Independent America, 1978-1988

Myths of the new narrative (and a few counter-suggestions)
by Jonathan Rosenbaum  posted January 26, 2009
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This essay was commissioned by the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988 for a catalogue accompanying the month-long, 150-film retrospective Independent America: New Film 1978-1988. The ambitious series, which took place during the Museum’s inaugural season, was an attempt to make a statement not just about the state of experimental filmmaking at the time but also about the Museum’s wide-ranging programming philosophy.

The underlying idea was to showcase films that were cinematically inventive, works that broke boundaries in form and content, subverted conventions, and created new hybrid forms. In this way, the series revealed the inadequacy of such confining labels as “avant-garde,” “fiction,” and “documentary,” and it also tried to reinvigorate the notion of what it means to be “independent.”

Before the commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction (and before the rise of home video), independent filmmakers made and showed their films in a world truly apart from Hollywood. To get their work seen, they would travel for months, with their 16mm film prints in tow, to colleges and media arts centers across the country. The commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape marked the beginning of the end of this era. Last year’s big “independent” hit, Juno, was distributed by Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., and it made more money than any other Best Picture contender. Juno’s virtues were not in its artistic independence; but precisely the opposite—it was a well-written, well-directed, well-performed, and utterly conventional movie.

Rosenbaum’s essay, and the entire Independent America film series, capture a time when the label “independent” was truly up for grabs, indicating a genuine alternative to mainstream commercial cinema. The catalogue, available here has program notes for the entire program, and the essays “The Avant-Garde, into the Eighties” by Steve Anker; “Difficult Language: Notes on Independent Cinema by Women in the Eighties” by Berenice Reynaud,” and my article “Documentary Meets the Avant-Garde.” —David Schwartz, Chief Curator

Rereading this article over two decades later, I'm struck by how much my polemical stances expand and develop many of those in my then-recent book Film: The Front Line 1983—and would subsequently be developed and expanded still further 13 years later in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000). The biases are basically anti-institutional, despite the fact that an institution (the American Museum of the Moving Image) commissioned this piece. My principal regret today is my failure to target the expedient obfuscations of academia as an institution more explicitly. This is something that has only intensified over the years, especially in relation to independent films. Just as more recent institutions such as Miramax, the Weinstein Company, and the Sundance Film Festival have mystified and continue to mystify the public about what is and isn't an independent film, some branches of academia play into this confusion even more abjectly and obsequiously, with the use of such deliberately obfuscating terms as "Indiewood." —J.R., January 2009

In one of the earliest "Movie Journal" columns for the Village Voice, published January 26, 1961, Jonas Mekas wrote a defense and celebration of the virtues of “personal, plotless cinema:”

“It is an important point, this plot business. It almost makes the whole difference between entertainment and art, between purely commercial cinema and author’s cinema....The critics prefer plot, the artists prefer the regions beyond plot.”

Two and a half years later, in a now legendary symposium entitled “Poetry and the Film” held at Cinema 16 (and reproduced in Film Culture Reader1), one finds Maya Deren formulating a more rigorous non-narrative position by distinguishing between what she calls the “vertical” attack of poetry and the “horizontal” attack of drama:

It seems to me that in many films, very often in the opening passages, you get the camera establishing the mood, and, when it does that, cinematically, those sections are quite different from the rest of the film. You know, if it’s establishing New York, you get a montage of images, that is, a poetic construct, after which what follows is a dramatic construct that is essentially “horizontal” in its development. The same thing would apply to the dream sequences. They occur at a moment when the intensification is carried out not by action but by the illumination of that moment. Now the short films, to my mind (and they are short because it is difficult to maintain such intensity for a long period of time), are comparable to lyric poems, and they are completely a “vertical,” or what I would call a poetic construct, and they are complete as such.

If we leap ahead to the second half of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, the importance of non-narrative as a badge of identity in American experimental cinema has become much more pronounced. In the interim, a number of important and mainly non-narrative works had appeared—including Brakhage’s The Art of Vision (1965), Scenes From Under Childhood (1970), and his Songs cycle (1964-69), the camera movement trilogy of Michael Snow, and major works by Andy Warhol, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, and Ernie Gehr. In addition, the popularity of hallucinogenic drugs during this period and the meditative and “nonlinear” forms of consciousness associated with them all helped to militate against the notion of narrative serving an important or relevant role in vanguard film practice. The fact that narrative did play significant roles in some of these films—including Snow’s Wavelength (1967), which included both a man’s death and the subsequent discovery of his body, as well as other narrative events; Frampton’s Nostalgia (1971), which took the form of an illustrated autobiography; and some of the Warhol works—was less important than the fact that much of the interest of these works lay in the degree to which they subverted and/or moved away from their initial narrative pretexts.

All these developments played a role in the coining of the term “new narrative”—a defensive concept in some respects insofar as it sprang from a period when “narrative” had taken on some of the attributes of a dirty word, a noun that in certain quarters was taken to be almost synonymous with “Hollywood,” “commercial,” and “mainstream.” At the same time, the journalistic origins of the term “new narrative” are worth bearing in mind, even if this term and certain variant of it (e.g., “the new talkies,” as formulated in October #17) have been seriously adopted by various curators and academic journals.

Like many other journalistic labels, “new narrative” is less a critical category or the naming of a new artistic phenomenon than an expedient packaging label designed to give a common interest to a group of otherwise fairly disparate works. Yet the term was needed in order to bring attention to certain films that were either being studiously avoided or polemically misrepresented by critics and curators of the American avant-garde. There is some justification in provisionally adopting it here because it points to a new trend in the ways that certain independent and experimental films are being packaged and perceived. The tem “new narrative” is useful less as a critical skeleton key than as a loose means of charting some of the tendencies to be found in recent works, as well as some of the ideas that have already accumulated around them.

In an attempt to clear the air, I have concentrated on the latter in order to shape the remainder of this essay—outlining five notions that have assumed the dimensions of mythical constructions in relation to experimental and independent filmmaking in the United States. I have also attempted to outline certain trends that these constructions tend to overlook or obfuscate. In a sense, to sketch these notions is to construct a metahistory of the reception of narrative in these branches of filmmaking.

1. Experimental or avant-garde filmmaking equals non-narrative filmmaking.

As indicated above, resistance to narrative as an avant-garde strategy has probably been around in one form or another for most of this century. Yet narrative and non-narrative modes have coexisted in all periods of experimental filmmaking, often within the work of the same filmmakers (e.g., Luis Buñuel and Germaine Dulac in the '20s and '30s, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger in the '40s and '50s, Stan Brakhage in the '60s, Hollis Frampton in the '70s, James Benning in the '80s), and sometimes in a context where non-narrative forms are generated through a deliberate subversion of narrative signifiers, such as the intertitles in Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928), or the woman climbing the steps in Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924). To a much lesser extent, it is also possible to find traces of non-narrative throughout the history of commercial narrative cinema, even though they are seldom identified as such.2

Given the polemical identification of the avant-garde with non-narrative, it was understandable, if nevertheless confusing, to find the 1972 New York Film Festival program describing Jonas Mekas’s remarkable and unmistakably narrative film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania—a basically chronological filmed autobiography—as “non narrative,” apparently on the basis that it clearly situated itself within the experimental tradition. Insofar as the New American Cinema was at pains to distinguish itself from the (then more commercial) narrative experiments of the French New Wave (leading Mekas himself to attack Alain Resnais’s 1962 Last Year at Marienbad as an inadequate rehash of Brakhage’s innovations) and Anthology Film Archives was to exclude rigorously from its film-as-art pantheon all the New Wave filmmakers with the exception of Marcel Hanoun—“non narrative” was generally seized upon as a badge of authenticity.

The most extreme expression of this position can be found in the writings during the '70s of English filmmaker Peter Gidal, in such essays as “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film”3 and “The Anti-Narrative.”4 The controversial value of these arguments partially rests in their determination to combine a case for non-narrative with a Marxist materialist position. By contrast, most American defenses of non-narrative have rested on romantic and individualistic notions about art and transcendence, which have implicitly turned the filmmakers themselves into autobiographical narrative texts that have tended to govern the readings of their non-narrative films; the receptions in the U.S. of non-narrative and quasi-narrative films by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton, Yvonne Rainer, and Marjorie Keller provide some of the most obvious examples of this.

“Experimental” work constitutes, of course, only one branch of independent filmmaking represented in this retrospective. Some of the most significant independent narrative films in the program either parallel or popularize certain areas in this branch of filmmaking: minimalism (Impostors, Stranger Than Paradise, Chan Is Missing), domestic portraiture (An Evening at Hone, Bell Diamond), the diary film (Seventeen, Poto and Cabengo, The Ties That Bind, Sherman’s March), and what P. Adams Sitney has called the “trance film” (You Are Not I). In Impostors, for instance, there are a number of ingenious “equivalents” to Hollywood special effects: moving backdrops, front projection, etc. The use of toys and various domestic objects in the kitchen and living rooms of Bell Diamond are as telling as the lengthy household chores in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975). The filmmaker as ambiguous hero serves as an organizational device for both Poto and Cabengo and Sherman’s March, and the two films of Sara Driver, You Are Not I (1981) and Sleepwalk (1986)—both narratives which constitute private journeys with mysterious offscreen agendas—echo hallucinatory patterns found in Jean Cocteau, Buñuel, Deren, and Anger.

2. Old Narrative with a low budget equals “New Narrative.”

Without mentioning any names, we know that there are a certain number of figures associated with the avant-garde who regard that branch of work as a way-station, who are fundamentally interested in making commercial narrative films. But because they are not (yet) in positions where they can sign Hollywood contracts or their equivalents, they need the support of the avant-garde in order to enlarge their reputations. For filmmakers of this persuasion, a term like New Narrative is a veritable godsend because it allows them to plant each foot in a separate camp and be, in effect, in two places at once. It provides a theoretical pipeline or conduit leading from the margins to the center—or such, at any rate, is their apparent assumption.

But a more generous reading of the same phenomenon might point out that generic labeling that differentiates “serious” experimental work from “unserious” commercial work often has more to do with the institutional structures that support both kinds of work than with the films themselves. Categories play a major role before and after the making of a film—when the filmmaker is trying to raise money to finance it and when the critic or curator is seeking to situate it within a larger body of work. The expediency of these categories for institutions shouldn’t, however, mislead the spectator into assuming that the work can only function in relation to its generic descriptions. In my experience as a teacher of experimental film, I have often discovered that certain films regarded as “difficult” according to institutional discourse, such as the films of Leslie Thornton, offer fewer problems to students than they do to most “professional” film critics, who have to locate or rationalize their interests differently.

It’s a truism of filmmaking in general that the historical conjunctions that conspire to make certain works accessible and popular with audiences and other works esoteric and marginal are largely outside the control of filmmakers, critics, and curators alike, however much they may strive to make things otherwise. The commercial success of Stranger Than Paradise, Chan Is Missing, Sherman’s March, and Working Girls, and the relative commercial failure of My Brother’s Wedding, Impostors, and Bell Diamond in the U.S. are partially a matter of luck and circumstances rather than simple audience appeal. Chan Is Missing, for example, received little attention before an enthusiastic review in the New York Times catapulted it to success. My Brother’s Wedding, which was not much noticed when it was shown in the New Directors Festival, might have reached a much broader audience if it had been shown at the New York Film Festival. A remarkably detailed and textured portrait of family and neighborhood life in Watts, with a gallery of densely realized and warmly observed characters, My Brother’s Wedding probably has more to say about everyday life for blacks in the U.S. than any film to have hit the mainstream.

3. Narrative filmmaking is necessarily linear; non-narrative filmmaking is necessarily nonlinear.

The problem, really, is that different traditions of representation, description, and analysis stand behind narrative and non-narrative. Literary criticism depends largely on plot synopsis, while art criticism traditionally focuses on less linear elements. Since all films contain linear as well as nonlinear elements, neither tradition is wholly adequate for film criticism.

A further caveat, which has particular relevance to the branch of filmmaking loosely known as “new narrative,” is the difficulty of describing certain narrative structures in the form of a synopsis. A number of important narrative and quasi-narrative films have been ignored by critics principally because they haven’t figured out a coherent way to describe them. (Some filmmakers have managed to facilitate this work somewhat by offering their own descriptive synopses, but this carries a distinct disadvantage as well—a tendency to limit future readings of a film to a single slanted interpretation.)

As a step toward clarifying a large body of recent experimental narrative, the terms “multiple narrative” and “reduced narrative” might be useful, at least if we can agree on certain norms of conventional narrative that exist outside these classifications. Insofar as the double plot is a standard feature in the nineteenth-century novel, there is nothing intrinsically unconventional about its use in narrative films; examples of the double plot can easily be found in commercial cinema. Some better examples of “multiple narrative” might include the following:

- The use of several actors to portray the same character—a feature of Yvonne Rainer’s work especially apparent in The Man Who Envied Women, and also operative in the various interchangeable couples in Manuel DeLanda’s Incontinence.

- Interspersing or accompanying a narrative line with dietetically unrelated material, a practice that can readily be found in many different forms in such films as Lee Sokol’s Aqui Se Lo Halla, the works of Leslie Thornton, and Mark Daniels’s The Influence of Strangers, which merges fiction with documentary and essay. The effects of such mixtures are often ambiguous; whether they extend or curtail the narrative is partially a matter of how the spectator chooses to synthesize them.

- The implied existence of one or more universes parallel to the visible and audible narrative on the screen, an effect that can be arrived at through very different means. In Sara Driver’s You Are Not I, it arises directly from the ambiguities in the Paul Bowles short story it adapts and the schizophrenic mind of its narrator and heroine; in Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker Joke…, it comes from the Sterne-like digressions and the wayward routes defined by the screwball interpretations of the initial premise.

- The co-existence of separate tenses in the unfolding of a single narrative, as in Manuel DeLanda’s Raw Nerves, which alternates giddily and systematically among present, past, and future while developing its hyperbolic film noir/sci-fi plot.

“Reduced narrative,” by contrast, is arrived at by removing or refusing certain properties of conventional narrative affectivity, whether this be transparency (Mark Rappaport’s Impostors), continuity and chronology (Ken Jacobs’s 1978 The Doctor’s Dream, which systematically rearranges a conventional “educational” story film to highlight certain latent or repressed aspects of the original text, such as sexuality), denouement and closure (the open-ended finale of Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing), editing continuity (Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, which alternates autonomous lengthy takes with stretches of black leader to eliminate conventional narrative linkage), and psychological motivation (Jon Jost’s Bell Diamond, which consistently distances us from its characters’ problems without providing any facile or condescending formulas to account for them).

4. Documentary is necessarily distinct from narrative.

While this axiom is literally nonsensical, the traditional segregation of documentary from other kinds of filmmaking has often given this proposition the force of law. One of the intellectual achievements of the French New Wave—especially by Godard, but also Chris Marker, Jacques Rivette, Marcel Hanoun, and Agnès Varda —was to break down some of the conventional distinctions. Godard, with his love of paradox, urged us to appreciate the fictional side of Lumière and the documentary side of Méliès. Still, the persistence of critical strategy that tends to isolate fiction and documentary in separate categories has had many regrettable side effects.

The popular confusion of the documentary with the informational or “educational” film, like the popular equation of animation with the Hollywood cartoon, is largely a function of the degree to which dominant commercial film practices have continued to call the shots. The fact remains, however, that contemporary American independent film is much too varied to be neatly subdivided into generic categories.

If we begin to analyze the various fictional, dramatic, and narrative techniques that regularly go into the composing of the evening news, it quickly becomes apparent that the rigid distinctions we tend to make between fiction and nonfiction are more a matter of viewing etiquette than anything else. The continuing growth of other media hybrids, such as the docudrama, nonfiction novel, and fictional essay, highlights the more general tendency of mixing fictional and documentary codes in all branches of the media and culture, so that at present they infect this country’s presidential politics as well as its more overt forms of entertainment. In the face of such massive interpenetration, the continuing references to documentary as a distinct and separate category suggests a certain nostalgia and Platonic idealism.

If we consider documentary films that use strategies of fiction filmmaking to develop characters, such as Sherman’s March, Poto and Cabengo, Soldier Girls, and Vernon, Florida; documentary hybrids that employ “avant-garde” techniques, such as Signal-Germany on the Air and Reassemblage; and fiction films that exhibit documentary impulses, such as Peggy and Fred in Hell, My Brother’s Wedding, The Man Who Envied Women, and Born in Flames, the traditional categories plainly become inappropriate.

5. New narrative necessarily means better and improved narrative.

A besetting limitation of much recent independent narrative is a rather limited and conformist notion of the “new,” which is paradoxically tied to some version of recycling the old, an impulse that ironically duplicates and seemingly emulates a similar tendency in contemporary Hollywood.

The self-conscious references to film history that marked the early years of the French New Wave probably originated this trend, but it is important to bear in mind that these references initially carried a certain critical (i.e, analytical and interpretive) power. Allusions to the low-budget Hollywood crime thriller in Godard’s Breathless (1959), to Metropolis in Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1960), and to Hitchcock and Gilda in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), were above all critical readings of these works, not simple attempts at pious duplication, as were the allusions to Bringing Up Baby and silent slapstick in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972), or the recreated images and incidents from Triumph of the Will, various World War II epics, and The Searchers in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).

In the decade that has passed since the most recent of these films, the proliferation of allusions and remakes in Hollywood has reached such proportions that its significance must be read as an ideological closure—an ostrich-like refusal to confront the present or any reality other than the “world of cinema” that makes even the most timid forays beyond this limited terrain register as bold departures. Noel Carroll has dealt with certain aspects of this phenomenon in “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),”5 and while he concludes by noting an analogy between this allusionism and “certain tendencies of...the Althusserian-Lacanian “new talkie”—and sees both as “works designed for a particular kind of criticism,” he might have added that the parallel between contemporary Hollywood and contemporary independent filmmaking goes even further, pointing to a depressing reluctance or refusal by much of the latter to offer a genuine alternative.

Indeed, it might be argued that allusions to Wavelength are almost as plentiful in independent films of the '70s and '80s—Scott and Beth B.’s The Offenders, Rappaport’s Casual Relations (1973), Benning’s Grand Opera (1978), and, more recently, Jost’s Bell Diamond, among many others—as allusions to Potemkin, Citizen Kane, and 2001 are in commercial films of the same period; even the phenomenon of remakes and spin-offs echoes in such things as Owen Land’s Institutional Quality (1969) and New Improved Institutional Quality (1976), Jost’s conception of Uncommon Senses (1987) as a counterpart to his Speaking Directly (1974), and DeLanda’s plans to make a sequel to Raw Nerves (1980).

A more general tendency can be found in references to Hollywood genres in the American independents: much as political vampire movies became a staple of certain European and Latin American undergrounds in the '70s, Freudian detective stories and film noir thrillers have become the coin of the realm in The Offenders, Raw Nerves, Chain Letters (1985), Chan Is Missing, Jost’s Angel City (1980), Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), and countless others. References to other films and/or filmmaking in general provide much of the substance of Flying Fur, Standard Gauge, Illusions, On the Marriage Broker Joke…, and Caligari’s Cure.

A major limitation of the “new narrative,” in other words, is a matter of content. It could be argued, in fact, that in spite of the dominance of formalist criticism that accompanied the American experimental film since its beginnings, it is largely the introduction of new kinds of content to film that has marked the major achievement of independent filmmaking. One example of what I mean can be found in the opening sentence of Manny Farber’s 1969 article, “Michael Snow”:

The cool kick of Michael Snow’s Wavelength was in seeing so many new actors—light and space, walls, soaring windows, and an amazing number of color-shadow variations that live and die in the window panes—made into major esthetic components of movie experience.

In like fashion, much of the interest and excitement in the newer films discussed in this essay, including Chan Is Missing, Reassemblage, The Man Who Envied Women, My Brother’s Wedding, and Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred cycle, is bound up with their proposal of new and unexplored areas of film content.

Because new subjects necessarily entail new ways of perceiving and thinking, the formal achievements of these works can’t be denied. We have to remember, however, that form is a verb as well as a noun. And it is when “new narrative” forms new area of interest and discovery—as many of these films unquestionably do—that it most lives up to its name.

1. Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney, Praeger Press, New York, 1970.
2. For several examples, see my discussion with Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein in the July-August 1978 Film Comment, “Obscure Objects of Desire.”
3. Published in Structural Film Anthology, British Film Institute, 1976.
4. Screen, Summer 1979.
5. October #20, Spring 1982.


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Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image
Eszter Balint, Richard Edson and John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise, directed by Jim Jarmusch


Jonathan Rosenbaum served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2007. His most recent book is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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