A far cry from the land of commercial film, avant-garde film scholar P. Adams Sitney has meticulously documented the history of avant-garde and experimental art filmmakers from the 1940s to the present in his books Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde in the 20th Century, Film Culture Reader and Modernist Montage:The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and Literature.
Princeton-based Sitney, who is currently spending a year as a senior research scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, will make a rare public appearance at a book discussion planned for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27th, at Bergamot Books, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Admission is free.
Arranging a public appearance with the man considered a foremost scholar of avant-garde film was no easy task.
“I initially said ‘no,’ says Sitney about the event. “I hate publicity and self-promotion. I loathe the people who run around to bookstores promoting their books. It takes a part of your soul. The world is inundated with crap, with people going around hyping junk food for the mind.”
Sitney’s theory on self-promotion is much in line with the school of filmmakers he writes about — like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith, Abigail Child and Maya Deren — filmmakers with not a chance of commercial success, but whose films are increasingly coveted by museum, art world and scholarly interests.
Sitney wrote extensively about American avant-garde films of the 1940s and 1950s, which he considers a heady period of experimental filmmaking.
Though many European filmmakers were renowned for their cutting edge art films, Sitney says that the Americans had much more to offer initially in the way of avant-garde films.
“After World War II, you could find a lot of 8- and 16-mm film equipment cheaply available in army/navy stores in the United States,” says Sitney. “In Europe, they kept thinking you had to work with 35-mm to really make a film.” 35-mm was cost-prohibitive, mostly limited to professionals with big commercial budgets.
Though the ’40s and ’50s were rich in creative output, it was not the easiest of times for avant-garde filmmakers to find distribution channels for their films.
“The time there was the most outlets for avant-garde filmmakers to show their films was the 1970s, when there was a substantial number of museums, universities, and state-supported arts programs that could provide funding,” says Sitney.
Sitney sees the relationship between avant-garde film and American commercial film as a “radical otherness”; that the two types have no significant influence on each other.
He mentions only filmmaker David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) as having a clear avant-garde influence.
“It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker like David Lynch without Kenneth Anger.”
But the vision and purpose of commercial and avant-garde films is undoubtedly at odds, and the commercial failure of the best of the avant-garde easily illustrates the age-old artist dilemma of not being able to simultaneously satisfy both art and commerce.
“The aims and needs [of avant-garde films and commercial films] are quite different. Most commercial films openly answer to stockholders,” says Sitney.
Avant-garde films, on the other hand, are purely visionary and romantic, answering only to the conscience of the artist rather than commercial demands.
And Sitney has no pretense of profitability in the avant-garde genre.
“If I invested my retirement money in movies, I would want it to go into films I deplore,” explains Sitney. “I’d want it to go into Mel Gibson films, kitschy Braveheart-type films that are bound to make a profit. I wouldn’t invest it in Brakhage or I’d be a pauper.”
To simply say that the budget of avant-garde filmmakers is smaller than that of commercial filmmakers is a gross understatement.
“The budget of any one Hollywood feature would probably cover almost all avant-garde production costs for the past 20 years,” estimates Sitney.
Aside from being an author, film scholar and professor at Princeton University, Sitney was one of a group that cofounded New York City’s Anthology Film Archives in 1969, a museum and theater dedicated to the preservation of art films, and to the vision of the art of cinema as guided by the avant-garde sensibility.
A drastic decrease in interest in film came with the rise of video stores in the ’80s, and now, in the age of digital, actual use of film has decreased to an even further degree. Aficionados like Sitney are concerned.
“It’s not a matter of which medium is better or worse,” says Sitney. “It’s a matter of loving something that might disappear, like if they destroyed a neighborhood park in order to build a school.”
And film is the preferred mode still among today’s avant-garde.
“The gradual disappearance of film has led to an interest in what specifically film can do, and has revealed among many filmmakers an intense love of the chemical image.”
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