American professors of film. If in Loden the self implodes upon itself, turning into a black hole of quietness and passivity, in Rappaport, the self is a grain of sand enamelled over in so many layers of cultural and imaginative encrustation, pearl-like, that the accretions cover up anything that might be thought to be left underneath them. Rappaport's figures are so heaped with cultural inheritances that is it hard to say whether there is anyone behind or separable from the voices, styles, and mannerisms. (Cassavetes captures a similar state of affairs in his late works.) What differentiates these films from the vapidity of MTV and other forms of postmodernist stylistic voguing (which celebrate this state of affairs) is that Rappaport and his major characters recognize that this situation constitutes a state of imaginative and emotional crisis. Rather than relaxing into the romantic myths and melodramatic cliche's that transmit their voices, he and his characters feel confined by and struggle against the fictions they are swallowed up by.

Rappaport is wise enough, however, to reject the nostalgic fantasy that much early twentieth-century modernist art was based upon: the notion that one can ever avoid or rise above compromising social and stylistic entailments. The way of success in his work lies not in escaping alien entanglements but in negotiating them. Freedom is immanent; the luxury of transcendence is not available. The way we know this is by watching Rappaport's own artistic performance in his works. His astonishingly eccentric and profoundly original redeployments of the artistic systems of signification he inherits (from Mozart operas to Joan Crawford melodramas to critical cliche's about Freudian family romance) set an example for his characters to live up to. He shows that you can perform within and against the expressive structures in place around you, without being confined by them.

Elaine May falls into a slightly different category from Clarke, Loden, and Rappaport, and is closer to a figure like Cassavetes in the way she has chosen to keep one foot in the studio system, even while not allowing it to limit her artistic expressions. But however large her budgets, May's best work, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and Mikey and Nicky (1974), makes a nice comparison with Loden's and Rappaport's. Where they, in their different ways, present characters at the point of extinction or erasure, she dramatizes the situation of characters who are, in effect, too energetic, multivalent, and mutable to be understood under the rubric of "character" (at least in its normal cinematic application). Her figures are quick-change artists of their own identities, chameleons who take on the protective coloration of every group through which they move. It is not at all accidental that the three main characters in these two films take their names from American standup comedians. (Lenny is a distant cousin to Lenny Bruce, and Mikey and Nicky are clearly related to Mike Nichols.) The point of the name game is that they each bring into life tendencies normally associated with stage comedy: fragmented identities, multiple-voiced performances, and mercurial shifts of tone and style. Lenny, Mikey, and Nicky attempt to turn themselves into artists of their own self-pleasuring, self-reflexive, one-man shows. They attempt to bring the energies of art into life: to live lives as performatively unfettered and expressively permutational as the onstage extravagances of a performance artist.

Two more artists remain to be considered. Paul Morrissey got his start in film working as Andy Warhol's assistant in the Factory. He began as the cameraman and director of several of Warhol's best known works--including The Chelsea Girls (1966) and Lonesome Cowboys (1967), but as a consequence of Warhol's notorious laziness and willingness to delegate artistic duties, Morrissey rapidly progressed to complete artistic independence--scripting, directing, and photographing many of the works which are still sometimes misattributed to Warhol, including as the most important works: Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Women in Revolt (1971), Heat (1971), and L'Amour (1973). After 1973, although Warhol still at times provided production money, Morrissey embarked on an entirely independent career, whose most interesting works include: Forty-Deuce (1982), Mixed Blood (1984), and Spike of Bensonhurst (1988).

In all of these works, but especially in the extraordinary trilogy Flesh, Trash, and Heat, Morrissey's accomplishment is related to Loden's in Wanda. He so completely removes the normal melodramatic scaffolding that Hollywood films employ to organize experience that a new kind of drama emerged: a dramatic language of nervous twitches and tics, of idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns, of bizarre pathos. Morrissey has made a number of public statements over the years about the politics behind his work (he says he is an arch-conservative who is appalled by the wasted lives of his characters and disgusted by the drug culture many of his films depict), but if we trust the tale and not the teller, a different story emerges--not one of shock and disgust, but of fondness for his characters. Especially in masterworks like Trash and Flesh, what comes through is not a series of negative judgments, but the opposite: Morrissey clearly relishes the expressive idiosyncrasy and eccentricity of his figures. Holly Woodlawn and Joe Dallesandro are treated with much more than amused tolerance. They are loved; and because Morrissey cares for them so tenderly, the viewer does too.

The final filmmaker of first rank to have produced a significant body of work before the end of the 1970s is Robert Kramer, who was originally from New York, but currently lives in Paris (finding it easier to raise money for his productions in Europe than in America). The two major works he completed during the period under discussion are Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975, made in collaboration with John Douglas, who also acts in the film)--beyond any doubt or dispute, two of the most important American films to have emerged in the past fifty years. It is especially appropriate to bracket them together since the two films function so well as companion pieces: Ice dramatizes the activities of a revolutionary militant group planning to overthrow the United States government (though the film is set in a vaguely Orwellian future with a totalitarian American government waging a war in Mexico, it is all too touchingly a thinly veiled dramatization of the actual aspirations of groups of American student revolutionaries at the height of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war); Milestones, as it were, jumps ahead five or ten years from Ice's revolutionary fervor to the Ford era, a time of disillusionment and resignation, a time by which the glorious utopian dream of revolution has faded and the former revolutionaries are forced to pick up the pieces of the real lives they left behind.

Kramer is one of the most formally brilliant and innovative artists of this entire group of American independents and it is important to the effect of both films that they violate a number of unspoken premises of standard feature filmmaking. In the first place, Kramer's works are invariably much longer than standard features. (Ice is two and a quarter hours in running time and Milestones is nearly four and a quarter.) In the second place, Kramer declines to organize his films in terms of a small number of leading characters, or in terms of "starring" and "supporting" roles in general. (There are seven or eight absolutely equally important characters in Ice, and ten or twelve equally important characters in Milestones.) Thirdly, Kramer's work is consciously and complexly historical in a way that Hollywood simply refuses to be--not only in its references to off-screen actual historical events, but even more importantly in the scale of the time-frame his story includes. Characters and places in Kramer's narrative have pasts that extend far back behind the actual viewing experience (and futures that extend beyond it in the other direction as well). Finally, Kramer's work, especially Ice, is deliberately assaultive--putting questions to the viewer, forcing difficult choices and evaluations, deliberately making things hard on the viewer.

The result is an entirely different kind of viewing experience that the standard feature-length film provides, a viewing experience radically different from the studio film. The narrative defines characters and situations in a number of different ways from the studio work: Characters are not loners and individuals, but are defined as members of a group. The very essence of their identities comes out of their ability (or inability) to interact with others. Characters do not live in the eternal present of the studio picture, but have complex and detailed pasts and memories (and goals and future plans). They have lots of intellectual and emotional baggage; their lives are entailed with complex inheritances. The films are not cut off from the real world of historical and social events outside of the movie theater, but reach into that world (and encourage the viewer to reach into them for help with his own life). For these reasons and others, Kramer is sometimes said to be a "political" filmmaker; but in fact he would much better be called the most complex of personal filmmakers. He shows the extent to which all political events originate in and ramify back into personal lives, and in the virtuosity of his ability to connect the realms of the public and private, the abstract and the concrete, the impersonal and the personal, he is creating some of the greatest art of the century.

It is only prudent to end a history of the American independent movement with artists whose careers were well underway ten or fifteen years ago. To come closer to the present would be to risk losing perspective on the subject. But that is not to imply that a number of new filmmakers have not produced extremely interesting work in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this viewer's judgment among those most worth watching who came of age in the 1980s are Caveh Zahedi, Nick Gomez, Jane Spenser, Gregg Araki, Jim Jarmusch, and, above all, the most obviously talented artist of the group, Charles Burnett. Only time tell if these filmmakers or others create equally enduring bodies of work to compare with that of the filmmakers I have already named. In the meantime, the American narrative art film movement still awaits its historian. Not one of the standard histories, textbooks, or major essays about American film that is now in print gives anything but the most perfunctory and passing mention to Engel, Rappaport, Cassavetes, May, Loden, Morrissey, or Kramer (if their names are mentioned at all)--let alone to figures of a slightly second rank of importance like Rogosin, Korty, Jaglom, or Roemer. If the textbooks are to be credited, the American art narrative movement is still the movement that never happened.

RAY CARNEY is generally recognized to be the leading scholarly authority on American narrative art film. He is the author of eight books, including the recently published John Cassavetes: Autoportraits (Cahiers du cinema) and The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press), and is currently completing a critical history of American independent filmmaking. He teaches film and American studies at Boston University.

Text Copyright 2005 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.