Trashing the avant-garde

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Constantinides, Zoe


As Mike Zryd pointed out this morning in his talk about the "usefulness" of experimental film studies in pedagogy, the avant-garde has been scapegoated over the run of the conference, with dubious allusions to its irrelevance, cultural elitism, and its propensity to rob us of the pleasures of cinema. Zryd did an admirable job today of "defending" the avant-garde, even if he was wary of adopting such a position. Rather than take a hard line, Zryd elegantly and persuasively argued that the avant-garde brings something to the table in its dialectical relationship to cinema (mainstream? narrative? I’m really not sure), and allows film scholars and, importantly, students to think differently about our object of study. Sure we could find challenging moving image practices elsewhere, in potentially more democratic (or at least populist) forms--and I don't disagree with John Caldwell's suggestion that marketers are doing remarkably innovative things with digital media--but the impulse to ghettoize the avant-garde is misguided (if fashionable, judging by the last two days).
Zryd pointed out that often modes of experimental production, distribution, and exhibition at least attempt to be accessible. There's no denying, though, that its "modes of intelligibility" (Barbara Klinger) involve a rather high degree of specialized knowledge. The avant-garde is not for the uninitiated.
While I don't want to set up an opposition between the avant-garde and the implied “rest of cinema” (a highly problematic generalization), I do want to mention my own frustration with a small, but significant trend in film studies, along the lines of what Jeffrey Sconce referred to yesterday as the "return of the elite repressed" or a "retrenchment" of authorial film analysis and interpretation that foregrounds not only the role of the intellectual as Barthesian artist and revealer of the deep hermeneutic secrets of cinema, but also trades on the symbolic capital of an exclusive film education. Sconce referred to this camp of film theorists as “stylists”, a term which has important resonances with ideas about differential cultural knowledge and, by extension, cultural hierarchies. It also implies a certain apoliticism, though I think the politics of modes of analysis founded on affect theory or formalism, for example, are more complex than that.  Still, this subjective and artful brand of film scholarship presumes the popular and populist status of cinema (as long as it’s not avant-garde)—from CHC to horror to arthouse—but then cocoons its objects of inquiry in layers of “beautiful” but obscure insight, defamiliarizing accessible films and alienating audiences from texts with which they had an intimacy. Sconce cited Baudrillard’s dictum that the goal of thought is to render the world more unintelligible, but as we saw with the debate around the elitism of the avant-garde, we would do well to consider the modes of intelligibility we implement in our study and interpretation of cinema.
A few days ago at the Film Studies Association of Canada conference, also at Concordia University, I encountered a graduate student who was rather smug about his deep appreciation of kitschy trash cinema. His condescension, of course, was just bad form and certainly doesn't indicate that all connoisseurs of paracinema are snobs who use irony as an intellectual weapon. Sconce’s own “Trashing the Academy” draws attention to the multivalent historical, institutional, and cultural processes activated in the elevation of paracinema. But I do suggest this example points to the fluidity of cultural hierarchies and the fallacy of pinpointing the avant-garde as the site of cultural elitism in cinema and cinema studies.

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