‘The 1960s were a major turning point for the way academics and intellectuals thought about cinema as art. Film studies pioneer Annette Michelson, who passed away this week at the age of ninety-six, was at the forefront of shaping those conversations, often taking issue with the critical orthodoxy of the period. In 1966, she returned to New York after spending fifteen years in France, where she was an editor and critic for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune and a translator of philosophical works by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She found the critical milieu in the States ossified by what she termed the “idealist” model of the artist, a construct that had taken hold during the heyday of abstract expressionism. Through her essays for Artforum and October, the journal she cofounded with Rosalind Krauss, and in her lectures at New York University, where she was instrumental in the establishment of the film studies department, Michelson aimed to open new critical perspectives to deal with the challenges posed by minimalism and temporal art such as performance and avant-garde cinema.
‘In its tribute, Artforum declares that Michelson’s film criticism “not only profoundly influenced cinema studies but helped legitimize the medium as a viable subject of scholarship.” And as critic and curator Amy Taubin tells Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times, “she was enormously influential in bringing American avant-garde film to the attention of the museum and gallery world, enabling its current investment in the moving image as a serious visual art medium.”
‘ARTnews senior editor Alex Greenberger notes that Michelson’s criticism “tended to merge philosophy, formalism, and elements of film and art history,” while addressing such topics as “the films of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Nagisa Oshima, and Stan Brakhage; the paintings of Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns; the sculptures of Robert Morris; the dance works of Yvonne Rainer; and, perhaps most importantly, musings about the relationship between viewers’ bodies and motion pictures.”
‘Last year saw the publication of a collection of many of these landmark essays, On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film, a volume the includes Michelson’s seminal analyses of avant-garde work by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, and Michael Snow. But Michelson’s most famous essay, “Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge,’” originally published in Artforum in 1969, takes as its subject one of the most popular films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Like that black monolith whose unheralded materialization propels the evolution of consciousness through the three panels of the movie’s narrative triptych, Kubrick’s film has assumed the disquieting function of Epiphany,” she writes. Disappointed, perhaps even angry that the film was so poorly received “by a bewildered and apprehensive community (tribe? species?) of critics,” she attributed this initial response to “a crisis in criticism. And still the ‘object’ lures us on. Another level or ‘universe’ of discourse awaits us.”
‘That phrase “the ‘object’ lures us on” is crucial to Michelson’s project. Malcolm Turvey, who coedited Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson in 2003—the book is freely accessible from Amsterdam University Press—emphasizes in his introduction that Michelson was not a theorist, but rather, a critic. Theorists, Turvey points out, tend to analyze a work of art from the top down, beginning with a set of preconceptions built into the theory they’re beholden to, whereas a critic observes from the bottom up, starting with the work itself.
‘For her lively oral history Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974, Amy Newman spoke with Michelson about the special film issue she edited in 1973. In an attempt to win then-editor Philip Leider over to the project, she arranged to have him spend an afternoon at Anthology Film Archives, taking in work by the likes of Paul Sharits, Robert Breer, and Hollis Frampton. “And he staggered out,” recalled Michelson, “and he said, ‘I had no idea that this was happening.’ And I said, ‘What do you think I’ve been doing with my time the last five years?’”
‘Michelson was “a titan,” tweets critic Michael Sicinski, “a fierce intellect without whom we wouldn’t be having half the conversations about cinema that we currently have.”’ — David Hudson
Annette Michelson @ Wikipedia
Annette Michelson Archive
ANNETTE MICHELSON (1922–2018)
‘Oshima’s Choice’, by Annette Michelson
‘Censoring Cuba’, by Annette Michelson
Book: ‘Annette Michelson, On the Wings of Hypothesis: Collected Writings on Soviet Cinema’
Annette Michelson and the Post-Revolutionary Project
Letter to Annette Michelson from Stan Brakhage
Book: ‘Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson’
RETRO FILM THEORY FEELS IMPORTANT BUT ROMANTICALLY DISTANT IN ‘ON THE EVE OF THE FUTURE’
L’écliptique du savoir
Conversación con Annette Michelson
Book: ‘October: The First Decade’, by Annette Michelson
Buy ‘On the Eve of the Future’
Conversations with Annette Michelson and Steven Poser
Annette Michelson on Sergei Eisenstein
Annette Michelson interviews Elia Kazan
Annette Michelson on Dersu Uzala
Annette Michelson On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film
‘The celebrated critic and film scholar Annette Michelson saw the avant-garde filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s as radically redefining and extending the Modernist tradition of painting and sculpture, and in essays that were as engaging as they were influential and as lucid as they were learned, she set out to demonstrate the importance of the underappreciated medium of film. On the Eve of the Future collects more than thirty years’ worth of those essays, focusing on her most relevant engagements with avant-garde production in experimental cinema, particularly with the movement known as American Independent Cinema.
‘This volume includes the first critical essay on Marcel Duchamp’s film Anemic Cinema, the first investigation into Joseph Cornell’s filmic practices, and the first major explorations of Michael Snow. It offers an important essay on Maya Deren, whose work was central to that era of renewal and reinvention, seminal critiques of Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and Harry Smith, and overviews of Independent Cinema. Gathered here for the first time, these texts demonstrate Michelson’s pervasive influence as a writer and thinker and her role in the establishment of cinema studies as an academic field.
‘The postwar generation of Independents worked to develop radically new terms, techniques, and strategies of production and distribution. Michelson shows that the fresh new forms they created from the legacy of Modernism became the basis of new forms of spectatorship and cinematic pleasure.’ — October Books
from FILM AND THE RADICAL ASPIRATION
Many of our best independent film-makers, such as Kenneth Anger, Robert Breer, Peter Emmanuel Goldman, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, are committed to an aesthetic of autonomy that by no means violates or excludes their critical view of the society in which they manage, as they can, to work.
There is, within “independent” circles another direction or style of effort which I now want to consider, as it represents a militant aspect of a radical aspiration in American film. It is postulated on a conception of film as being, in the very broadest sense, redemptive of the human condition itself. This attitude, however estimable, generates the most difficult and inhibiting contradictions for contemporary radicals. Beneath the burden of redemption, the formal integrity that safeguards that radicalism must and does, ultimately dissolve. I am referring to a cinema represented by the work of Stan Brakhage, and, to some extent, by the criticism of Jonas Mekas – who is sitting in the first row with a tape recorder. I would have wanted, of course, to screen some films or sequences to illustrate this consideration, but must content myself with some quotations from critical writings – and from Brakhage’s voluminous correspondence.
“What’s the use of cinema if man’s soul goes rotten?” says Mekas. “It is not a question of film being good or bad artistically. It is a question of… a new understanding of Life.”
Brakhage, speaking before a gathering in Berlin in December 1965 (and this passage, somewhat longer, is extracted, unlike the preceding ones, not from Film Culture, but from a report on that Berlin occasion in an article, published, according to my recollection, last year in the Village Voice).
“This camera,” said Brakhage,
I take with me everywhere now… I took it last night into East Berlin. I was, from the very entrance, in a state of terror that I had not imagined existed before. Finally, the tension mounted till I felt compelled to take an image, which is the only time when I do work, when that compulsion or need arises directly from something in living. I had nothing to work with but empty streets and a few lights, and as I worked with those, with a fast-speed color film, and I tried to make an impression of my feelings from just these lights as I was there, inside, that which was an incredible experience for me. I have always taken seeing to be anything that comes to me in the form of an image, whether it be closed-eye vision, the dots and whirls and shapes that come when the eyes are closed and that can be seen when they are open. Memory, the remembering of images or the in-gathering of light in the immediacy of the eyes opening. I took images as I could, so that it will reflect the trembling or the feeling of any part of the body; so that it is an extension, so that this becomes a thing to ingather the light… I do not know what I will need to do when I get home in editing to capture the quality of that feeling and to say something of that experience.
Now for many of us, I imagine, and particularly for those who, like myself, have been for some time concerned with contemporary painting and sculpture and the problems of critical method deriving from this development, this statement has a very familiar ring indeed – and highly problematic implications. If, for men like Anger and Breer, or for Resnais and Godard, art and the radical aspiration supply a ground for an ethos, art really does become, for Brakhage, “nothing but a construction in ethics,” and the artist a tintype of the “moral hero.” The rhetoric is that of abstract expressionism, and I dare say that the Rosenberg pages of Film Culture represent in the New York of 1966 the last precinct of the action painter’s active authority.
As a prelude to a brief consideration of the nature and consequences of this authority, here is a passage from an essay on de Kooning by Harold Rosenberg:
Since, for de Kooning, art must discover its form in the actuality of the artist’s life, it cannot impose itself upon its practitioner as other professions do upon theirs. Art becomes a way by which the artist can avoid a way…
By a mutual determination, art and the artist support each other’s openness to the multiplicity of experience. Both resist stylization and absorption into a type. The aesthetic aim to which de Kooning applied the label, “no style,” derives from and is the experience of this philosophy of art and of the self.
In conceiving of art as a way of life, de Kooning makes his engagement in his profession total in the sense of the absorption of a priest or saint in his vocation. The idea is faulty. Painting lacks the structure of values by which ethical or religious systems can sustain the individual.
This lucid expression of reserve from the theoretician of action painting with regard to an aesthetics-as-morality is not ultimately surprising; it is the inevitable recognition of the perils and limits of a certain radicalism and its rhetoric.
Here, however, are Godard’s thoughts on the matter (and we must have some day a Wit and Wisdom of J.L. Godard; he is an aphorist in the grand tradition of Chamfort): “Between aesthetics and ethics, a choice must be made, of course. However, it also goes without saying that each word contains a bit of the other.” “Trusting to luck means listening to voices.” “If the ways of art are unpredictable, this is because the ways of chance are not.” And finally, “Making films resembles modern philosophy, Husserl, let’s say… an adventure, plus the philosophy of that life, and reflecting on life.”
Painters, sculptors, and their critics are involved, at this very moment, in a kind of chastening reappraisal of a rhetoric that passed for the thought of action painting, in a critical surveyal of the arena whose space measures the relation of its philosophical assumptions to its metaphors. It may be premature too soon to demand from the independent or underground film-maker (confined, as he is, to an even more marginal position in society) the critical stringency now beginning to inform the reassessment of action painting and its aesthetics.
To return, briefly but more specifically, to the work and thought of Brakhage, I would argue that the notion of the camera as an extension of the body or its nervous system seems to me highly questionable, and that, ultimately it limits and violates the camera’s function. Certainly, this way of thinking calls into question the instrument’s fundamental power as expressed in the metaphor of camera as eye, a marvelous sensitive and flexible one to be sure, that supreme instrument of mediation, which is also the “mind’s eye,” whose possibilities infinitely transcend the limitations of a crude automatism. If cinema is to embody, according to this aesthetic, it does, the drama and pathos of creation itself, then one may ask whether the history of academicism in film – which, as I have already suggested, proposed the substitution of novelistic forms for the theatrical ones – is not thereby simply extended by the uncritical parody of abstract expressionist orthodoxy.
My own feeling is that the work of Resnais and Godard (to mention only artists represented at this festival) constitute renderings of the agonistic dimension which are infinitely more radical and powerful; their “statements” proclaim the recognition of the dynamics of the medium – and this in the most open and least prescriptive manner possible.
These “statements” by no means necessarily exclude the possibility of stimulus or nourishment from other, developing arts. In America, the work of Robert Breer, for example, has an immediacy produced by the elimination of narrative as plot, or plot re-conceived as pro-gress, involving a complex visual logic, high speed of images, the use of subliminal vision. All these factors articulate a cinematic aspiration toward the condition of “object” instantly apprehended, an aspiration shared by our most advanced painting today. Rather than fusing in a con-fusion, this work proposes a situation in which film and painting may converge within a tradition of formal radicalism. These films, in their intransigent autonomy, by no means excluding extra plastic resonances, but animated by a sense of structure as progress-in-time so absolute and compelling that very little else has room or time enough in which to “happen.”
The extraordinary advantage of American cinema today does lie partly in the possibilities of these convergences and cross-fertilizations. It may be that American film is unique in its access to a multiplicity of vital efforts unprecedented since the immediately post-Revolutionary situation in Russia. One thinks of its already established, though still embryonic, contacts with a new music, dance, theater, painting, and sculpture. And all these are, in turn, of course, heightened, and perhaps somewhat endangered, by a forced confrontation with technology in its most paroxysmic and pervasive form.
It is precisely at this point that one may anticipate the difficulties that may soon confront the great figures of European cinema, most particularly in France. If cinema and literature have so wonderfully nourished and sustained each other in postwar France (and this within the context of an antiliterary ontology of film), this is, I believe, in so far as they were both involved in a refining of their respective ontologies: The Robbe-Grillet-Resnais collaboration is, of course, a supreme instance of this kind of intimacy of independent forces.
Interestingly enough, however – and disquietingly so, too – the extra-cinematic, the intellectual context of French film has been (with the exception of Resnais and Bresson) and continues to be, almost exclusively those of Romanticism and Surrealism. In the entire corpus of postwar film, I would cite offhand only four examples of the really significantly composed musical or sound track, and this during France’s remarkable post-Webernian renewal of music: Michel Fano’s serially composed soundtrack for L’immortelle, Henze’s score for Muriel, Barbaud’s interestingly conceived, though questionable, score for Varda’s Les créatures, and above all the utterly remarkable spoken soundtrack of Jacques Tati’s Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot – certainly, the most deeply Webernian of all in its exquisite economy, in its inventive use of silence!
In our country, the questioning of the values of formal autonomy has led to an attempted dissolution of distinctions or barriers between media. Perhaps, however, this is because our social and economic hierarchies and distinctions remain pretty well impervious to the radical aspiration of film-makers and of artists in general. The hierarchical distinctions, the barriers between forms are, of course, infinitely more vulnerable. Cinema, on the verge of winning the battle for the recognition of its specificity – and every major film-maker and critic the last half-century has fought that battle – is now engaged in a reconsideration of its aims. The Victor now questions his Victory. The emergence of new “intermedia,” the revival of the old dream of synaesthesia, the cross-fertilization of dance, theater, and film, as in the theater pieces of Robert Whiteman, the work of Ken Dewey (and both are, significantly, represented in this year’s festival) constitute a syndrome of that radicalism’s crisis, both formal and social.
In a country whose power and affluence are maintained by the dialectic of a war economy, in a country whose dream of revolution has been sublimated in reformism and frustrated by an equivocal prosperity, cinematic radicalism is condemned to a politics and strategy of social and aesthetic subversion.
“To live,” as Webern, quoting Hölderlin, said, “is to defend a form.” It is from the strength of its forms that cinema’s essential power of negation, its “liquidation of traditional elements in our culture,” as Benjamin put it, will derive and sustain its cathartic power.
Within the structure of our culture, ten-year-olds are now filming 8mm serials – mostly science fiction, I am told – in their own backyards. This, perhaps is the single most interesting fact about cinema. Given this new accessibility of the medium, anything can happen. Astruc’s dream of the camera as fountain pen is transcended, the camera becomes a toy, and the element of play is restored to cinematic enterprise. One thinks of Méliès, both Child and Father of cinema, and one rejoices in the promise of his reincarnation in the generation of little Americans making science-fiction films after school in those backyards. Here, I do believe, lies the excitement of cinema’s future, its ultimate radical potential. And as André Breton, now a venerable radical, has said, “The work of art is valid if, and only if, it is aquiver with a sense of the future.”
p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Right, it’s October now. What took it so long? I’m going to ask Gisele if she still has that BJD and a pic of it if so. I would think maybe. It might be a little worse for wear. Nuit Blanche was funnish. Not as much as I’d hoped, but there were a few cool, trippy things here and there. Love did his best under the circumstances. How was your weekend? Eek, an insect protein bar? Have you actually eaten one? I think I’d rather die, or, well, do almost anything else. In theory. But I do hope it sped love up. Love making the price of round trip flights from Paris -> Los Angeles drop very dramatically, G. ** Tea, Hi. My blog is often too cool even for me, if that helps. I totally get the pescetarian option, but I always hated eating fish and refused to eat it even when I was a little kid. I’m not sure why. You can be vegan without too much expense if you always eat at home and are okay with very basic meals, which I luckily am. Oh, right, macarons are doable for you. That’s not bad. I’m tempted to guess what your other two wishes are, but I won’t, ha ha. ** Jack Skelley, Jock!!! My pleasure, and thanks for alerting her. I hope she didn’t mind or think I short-shrifted (sp?) her or something. How was Autofiction Night? What’s with Stories and Autofiction? Is it Autofiction Month or something? Did your Disney thing go down a storm? A post on Ahegao! Okay, that’s a pretty great idea that I had never begun to think of. Wow. Consider it seriously attempted ASAP. Mega-week! ** Ian, Hey there, Ian. Very happy to hear about your life’s peachiness! Certainly well deserved. Mine’s sort of lemony. But I like lemons. I’ve never heard of the novel ‘Cialis, Verdi, Gin, Jag’, but I will investigate it post-haste. The name alone is Sirenic, much less with your rec. Thanks! Anytime on the guest post, thank you! I hope your book’s delay isn’t too delayed. Happy Monday. ** Kyler, Hi, Kyler, old pal. I tend to stay away from TV series in general. I fear time suckage. And I am a wee bit post-Dahmer interest, but of course I will check it out at some point. It seems to be quite the social media obsession, which is interesting. I hope Halloween has begun and is proceeding well in your neck. xo ** h now j, Hi! Will do re: possible extended LA dates. Huntington Gardens is always a treat. George Miles lived/grew up about four blocks from it. Your new pad sounds really, really nice. Congrats. Not an easy thing to find a dreamy place in your area. Cool. Yes, ‘Crowd’ is playing at BAM quite soon, in fact. Also in Montreal. A little US tour thing. Hugs from me and Paris! ** Adrian Hall, Hi, Adrian. Really nice to see you. Thanks for the correction. I haven’t seen ‘Naimi’, but I will now, thanks to you. I hope everything is extraordinary well with you! ** Bill, My great pleasure, natch. I know nothing about that film or Johannes Grenzfurthner, which seems like a wound in my knowledge. Huh. I’ll check it/him out, maybe make a post if there’s enough re: his stuff. That’s always the best way for me to get know an artist. Happy week ahead! ** Russ Healy, Hi, Russ. Welcome back. That conference certainly sounds valuable. Thank you so much for the very kind words about ‘I Wished’. Oh, you know, my therapy bout was very helpful and really did make a big difference. My therapist meant well. I could see her point, I just didn’t want to see it at the time. And it left George roiling in my head, which ultimately was for the best, I guess. But thank you for the commiseration, and I do feel myself wishing you’d been in her chair. Anarcho-therapist, nice. Very, very interesting to think about. I do think anarchism can encompass every aspect of life really well. I, of course, relate to what you say about attachment <-> autonomy. I find it totally possible, if, you know, confusing sometimes. But I do believe confusion is the truth, so that helps. With luck, October will in fact be pretty productive on my end since the plan is really get Zac’s and my new film organised and ready. Not to mention all the haunted house attractions I intend to traverse. Yours too: busy, good October. Thanks for the ‘MD’ tip. Will do. Take good care. ** Steve Erickson, That would seem to be the case. Look forward to your NYFF overview. Everyone, Here’s Mr. Erickson’s New York Film Festival overview for Gay City News for your delectation. ** _Black_Acrylic, Feeling better and in better spirits is plenty to report. That’s core stuff. I am somewhat aware of Truss’s horrors, yes, and, oh shit, of course her crap might affect your flat purchase, fucking hell. Man, what a fucking labyrinth you’re in. I hope, I hope whoever’s in charge of handing your new place over to you is as unswayed by the current mess as possible. ** Jamie, Hey, Jamie. My weekend was alright. Nuit Blanche happened, and it had its fun aspects. And a bunch of film stuff that I won’t bore you with but all of which seemed fairly positive. Yeah, things are looking better. Really looking forward to getting to LA where we can finally get things moving and in place. What’s wise, vis-a-vis writing, in my opinion, is to chase what you’re inspired and excited to chase, and pre-set plans or directions that seemed logical should be the first thing to go if need be. So, yeah, head into the draft if that seems both pleasurable and triggering in the good way. How’s that working out? I hope your Monday has exceptional production design. Love from a light saber, moi. ** Misanthrope, It’s good to get slammed on occasion. Oh, wait you meant with work. Never mind, ha ha. Fingers massively crossed about your mom’s test. Oh, right, the hurricane. I’m glad it’s only being palsy-walsy. I have no interest in seeing that movie. Sorry for the sacrilege, but I’ve already seen enough of Harry Styles to last me a lifetime. Ive just finished setting up an LLC, and that was taxing and expensive enough. ** Robert, Howdy, Robert. I can sort of imagine, I guess, and yes, when I do, my imagination feels really weird. Ha ha, funny/scary: that wifebeater dude. My dad used to always say things like ‘my Jewish friend’ or ‘this Jewish woman’ or ‘the Jewish guy who works at the bank’, etc. He never pre-identified people of other ethnicities that way. It always struck me as extremely peculiar. No irreverence, no. English translations of Japanese movies or, well, Japanese a lot of things are often hilariously weird. I assume that’s on purpose, but I don’t know. I’ve been good, really busy getting ready to make Zac’s and my new film mostly. And enjoying the fall. Fall suits Paris. But then every season does. That’s interesting that therapy might have poisoned your writing. What kind of therapy was it? Mine was a kind of super mellow type. Maybe it was called ‘object-relations’ therapy? I can’t remember. It didn’t really effect my writing, I don’t think? I’ve never actually thought about it, though. Huh. What’s up with you at the moment and/or this week? ** Okay. I thought the blog would take a little break from Halloween today to concentrate on this inspiring book by the late great writer/thinker Annette Michelson, who you may or may not know? See you tomorrow.