Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema Dir. Chuck Workman

[Calliope Films; 2010]

Styles: cinephilia, documentary
Others: Precious Images, The Source, Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol

For a film devoted to exploring the history of experimental cinema, Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema introduces itself in a rather staid, Ken Burnsian way. Fading in and out of archival film fragments and panning across event flyers, still photographs, and documents, all that’s missing is sober male voice-over narration.

After a four-and a-half-minute introductory sequence that continues like so, the film’s first chapter, “All About Seeing,” unfolds with short clips from Andy Warhol’s films Empire (1964) and Sleep (1963). They’re preceded by a contemporaneous NBC News segment on “underground” films, and followed by an interview with Warhol himself, who claims to have worked in the medium simply because it was easier than painting. It’s an interesting opening, but it gives way to a kind of how-to guide for viewing avant-garde film, as told by a handful of authorities to an invisible, probing interviewer. The authorities range from critics, to the director of Film Forum in Los Angeles, to a charismatic David Lynch. Although not a bad discussion to explore, the jumping-off point summoned from each interviewee seems to address a nebulous Hollywood blockbuster enthusiast unaware of the existence of avant-garde cinema, who’s been unhappily forced to consume it whole. They, and the audience, too, are advised: “Instead of rejecting [experimental film], why don’t you ask yourself, ‘Why?’ ‘Why am I feeling this way? Am I just frustrated that it’s not being spoon-fed to me?’” Surely anyone investing time and money to watch a film about a very distinctive kind of cinema already has a reasonable foundation to work with and deserves to bypass this kind of condescension.

Visionaries also emphasizes the viewer’s personal, subjective, and active engagement with avant-garde cinema. For example, making digestible a work like Michael Snow’s 1967 film Wavelength (a 45-minute-long, barely perceptible continuous zoom), by showing a few seconds of it before cutting minutes ahead several times, is an effective way to integrate the work into a documentary film. However, Visionaries’ 93 minutes is saturated with seconds-long fragments of over 100 films. This marathon approach guarantees exhaustion, particularly since (with the exception of Mekas, Kenneth Anger, and sparse others) the majority of split seconds of films are presented with no explication. If director, producer, and editor Chuck Workman doesn’t situate the films in context, and of course they can’t all be, how can anything meaningful be gleaned from a couple dozen frames in succession?

The film also lacks focus. Mekas’ work as an experimental filmmaker, champion of avant-garde film and co-founder of Anthology Film Archives serves as one loose thematic focal point, while the vague “(mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema” functions as its other. Does Canadian animator Norman McLaren, who made stunning animated shorts by hand-painting each frame, count in this context? For one, animation is an entire beast unto itself with various unique considerations given no due here. We’re shown seconds of his film Scherzo (1939), and one of the most fascinating facts about this and a number of McClaren’s works goes omitted. (Namely, that he made their unsettling bleep-bloopy sound effects by scratching into the film stock’s optical soundtrack to create recorded noises that never existed before the films were screened. How cool is that?) This information could scarcely be discerned from a fleeting, casual viewing, and marks an oversight on Workman’s part.

And what are we to make of the unidentified excerpt from what is likely a mid-1890s Thomas Edison short of a woman performing “The Serpentine Dance,” briefly shown twice in Visionaries? If that film is in any way experimental, it’s only in that it quite literally experimented with a barely-born medium. These early film history relics were at the time marketed as vaudeville-style attractions of scientific novelty. In the 1890s, there were no narrative Hollywood tropes to subvert, and Edison was hardly an artist. So why on earth include the thing in an exploration of avant-garde film?

After the “All About Seeing” segment, Visionaries moves on into the fuzzy “A Brief History,” followed by “The New American Cinema Begins,” where Mekas, who coined The New American Cinema, finally comes into play as its ringleader. Finally, too, the sections “Memories by Bolex (and Sony)” and “Among Jonas’ Friends” captivatingly explore Mekas’ personal history as a filmmaker and his filmmaker friends’ views on their work in engaging interviews. For instance, we learn that Kenneth Anger bedazzled the titular Scorpio Rising jacket himself and that he resents lump categorization with queer cinema. This sort of direct insight is fascinating and for once clearly relevant to Visionaries’ thesis, but the work required to arrive at these worthwhile moments, which come toward the film’s end, is asking too much of the viewer. For all the talk about thoughtful, receptive viewership pushed by Visionaries, the film fails to keep up its end of the bargain by presenting its subject matter in an unhelpful and unfortunate way.

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