Five Appendices in Search of a Text: A Disproportionate Response (Piece) to Peter Gidal and Mark Webber, eds., Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016, with Excurses on “Structural Film”
The void at the center of this group of texts is an adequate response to Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016 in the face of its assault on language, representation, and recognition. What follows is offered as a (hopefully acceptable) substitute for a missing, unrecognizable yet still readable text.
The Un-Orthodox(y) (of) Peter Gidal /Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016
This is the me that am. Or, rather, the me that was at that moment and never will be again. The me that am, alas, does not last as long as a single cinematographic frame.
—Jerome Hill, Film Portrait (1972)
“I” am not the author of this book. The name on the cover is the same, but the “I” writing this foreword is in so many ways not the “I” who wrote the book fourteen years ago that he feels compelled to dissociate the two.
—Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice (1969; 1983)
Jerome Hill’s “the me that am (and am not),” and Noël Burch’s the “I” who am no longer (invoked by the author on the occasion of one of his book’s many re-printings): metaphors for the attempt to reconcile one’s earlier selves with one’s current self, negotiations with identities past and present.
I react badly reading others’ works when they immediately begin to quote so and so, some philosopher, artist, political power figure, as if the unconscious need is overpowering (and overdetermined) to give one’s own work spurious validity by identifying with power.
—Peter Gidal, “Introduction (First Draft),” Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016.
Nevetheless, I will attempt to go on.
What if this were more than a literary conceit? Not just a vivid metaphor for changing one’s mind and shifting one’s perceptions, but the foundation of a writing and artistic career spanning 50 years? A persistent resistance to a consistent identity, a struggle traceable not just from one essay to another, one year to the next, but sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence.
This is the struggle on view in Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016. Gidal’s statement of his approach to writing theory: “to put everything possible for each ‘subject’ or each ‘position’ or each ‘polemic’ contradictorily within each phrase or paragraph, so it becomes a simultaneity of—ideological/political/ personal—possibilities, that of a condensation of signifiers, that poetry: the German word Verdichtung means just that.”
Barely into the second page of the introduction—an introduction in two drafts with addenda written still later—Gidal stops, re-starts: “Writing the above as a first draft, by hand (August 2015) in a notebook late at night. The writings here assembled are seen by me as mainly writing itself, its impetus and pleasures, via the way one tried in words/with words to make something, including some idea, ideas, which are also sometimes concepts, motored by a polemical will to make at least some intervention in thought.”
Color plates in the middle of the book begin with reproductions from Gidal’s notebooks, handwriting scrawled on—of all things—graph paper; as if Gidal wanted some visual reminder of the structures he works against. The grid is an almost comically inapt backdrop to his purposely, persistently disordered, Sisyphusian (constantly starting again, re-trying) prose. Graph/draft paper: his writing retains a sense of the draft, the free-write, the process of working out rather than the completed object—the text—that is supposed to result.
Gidal wrote of “re-correction,” most famously—notoriously?—in “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film” (1975). A viewer of such a film forms an expectation of the film’s emerging structure, then is forced, in light of new evidence (more of the film) to re-think, adjust, reorient expectation, to try again/fail again. “Anticipate/recorrect.” This was the central dialectic of film and spectator in Gidal’s—the films were not “structures” but “structuring,” dialectical processes with a viewer. “The specific construct of each specific film is not the relevant point; one must beware not to let the construct, the shape take the place of the ‘story’ in narrative film.” [“Shape” here was/is a jab at P. Adams Sitney, who wrote “the structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline,” which Gidal took as fetishizing “shape,” “form(alism).”] A structural/materialist film “proper” was less a formal object than an occasion for a dialectical encounter between a process on screen and a corresponding process in the mind of the viewer.
“Re-” and “-ing.” Already, in this early essay, the sense of a concrete object begins to slip away, dissolving into a process that never sits still—the “re-”dundancy of the “re” in “re-correction” speaks to the same critical ethos that animates Gidal’s writing and thinking as a whole [“a whole” being precisely the notion that Gidal struggles against]. A film is, in fact, “the coming into presence of the film, i.e. the system of consciousness that produces the work, that is produced by, and in, it.” Just as “the writings here assembled are seen by me as mainly writing itself.” Processes, always in flux, take the place of objects. “Writing,” “structuring,” “coming into presence.”
Snipes at academese pepper Flare Out: “if I hear the word desire one more time I’m going to throw up,” he announced at a conference in 1988 [p. 178]. “In 1966 I had written a pedestrian essay (thus not reprinted) on ‘The Closeup in Godard and Warhol,’ thankfully such a dull title never occurred to me again.” And, of course, the (anti)-epigraph I take from Gidal (less an attempt to give my essay “spurious validity by identifying with power” than to show off how clever I am). But Gidal isn’t exactly innocent of appeals to academic authority himself—Lacan, Marx, Althusser, Brecht, and other superstars of critical theory since 1970 are everywhere in this volume. So there must be more to this than crankiness over jargon, quotation, and academic writing’s other peccadilloes.
It becomes apparent reading through Flare Out that, for Gidal, the use of language itself—any use of language—is a form of quotation, of repeating something that has been said before: “The arguments and polemics and there-from theory at times for something, namely an experimental film practice that was a process against recognition—as recognition means something already-known—continued for some decades, whilst those with to me strange and often reactionary beliefs in the world and its pre-given representations struggled daily to keep their phantasms alive, finding manifold ways of denigrating an anti-representational experimental film practice.”
Thus, a new term joins the familiar bugaboos of Gidal’s theory and practice, (“illusionism,” “representation,” “formalism”): recognition. Indeed, those other “isms” and “tions” are more or less synonymous with recognition; illusion entails recognition, in that we recognize the cinematic image of, say, a cloud as a cloud. Ditto representation. Formalism, by Gidal’s reckoning, entails recognizing “shape” or, especially where experimental film of the 1960s and 1970s was concerned, recognizing the materials of the film medium represented in modernist films—film grain, flicker, scratches, sprocket holes, and the like.
The defining trait of structural/materialist film, in Gidal’s account, is that it “attempts to be non-illusionist.” Critics writing about Gidal have typically identified this with modernist avant-garde cinema’s tradition of reflexivity, its “calling attention to” the materials of the film medium—grain, flicker, the frame, etc., etc. Film about film, not about anything else. This is at best an oversimplification, at worst—which is how Gidal took it—a betrayal of the political ambitions of structural/materialist film. He had already rejected the modernist interpretation in “Theory and Definition…” as a merely “mechanistic materialism,” warning “‘empty screen’ is no less significatory than ‘carefree happy smile.’” Film about film is still about something, something recognizable, “already-known.”
The world’s “pre-given representations,” those things we recognize, include language. The act of making meaning itself is the ultimate object of Gidal’s skepticism, regardless of what meanings—whether “reactionary” or “progressive”—are made. And “skepticism” is putting it mildly: “Without doubt it’s plain to see one thing always stands in for another, a thing for a word, a word for an unformed notion, a vagary, however abstract or concrete one tells oneself this is. And outside the telling oneself, outside the language, the moment-to-moment placing and unplacing of oneself (not ones thoughts but ones fragile or not self, seeming-self) is the removal, outside language, in relation to things, objects in the world.” This is from “Against Metaphor” (written in 1998, revised in 2005, and again in 2015—always “writing,” re-writing, re- re- re-), and for Gidal, metaphor and meaning are the same: restatements of the “already-known.”
How is criticism—or theorizing, or filmmaking—even possible under this constraint of a thoroughgoing suspicion of meaning?
Recognition: I recognize that. Identity, the sense of self, the ego, the “I” in the sentence, all “pre-given representations” as well.
Will the “real” author please step forward? No. “…a negativity constantly against, a ‘no’ always, whether from one’s personal, my personal psychoanalytic past and its needs, or just because antagonism to convention is in particular cases a polemical and therefore theoretical necessity—can produce another series of thoughts in conflict.”
The scare quotes (“subject,” “position,” “polemic”) here and throughout the book suggest real fear—something genuinely to be scared of.
As the sense of a film, or artwork, as a structure (opposed to “structuring”) slips away, the sense of self, whole self, follows. The dialectic between film and viewer is one in which both are ever coming into presence, the viewer as incomplete entity as the film.
Tony Conrad (“A Few Remarks Before I Begin,” 1977): “…the idea that ‘thoughts,’ in some sense, may appear, may reach the point of articulation, may be expressed for the first time, at least some thoughts which would be new to consciousness, and that this could occur within film.”
P.G.: “To crucially intervene in film practice, the ‘unthought’ must be brought to knowledge, thought.”
Thierry Kuntzel (“The Film Work 2,” 1980): “… another film might be imagined: a film in which the initial figure would not find its place in the flow of a narrative, in which the configuration of events contained in the formal matrix would not form a progressive order, in which the
Gidal as “polemicist.” But where is the pole? A persistent alterity. Constant negation. Another ingredient to theory, criticism, artmaking: identity. Gidal evades identity (as in “what the author is trying to ‘say’”) even more assiduously than he avoids language.
|David Gatten in
Fred Worden in
of Forms,” William
Rose, in MFJ #58,
—could structural/materialist film theory be liberating?
I suppose it comes down to how narrow the range of films that can be made according to these ideas is?
PG: “Straightforward historical falsifications still rebound in some recent books, taking as tragedy what began as farce: experimental filmmakers-to-be forced at the Film[makers] Co-op into straightjackets of practice, unconsciously mimicking the cartoon of victims being dragged into Structural/Materialist seminars I tacked to my office door in 1976. The extremely heterogeneous making of radical experimental film in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, and the writing of film theory, from those days, from that ghetto, can be found if the will is there.”
Trajectories Through ‘Structural Film:’ A Working Index
Inspired by Peter Gidal : Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016
“The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to its outline.”
—P. Adams Sitney, describing his category of “structural film” (first in 1969, and over and over ever since).
Perhaps Sitney spoke more truly than he knew. Structural film may be, in the final analysis, an empty category: an outline with “minimal” contents—were there ever any real structural films?—but that has for decades insisted on its shape, maintaining that shape in the face of a barrage of critiques, corrections, assaults, negations.
…By now, and quite to the contrary of Sitney’s intentions, has become a catch-all term for those avant-garde films of the 1960s and 1970s that were about film’s physical materials, its distinct aesthetic devices, and the perceptual effects peculiar to it. “Films about film,” according to one very popular contemporaneous expression. A modernist cinema akin to Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” (admittedly, this isn’t a bad way into the avant-garde films of the period, especially for someone teaching avant-garde cinema to the uninitiated). Sitney’s four features all imply filmic materiality become content: the flicker, loop printing, the fixed camera, and re-photography off the screen. All are variants of filmic materiality become content, freed from subservience to a narrative and brought front and center—the working of the shutter, the reproducibility of the photographic image, the presence of the camera, the fact of the screen surface (screen AS surface, rather than screen as window).
[Something akin to the critical language that formed around the missing, “removed” films of Warhol, a language that took on a life of its own, that constituted “imaginary” Warhol films in place of the real ones (made invisible by their maker), a critical or discursive “shape” around the black hole of the “absent signifiers” of Warhol’s cinema. What was left was like a fossil record of an organism long gone, at once preserved and replaced by its impression cast in stone. The process had its shortcomings to be sure, and more recent corrections to the critical myths of “Warholian cinema” made since his films have again become available are welcome. But the discursive model of “Warhol films” was also both creatively generative (see London avant-garde filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s) and a valuable record of contemporaneous avant-garde cinema’s galaxy of concepts, values, beliefs.]
Let’s void the outline “structural film,” or rather “Structural Film,” of its (putative) contents—the films given that label, whether by Sitney or any of the scores of authors who subsequently affirmed, contradicted, revised, or extended the category. The following assumes that “Structural Film,” is better understood—or at least more productive—as a discursive framework than a generic category containing actual films. Rather than a category into which a film might or might not “accurately” be placed, “Structural Film” is treated here as a discursive map of historical and theoretical territory that might illuminate individual films without claiming for them membership in a narrow category. Not a tabulation of so and so many structural films, then, but a charting of the idea of structural film itself, of its shape. The language of “Structural Film” taken as a trace of something—not only films, but of the collective (not at all to say unified) mind of experimental cinema.
Moving away from:
*Which variant of “structural film” is more historically accurate, representative, generative of the best analyses, etc.?
*Whether any particular variant of “structural film” is the most preferable;
*Identification of this or that film as “structural;” a tabulation of structural films, of films that should bear the “structural” label.
New frameworks for structural film (see Appendix C)
Scores of texts on “structural film” have in common an expression of an overarching idea about cinema. “The structural film insists on its shape.” The premise here is that shape itself—the concept of shape, and the belief that a film may possess a shape—is precisely the shape upon which structural film insists, over and over. The language of structural film is that of shapes.
To those who might object that this project echoes that other “Structuralism,” which sought to produce a totalizing, monolithic master model of all stories: I am not trying to produce such a model of all “structural” films. [David Bordwell christened “SLAB” theory—Saussure/Lacan/Althusser/Barthes—to suggest a blunt instrument.] First, there is no question of categorizing specific films, simply because there is no category being created here into which “all” “structural” films “fit.”
Second, this is tentative, a “working index.” The author welcomes all: critiques, additions, subtractions, alternatives, attacks (verbal only, please), refinements, rejections, negations, re-arrangements, cut-ups, questions, and suggestions (polite ones are preferred) that the project be abandoned. Comments on both form(at) and content are welcome. These can be made via email: email@example.com. The author plans to make updates periodically, and to make these available (somehow) to interested parties (in the unlikely event there are any).
New Frameworks for Structural Film
As academic scholarship is ever in search of “new frameworks” for viewing the past (and for assuring scholarly originality – the new, the first), I offer six such frameworks for re-viewing extant writings on Structural Film. Ready-to-use, tailored to the standard 5” x 7.5” size of numerous books and articles*, these new frameworks can be applied easily with immediate results.
*including but not limited to:
Peter Gidal, ed., Structural Film Anthology. London: BFI Press, 1976.
–, Materialist Film. London: Routledge, 1989.
Gidal and Mark Webber, eds., Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016. London: The Visible Press, 2016.
Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977.
Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
P. Adams, Sitney, ed., The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987.
–, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
William Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Peter Wollen, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies. London: Verso, 1982.
Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970.
Multiple issues of Film Culture, including special issue on Paul Sharits (nos. 65-66; 1978).
Multiple issues of Millennium Film Journal.
A Structural Film Abecedarium
(w/annotations in progress)
|Apparatus (“the” apparatus; the space of the cinema; “the space starts at the spectator’s [camera’s] eye, is in the air, then is on the screen, then is within the screen [the mind].” Michael Snow)
Arena (“the arena of confrontation with the given reality;” Gidal)
Artifact (modality: an arrangement, Arthur)
Coordinates (“coordinates are one room and one zoom;” Sitney on Wavelength)
Diagram (see Sharits)
Dimensions (time as “fourth dimension;” see also “Duration”)
Duration (as in “a duration;” duration as spatiotemporal; Le Grice’s White Field Duration)
Impression (as in physical shape “impressed” in receptive material – indexical mark)
Outline (“content is minimal and subsidiary to the outline;” Sitney)
Scale (e.g. scale of film time to real time; Le Grice’s “shallow time”)
Score (as in musical score)
Shape (see also: “time shape”)
Space (as in “a” space; “it is precise that events take place;” Snow)
Text(ile)* (see letter from Frampton to Gidal for a very interesting example)
Time shape (Sharits)
Trajectory (phenomenological readings of structural film; Sitney, Michelson, Krauss)
Vector (also see “Trajectory”)*
*indicates a cluster of terms from post-structuralist textual analysis (ala Thierry Kuntzel and Raymond Bellour). Though writing exclusively about narrative (mostly classical Hollywood) films, textual analysis re-imagined them as—in essence—structural films, precisely in the language of objecthood: “volumes,” “texts,” “tableaus,” “matrices,” “vectors,” at once objects and temporalities. The act of recuperation of popular cinema as avant-garde came under attack from Gidal, who dismissed textual analysis (or “Steenbeck analysis” as he called it).
Flare Outs : Artifacts
Inspired by reading, wrestling with, cutting up Peter Gidal / Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016. With many thanks to P.G.
Making the contents of these writings minimal and subsidiary to their outlines, insisting on the shapes of their ideas, of which the resulting artifacts and charred remains are the analogs.
Jonathan Walley is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Cinema at Denison University. He specializes in avant-garde/experimental cinema, particularly in expanded cinema and the relationship between film and the other arts. He has published on these subjects in October, Millennium Film Journal, Moving Image Review and Art Journal, The Velvet Light Trap, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and in numerous collections of scholarship on avant-garde film and art. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. He welcomes feedback on this piece (firstname.lastname@example.org).