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Excerpts from a review of David E. James, Allegories Of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties

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The subtitle of this book is so misleading that one assumes it was added by an editor attempting to cash-in on the nostalgia of the baby-boom generation. Allegories of Cinema is assuredly not about "American Film in the Sixties," and a reader expecting discussions of Dr. Strangelove, West-Side Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or The Graduate, will be in for a surprise. These classic sixties pictures, and scores of others, are not even mentioned. Nor is Professor James interested in cinematically characterizing the ten-year period glibly referred to as "the Sixties." He understands that calendar dates almost never coincide with actual historical epochs or artistic movements. James intends to give a reader something far more fascinating than his talk-show subtitle suggests. His aim is to provide "a thorough account of the growth, development, and decay of non-studio film practices in the United States between the mid-fifties and mid-seventies." In those years, American art film was born. While Hollywood continued to churn out one commercial confection after another, a small group of American artists, working alone and outside of the system, redefined film's expressive possibilities. Financing their work out of their own pockets and utilizing equipment which only became available and affordable in the late fifties and early sixties, they pursued a vision of film not as big-budget, mass-produced mass-entertainment, but as uncompromised artistic expression.

Yet it is one of the continuing disgraces of film studies that, even at this late date, the story of independent filmmaking remains an unwritten chapter in American film history. It is a movement whose body of work is still almost completely unknown to the average (or even the considerably above-average) filmgoer. That may seem too strong; but how many of the following films are screened and discussed even in university courses? (I deliberately exclude non-fiction films from the tally, and artificially limit the list to works created within the twenty-year period of James' survey.) Barbara Loden's Wanda; Mark Rappaport's Casual Relations, Mozart in Love, Local Color, Scenic Route, and Impostors; John Korty's Crazy Quilt, Riverrun, and Funnyman; Paul Morrissey's Lonesome Cowboys, Blue Movie, Flesh, Trash, Heat, and Forty Deuce; Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa; Kenneth Anger's Magic Lantern Cycle, John Cassavetes' Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night; Milton Moses Ginsberg's Coming Apart; Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones; Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky; Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry; Shirley Clarke's Bridges Go Round and Portrait of Jason; Morris Engel's The Little Fugitive; Loves and Lollipops; and Weddings and Babies; James Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, Autobiography of a Princess, and Roseland; Bruce Connor's A Movie and Report.

These are the obvious, seminal masterworks of American film art from the late-fifties through the seventies. Yet how frequently do you hear any of them mentioned in dinner-table conversation? How many of them are alluded to as touchstones of excellence in the review columns even of supposedly high-toned newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker or The New York Times? I rarely meet professors of film who have seen more than three or four of these works. These works and others define an authentic "great tradition" in American film; but, given the terrifying economics of film distribution and promotion, it is probably not surprising that it remains a lost tradition.

The journalistic situation is especially discouraging for alternative work. A review is almost the only way for these films to get known by the general public, yet it's as if television, radio, and the print media have become extensions of the studio PR machine. The Hollywood publicists fill up all of the journalistic space available with their press kits and news releases.

Whatís at stake is more than a matter of column-inches. The studios dictate the definition of film itself, so that there is no imaginative space left for alternatives to Hollywood. That's why the general level of discussion of jazz, opera, bridge, or chess (or practically any other area of human expression, including sports) is more sophisticated than what passes for film coverage in the media. At least in the chess or bridge column of the paper there isn't such a pattern of systematically excluding acts of genius from consideration. On any day of the week, in the music programming on your local FM station, you can hear the historic performances of Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong; their achievements aren't simply written out of the official histories of their art, as the performances of these filmmakers are.

Even American film scholarship has allowed its agendas to be set by Hollywood (which is why the vast majority of so-called serious film critics write about the same movies as those covered in Time, Newsweek, or People). When American film scholars look for "art," they don't look at home; they look abroad--to French, German, Italian film. The most unfortunate consequence is that American independent filmmakers have been denied their own history. Most of those with whom I have spoken didn't even know there was anyone else in America other than themselves attempting to shape an alternative to pop-culture forms of mass-entertainment. Like the film professors many of them took courses with, they looked not to America but to Europe for sustaining examples of a tradition of art cinema.

To add insult to injury and confuse the issue completely, in the course of the nineteen-seventies, even the title of "independent" was taken away from these filmmakers. Mass-market reviewers like Pauline Kael, Rex Reed, Gene Shallit, and Vincent Canby popularized the application of the term to the studio-based work of directors like Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, and Lucas. Commercial movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, M*A*S*H, Midnight Cowboy, and The Godfather were championed as marking the expressive limits of the art form (when, in fact, all they defined were the calculations of the commercial imagination). The real independents were left without even a flag to rally around.

Given this context, a reader can imagine my state of expectation as I picked up James' volume--described on its dust-jacket as the first comprehensive, critical history of this great, neglected movement. But I am sorry to report that I turned the pages with an increasingly sinking heart. Though James mentions some of the works on my list and discusses a few (though far too few) of them, there are a number of fatally disabling shortcomings in his approach, and only one genuine strength.

To give the good news before the bad, the strong point of Allegories of Cinema is that James analyzes a number of the social, intellectual, and political hidden-agendas that the diverse aesthetic practices in the independent movement subserved (usually unknown to the artists themselves). This is an extremely valuable corrective to the weightless formalism and uncritical promotionalism of the few previous, and much less substantial, treatments of the movement--specifically to the work of P. Adams Sitney in his lamentably over-rated Visionary Film. Sitney's book is clearly one of the major influences on James' own, but while Sitney cuts film "texts" away from the social and political "contexts" that surround them, and more or less takes filmmakers at their own word about the meaning of their work (in the process, showing himself to be captive to the Shelleyan stances and Blakean pronouncements that he is supposed to be analyzing), James restores some of the cultural contexts and critical distance necessary for understanding.

His finest moments are when he functions as a provider of intellectual backgrounds for analysis. His book is far from flawless even in this regard, however. His writing is jargon-ridden, clichÈd, stylistically convoluted, and clotted with fashionable critical buzz words. Like Sitney, James frequently becomes a shameless propagandist and apologist for an amazingly narrow view of artistic expression. (Though his is a slightly different view than Sitney's: James makes no bones about being under the influence of Althusser, Jameson, and contemporary Marxist theory in general, and is as blatantly biased in favor of certain forms of cinematic agitprop, as Sitney, the Pateresque Romantic, is indifferent to politics.)

One might attempt to overlook these shortcomings, if James were content to function as a social and intellectual historian (and were willing to confine himself to the value-neutral comparative procedures of such writing). But the problem is that James fancies himself a critic, an analyst of works of art, and in the course of Allegories of Cinema confidently issues a series of sweeping critical pronouncements and interpretations. That's where one's real reservations begin.

As a critic James can only be called embarrassing. He is clearly unqualified for the part, almost completely lacking an ability to tell good work from bad, originality from derivativeness, complexity from superficiality. James' idea of criticism is to subject a film to a series of purity tests for politically "correct" values, searching for (and, needless to say, where he needs to, always successfully finding) ideological "contradictions," "tensions," "fractures," "inconsistencies" or "equivocations" to demolish films he doesn't like.

In one of the more egregious instances, John Cassavetes' delicate, tentative, subtle, semi-comic Shadows is judged to be, by turns, manipulative, deceptive, prevaricating, fraudulent, and (in the key phrase that summarizes Jamesí ideological bias) "politically equivocating"--more or less entirely on the basis of the fact that a white actress was cast to play the part of a light-skinned black woman (who passes for white in the story). For the flat-minded James, Cassavetesí denial of the part a bona fide African-American actress represents an act of political cowardice and a damning indictment of the work. Move over, Aristotleís Poetics; the NAACP Affirmative Action Guidelines have taken your place.

The issue is not whether we agree or disagree about the value of a particular film. What gives one pause is the adequacy of political loyalty tests as ways of grading works of art. What James' writing (and most other ideologically based criticism, unfortunately including most feminist analysis) fails to understand is not only that the greatest art works will never be reducible to schematic political agendas, but that not to be summarizable in such a way is an aspect of their greatness. James occasionally writes about pop-culture in film magazines, and his literal-mindedness about ferreting out hidden political significances might work with schlock, but it won't do for Shadows. Methods of analysis that suffice to dissect "political equivocations" in the evening news aren't adequate to appreciate the expressive subtleties of an art work, precisely because works of art function so much more complexly than Dan Rather's scripts do.

James just doesn't understand how works of genius make meanings. He is oblivious to the special ways of knowing that art works induce as alternatives to the very social and economic categories he invokes. He can't appreciate how the greatest works cultivate complex, shifting states of consciousness and awareness that will always defy his imposition of crude ideological labels.

In the course of Allegories of Cinema, James mentions almost 500 films, and discusses something like a hundred of them in some detail, but his omissions reveal his biases. His notion of what constitutes artistic importance is a stunningly narrow one. He cuts his definition of independent film down to fit his Procrustean critical methods. That is the only explanation I can see for why some of the most stunning works of the independent movement are as completely omitted from his treatment as if they had never existed (Barbara Loden's Wanda, Robert Kramer's Milestones, and Mark Rappaport's, James Ivory's, and John Korty's entire oeuvres), or are written off in a few sentences (much of Paul Morrissey's work and all of Cassavetes' beyond Shadows). These works and others are omitted because they are not "politically engaged" enough to merit attention.

On the other hand, works of almost no enduring value are dwelt on for pages, as long as they have their political papers in order. Even discounting its ideological tendentiousness, James' canon of independent work demonstrates a strikingly provincial and limited knowledge of the field. A reader hoping for a fresher and more "independent" view of independent cinema will be disappointed by James' round-up of the usual suspects. More than half of his text is devoted to reciting the same tired litany of films and filmmakers that one encounters in the few previous treatments of the subject. It is the by now all too predictable list of New York avant-garde work installed in the cinematic pantheon by Sitney almost two decades ago: a small, and not terribly fascinating group of filmmakers, most of whom know each other, come from the same geographical area, share similar assumptions about film, and show regularly in the same downtown theaters and uptown museums: Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Peter Kubelka, Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Jack Smith, among others. (The politically fashionable Jean-Luc Godard is predictably dragged in as the prime piece of foreign real estate by which to assess New York values.)

Many of the preceding limitations in James' text can be attributed to his critical unsophistication: his naiveness about artistic expression allows him to confuse political correctness with acts of genius, and his inability to tell good work from bad forces him to stay on the beaten path where others have already cleared the way for him. But another aspect of Jamesí approach is even more disturbing than his critical immaturityóhis profound bias against "realistic" or "narrative" forms of representation (that is to say: all forms committed to presenting events in a dramatically "transparent" manner, in terms of the personal interactions of characters, by means of a temporally sequential and coherent course of events).

James displays a blithe confidence that realistic, narrative forms of expression have been superseded by more "modern" or "advanced" forms. In this too, he again shows himself a slave to New York fashion. He faddishly follows the expressive check-list of European high modernism (with a dash of post-modernism thrown in to spice up the recipe): Continuity is out, fragmentation is in; characters are out, media-generated voices, masks, and surfaces are in; sequentiality and causality are out, simultaneity and collage are in. And, subsuming and including all of the above: dramatic representation is out, artistic self-referentialty and reflexivity are in. In James' view of art, narrative commitments and dramatic coherence are reactionary and repressive "commercial compromises." Though the logic of this breathtaking assumption is never really explained, its shorthand origin in the mind of the "advanced" film critic apparently originates from the fact that since narrative realism "equals" Hollywood banality, non-narrative self-referentiality "equals" artistic complexity. Or, to put it a slightly different way, since Hollywood is narrative and dramatic, art film must become non-narrative and reflexive in response in order to escape from and comment upon the limitations of "industrial" production. ("The industry" is the way James pejoratively refers to Hollywood throughout his text.)

The fallacy of the equation resides in the hypostatization of "narrative realism" as if it were a fixed quality of a work and not merely a form of which there can be better and worse, stronger and weaker uses. Just because Hollywood films use narrative conventions simplistically doesn't mean that the conventions themselves are simplistic. On the contrary: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and the novelist with the same last name as our author all emphatically prove otherwise. James' childish faith that since narrative imprisons us, non-narrative will set us free would be touching if it weren't so widely shared by other "cutting edge" film scholars (most notably those in the Burch and Bordwell camps). His very task as a historian of the flabby fringes of the independent movement is to flush out such formal fatuousness--whether practiced by critics or by filmmakers--not buy into it wholesale.

Keeping in mind James' scorn of all manifestations of narrative and dramatic realism is the only way a reader will be able to make sense of many of his more bizarre judgments. Following Sitney in this respect also, James selectively rewrites whole stretches of the history of independent film in order to minimize the importance of narrative work in the story. When he does include a narrative film in his discussion, it is invariably to suggest that its observance of narrative continuities and coherences limits its value because, as he puts it at one point, it "does not investigate alternatives to the conventions of the industrial feature and its received social functions." James patronizes Robert Kramer's assaultive and brilliant Ice by labeling it "a fictional entertainment film" (implicitly lumping it in with the drivel of Hollywood), because the filmmaker refuses to abrogate the forms of narrative presentation. He damns Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man and Shirley Clarke's The Cool World with the faint praise that "their formal limits [reproduce] the limits of their liberal ideology. They strain the industry's narrative and representational codes, but they cannot pass beyond them." (I'm sure I don't have to gloss what "liberal" means to James the neo-Marxist. It's even worse than "narrative.")

In short, James shows himself to be as sophomoric in his understanding of artistic form as he is in his understanding of artistic meaning. He simply cannot appreciate that narrative conventions and realistic forms of expression are not intrinsically simplifying aspects of a work. He cannot understand that, as used by Kramer and Roemer in the examples he cites (and as May, Morrissey, Loden, and others use them in their work), character and plot are ways of chastening and criticizing otherwise unchecked imaginative impulses. Narrative modes of presentation are forms of complication and engagement, not ways of escaping complexity. The use of temporal, causal, and interpersonal forms of presentation is a way of testing and resisting energies to which many non-narrative works too easily yield. That is why, if there are invidious comparisons to be made, James has the relative complexity of narrative and non-narrative forms reversed. Many of the non-narrative, non-realistic works James extols seem imaginatively self-indulgent, emotionally simplistic, and expressively slack in comparison with the complex realism practiced by Cassavetes, Kramer, and others.

It's a shame that James couldn't rise to the occasion that presented itself. America deserves a chance to rediscover one of its supreme bodies of artistic work. Even more importantly, American independent filmmakers deserve the opportunity to recover their own history and identity. Fortunately, it is a history and identity that is still in the making. Although James suggests that independent filmmaking as a powerful alternative to Hollywood modes of production gradually declined and faded out sometime in the late-seventies, a viewer interested in the art of film can give thanks that the independent movement is still going as strong in the eighties and nineties as it did in the two decades on which James focuses. There is a whole new group of independent artists out there continuing to re-write our cinematic heritage. But you won't see clips from their films on Siskel and Ebert; you won't read about them in the Times; and you won't find the movement of which they are a part done justice to in any of the standard film textbooks or scholarly studies. One of the greatest American artistic movements of the post-war period still awaits its historian.

--Excerpted from "Looking without Seeing," (a review of David E. James, Allegories Of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties) Partisan Review, Volume 58, number 4 (Fall 1991), pages 717ñ723.

To read more about fads and fashions in academic criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.