A Relative Neophyte's View on the Avant-Garde (Re: Hagener and Zryd)

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I've never taken a course on the avant-garde nor embarked on any independent study of this mode of film practice.  This is probably a huge blind spot.  But despite my relative ignorance of the movement in question (I was one of the people in the room to sheepishly raise my hand when Mike Zryd asked who hadn't ever seen Wavelength), I found much to grab onto in both Malte Hagener's and Zryd's talks today.  

In Hagener's presentation, I was particularly invested in his historical discussion of film festivals and their role in the development of film culture, the legitimization of the medium as an artistic one, etc.  I'm not an historian, but if I was, I think that the history of film festivals (individual ones, probably - I would love to write a book on the history of Toronto, which is for me the best 10 days of each year unless I can't be in the city) would be where I'd hang my hat.  The idea that film festivals (like Venice) emerged out of potentially one-off art exhibitions that, because of the support of totalitarian regimes, were able to spin themselves off into annual events, was fascinating to me.  
I wonder, though, if the commercialization of film festivals (Toronto, for one, but more notably Sundance and Cannes) through both hypervisible corporate sponsorships (you can't walk two steps during TIFF without confronting a Bell advert) has come to undermine their original intent, which was to create spaces in which film(s) could be appreciated as art.  Not that commodities can't be art, but the foregrounding of film's commodity status in such arenas as the contemporary "big" film festival certainly creates an interesting tension, at the very least, between a film's status as art and as commodity.  This is underlined by what has become the primary function of most film festivals, which is for filmmakers to sell their movies to distributors.  Aspiring filmmakers submit their films to festivals like Sundance with the hope of being bought by a distribution company that will enable the filmmaker to recoup their investment (and that of investors).  The screening of the films for critics is secondary to this aim, and screenings for fans are below that.  (Of course, different festivals prioritize differently: the best thing about Toronto is the foregrounding of public screenings.  On a side note, I wonder if Sundance gets a percentage of every deal that they facilitate by screening the film?)
As to the issue of commercialization, some might say that sponsorship and art are mutually exclusive domains (see Andrew Covert's comments on Caldwell's talk yesterday), but I disagree.  Caldwell located television as a contemporary site of avant-garde practice, and I would like to suggest music videos and commercials specifically as one fruitful example this.  The novel aesthetic strategies developed by the incredibly creative talents working in these fields can simply be stunning, and has inarguably had an impact on the aesthetics of film (see music video directors that have transitioned to feature directing, such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry).  In his FSAC talk a few days ago, my colleague Matthew Ogonoski identified a paratextual viral marketing campaign for Gondry's film Be Kind Rewind as the site of amateur film production, fan participation and critical (if unintentional) commentary.  I absolutely believe that it should be part of our work in Film Studies to look at these kinds of phenomena, regardless of whether we want to designate such practices under the banner of the avant-garde, and regardless of whether we treat them as paratexts (i.e. peripheral or subordinate works that work to shape specific readings of the primary text, in this case Be Kind Rewind) or as texts themselves.  I'm more inclined to the former, while Matthew is more inclined, it would seem, for the latter.  I think that both are acceptable avenues.
Zryd's talk on the pedagogical uses of experimental cinema was equally fascinating.  I particularly liked his interrogation of terms like "useless" and "useful," and enjoyed his demonstration of how Les LeVeque's transformations of Hitchcock can be practically used in the undergraduate classroom.  I agree with Zryd that the degree of abstraction that these experimental films engender does provide a degree of aesthetic distance that could be genuinely useful in demonstrating the elements of Hitchcock's style that Zryd uses them to point out (colour in Vertigo, composition in Spellbound).  
In closing, I have one final comment on Zryd's talk that connects it to other work that has been presented over the past weekend.  Responding to Carroll's talk from the first day of ARTHEMIS, Zryd noted that avant-garde films could be seen as doing philosophy.  I'd like to suggest a slight tweak to this formulation.  Rather than doing philosophy (that is, advancing a position on a concept that is pertinent to the human condition), these films seem to me to be doing the "philosophy of cinema" as described yesterday by Dominique Chateau.  The goal of the philosophy of cinema as I understood it is to synthesize the "pure concept" of an element of cinema (e.g. montage, which was Chateau's project yesterday) from all of the various theories about it.  Avant-garde films can be fruitfully read as contributing to such a discourse by exploring and pushing the various capabilities of such elements to their limits (for example, perspective in Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity).

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