The Adventures of Form (1990)

   A Song of Ceylon

Introduction 2022: The following pair of texts from 1990 were connected as a sequence in my mind (which is why I combine them here), if not in the circumstances of their commission and publication. They come from a period of my life when I was deeply absorbed in experimental/avant-garde cinema – both in its programming/screening (“curation”, as we’d say today!), and in the possibility of establishing a robust critical/theoretical tradition in and around it. The pretext was usually Australian-made work – as I was heavily involved, at the time, with the small arts organisation MIMA (later renamed and up-marketed as Experimenta) – but the outlook of most people involved in that scene was invariably international, as is often the case in avant-garde subcultures. The first essay – which I somewhat cryptically titled “Introduction to the Adventures of Form”! – was written to accompany a program of Australian film and photography (titled Aurora Australis) selected by Ann Pollock Berecry for Presentation House Gallery (today restyled as The Polygon Gallery) in Vancouver. I realise in retrospect that whenever I received the invitation – rare, in those days – to write for a non-Australian art audience, I would use it as an opportunity to mull over something for myself that I figured nobody “at home” would read, and probably very few people abroad would understand! (I would also never fail to subtly or unsubtly criticise the curatorial selection made by the interloping “outsider” – a habit that, oddly enough, rarely went down well.) The second essay comes from the 1990 MIMA Experimenta Festival catalogue.





The kind of art that works for me is Orphic, i.e., we are too gripped by darkness when we’re whole, we are alert only when we are floating heads. It’s the vulnerability that interests me, not the déjà vu doctrine. Obviously you try to capture the shifting politics and sociologies of every work. I’m not against asking tough-minded, historical materialist questions – I think it’s crucial – but a lot of art work is very fragile. It exists across the gap between blindness and insight. With society turning all experience into a form of consumption, is it still possible to be moved?

George Alexander


The relation between Theory and Practice – those two well-known fictional characters – has always been stormy, even despite the efforts and dreams of those who, over roughly the last 25 years, have wanted to see the couple fused once and for all.


This uneasy détente – often breaking out into total war – besets avant-garde film as much as it does any of the contemporary visual arts. Among the milestones in the literature on experimental film, Noël Burch gave one of the first and most stirring renditions of the happy-marriage scenario in his 1966 Praxis du cinéma – a “theory of film practice”, as its title was later translated into English. Both a filmmaker and a film scholar, Burch spoke of a type of practical research – thoughts and ideas gained from the viewing of films, from reading and writing about them, were then pursued in the materials of film itself.


In a sense, it was an attitude that the Nouvelle Vague of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette et al had already pioneered, in terms of a cinephile’s love of filmic fictions – especially heightened moments, and his or her desire to prolong such experiences, extend them, analyse them, abstract and heighten them further through somehow remaking them.


But for Burch, as befits the self-styled avant-garde artist, research had to have a more rigorous, materialist, i.e., formalist edge: not to spin out beloved Hollywood fictions, but to explore the edges of the frame, off-screen space, the role of sound, editing discontinuities, and so on. In his book, he lists all the parameters of film form he can conceptualise, and then sets about a systematic inventory of their possible permutations (a familiar practical avant-garde project, from Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena [1971-1972] to Philip Brophy’s Contracted Cinema [1978]).


Burch was not strictly scientific and calculating about such a manner of film work (in his open-ended and playful system, chance was to play a major part). What he envisaged was not an illustration of theoretical precepts in or on film, but rather, a kind of transformation-in-process of them, a working-through of some hunch, intuition or game that could well take the filmmaker/thinker very far from where he or she started – ending up with a new set of ideas and problems to be worked on in film or writing. (The more that Sergei Eisenstein is re-read by our contemporaries including Jacques Aumont, the more one suspects that he was the prototype of the artist/thinker working perpetually towards such a praxis.)


Not all theoretical or essay cinema (as it has been variously called) of the intervening years has been so willing to jettison its supposedly solid theoretical underpinnings (indeed, Burch’s own Correction, Please [1979] is a fairly pedagogic, by-the-numbers film theory exercise). But, in its most open, fluid form, Burch’s way has been the most attractive, and for periods an almost workable, form of the theory-practice partnership. Theorists who are the most sensitive to the new achievements of art, most respectful of the labour of artists, and most desirous to make their own writing creative rather than simply descriptive or transparent (Jean-François Lyotard is an example) have championed this notion of a mutual research – theory and practice forever extending, transforming, providing some possible materials for each other’s experimentation, without a hierarchy of dominance, neither one getting the first or last word in the relation. And filmmakers like Burch or Peter Gidal have also been more than open to this possibility – encouraging the idea that theory and practice feed each other, anticipate each other. Sounds good, no?


However, as Buffalo Springfield sang in the 1960s, paranoia strikes deep – and into your life it will creep! The paranoid relation (in life as in art) is all about the fear that one is being flattered and seduced in order to be, at any imminent moment, incorporated, exploited, obliterated. In a psychoanalytic sense, paranoia signals the fear of losing one’s clear borders, definition or identity. Paranoia is at times (to be sure) the best defence, vitally required – particularly if one has (like avant-garde filmmakers everywhere) fought long and hard to create any cohesive sense of personal identity, or a shared social and cultural space.


The paranoid delusion is sometimes the truest insight: “they” are indeed out to get you, to wipe you off the face of the earth. The very notion of an avant-garde practice – something necessarily not for everyone, not modelled on the norms of consumer entertainment, something frequently difficult initially to watch and hear – still creates such palpable unease, such bad vibes in some prominent mainstream media journalists, educationalists and film-world bureaucrats, that it clearly invites secret (or not so secret) imaginings, on the part of practitioners, of imperialist invasion and genocidal extermination. Paranoia, in this creepy scenario, is just one good way of remaining vigilant, on guard.


All the same, the paranoid state can also be a sign of advanced unhealth, a total refusal to ever move beyond one’s long rigid and static borders an inability to deal with one’s opposite number, or indeed the whole range of one’s Others, those who are different from you. If crippling paranoia of this sort is one of the ground-tones of our Western culture, it can be heard every day on the radio in one of the otherwise most progressive musical forms: rap. “We’re Run-DMC, got a beat to settle / D’s not Hansel, he’s not Gretel!” Rap says, over and over (and sometimes, again, for good political reasons), on every imaginable pretext (even nursery rhymes) or point: I’m not you, you’re not me, you’ll never know me, don’t even try, get out of my space and out of my face (see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing [1989] for a dramatisation of this as a total model of social relations).


I can’t help but hear an echo of this rap when avant-garde filmmakers (in Australia as elsewhere) express their suspicions of the motivations of critics/theorists who start exploring their field. (I’ve long been subject to this suspicion myself!) Are these critic-types about to simply annex avant-garde film/video to their empire, their institution of theoretical texts and propositions? Are they going to subordinate the (more or less) open-ended practice of art to the rational, prescriptive, exclusive, reductive certainties of a dogmatic theoretical or pedagogical program? The result of such paranoid speculation is often a trench mentality, wilfully sticking to old guns, old positions, set themes and practices.


Critics, on their part, are just as good at mirroring the paranoid sentiment. Their authoritarian streak can be discouraging to artists and, indeed, downright fascistic in cultural terms. Such critics sneer: Don’t filmmakers read? Aren’t they concerned with the key ongoing debates and issues? Shouldn’t they be engaging with what’s going down right now, at the forefront of common research? In this way, so many artists are so quickly cast off the current agenda for being old-fashioned, disengaged, contributing nothing useful or vital to current discussions … and the special work that is chosen for (or blessed with) close analysis is indeed often reduced, managed to fit a certain grid that highlights only specific, theoretically sanctioned points of interest. (In Britain, for instance, Stephen Dwoskin became theoretically/critically fashionable for about two weeks out of his long career when his film practice fortuitously coincided, in the mid ’70s, with writings on the cinematic gaze, voyeurism, scopophilia, and so on – and even then, he tended to be the negative pole of the argument!)


It’s all very well to assert that filmmakers and theorists should (and sometimes happily do) share and swap materials of various sorts, that their work runs in tandem, intertwining at many points, that neither is in any sense superior to the other, and so forth. But isn’t such a romance of mutual interdependence, finally, a little stifling for both parties concerned? One needs a bit more difference, distance, autonomy in the relationship beyond what is usually allowed – that is, if we conjure theory and practice, in the usual binary way, as opposite sexes, drawn to and in need of each other.


There is no unbridgeable abyss between the work of theory and the work of practice – experience and history always prove otherwise – but neither is there necessarily a clear, common ground. One distinction between writing/criticism/theory and the practice of art can be described as follows: the difference between (respectively) rhetoric and evidence.


Criticism, as I see it (and it is what I see myself as doing), functions in a rhetorical way. It is about sizing up the here and now, making a move, intervening. It is immaterial what the pretext of the writing is – an old movie, a new painting, whatever – because where and how it happens is in the action of the forces it calls up and marshals at a specific point of historical time and cultural space. Criticism, in this sense, is always on the spot, polemical (which is why it can date so quickly and translate so badly into foreign contexts). Often it is openly rhetorical, explicitly marking the contextual positions and elements of time and location at play, you the reader and I the author.


Essentially, I dislike the work of critics who are (or act) dumb about the inevitable political, rhetorical function of what they publish, and the material factors which inflect how they are read and what they can manage to communicate. (Much criticism of the arts is still plagued by the worst apolitical Romanticism of sensitive souls expressing their responses to a free-floating artwork on the virgin page.) I tend to demand that criticism be aware of its here’s and now’s, that it be answerable to the cultural struggles (however minute or localised) of the day, and the scene.


In the face of some art, however, I feel impelled to make no such demand (although I once might have, in the triumphal days of the March of Theory 1975-1985). I don’t immediately care if the avant-garde film I see tomorrow is exactly on-the-spot where I would like to be as a critic. There are many works of which one cannot make immediate sense – but one is, all the same, gripped, moved, shaken by a sense of their immense significance. In such cases, art practice comes at you in the form of brute evidence, a presence to be gradually reckoned with, figured into what you know and what you do.


I don’t mean by this, imperially, that art offers up an enigmatic symptom of the times that the critic will later master and decipher (symptomatic reading, as that practice is known). On the contrary, one of art’s most salutary functions is to affront, over and over, the too-easily assumed mastery of the critical, rational mind. Some films hit you from a space other to the one in which you are working. They thus impress upon you the very evidence of otherness everywhere, of matters and emotions still (or again) marginalised, silenced, banished, exiled to the limbo of the culture and the mind, not to mention the heart.


The problem of theory or criticism simply missing the significance or resonance of a work of art is particularly exacerbated in the area of avant-garde film. For how does one talk about and value the kinds of works that are not clearly about anything in the first place, which don’t seem to offer any immediate commentary or reflection on a topic, event or situation?


Many manifestations of theory and criticism are indelibly bound (whether they would admit it or not) to art’s more conventional representational contract/mandate – the obligation to stage and picture, at whatever level, identifiable characters, stories, times and places. Everything we call abstract art naturally falls outside the terms of this contract. Traditional art criticism has found numerous, if rather feeble, ways of discussing abstraction, for instance in painting: as a reflection of the artist’s state of mind, as the gesturely expression of inchoate drives, as purely spiritual diagrams of energy … This has tended to give abstraction and other non-representational practices a rather childish, primitive, impulsivist character, securing them a place firmly on the far side of critical rationality as a pleasing shadow world to be patronised, dipped into, rhetorically evoked at will.


Even the most strait-laced critic or curator knows, these days, to make a show of themselves letting their hair down approvingly before a work which is dauntingly obscure and awesome, somehow thrilling and disturbing, “breaking all the rules”. This sorry tactic indeed conjures difficult, avant-garde work as Other – but secretly and defensively forestalls the moment of ever having to encounter and to be worked over by this Other. It enshrines the spectacular as exemplary, and forfeits the fragile – the unusual tone, the unfamiliar shape, the work whose undeniable reserve of logic and order is as unfathomable in immediate critical terms as its passion, its tender charge of emotion.


Spectacular and fragile alike, the difficult work that moves us does so through its form – and form, despite the reams of aesthetic theory that have been devoted to its definition and elaboration, remains as elusive, as unaccounted for as ever. And particularly so in the case of avant-garde. We are still very far from plotting, being able to bear witness to, the adventures of form that have gone on, are always going on, in obscure pockets of intense, creative activity everywhere.


This is why (speaking personally) I will always value, on principle, the murky hand-scratched film, the obscure montage experiment, the fleeting lyrical film poem, the intensely coloured and wavering abstraction – anything I find strangely compelling – above the work which I can know too quickly and too well, which pushes prescribed buttons and lights up neon signs of mere interest and prefabricated interpretation (“profitless” reading, as Stanley Cavell called it in another context).


I’m not opposing form to content here, as in the old art-class distinction between a vessel and what it contains – for, in the entire sphere of independent film, there are a thousand perfectly boring and predictable formalist experiments, and their clear operations on this level (de-framing, “returning the gaze”, systematic play with off-screen space, etc.) is certainly what constitutes their content! However, in appealing to films in which the form swallows the content, or transforms it beyond recognition, I mean that the works in question get (or start) well beyond the points of identification available at any given time – the points from which, typically, critics (and audiences) achieve their easy reading, their mastery, their appropriation and purchase of the text. I am referring here not so much to conventional, emotional identification with a character or story, but rather engagement (deep or shallow as it may be) with a known issue, topic or (in the journalistic sense) angle.


Not that I’m exactly against work which engages with, or somehow acutely reflects, current points of theoretical/critical debate (whatever they may be at any given time), which aims to be instrumental, more or less a tool within what Gilles Deleuze once called the toolbox of available intellectual and artistic materials. For, as Deleuze well taught us, the kinds of machines that can be built from any such toolbox are themselves incredibly variable and open to transformation, and that in itself can be an adventure of the highest order.


Among the independents represented in the Aurora Australis program, I would nominate Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985), Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (1983), Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989), Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985), Sonia Leber’s History Takes Place (1987), Toula AnastasEc/Static (1988) and Philip Brophy’s Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988) as films which have, in their various (and often warring) ways, emerged out of the peculiarly local tool box of cultural ideas, writings, concerns, and the practical experiments in film that have led to new ways of conceptualising and feeling certain issues within Australia – whether the issue be terrorism, childcare, colonialism, the representation of history, the possibility of a female voice, or exploitation cinema. All these works could, in an expanded, Deleuzian sense, be called essay-films.


No less informed by movements in the Australian cultural (mainly inner-city) scene is another grouping of filmmakers – with the difference that their immersion in a more postmodern ethos leads to an exploratory sensibility of a less explicitly committed, engaged, essayistic kind. More studiously drifting, ambiguous and ironic in their manipulations of culturally earmarked materials, filmmakers we find in this grouping include Andrew Frost, The Marine Biologists, Mark Titmarsh, Stephen Harrop, and Debbie Lee (all Sydney-based).


Finally, there are the other films and artists – the ones I find most intractable, singular, less answerable to the local scene and more inviting into worlds of form unknown: In This Life’s Body (1984) and Waterfall (1984) both by Arthur and/or Corinne Cantrill; Marie Craven’s White Woman (1988), Marcus Bergner’s Tales from Vienna Hoods (1989). Speaking as an Australian, these titles stand, in my eyes, for all the individuals and groups who slog away under perennially impossible conditions, producing their salutary, difficult, tough, fragile, Orphic work.


Some of the notable artists not represented in the Aurora Australis selection include Chris Windmill, Maj Green, Nick Ostrovskis, Melanie El Mir, Frank Lovece, Dirk de Bruyn … If I emphasise this work favourably here, it is because the Australian art/culture scene as a whole too often overlooks it, or remains content to be merely dumbfounded by it.


After the initial applause – if applause there be – only silence reigns on the scene as regards the real contribution of such films, such artists. Hardly anyone seems compelled to try to articulate, in more than a few summary words, their effect, their impact, their resonance. The rhetoric flags, while the evidence insists.


Where are the testaments to the adventures of form?





Neocapitalism restores to poets a late humanistic function: the myth and the technical awareness of form.
Pier Paolo Pasolini


At the first Experimenta festival in 1988 in Melbourne, there was a particularly memorable program of avant-garde films from USA. I was struck by the energy of some of them – the power and delirium of their kinetic effects. Two examples have particularly stayed with me. The first was a recognisably postmodern work: Abigail Child’s Mayhem (1987), with its violent montage of attractions (and repulsions) constructed from tiny fragments of image and sound set free from some obscure, tacky, restaged noir melodramas.


The second was actually more surprising, less predictable. One might have imagined that the work of that venerable old god of the American avant-garde, Stan Brakhage, had probably reached some serene plateau of painterly, contemplative abstraction by the dawn of the ‘80s. But what a shock Murder Psalm (1980) turned out to be. Completely silent and taken up for relatively extended periods by washes of pure, abstract colours and shapes (hence the typical Breakage playbook), it nonetheless deployed its own montage effect – flash inserts of odd images from old cartoons and educational shorts – with a jolting, electric intensity, obviously timed, frame by frame, for maximum impact. Cinephiles of a particular persuasion talk of the body blows delivered by the editing strategies of Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, Samuel Fuller or Martin Scorsese; I’ve felt and savoured those blows too, but I would swear that Brakhage’s film seemed to deliver me into an even purer, more sublime cinematic ecstasy.


It was an adventure of form – one of the many that I have experienced in the unquestionably rarefied realm of avant-garde film and video, adventures that have kept me invested in the possibilities of the area. Form is a word that cannot be dropped casually in any forum where people discuss any kind of art without the expectation of a few reverberating murmurs. There will always be those who deliberately go to the extreme of exalting pure form in every instance – meaning, in this context (as distinct from a Hitchcock/De Palma/Argento context), a completely non- or anti-representational play of sounds (as in music) or colours and shapes (as in abstract painting) – pitted against those who decry such an apparent withdrawal into mere, self-referring form.


In fact, when I consider the problem of discussing form, I recall two incidents almost ten years apart, at either end of the 1980s. In the first, I am assailed by a self-styled leftie at the conclusion of a particularly rigorous program of early 1980s Super 8 films: “What are you doing patronising this decadent formalist wanking?” In the second, I hear a complaint on radio about the kinds of discussions the Modern Image Makers Association holds about the works it shows: “Will there be any seminars on the content of the films and videos? All you ever seem to talk about is their form”. These two anecdotes alone are enough to trigger in a paranoid avant-gardist’s mind the sometimes literally bloody wars fought around and against form – recall, for instance, the regime of Stalinist Russia and its outlawing of decadent formalism (construed as florid, elitist, bourgeois-romantic-Western), officially replaced by the greyest abiding genre of Socialist Realism.


Even taken less melodramatically, these incidents certainly signal the continuing, consistent grudge against any exercise in pure form: that it lacks – apparently unlike real art, committed (engagé) art, or popular art – a message (“something to say”), or even a nominal content (storyline, characters, setting, world).


Definition begs. Let’s describe a work’s form as the organisation of its material elements – audio-visually, that indicates the arrangement of the shots, the construction of their flow and rhythm, the disposition of colours and shapes in the frame, the relation of image to sound, and so on. The invention of media like film and video posed a fertile challenge to reigning aesthetic theory on a number of levels. How to delineate the formal parameters of such media that are hybrids of theatre, painting, architecture, music, literature; how to measure the specific large-scale and small-scale configurations of so many elements in any one work?


Even more acutely, film and video posed – beyond the point that even music had done – the mystery of the time-based arts: how to describe the working of a form that is in motion, evolving as you experience it? Already in 1951, Emile Benveniste (in “The Notion of ‘Rhythm’ in its Linguistic Expression”) had questioned, in a radical and searching way, our understanding of the notion of aesthetic form as something fixed, static, monumental, regulated – as able to be measured, contained and summarised in, for example, a structural diagram. Benveniste evokes:

the form in the instant that it is assumed by what is moving, mobile and fluid, the form of that which does not have organic consistency; it fits the pattern of the fluid element, of a latter arbitrarily shaped, of a robe which one arranges at one’s will, of a particular state of character or mood. It is the form as improvised, momentary, changeable.

It is in attempting to rise to this sense of open, in-process mystery that modern aesthetic theorists have arrived at their paradoxical, elusive definitions of form. From Noël Burchs mid-’60s adoption of André Hodeir’s claim that “the form of a work is that mode of being which ensures its unity while tending to promote, at the same time, the greatest possible diversity”, to Gilles Deleuzes mid-’80s evocation of cinema as the “open totality”, finished and shaped in its materiality but perpetually potential (or virtual) in the present tense of its unfolding. Burch, at least, means his definition to be sympathetic to avant-garde experimentation: for him, such work will always be more rigorously, more obviously formal in its being, and it will plumb the possibilities of open form in contradistinction to the closed (or: tending to closure) forms of dominant, mainstream cinema.


Naturally, form is not absent from so-called classical cinema, or any of its mutant variations. Mainstream and B cinema alike have evolved very powerful forms – from familiar large-scale narrative shapes like the rise-and fall of the gangster movie or the three-act story, to the minutiae of comic timing and thrilling editing strategies. The reason we don’t often centre discussion of Hollywood films on the question of form – even though we know it’s there, and that a great deal of our pleasure and displeasure derives precisely from its working – is because it seems to slip under, to be in the service of, things that are greater (or at least more immediately generative of) our engagement: a story, a fictional world, characters, themes, representation. And this is indeed one of the absolute boundaries separating defensively normal cinema from its dreaded avant-garde double: form, for the former, is essentially theorised as a tool, an instrument to aid expression, a support or container.


Pure form is, in this context, non-existent because it is unthinkable: why would you even want to work at a form if there was nothing you wanted to say, or show, or tell? This is why the forms of mainstream cinema tend, within each film and across the evolution of the various formulae and genres, to become (as far as possible) perfect systems: they aim for closure, symmetry, organic unity, consistency, seamlessness, rhyme, catharsis. Even when the films flaunt deliberate acts of discontinuity, ruptures in tone, ugly or disconcerting concatenations of rhythms and events (as in Scorsese’s masterful Goodfellas [1990] or Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues [1990]), all such stylistic gestures strive to remain functional in the first and last instance: they serve the story, its mood, message and method, everything has a place in the ensemble. The mainstream always distinguishes between a how and a what, a form and a function – no matter how fused and interrelated these may, in practice, be.


Isidore Isou, the principal architect of Lettrism in 1940s Romania and France, theorised that, once the amplic, expansionary phase of an art form was over – and it was, as far as he was concerned, over for all the art forms – a merry chiselling operation was the only thing left to do: the reduction of the medium to tiny, elemental fragments (sounds, gestures, letters, scratches), and their furiously meaningless organisation in time and space. Isou’s account is like a perverse rendering of all those well-known histories of the “life of forms” in art (such as that proposed by Henri Focillon) – the sequence of Classical-Romantic-Baroque, degenerating and regenerating over and over. For Lettrism (which receives a special focus in Experimenta 1990), by contrast, there is no regeneration, only decay. Lettrism, by definition, was and is an adventure of form, one of the purest expressions of the power of form left to its own devices. It’s the Dark Star of 20th century art history.


This type of work, in its various cultural manifestations, remains one of the indispensable extreme poles of avant-garde art. Some Australian examples have been collected in the Adventures in Form program for Experimenta in 1990. Representation – in the sense of familiar things to see and hear, to recognise, latch onto, from which to imply and anticipate an unfolding storyline – is routinely evacuated and butchered in the works at this pole (as in Marcus Bergner’s Musical Four Letters [1989]). Or else it is simply dispensed with altogether, and we plunge into pure abstraction, with perhaps only a droll reminder or two of the regime of illustration that we have left behind (as in Neil Taylor’s Roll Film [1990]).


Fiction, in the conventional sense, is usually absent from such films or videos. But some of the affects and effects we associate with fiction – the formal flesh of fiction – can certainly be in play, even in the most abstract contexts: intrigue, timing, movement, tension, crescendo, juxtaposition … For this is always possible when the constituent units or elements of audio-visual form are separated and then put into relational circulation. Even the most determined attempts at random formlessness can result in the most surprising and idiosyncratic forms.


Formalist work, as we well know, slips in and out of favour in critical/theoretical fashion. So often, the extremely rigorous, chiselled kinds of film/video – whether inclining to the most minimal or the most maximal – are cast into the dustbin of the past, as representative of a necessary but ultimately irritating and dissatisfying phase one goes through, whether as a viewing fan or as a developing artist. There is a sense that extremely formal or abstract work doesn’t travel too well into complex cultural debates – it doesn’t make or mark clear-enough points for our spectatorial engagement.


Such an attitude is indicative of a deficiency not in the work, but in our heads: it is one of the sad tyrannies of our time that we demand that every act of creation be rhetorical, sizing up and positioning its cultural/intellectual references. This is basically the demand that art be more like criticism, or writing, or theory. But art is not rhetoric, it is evidence. Evidence of what? Often nothing very clear – a power, an affect, a unique and compelling concatenation of elements, untranslatable into a verbal exposition. What can impress us as the awesome significance of a work (like Murder Psalm or Frank Lovece’s Te Possino Ammazza [1987]) is often something that, in a salutary way, cannot immediately be articulated – for it stirs the whole being, whilst exposing the limit of the rational mind and its too easily assumed mastery.


When Peter Wollen outlined his division of the “two avant-gardes” in 1975, he inaugurated a gesture that came to define, locally as elsewhere, the sometimes testy split between Old and New experimental trajectories. Pure form – British and American structuralist film styles, Romantic painterly abstractions, contemplative landscape films – went into the Old category; a more vigorous engagement with (and love for) the representations and fictions of popular culture and its attendant subcultures was the flag of the New. For Wollen, the difference was between Brakhage the ahistorical purist and Godard the culturally plugged-in impurist. (Many in-between figures, including the great Stephen Dwoskin, got overlooked or lost in this categorical division.)


In Australia, we witnessed, for a moment, a polemical divide between the established avant-garde and the renegade Super-8 movement of the early 1980s. As ephemeral and ultimately untrue as such oppositions usually turn out to be, impurism certainly established itself, by the end of the ‘80s, as another indispensable pole of avant-garde practice. Here, what reigns supreme is the dialectical, often violent clash between formal elements and representational ones, between an unashamed avant-garde consciousness and a funky junk-culture one.


The programs of Experimental Narrative and Experimental Documentary in Experimenta 1990 were devised to showcase some of the evidence in this area of work. To take just one example, it’s intriguing to look back from Ian Haig’s & Maria Kozic’s Snap! Crackle! Die! (1989) to Noël Burch anticipating, in 1967, the avant-garde potential suggested by the earliest splatter movies (in an essay tellingly titled “Structures d’agression”): “The traumatic power inherent in their imagery undoubtedly provides raw material that other filmmakers, more sensitive to the complexities of Form [sic] and more conscious of the means we have at our disposal today, could exploit” (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 195, November 1967, p. 61).


Taken in a perversely upbeat way, there’s something grand about the decadent formalism of all these adventures (and adventurers) – something of which Pier Paolo Pasolini would certainly have approved. Pasolini wrote glowingly of the myth of form in the mid 1960s, when he saw mass culture becoming more and more streamlined into highly functional, commodity models: tight, well-constructed narratives; feel-good emotional manipulation; a strict economy of laughs and shocks and tears. Like functionalist architecture, everyday artistic production was becoming increasingly obsessed with being utilitarian, economic, instrumental, wasteless. Much has changed in cultural and social contexts since then – but Pasolini’s prognosis remains largely valid.


In this context (ours as much as his), to elevate form over function – in film/video as anywhere else – is indeed a decadent, excessive, publicly embarrassing, unmanageable act. Formal adventuring – like the masturbation it is so often accused of resembling! – lives for itself and its moment, not for the future, not for the public sphere. It leads to nothing, connects to nothing, reproduces nothing. Nothing conventional or predictable, that is – its only subsequent history would be a secret history (as Greil Marcus outlines this concept in his wonderful 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century), a history of inspirations, appropriations, inadvertent echoes popping up in other adventures.


Pasolini’s surprising myth of form elevated the necessary excesses and elitism of experimentation to a very grand plateau: in its intractability and effervescence, formal adventure provides modernity with both its poetry and its humanism. It’s our task, 25 years later, to try to live up to such a fine myth.


© Adrian Martin January & November 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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