Given the title of the Walker’s exhibition The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960–1973, a quick review of definitions for that first noun seems worthwhile. The Oxford English Dictionary first defines a renegade as “a person who renounces his or her faith; an apostate,” with religious conversion from Christianity to Islam cited as an example. By contrast, its second definition has a more political inflection: “a person who deserts, betrays, or is disloyal to an organization, country, or set of principles; a turncoat, a traitor.” More recent definitions have connotations of rebelliousness, noncomformity, detachment, and even nihilism.
These multiple meanings, orientations, and targets of the term “renegade” are indicative of the plurality of viewpoints brought together under the broad umbrella of alternative filmmaking in the 1960s. There are those filmmakers who rejected religious authority, seeking transcendence and enlightenment through Eastern spiritual traditions, hallucinogenic drugs, and other consciousness-expanding activities. Some targeted the politics of the era, rejecting the conformity and consumerism of the 1950s in favor of free speech, free love, civil rights, and an end to the Vietnam War. Others took aim at the art world, creating works that challenged the authority of the gallery, the museum, or the auction house; and still others waged their attacks against Hollywood, which then as now was the locus of the dominant form of cinema.
What brings together these diverse groups of people, what drew them all to film specifically, is, as film historian David James has argued, “the decision to take control of the means of film production, to become themselves producers rather than merely consumers.” In 1961, a group of 25 New York filmmakers banded together to form what became known as the New American Cinema Group, and in their first manifesto they declared, “The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring.” In addition to advancing a set of concrete institutional proposals, including a distribution center that later became the Film-makers’ Cooperative, they vehemently asserted their independence from dominant cinema, from the authorities who would a few years later censor and imprison some of their members for showing what they considered to be obscene films: “[W]e don’t want rosy films,” they wrote, “we want them the color of blood.”
Why did cinema become the battleground for these cultural and political struggles? Certainly other means of expression, such as the protest music of the era, were critical sites of articulation. But cinema was and arguably still is the more pervasive vehicle of the mainstream. The dominant cinema—and by this I mean not just Hollywood films but television, the news media, advertising, and the whole array of visual media that crowd our lives—was profoundly tied to the dominant culture. The cinematic, or what the philosopher Guy Debord famously described as “the society of the spectacle,” shaped everything from the televised frenzy of Beatlemania to popular, or increasingly unpopular, opinion about the war.
Seizing the means of production, then, became an important way to express difference and dissent. To interrupt or even to reverse the top-down flow of media broadly aligned with many of the era’s contestations, whether to create room for personal expression, to agitate politically, or to interrogate the nature and constitution of the image. Cinema’s centrality in everyday life is described by Ken Kesey (as recounted by Tom Wolfe) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “We are all of us doomed to spend our lives watching a movie of our lives—we are always acting on what has just finished happening.” Life in midcentury America was unthinkable apart from the movies, and because of this, cinema became the primary place to assert a personal, psychological, and political existence against a dominant culture.
This became the foundation for numerous alternative cinemas variously identified as underground, independent, radical, experimental, and avant-garde. These were made in nearly every city in the United States, and were screened on college campuses, art house theaters, film societies, and, increasingly, at arts institutions such as the Walker, which in 1973 created its film department and began collecting films with the establishment of the Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection.
While they had different aims and formal strategies, what they had in common was the turn away from dominant cinema, which included both its form—for example, the narrative-driven quality of popular film genres—and the industrialized means of production that generated film’s commodity status.
Perhaps the most pervasive aspect of dominant cinema that alternative film rejected was the cultural assumption that films are meant to entertain and distract us (at a modest price) from the tedium of the workday. Because of this, movies weren’t typically taken seriously, or thought deserving of critical scrutiny. And yet as Kesey’s words indicate, commercial cinema was also very deeply involved in shaping, often uncritically, psychological experiences and expectations. With alternative cinema, then, one could resist the directives of dominant cinema, or even launch an attack against them. As Gil Scott-Heron said in 1970, “The revolution will not be televised,” and for alternative cinema this meant that real change, political or aesthetic, would not happen in dominant culture, but elsewhere, off the grid, in the more clandestine spaces of the underground.
Cinema as Change Agent
The impetus to turn toward cinema to enact change came out of a broader climate of social and political turbulence. The ’60s are often associated with a sense of dynamism, optimism, creativity, and liberatory politics, but there was also considerable turmoil, violence, and war, particularly toward the end of the decade. Doubt and disillusionment came to mark the later part of the period as much as its early sense of freedom and possibility. In the dense and compact span of roughly a decade, the country saw numerous movements like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), spring into being, expand, franchise, factionalize, and splinter apart.
The Weather Underground, for example, a radicalized and militant offshoot of the SDS, took its name from a lyric in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which they announced in a position paper in June 1969. They quoted: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” By the turbulent end of the decade, however, with the New Left fractious and scattered and Richard Nixon elected to office, the direction of the wind was less certain than its gale force. Accordingly, many films were integral elements of political projects. Documentary groups, such as the various Newsreel outfits, or the cine-tracts of French filmmakers in the days surrounding the May/June 1968 street demonstrations, gained urgency particularly by the later half of the ’60s. Such films were not only illustrative but served pedagogical and bluntly agitprop ends.
Emile de Antonio’s 1968 radical leftist documentary In the Year of the Pig, for example, incorporated interviews with American soldiers in Vietnam conducted by ABC reporters to highlight the role media plays in shaping popular opinion about the war. It became an important antiwar tool, or what de Antonio called a “film weapon.” In theaters it was often greeted with boos from the audience, and some venues that showed it faced bomb threats and vandalism. Still, the film’s influence was difficult to deny, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.
Dominant cinema, too, was undergoing profound transformation during this period. The studio system was challenged, on one hand, by the rise of television, and on the other, antitrust legislation that forced it to cede control of theaters screening their films. In the wake of the failure of lavish blockbusters such as Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia, production budgets shrank and a period of modest experimentation (compared to what was happening in alternative film) came to characterize what is known as New Hollywood, a generation that includes directors Coppola, Mike Nichols (who made The Graduate in 1967), and Arthur Penn (who made Bonnie and Clyde, also in 1967).
Simultaneously, independent exhibitors and art house and foreign cinemas rushed to fill the Hollywood gap with smaller and more politically and sexually daring films. In St. Paul, the Film in the Cities media arts center was founded in 1970, one of about 30 such groups established nationwide.
Much of what was shown in these spaces was explicitly anti-Hollywood. This was expressed frequently on formal terms, meaning that the attacks were waged at the level of the films’ construction. Narrative, for example, was subverted, distended, made incoherent, or in the more radical cases, rejected altogether. Stories stitched together by a three-part structure of beginning, middle, and end, by realistic portrayals of characters and their motivations, and by a coherent orientation in a particular time or location, were unraveled in favor of poetic construction. Stan Brakhage often used the analogy of literature to explain the difference between mainstream cinema and the avant-garde: if dominant cinema takes the form of prose, like a novel, then avant-garde film is more akin to poetry in its attentiveness to mood, rhythm, and sensation.
Given this, it is no surprise that the Beats were among the first to explore and popularize a notion of underground film. In Pull My Daisy (1959), we can see filmmakers Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie attempt to apply an improvisational style borrowed from jazz, as well as a riffed voice-over by Jack Kerouac, to a series of loosely connected events (the title suggests the narrative structure by referencing the idea of a daisy chain).
The Beats’ irreverent, countercultural attitude and their gentle mocking of social conventions—the domestic routines of mother and son, school lessons, the preoccupations of ordinary people on the street—are a long way from the confrontational politics of In the Year of the Pig, or other radical works made later in the ’60s.
The art world, too, was not immune to the dramatic social and cultural upheavals of the time, and many of the activities in alternative film practice were closely related to new questions being posed about the status of the art object. During the ’40s and ’50s, Abstract Expressionism revolutionized art by placing emphasis on the medium; instead of a landscape or a portrait, the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock foregrounded the flatness of the canvas and the process of making the image. Painting, as critic Clement Greenberg argued, wasn’t “about” anything other than the two-dimensionality of paint applied to canvas. Anything else was illusion.
By the ’60s, these concerns grew into Pop Art, Minimalism, and conceptual art, all strategies that extended the interrogation of the nature of the art object. Pop, for example, questioned the commodity status of art, as when Andy Warhol used the commercial process of screenprinting to produce art objects that had been traditionally associated with craftsmanship, skill, and uniqueness. Minimalism and conceptualism, meanwhile, probed the limits of what could be considered art, or how the status of art was conferred: could an idea be art, or a performance? What if art was taken out of the gallery and into the landscape, or, for that matter, into the cinema? And if a film were placed inside a gallery, would that then give it the status of art?
Avant-garde cinema shared these concerns about the nature of the art object, its material or immaterial basis, its commodity status, and its institutional settings. A grouping of works known as “structural films,” so named in an influential 1969 Film Culture essay by P. Adams Sitney, represented a purist tendency that explicitly engaged the nature of the medium as its subject. The aims and methods of structural films were almost immediately contested within the avant-garde film community—and certainly there was quite a lot of variation among its many practitioners including, in the US, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, Tony Conrad, and James Benning. But in general, they all scrutinized the cinematic apparatus: not just what appears on screen but the whole ensemble of the theater, the beam of the projector, and so forth. They also critiqued the elements of film grammar, breaking down the ideas of narrative and action. Along with minimalist visual art, structural film shared a drive to reduction and the eradication of subjectivity; with conceptual art, it shared an emphasis of the concept, or idea, over the object.
In creating Lemon (1969), currently on view in The Renegades, Frampton controlled a single variable, the movement of a light source over a lemon, and suppressed all others. For Frampton, lighting the lemon in this way evoked certain representational ideas in painting, or what he called a “painterly conundrum”: the issues of framing, modeling, scale, texture, lighting, and the idea of the still life.
By calling attention to these properties, Frampton ultimately reveals the tension between a two-dimensional surface, as in painting and in cinema, and the illusion of three-dimensional objects. In this way, Lemon critiques the illusory tendencies endemic to both painting and cinema, bringing together the concerns of the art and film worlds in a single work. In its later existence, too, Lemon was not immune from the type of commodification that was more commonly the concern of Pop Art, as this Vogue fashion spread from November 2005 demonstrates.
Lemon is one of many examples illustrating considerable overlap between art and film; structural film shared with its visual art counterparts many of the same social institutions and organizations, including funding sources, journals, and exhibition spaces. The ’60s weren’t the first instance of crossover between these media, nor would it be the last. In the 1920s, for example, surrealist and Dada artists took to film to extend their avant-garde platforms; today we see many artists working with moving-image media in art contexts, and experimental filmmakers producing or translating their work for installation settings. But the ’60s in particular saw a period of intense exchange between the art and film worlds. Artists such as Warhol moved between both—he made many films and also regularly attended screenings at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 in New York.
And a film like Michael Snow’s Wavelength was claimed by both camps: consisting of a single 45-minute fixed-camera zoom through the space of a Manhattan loft, Wavelength related to concerns in both art (questioning the composition of the image and the frame) and film (questioning the nature of cinematic time, action, and movement).
Yet however much they blurred the boundaries between film and radical politics on one hand, and film and visual art on the other, filmmakers insistently created for themselves a new space for making, distributing, exhibiting, and writing about their work. One of the most lasting legacies of the period was the formation of institutions like the Film-makers’ Coop in New York; Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, also a distribution center; Anthology Film Archives, a film library and screening venue in New York; the Women Make Movies group, dedicated to feminist media; and Electronic Arts Intermix, an early organization for video art. The ’60s also saw universities including SUNY Buffalo establishing the first academic media studies departments and major arts institutions creating dedicated film programs.
Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker, poet, critic, and a key member of many of the era’s film organizations, asserted separateness of alternative film in the pages of Film Culture: “There is a feeling in the air that cinema is only beginning,” he wrote in 1962. “[N]ow cinema is available not only to those who possess a high organizational and group-work talent, but also to those poets who are more sensitive, but often un-communal, who prefer privacy, whose powers of observation and imagination are most active in privacy.” With those heady lines, Mekas affirms the almost utopian iconoclasm of alternative film, but this renegade turn also, paradoxically, must leave room to turn against itself. To make films the color of blood, Mekas seems to say, is not only about severing the connection to dominant cinema, but also sometimes cutting off the individual from the group, to withdraw from social organization altogether.
Going Underground: Escape or Engagement?
In Allegories of Cinema, David James characterizes two strategies taken by filmmakers during the ’60s: those who withdrew from dominant culture, and those who rebelled against it by actively engaging with it. Like the multiple meanings of the word “renegade,” this is a contrast between a space of autonomy, on one hand, and a space of critique, on the other. To illustrate these different approaches, consider one of the era’s most famous debates, which occurred between Brakhage and Carolee Schneemann. Brakhage’s Mothlight, which is part of the Renegades exhibition, is concerned with light, movement, and elements drawn from the natural world—moth wings, leaves, and pollen.
In James’ schema, Brakhage was one of the most extreme examples of the filmmaker’s autonomy, retreating to a cabin in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder, Colorado, away from the nexus of film activity in bohemian New York. There, in isolation, he was free to explore, as he put it, “birth, sex, death, and the search for God.” His subjects were his surroundings, including the mountain woods and his own family. After shooting, he often painted or scratched onto the celluloid directly; as Mothlight shows, much of Brakhage’s practice is about the labor-intensive processes that happen after or without exposing film in a camera. For Brakhage, filmmaking was not just a vocation but an integral part of his life.
In Cat’s Cradle, he filmed the domestic life of two couples and a cat sharing a house: Brakhage and his then-wife Jane, Schneemann and her partner James Tenney, and Kitch the cat. The film shows Brakhage working with one of his major themes, in this case sex, and his style is characteristically full of quick cuts and repeated imagery that amounts to a kind of visual rhythm amplified by the film’s lack of sound.
In an interview Brakhage remarked, “[A]ll sex within Cat’s Cradle tends to be interrelated; that is, there is no sex that does not involve four people with the cat seen as the visual medium of heat.” Yet while the erotic dimension of these two couples is Brakhage’s subject, sex is treated only obliquely. In a way, we see everything but sex, and the clarity of what we see is often obscured by the rapid editing, or in this image of a woman’s breast, by being thrown out of focus. Brakhage prefers to suggest, rather than to show, sex. The recurring shots of the cat speak also to this impulse as they substitute for the views of sex we might otherwise see.
Schneemann was frustrated with Brakhage’s depiction of her relationship with Tenney in Cat’s Cradle, and as a response she made her film Fuses in 1965. Outwardly, it looks a lot like a Brakhage film; it is heavily edited and manipulated with hand-painting and animation. Shots recur and don’t seem to go anywhere, at least in the sense of a narrative progression. Fuses is also silent.
This is where the similarities end, however. Schneemann, who began as a painter and became known as a performance artist, used her art to critique the dominant modes of representing women, particularly female sexuality. As she and other feminists argued, men determine what bodies can and should be seen, which are beautiful, and which are vulgar. In Pull My Daisy, for example, the wife is not allowed to be a free-spirited poet like the men, but is made to represent the values against which they rebel. Warhol’s screenprinted Marilyns, meanwhile, play on the movie star’s iconographic and superficial sexuality. Female bodies, so central to the history of art and cinema, were rarely portrayed from the perspective of women. As Schneemann once wrote, “My sexuality was idealized, fetishized, but the organic experience of my own body was referred to as defiling, stinking, contaminating.”
As a result, Fuses is explicitly sexual where Cat’s Cradle is coy. The film employs a number of perspectives: Schneemann and Tenney alternatively shoot each other with the handheld camera, or they set up the camera on a tripod in their bedroom. Each of their bodies is given roughly equal scrutiny and screen time. There is also the perspective of Kitch the cat, who instead of substituting for images of sex, as in Cat’s Cradle, is here the witness to the act itself.
The most important perspective, of course, is Schneemann’s. In describing her reasons for making Fuses, she wrote, “I had never seen any erotica or pornography that approached what lived sexuality felt like.” The film, for her, was a project of reclaiming her body, and the representation of her body, from male artists that in her view only reproduced the patriarchy of the culture at large. If Brakhage’s concerns of “birth, sex, death, and the search for God” appeared apolitical or disengaged from dominant culture, Fuses asserts that there are indeed traces of dominant culture still present in his work.
Schneemann’s film is confrontational in the way it adopts many of Brakhage’s stylistics, but with the crucial distinction being that Fuses displays what Cat’s Cradle is unwilling to show: not just the act of sex, but the suppressed politics of gender inequity. By making it as a corrective to Brakhage’s vision, Schneemann reclaims her sexuality, her body, and her point of view, and joins the broader feminist culture that was then just emerging. Rather than withdrawing from dominant culture like Brakhage, she brought the battle to him.
To conclude, I want to return to a line from the First Statement of the New American Cinema Group: “[W]e don’t want rosy films—we want them the color of blood.” Working against the “rosy” glow of ’50s television programs such as Leave it to Beaver or the nostalgia-tinged illustrations of Norman Rockwell, filmmakers in the ’60s imagined a new and different cinema, one that practically beat with a pulse. This cinema was not intended as mere entertainment, but as an agent of real, concrete change. However different their aims and orientations—some used films to build alternative communities, to leverage political battles, or to revolutionize the art world, while others used the cinema to withdraw deep into the psyche—film became the most immediate, and the most urgent, way of transforming themselves and the world around them. In this moment, these films, films the color of blood, became as vital as life itself.
Genevieve Yue is a CFD postdoctoral fellow at Macalester College. This essay was adapted from Yue’s talk on experimental film at the Walker, presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960–1973, on view through January 6. Her talk was also part of Art School: What the %#@! Is Contemporary Art?, a continuing series for Walker members.
“We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films—we want them the color of blood.” —The Film-makers Cooperative, 1962