Films About You: Structural Cinema and the Corporeal Spectator
The Fixed Frame: Ten Sequential Views
“. . . a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.”
– Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”
1. Bracket / Vagina / Bracket
In 1980, B. Ruby Rich published an essay in the Marxist film journal Jump Cut entitled “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism,” surveying a wide array of feminist film practices of the time. Amidst discussions of woman-centered documentaries, realist narrative cinema from around the world, and the knotty intertextual experimentalism of Yvonne Rainer, Rich briefly cites a feminist structural film from 1972, Anne Severson’s Near the Big Chakra. A film of stark and unpretentious beauty, Chakra consists of 36 sequential close-ups of vaginas. They are demographically varied, in a manner which implies systematicity, but organized so as to connote a casual assemblage, a round-up of women friends.[i] With the exception of the final vagina, that of an infant – which could be read as a conclusive rhetorical gesture -- the film is completely modular and serial in its organization, and this seems to be Rich’s point. But Rich goes on to argue that the definitions of “structural film,” as she understands them, could never be so capacious as to accommodate Severson’s film.
Formally the film fits into the category of “structuralist” cinema: a straightforward
listing of parts, no narrative, requisite attention to a predetermined and simplified
structure, and fixed camera position (as defined by the namer – P. Adams Sitney).
Yet Severson’s image is so powerfully unco-optable that her film has never been
called “structuralist” to my knowledge, nor – with retrospective revisionism – have
her earlier films been so named. Evidently any subject matter that could make a
man vomit (as happened at a London screening in 1973) is too much for the critical
category, even though it was founded on the “irrelevance” of the visual images
(Rich, in Steven 1985, 217).
As I understand Rich’s reading of structural film, it is not simply that the subgenre cannot accommodate vaginas (although some would make this point with regards to the “boys’ club” of Sitney’s original structuralist canon, the late Joyce Wieland excepted). Rather, it is that structural film is a medium whose aesthetic charge is to neutralize its denotative content. That is, what the film image contains is “irrelevant,” and yet given the need to maintain that irrelevance of the image, certain kinds of content are ostensibly better suited for structuralism (hallways, empty loft apartments, recycled film images), while other kinds threaten to overwhelm it.
Rich’s point is certainly clear enough. She finds the vaginas of Near the Big Chakra to be too rife with semiotic valence to allow for the phenomenological bracketing which seemed to be structural film’s preferred mode of reception. (Similarly, the shifting asses of Yoko Ono’s No. 4  apparently placed her film in the left field of Sitney’s canon, despite its serial arrangement and the asses’ arguably more neutral, even screen-like pastiness.) But this problem of “content” in structural film has been a consistent and wide-reaching one, for which Rich selects a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Most structural films contain some form of photographic content. Reductive films such as Conrad’s The Flicker, Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer, and Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus are the exception and not the rule. But of course, this isn’t the same as saying that most structural films are content-driven. Indeed, part of what characterizes structural film as structuralist is its ability to focus our spectatorial attention as much, if not more, on the act of perception as on any given set of perceived images. That is, films such as Wavelength, Serene Velocity, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Epileptic Seizure Comparison and the like are categorized as structural because they seem to organize perception along phenomenological lines, foregrounding the physical dimensions of film viewing. If phenomenology historically provided the primary critical vocabulary with which Sitney and Michelson addressed these films, these critics were at least in part responding to cues from the films themselves. And following from this emphasis, as Rich so polemically puts it, was an attempt to separate content-based or concept-based viewing from the physical fact of the films – in the language of phenomenology, to disarticulate first- and second-order perceptions.
As Sitney writes, “The structural film insists on its shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline” (2002, 348).[ii] This distinction, pace Rich, does not equal a total disregard for the denotative contents of the image. Michelson discussed the loft space in Wavelength, for example, in metaphorical terms. Likewise, most critical engagement with Hollis Frampton’s films, including that of Sitney and Michelson, addressed the tension between his images’ denotative content and the self-conscious perception of memory that their organization provokes. So Rich overstates the case. Content is not verboten in structural film, although it is certainly dethroned as the chief locus of attention. Nevertheless, one does find that some writing on structural film, including Sitney’s, separates out second-order denotative content, putting it in brackets and, as it were, failing to bring it back in any thoroughgoing way. Perhaps because the first-order stimulation of the senses impresses itself as the aspect of structural film that is radical and new (after all, most every film has pictorial content), works in this new genre were frequently described as if their pictorial elements were negligible and even endlessly substitutable. The filmmaker takes a decision to photograph this, but it could have just as easily been that.
2. Bringing the World to Light (Brakhage and After)
Perhaps the best way to characterize this interpretive tendency is to consider Sitney’s dialectic between structural film and the lyrical film, particularly the work of Brakhage. For Sitney the lyrical film is a first-person film, in which the finished film is an attempt at as direct a visual transcript of the filmmaker’s visual stimuli as possible. The camera serves a fraught dual function, as a regrettable mechanical mediator between the eyes of the filmmaker and his / her audience, and as a physical extension of the filmmaker’s body. From the standpoint of psychoanalytic film theory, Brakhage’s work could be said to represent a collapse between primary and secondary identification. We identify with the camera itself in Brakhage’s photographic films, but only because that camera, with its bobs, weaves, flashes and shudders, serves as an appendage for Brakhage himself. Now, we are not quite to the point of “I am a camera,” mind you; we need Warhol for that. But Brakhage’s work, especially from Anticipation of the Night through The Art of Vision, says to the spectator, “the camera is a part of me, and as you watch my film, you borrow my eyes to see what I once saw.”[iii] Part and parcel of this lyrical orchestration of experience is an insistence on absolute irreducibility. Brakhage intends to offer us fleeting perceptions that will never move through the world again – this streetlight, this tree, this loved-one, etc. Brakhage’s films are about the struggle to retain untutored vision, to as he writes “imagine a world before ‘the beginning was the word’” (1963, 17). Whether this attempt is a reclamation of something lost (as Romantic rhetoric would have it) or a retroactive installation of something never there until the moment of its loss (following the structure of the Lacanian Imaginary), Brakhage is creating films which refer to a non-narrativized, non-conceptual nowness. John Locke describes this non-conceptual specificity, even as he mocked its impracticality.
But it is beyond the power of human capacity to frame and retain distinct ideas
of all the particular things we meet with: every bird and beast men saw; every
tree and plant that affected the senses, could not find a place in the most capacious
understanding. If it be looked on as an instance of a prodigious memory, that some
generals have been able to call every soldier in their army by his proper name, we
may easily find a reason why men have never attempted to give names to each sheep
in their flock, or crow that flies over their heads; much less to call every leaf of plants,
or grain of sand that came their way, by a peculiar name (Locke 1959, 14, my emphasis).
The retrieval of this state of pre-linguistic grace entails, in Brakhage’s words, “know[ing] each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception” (1963, 17). This adventure is one that phenomenologically brackets the conceptual world and sees things as if for the first time. Maurice Merleau-Ponty grapples with this approach as the phenomenological stance, and it is useful for understanding both Brakhage’s problematic and its dialectical relation to structural cinema. Merleau-Ponty writes
Seeking the essence of consciousness will therefore not consist in developing the Wortbedeutung [literally, “word-dream”] of consciousness and escaping from existence into the universe of things said; it will consist in rediscovering my actual presence to myself, the fact of my consciousness which is in the last resort what the word and the concept of consciousness mean. Looking for the world’s essence is not looking for what it is as an idea once it has been reduced to a theme of discourse; it is looking for what it is as a fact for us, before any thematization. (Merleau-Ponty 19--, 79).
Merleau-Ponty refutes the notion that phenomenology is an idealism, since idealism would give priority to conceptual knowledge and pre-organization of the world, a pre-coding commensurate with the parameters of the self. Against this egoism, Merleau-Ponty offers the eidetic reduction (or phenomenological “bracketing”) as the best means to attend to the world in its sensual particularity.
The eidetic reduction is, on the other hand, the determination to bring the world to light
as it is before any falling back on ourselves has occurred, it is the ambition to make
reflection emulate the unreflective life of consciousness. I aim at and perceive a world.
[. . . ] The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I
have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible
These passages are rich and resonate with Brakhage’s first-person cinema as an attempt to liberate the eye from the replication of visual concepts and set it forth on an “adventure of perception” that “lives through” the world rather than merely thinking about it. Both Brakhage and Merleau-Ponty seem to say, “away with words!”[iv] When one views Window Water Baby Moving, one can of course see through the images and identify their denotative content (light, water, and the pregnant Jane Cottom Brakhage giving birth), but the impact of the film is far more visceral, communicating with rhythms of editing, textures of stippled water on Jane’s body, intensities of light and shadow modulating the frame. Following Merleau-Ponty, we can see Brakhage’s cinema as a physical address to the eye, presenting to the viewer a world that we are encouraged to see corporeally, following it with our eyes as a set of energies and impulses. In this regard, Brakhage is the starting point for structural cinema’s phenomenological and bodily address, but structural film goes in a slightly different direction.
3. Eye and Mind: A Messy Divorce
Brakhage’s cinema encourages its spectators to accept it as the rhythmically ordered record of the sum total of visual impressions that addressed themselves to their maker’s sensorium, as apart as possible from linguistic or conceptual mediation. The fact that absolute reduction of conceptual content is not possible in Brakhage’s photographic cinema without radical abstraction (e.g., the unseen crystal ashtray that is the reflective basis for all 80 minutes of The Text of Light (1970) should not be seen as a failure of any kind. His doomed-Romantic stance aside, as a film-phenomenologist Brakhage simply encountered the feasible limits of eidetic reduction. Bracketing is always asymptotic, a thought experiment which never takes us absolutely, finally and directly “to the things themselves,” but certainly moves us closer than conventional filmic perception (“that’s a chair, a desk, an ashtray, a glint of light,” etc.).
In discussing the advent of structural film, Sitney wisely observed this tendency as picking up on certain key problems in film perception as assayed by Brakhage, but reducing them even further. Sitney writes
Out of the optical field and metaphors of the body’s movement in the rocking gestures
of the camera, [Brakhage] affirmed the filmmaker as the lyrical first-person. Without
that achievement and its subsequent evolution, it would be difficult to imagine the
flourishing of the structural film (Sitney 2002, 348).
When Sitney identifies the four techniques of structural cinema (fixed frame, loop printing, flicker, and re-photography from the screen), he posits their break with Brakhage as being the break with the first-person perspective of the lyrical film, and a set of operations that set avant-garde film on its way towards a Neue Sachlichkeit of sorts. Whereas Brakhage films perform the eidetic reduction to provoke spectatorial identification with the eye behind the camera (Brakhage, that adventurer of perception), structural films’ leitmotifs are seen by Sitney as a fourfold “attempt to divorce the cinematic metaphor of consciousness from that of eyesight and body movement, or at least to diminish these categories from the prominence they have in Brakhage’s films and theory” (Sitney 2002, 348). That is, structural film shifts the terms of phenomenological engagement, away from the specific corporeal identification with the body of Brakhage and towards a more generalized, abstract “consciousness.” In Brakhage’s films, his perceptions are his own-most, and they record his experience of engaging with the surfaces and energies of his environment. The films invite their audience to similarly open ourselves to their forms, without prejudice and without the attempt to “get a bead” on the images as firm representations.[v] Brakhage is, following Locke’s characterization, not generating “representations,” properly speaking, but images of the radical particularities which passed before his eyes. On the other hand, Sitney makes claims on behalf of structural cinema that point to an extreme generality of the depicted consciousness.
In addition to calling the content of structural films “minimal and subsidiary to the outline,” as cited above, Sitney claims that in these post-Brakhage formalist films “apperceptive strategies come to the fore. It is cinema of the mind rather than the eye” (2002, 348). Rather than addressing the film experience as an adventure in perception, a brute singularity dancing on the viewer’s sensorium, structural film according to Sitney is about activating conceptual knowledge and a self-reflexive awareness of our concept-laden perception. “Apperception” entails full consciousness as an experience across time and with a history, conditioned in accordance with our prior perceptions and our mental organization of them. If we follow Sitney’s claim, then structural cinema would appear to be the dialectical antithesis to Merleau-Ponty’s “lived-through” world. Instead, we apprehend the world as gestalt. Instead of the rhythmic, physical impressions of fleeting light that characterize Brakhage’s work, structural film gives us a protracted concentration on a particular shape or limited set of shapes, as a re-encounter with an overall form that we already know. The “cinematic metaphor of consciousness” is, as Sitney says, “divorced” from the body and its particularities. with structuralism, we are on the side of language, order, abstraction, and hence, of the category of the general.
So, following this line of thinking, the phenomenological reduction that must take place in order to perceive ourselves perceiving structural film must be qualitatively different than that undertaken by Brakhage and his audience. Different elements must be bracketed. Whereas in Brakhage it was the categories of the general that threatened to inhibit our adventure in free seeing, in structuralism, according to Sitney’s logic, it is the particular that must be held in abeyance. The denotative contents of the image, in this interpretation, are epiphenomena, artifacts of a photographic process that serves as a support for a self-reflexive viewing experience. Again, since this supposedly could just as easily be replaced by that in the structural film image, we are apparently asked to go beyond the mere conceptual generality of ordinary-language, described by Locke (organizing the world into Platonic categories such as “chairs,” “men,” “dogs,” “lamps,” etc.). We are intended to bracket out the particularity of the categories of the image, and see only “image,” or “light,” “motion,” and “space.”
4. Specifying the Super-General Image
Naturally, according to these parameters, Rich is correct that Severson’s film would probably not count as a structural film. Even setting aside Rich’s assertion that the 36 vaginas are too powerful to comfortably sit still inside eidetic brackets, the very contents of Severson’s images work against the engagement with the image as generalized “image.” The organization of Near the Big Chakra implies comparison by attuning the audience’s attention to the differences between the vaginas. The film exists somewhere on the continuum between Brakhage and structuralism, displaying repetitions of the concept-image “vagina” against a neutral background in order to focus our perception on the individuality of the images.
But we should perhaps reconsider this radical of the bracketing of the specific that characterizes structural cinema for Sitney. While this definition is hardly incorrect, it may prove to be incomplete, urging structural film’s audience in the direction of certain preferred readings while excluding others. When considered alongside Sitney’s claims for Brakhage, we can see just how extreme this eidetic reduction really is. It bypasses the yoking of particulars into concepts, and harnesses those concepts, in a double-gesture, into generalized “images” whose function is to hold the place for certain filmic operations (the four methods, according to Sitney) which focus spectatorial attention on the process of film perception. Structural cinema becomes the realm of the super-general.
Major distinctions between structural films and Brakhage’s lyricism can obviously be made. Most notably, structural films solicit a different type of spectatorial identification. Instead of understanding the contents of the film to be a bodily record of Brakhage’s body in space, structural films often tend to shift identification onto the camera itself. The move made by structural film in the history of experimental cinema has typically been understood as one towards greater impersonality. So, just as the contents of the image assume a super-general character, the human consciousness behind the films is also generalized. Whereas Brakhage’s films underscore the specialness and non-iterability of Brakhage’s vision – because only he could see this. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either because, according the Romantic rhetoric with which they are often interpreted, Brakhage is an aesthetic superhero with special vision, or, following the phenomenological-reduction tack, because only Brakhage was there, with the camera and with his eye, documenting a set of profoundly particular visions in the world. In contrast, Sitney finds works like Wavelength, Serene Velocity, and Ray Gun Virus to convey an impersonality, reflecting what Bart Testa called “an axiomatic cinema.”[vi] Since these films refer primarily back to the camera and the apparatus itself, they could theoretically be made by anyone. So their phenomenological investigations are divorced from the specific sensoria of their makers, and the burden of perception is shifted squarely onto the reciever.
So that we have no confusion, let me clarify that I am discussing two different types of bracketing here. The bracketing I just described pertains to the specific sensory conditions of the images’ generation. In a sense, it does not matter who produces the images of a structural film, since the overall shape of the films are theoretically available to anyone. No one has to “experience” the zoom, the flicker, the conic shape of the lens, etc. It is always already there. But the more thoroughgoing bracketing I described early, that which I called the realm of the super-general, pertains less to image selection on the part of the filmmaker, and more to image interpretation on the part of the audience. If the loft apartment in Wavelength, the hallway in Serene Velocity, the drinkers and overflowing heads of beer foam in Schwechater, or the man cutting his tongue out in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, all have no pictorial relevance for the spectator, as Sitney implies, then structural films would be a set of formal containers that could just as easily contain any given content. And if that were the case, Rich’s objection would be moot. Hallways, vaginas . . . it would all be the same.
Following this line of thinking, the apparently vast differences between Window Water Baby Moving and Near the Big Charka would belie a deeper similarity – that both harbor pictorial content that fails to be adequately neutral to empty out the consciousness of the filmmaker and open itself up for that of the spectator. And we are back to the question with which we began – how does a structural filmmaker select adequately neutral, banal image content, images that register as “images” and not as images of anything. In other words, how do these films allegedly disarm the eye, neutralize it, all the better to let the mind take over?
5. The Fixed Frame
Sitney’s claim that image content is structural film is secondary, if not negligible, describes a reading strategy that he seems to derive from the films themselves. In dialectical terms, this makes sense. Brakhage films cried out to be looked at in their absolute singularity before a sensually astonishing world. By contrast, structural films seem to say, “for the purposes of this demonstration of an axiom, I am going to show you X [an apartment, a hallway, a passage of film leader], but try not to look at that. Instead, observe the overall shape and temporal process of spectatorship.” If we agree that at least initially, the phenomenological reception of structural film tended to overlook, bracket out, or denigrate the denotative contents of the filmic image, then we can understand the difficulty for structural films to engage critically or experientially with the specificity of their images. Furthermore, Sitney identifies the four techniques of structural cinema as the very tools with which specific image contents are subdued. They focus our attention onto the filmic procedures of recording, projecting, and viewing, and ask us to bracket out mere surface phenomena, those that most films place in the foreground.[vii]
But I wonder here whether the four tactics of structural cinema do not perform a dialectic of their own, one that simultaneously heightens our awareness of image content even as it diverts part of our attention onto matters of shape and film-cognition. I will address each of the four categories in due time, but let’s begin with the fixed frame, Sitney’s first category and one that most of the major classics of the genre share.[viii] Sitney discusses the fixed frame as a technique that achieved its unique phenomenological status in the proto-structural works of Warhol, coming into its own as “spiritual” or “transcendental” in Wavelength and Serene Velocity. In marking a path through these works and their use of the fixed frame to describe space, we can reconsider the function of the fixed frame to bracket out the specificity of depicted space, to turn the unique images of the various fixed-frame structural films into “any-space-whatevers.”[ix] While on a theoretical (or “mental”) level, Sitney accurately describes the function of these films, I am not sure he exhausts them in this way. (I strongly suspect he would concede this; after all, he was the first to survey this group of films in any systematic way, and it would be impossible to attend to every possible nuance.) The phenomenological experience of watching these films (the “ocular” or “visual” level, combined with sound when applicable) is actually rather different, quite a bit more than a distanced, nodding admiration of their systematicity.
Why is this? The technique of the fixed frame is more than a fixing of content. That is, if we assume, following Sitney, that the fixed frame helps both the filmmaker and the viewer bracket out distracting content (simply by delimiting the possible field), as well stabilizing the dominant shape, then the immobile camera serves as a tool for streamlining the film. But is this really how the film viewer experiences the frame? As an arbitrary boundary around a specific slice of space, the frame activates its contents, imbues them with a play of presence and absence. This need not, of course, function along the typical lines of suture, wherein the anxiety of the off-screen provokes narrative and spatial desire, which is then systematically satisfied. Since the reduced parameters of the structural film frame have more in common with the boundaries of painting and photography, we should interrogate the fixed frame film image on those grounds. And in those case, it is the frame which focuses viewer attention on the specificity of its contents. In fact, the frame arguably brings those pictorial contents into being as image, by setting them apart from the flux of experience. As with Brakhage’s camera or Severson’s close-ups, the structural film frame registers its contents as something to solicit our look. While the framed image does not necessarily lose all generality (just as Brakhage’s sensory reductions are seldom absolute without a thoroughgoing abstraction), is set forth in a dialectical interplay of generality and specificity, and, I would argue, tends to err on the side of the specific – of these contents, held within this frame, in this time and space.
In Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” he describes the process by which a work of architecture or engineering radically alters the space around it. Not just in the sense that it is physically moved or readjusted after a building is built, but in a larger, perceptual sense. He describes how the building of a bridge across a river transforms the banks of that river into locations, setting them apart from the flux of earth, mud and silt along the stretch of the river. That is, part of the riverbank is activated, set forth for human perception, because it now has the bridge to bring it forward.
The bridge swings over the stream “with ease and power.” It does not just connect banks
that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream.
The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against
the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips
of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse
of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s
neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream (Heidegger 1971,
According to Heidegger, it is by marking a space off against some manmade creative new element that human beings become able to initiate an encounter with the natural world. Only through a dialectical operation (art and world set against one another) can the true nature of a space reveal itself to human consciousness.[x] Elsewhere, Heidegger describes the work of art as precisely the human intervention that can bring the truth of things to presence, by setting things apart, giving them a space in which to perform their uniqueness and specificity. What is true for space and landscape in “Building Dwelling Thinking” is also true in artworks more generally. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger describes this active dialectic. In discussing the truth revealed in Van Gogh’s painting of peasant shoes, Heidegger clarifies the difference between artworks and mere things, artworks having the capability to illuminate our experience of things by setting them forth into a non-equipmental, non-instrumental being.
To be sure, the current thing-concept always fits each thing. Nevertheless it does not lay
hold of the thing as it is in its own being, but makes an assault on it. Can such an assault
perhaps be avoided – and how? Only, certainly, by granting the thing, as it were, a free
field to display its thingly character directly. Everything that might interpose itself between
the thing and us in apprehending and talking about it must first be set aside. Only then do we
yield ourselves to the undisguised presence of the thing (Heidegger 1971, 25).
As you can see, his description is consonant with the sensual bracketing procedures of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, and we can intuit from this that for Heidegger, the work of art is a special instance of bracketing. He makes this prospect explicit later in the essay when describing the revealing power of a Greek temple stationed on a rock.
The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air. The steadfastness
of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging
of the sea. Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive
shapes and thus come to appear as what they are. The Greeks early called this emerging
and rising in itself and in all things phusis. It clears and illuminates, also, that on which
and in which man bases his dwelling. We call this ground the earth (Heidegger 1971, 42).
The earth becomes available to humankind, not just in revealing its truth but in allowing for dwelling, when it is set apart by the temple. The temple enframes the earth and sky.
To return to the issue of structural cinema, I would argue that the fixed frame does not only reduce its pictorial contents. In fact, it brings them to light as a specific, singular site for our viewing, and possibly for the revelation of truth. This does not invalidate Sitney’s claims about the impression of a perceptual gestalt from the stationary image, but I believe it extends and supplements those claims. How does the slice of spatio-temporal reality set apart by the fixed frame affect the spectators stationed before it? Rather than nullifying the contents of the frame, structural cinema’s fixed gaze can perform an active bracketing that in a sense creates the site it delivers to us through photography. By erecting a frame, the film asks us to contemplate a particular space, as Sitney says. But that contemplation is only partly “mystical,” since it both attunes us to the depicted space’s generality (as an intensity of filmic light) and as a concrete dwelling in a specific locale. Sometimes this space is only tangentially the space photographically depicted in the film itself. Rather, in some cases (such as Serene Velocity) the bracketing of the specificity of depicted place is designed to activate the film’s relationship with the site of projection, the very space of the viewer. (In this way, certain structural films are perhaps better understood as minimalist, like their painterly and sculptural counterparts.) But in many more cases, the fixed frame is a space for the oscillation between generality and specificity. So Rich’s plaint regarding structural cinema as the neutralization of denotative content is often not the case, or is only one mode (admittedly, the dominant one) of experiencing these films. If Rich were right, then structuralism would be unable to encounter “sitedness” or location, to address the specificity of place in a systematic or thoroughgoing way, accept as another set of meaning-artifacts to defeat.. But in fact, an engagement with site (as landscape, or as specific milieu) has been a tendency implicit within structural cinema. And it has been the fixed frame, above all other techniques, which has set space into motion, brought it to life as a set of potentials which address not only the mind, but the eye and the body as well.
6. Warhol’s Vinyl and the Permeability of Film Space
Earlier interpretations of structural cinema (both pro and con) have claimed it to be a form that suppresses site and landscape, as mere epiphenomena within the overall film system. But a re-examination of key works by Warhol and Snow shows the extent to which their films used formal techniques, particularly the fixed frame, to interrogate the specific potentials of particular locations. Granted, this site-specific interpretation of structural cinema was not always an available one, for historical reasons I’ll discuss below. In fact, we critics are trailing behind contemporary filmmakers themselves, whose “neo-structural” works have reread the structural tradition through practice, locating ignored potentials and untapped counter-trends. In learning to understand where the tradition is now, we can see how those earlier works are retroactively recoded. What was important to Sitney when he formulated the idea of structural film is quite a bit different from the concerns of filmmakers now drawing inspiration from the strategies of structural film, and this shift in emphasis is evident when examining the problem of the fixed frame. What began life as abstract space has mutated into a hybrid form, an intersection of space and place.
Even Sitney himself has refrained from citing a “first” structural film, or offering a definitive starting place for this type of filmmaking. In Visionary Film, Sitney cites Warhol’s early-60s film work as proto-structural, introducing such elements of end-flares, stationary camera, and extended duration dictated by the length of the film-rolls themselves (Sitney 1979, 371-373). This is as close as Sitney comes to designating a father for structural film, and while I do not want to harp on an issue adequately treated elsewhere, Sitney’s treatment of Warhol tends to undercut whatever claims he makes about Warhol’s importance for the development of rigorous avant-garde film. While acknowledging that Warhol came to cinema “not as a dabbler, but with a total commitment,” Sitney discounts all of Warhol’s film work following The Chelsea Girls (1966), compares Warhol’s “profligacy of footage” to the Spartan editing of Brakhage and Kubelka, and perpetuates the guiding myth that Warhol “simply turned on the camera and walked away” (ibid). It is almost as if Warhol, “as a pop artist [. . .] spiritually at the opposite pole from the structural film-makers,” came upon his formal innovations naively or by accident, while playing his game of epater le bourgeoisie. Sitney goes on to locate the emergence of a true structuralist sensibility in the late 60s work of Michael Snow and Ernie Gehr.
However, thinking about structural film from the vantage point of the present, we can see Warhol’s work as prescient with respect to its treatment of place. While Warhol’s films, with the notable exception of Empire (1964), did not show any particular interest in landscape, most all of the films Warhol made (including several of those post-Chelsea Girls projects Sitney dismisses, like the Four Stars series) pay attention to a very specific locale, the Factory. The vast majority of the films were shot there, and while some try to obscure its spatial specificity, through extreme close-up (e.g., Eat, 1963) or partial theatrical set-dressing (e.g., Poor Little Rich Girl, 1965), many more derive part of their power from the sense of place they evoke, the sustained attention to the Factory as a space and a milieu. Some, like Couch (1964), are fixated on a particular portion of the Factory environment, whereas others (e.g., The Life of Juanita Castro, Vinyl, and Kitchen, all 1965; Imitation of Christ, 1966) dramatize the pull and thick atmosphere of the Factory by half-heartedly adjusting parts of it in the service of fictional narratives, gesturing toward closed diegeses while simultaneously signaling to the audience that it’s just the Factory, after all, not a “real” locale. Part of the beauty and enduring fascination of these films is their specificity in depicting the world which led to their making, the world in orbit around Andy Warhol.
Vinyl is exemplary in this regard. The film is ostensibly Warhol’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a book to which he secured the rights several years before Kubrick. Like most of Warhol’s works of the period, Vinyl is shot in stark, crisp black-and-white, and the film begins with a close-up of its star, Gerard Malanga. He stares straight ahead, and at first an unwitting audience would be forgiven for mistaking the film for another of Andy’s static portraits. Malanga ducks out of the frame, and pops back up again, and slowly, as Malanga lifts dumbbells and turns from side to side, Warhol pulls his zoom lens back, to reveal a cramped space around Malanga, crowded with diffident actors. The right side of the frame is anchored by Edie Sedgwick seated on a table, smoking and holding her purse. In the background right of the frame, another table has a half-naked man held down lengthwise by two other men, who wave a lit candle around his torso, play-acting as if they are torturing him with hot wax. In the mid-foreground left is the seated Tosh Carillo, who serves (like Sedgwick) as an internal spectator for the first third of the film (laughing out loud in a sarcastic manner at Malanga’s hijinx), then standing up to assume the role of the Doctor who will perform the Ludivico Method of torture on Malanga’s Victor, to reform this violent “J.D.” In the background left is seated a man on a bench, near a record player and a lamp. He is most likely playing the various records we hear during the running-time of Vinyl, but he is such a visually indistinct presence that it was impossible for me to tell for certain.
The fixed frame gestures toward the closing-off of a fictional diegetic space. But the organization of bodies within the frame complicates this prospect, filled as it is with multiple layers of action within a relatively shallow depth. Its mise-en-scène recalls the cluttered tableaux of early cinema. Likewise, figures move easily in and out of the space, and some performers, particularly Sedgwick, have no fictional role to play at all. Warhol penetrates the frame twice, but only with his voice (once to announce the title, once more to read the closing credits). He uses the zoom lens at the beginning and the end, but Warhol never once departs from the fixed frame. And instead of using it to close off a fictional world, he uses it instead to demarcate a slab of the Factory environment, one like any other but which will contain something approximating a play, during the length of time it takes to burn up two reels of 16mm film. The very fact that, atmospherically, there is nothing special about this part of the Factory as opposed to any other, is precisely what activates this spot as a showplace, a zone for temporary, half-hearted role-play. Vynil is not mystical, not transcendent like the Greek temple on the mount, but nonetheless it enframes two discrete sequential moments in real time, orchestrating them spatially by setting up relationships within and beyond the frame. Vinyl activates space, and in so doing, brings to light the “superstars” who occupy it.
Often Warhol’s films, especially the later narratives, are understood as chiefly creating this atmosphere through performance. This is certainly true, since they convey nothing so much as a group of very intelligent, very drugged-out friends and acquaintances fucking around (both literally and figuratively). But part of how this milieu is filmically constructed is Warhol’s concrete location of it in the Factory. And whether or not Sitney is correct in claiming that Warhol “turned on the camera and walked away,” the formal innovations that Sitney ascribes to Warhol’s filmmaking – fixed attention of a non-moving camera, extended duration – now seem inseparable from Warhol’s fixed, staring attention to the Factory, his faith that almost anything could happen there and it would probably be interesting. And many of his shocking tilt-pans and sudden zooms in later works seem to perform double duty, drawing our attention to the apparatus and shoving a very particular piece of film space into our eyes. All this by way of saying, the concept of place, of sitedness, is already at work in Warhol’s proto-structuralist film practice.[xi] But this work and the problem of place was incidental to Sitney’s formulation of structuralism as a culmination of “visionary film.” This is not just because, as the “visionary” label implies, Sitney’s particular mode of phenomenological inquiry (derived from Husserl rather than Merleau-Ponty) favored transcendence over immanence. It is also because Sitney’s formulation of structural film privileged relationships contained strictly within the film itself. And while outside reference or indexical meanings were not dismissed out of hand, they were enveloped within a narrative of unfolding consciousness. Snow and Gehr’s work became paradigmatic for this “film as metaphor for the mind” strain of criticism. But these two works that for Sitney embody this attitude most completely -- what Sitney calls “a mystical contemplation of a portion of space” – do so in significantly different terms. This distinction may clarify the greater investment in site which follows this high-structuralist moment. Gehr’s film Serene Velocity (1970) adheres to Sitney’s dictum, giving primacy to shape and form over denotative content. But it does so in a manner that re-imagines film space as that of the spectator.
7. Serene Velocity: Return to the “Shock Corridor”
Gehr’s film is shot perspectivally down the hallway of a building on the campus of SUNY Binghamton, where Gehr was teaching at the time. His procedure for the film was simple. Beginning with his zoom lens in the centermost position, he moved his lens away from the center in small increments, shooting four frames from each lens position. Since he begins in the middle and moves forward and backward in equal measure, the resulting film depicts the hallway as a pulsating space. As the film proceeds, the disparity of focal length becomes more and more dramatic, creating what Sitney calls “an accordion-like slamming and stretching of the visual field” (438). Gehr has said that in making Serene Velocity and the other films of this period, he was interested in depicting “film as energy,” rather than as representation per se. Acknowledging that “when I began to make films I believed pictures of things must go into films if film was to mean anything,” his attention soon shifted to more purely formal concerns.
Most films teach film to be an image, a representing. But film is a real thing and as a real
thing it is not an imitation. It does not reflect on life, in embodies the life of the mind. It
is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted
idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within
a given space (Gehr 1971).
In many ways Serene Velocity is the paradigmatic structural film for this reason. Rather than allowing attention to be diverted onto second-order representational or indexical concerns, Gehr’s film purifies the frame, reducing it as much as possible to functions of light and shape. Here is Sitney’s description.
The temporality of the filming excluded any possibility of human action within
the corridor. It is divorced from the realm of experience and re-fashioned in a
purely cinematic time and space. One exterior event does leak in, however: by
the end of the film dawn has broken outside the corridor. A natural light illum-
inates the previously dark windows in the central doors, making this severe and
powerful film a reluctant aubade, in which we are reminded of the extreme dist-
ancing from the natural world upon which the film is predicated (Sitney 1979, 438).
As one can see from viewing either the film itself or the many published stills, Serene Velocity is a representational film. The fact that it is photographed down a corridor is fairly evident. However, Gehr’s film performs an abstraction, in the truest sense, by using the representational as a support for a formal procedure, and as Sitney notes, this is done by eliminating human experience and the natural world. Moreover, this process is aided by the film’s situation in a “non-place,” a doggedly anonymous locale. In the film, says Scott MacDonald, “Gehr is able to energize one of the dullest contemporary spaces (what is duller than an institutional hallway?)” (MacDonald 1993, 42). Serene Velocity was shot in the place Gehr worked, but it borders on perversity to try to read autobiographical content into the film’s 23 minutes of shape. This film does what, allegedly, structural film as a whole tends to do. Serene Velocity depicts a “place,” but its specificity is defeated through abstraction. The hallway, in every possible sense, is empty. This is indeed why Serene Velocity is so powerful. (To return to Ruby Rich’s claim, what would we make of a hypothetical “Serene Chakra,” filled with zooming vaginas?)[xii] By divesting itself of an internal sense of sitedness, it thrusts viewers into the absolute now of its own existence as a filmic object. The film has been compared to Frank Stella’s paintings of the late 50s and early 60s, such as Die Fahne Hoch! (1959), Six Mile Bottom (1960), and Gran Cairo (1964). While Gehr has disdained the comparison, one can perhaps see a kinship which is not solely based on shape. Like Stella’s paintings of this period, Serene Velocity radiates a single overall shape. Using trick photography, the film expands and contracts, and while Stella’s paintings cannot behave in exactly the same way, their compositions imply expansion and contraction. In both cases, the instantaneous apprehension of shape and form characteristic of a color-field canvas is alluded to but denied. Both exceed the edges of the frame, Stella spatially, and Gehr temporally. But in both cases, space is a general category, and does not refer to a specific location.
This radical reduction is even more powerful, precisely because in emptying out virtually all denotative content from the images, Gehr opens film space beyond its enframed boundaries. As Gehr’s statement cited above makes clear, he wants film to be an “energy,” and “intensity of light,” and in the case of Serene Velocity, this light is not contained by the screen. Yes, it ends its shape at the boundaries of the screen, but as energy, that light does not die. Rather, it radiates back into the space of the audience, where its pulsions and intensities are physically and spatially felt. The physical encounter with Serene Velocity has in part to do with its remnants of photographic meaning, the fact that the alternating segments of hallway give an oscillating shape to those light-waves, so that their tug and shove can be cognitively measured by the viewer. This mental operation, combined with the forcefully shifting light, almost inevitably produces a resonant vibration of almost violent intensity for the spectator; Serene Velocity hails us as thick, palpable bodies. But as the film does this, it plants us firmly in the space of its own projection. The gentle flicker emitting from the screen places us in a spatial situation with respect to light. Like a Dan Flavin sculpture in a can, Serene Velocity adopts Robert Morris’s doctrine for minimal art, making the artwork less of a self-contained text, and more of an instigator of a larger set of environmental relationships. Morris describes this condition, claiming that “the object itself has not become less important. It has merely become less self-important” (in Battcock 1968, 234).[xiii]
Serene Velocity stands as one of the greatest achievements of minimalist art.
8. Wavelength – Heideggerian Cinema
So, in Serene Velocity, Gehr uses a gestalt technique to lend his film an overall shape, one which downplays the photographic content of the images in favor of a generalized, axiomatic “film space.” This has also been the preferred analysis for the other great film in Sitney’s structuralist pantheon, Michael Snow’s Wavelength. Snow’s famous film, the most notable formal feature of which is a 45-minute slow-motion zoom across a New York loft apartment, has also been described as the axiomatic structural film, “the story of the diminishing area of pure potentiality” (Sitney 1979, 375). In the criticism, the zoom has been equated with a metaphor for the intentionality of consciousness, the way our attention draws us forward into action. Moreover, the zoom lens’ relentless forward motion throws more and more space out of the frame, into the irretrievable past. The loft itself is negligible in this interpretation, since the room is purely metaphorical, and as such, as devoid of specificity as Gehr’s corridor. Annette Michelson claims that Wavelength effects an "emptying" of space.
We are proceeding from uncertainty to certainty, as our camera narrows its field, arousing
and then resolving our tension of puzzlement as to its ultimate destination, describing, in
the splendid purity of its one, slow movement, the notion of the "horizon" characteristic
of every subjective process and fundamental as a trait of intentionality. . . And it is as if
by emptying the space of his film (dramatically, through extreme distancing, visually by
presenting it as mere volume, the "scene" of pure movement in time), Snow has re-defined
filmic space as that of action (Michelson 1971, 174-175).
It is hard to speak of Snow’s emptying of space because the film entails multiple spaces, each with their own specificity. There is the abstract space of the zoom, described by Michelson and Sitney. At the same time, there is the representation of the loft itself. Much more so than the hallway in Serene Velocity, the singularity of the loft, its existence as a site, asserts itself in Wavelength. Snow shows us the space outside the apartment, the way the space looks under shifting conditions of light, as well as how it interacts as an image, with different film stocks, colored filters, aperture settings, etc. Wavelength demonstrates a commitment to demonstrating the endless permutations for representing a specific place on film. Also, Wavelength employs narrative activity (however limited or silly) in order to dramatize the discrepancy between narrative space (here I borrow Stephen Heath’s term, but its consonance with Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “abstract space” is well worth noting) and concrete place.[xiv] Profilmic events are “contained” within narrative space, and that spatial container draws no real attention to itself. But the film’s insistence on the existential being and irreducible singularity of this loft as a site is amply demonstrated. In fact, the film’s most riveting moments occur in the absence of human occupancy.[xv]
But there is at least one other space to be addressed in Wavelength, one which may not undermine the “metaphor for consciousness” thesis, but certainly problematizes it. This is the space of the theatre in which Wavelength is shown. Most films, of course, adhere to the commercial demands of portability, and part of this is a diegetic absorption which does not address the conditions of projection. While these conditions and the environment surrounding them do vary from site to site, the film itself typically does nothing to illuminate them. The final few seconds of Wavelength, however, do just that. Taking its cues from earlier films by Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, and Peter Kubelka, Wavelength resolves into pure projector light, opening the darkened theatre up to vision. What is unique about Wavelength’s move in this regard is that it comes after nearly 45 minutes of ostensible self-absorption. The zoom’s forward motion suddenly reverses. In so doing, the film “unwrites” itself as a self-contained object and literally “turns outward,” becoming a single term in a larger spatio-temporal situation. And, if the forward zoom is thought to be a metaphor for the intentionality of consciousness, then its reversal must in turn be an intending-towards its audience. That is, the film becomes conscious of us, and offers us a newly framed consciousness of ourselves, in our particular situation.
In this regard, Wavelength partakes of minimalism’s critique of modernist autonomy. It observes Morris’s dictum regarding the art object (in this case, the film) as adopting a more humble position, as one aesthetic “term” among many in an overall environment. But as the above makes clear, Wavelength is different from Serene Velocity, in that it positions itself at the intersection between pure light and shape (the zoom, and the final retro-zoom) and a sequence of sensual individual images in time. The images bracketed by Wavelength’s fixed frame and slow zoom are enframed as moments in an overall process, but like Zeno’s Arrow, those moments retain partial autonomy as phenomenological experiences. Snow foregrounds the activity of seemingly "passive" space. In observing the shifting visual pulsations of the spaces produced by Wavelength’s concentrated framing, one becomes aware that "spaces," and the "things" within them, are not solid but rather in a constant state of flux. The yellow chair which features prominently in the film is altered along with its context. It pops into deep greens only to burst into a white flare of light. Often, the film's return to the local color of the loft is presented in a grainy film stock, live with swirling particles. The materiality of the film in the projector is indeed emphasized by these incursions of anti-illusionism. But this assertion of materiality is part of a total destabilizing of the depicted world of the loft space. Shifts in film grain, along with the oscillating sine wave which comprises the majority of the soundtrack, demonstrate the most basic material level of sensual experience.[xvi] All of this by way of saying, Wavelength points to its own specificity as a set of depicted spaces, to the multitude of experiences that can be generated from a single camera set-up. Snow’s film is not merely a reduction of content, but a dialectical reduction and expansion, one that pays the most specific attention possible to the site of its making. The loft apartment thrums with energy, and it has become am iconic emblem of the power of experimental film to bring its loving gaze to bear on the mundane, and imbue it with life and meaning.
9. Benning’s Site-Specific Histories : Deseret and El Valley Centro
From its critical inception, structural film has treated the issue of site and location in a variety of ways. While one thread of the tradition has, as Rich claimed, actively suppressed a specific treatment of content, there has also been another set of potentials at work, actively attentive to the specificity of place. In Wavelength, we see this counter-tradition moving in two different directions. One addresses the concrete place or places represented in the film; the other focuses attention on the site-specificity of the viewing situation. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the former, which has a more immediate relationship to the development of avant-garde film history. The latter strain, as it pertains to film’s intersection with sculpture and art-world concerns, will receive more sustained attention in Chapter [x]. Instead I will examine the recent practice of James Benning, work which exemplifies structural film’s concern with site.
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker currently working, Benning has adopted the language of structural cinema and harnessed its energies for a rigorous examination of site. This tendency has been at work in Benning’s career for quite some time, developing from his more traditionally structural works of the early 70s, through his structural narrative films (11 X 14 ; One Way Boogie Woogie ), through an even more explicitly narrative phase (Landscape Suicide ). His current work is devoted to the depiction of the U.S. landscape. It is sometimes categorized as “experimental documentary,” since Benning offers representations of the areas he selects which are both informative and aestheticized. Benning’s work has expanded the definition of structural film, accommodating denotative images whose indexical character is the crux of their power. This can be seen in many of his works, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will pay close attention to two recent films of his, Deseret (1995) and El Valley Centro (2000).
In his earlier films, Benning has used the frame imposed by a static camera, and often a predetermined shot length, to allow us to perceive human and natural phenomena with greater clarity. That is, he has always produced work which has been somewhat off the track of Sitney’s main structuralist tradition.[xvii] But Benning’s later work uses the bracketing procedures of the fixed frame to draw attention to other more conventional structures, those which exist in the social and political spheres. For example, 1995's Deseret provides a history of the state of Utah, from 1852-1992, drawn from Utah-related stories in the New York Times. The images we see are of landscapes and manmade structures throughout Utah, images whose stunning compositions serve to draw our attention back to the frame, what it encloses and excludes. The film’s narration is comprised of sentences from news stories about Utah, with the length of the sentences determining shot length. (As acceptable journalistic style evolves to become more terse, shots become correspondingly briefer.) Within Deseret, Benning organizes sound, image, and narration, as interdependent variables, whose structural integrity is in part secured by Utah itself.
But then, what is Utah? As the news articles are read in voiceover, they provide us with a concrete history of the state. But at the same time, this history reveals the contingency of bounded borders, of what a “state” or a “nation” is. The struggle to settle Utah was, in many ways, the imposition of an arbitrary frame – as arbitrary as a 60-second-per-shot rule or a stationary camera, except that political structures have a way of effacing themselves, appearing self-evident. In Deseret, Benning enframes Utah in a way which asks viewers to consider the historical enframing that is Utah itself.
El Valley Centro is the first of three films comprising the “California trilogy.” The others are Los (2001), which examines the greater L.A. area, and Sogobi (2002), a study of the Northern California wilderness. In each of these films, Benning employs a framework which gives an overall formal shape to his subject. While very consciously arranged for compositional effect and thematic continuity, the shots are two-and-a-half minutes long, filmed from a single unmoving camera position. This provides a temporal and spatial modularity which implies a kinship with the “primary structures” of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. In the course of these equal shots, the viewer of El Valley Centro encounters a series of landscape views of California’s Central Valley. Some of the sequences contain humans and other living beings interacting with or existing in the space depicted, while others demonstrate evidence of prior human intervention – highways, prisons, pipelines. By presenting uninterrupted camera rolls, Benning poses a formal principle which asks the viewer to become attuned to small, subtle changes in the depicted scene. In El Valley Centro, Benning uses duration to invite the viewer to more fully inhabit the scene, to attend to those spaces around us which many of us have learned to ignore. Each shot is a slice of space and time, each from a different location in the Central Valley, and here the modular quality provides the shots with a sense of simultaneity or presentness, as if all of what we see and hear is happening now, within the region Benning is investigating. Some of the shots are poignant, such as migrant workers picking grapes, looking apprehensively at the camera. Others are chilling, such as a shot of a faceless building which soon reveals itself to be the county jail. And still others are very funny, owing to Benning’s unique subversion of perceptual expectations. (One of the most notable shots in El Valley Centro is a low-angle shot of a road alongside a river. The river is not visible, so in the course of the two-and-a-half minutes, we see cars cross the screen, and then, unexpectedly, a large cargo ship.)
I should clarify that modularity does not mean similarity, and Benning’s formal framework serves to dramatize the variety of activity (labor, recreation, transportation, and the earth’s own undulating rhythms) within the Central Valley, a region which provides food for one-fourth of the US population. The variety of these images seems all the more significant since, among “cultured” urban Californians, the Central Valley is often unfairly perceived as an empty space, a fly-over or drive-thru zone between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In showing us just how much there is to see, El Valley Centro extends the concerns of earlier work, while taking it into a more explicitly political direction. Benning’s films have consistently given sustained attention to the Midwest and other US locations away from major “cultural centers,” engaging in respectful inquiry and conferring aesthetic value where few other filmmakers have ventured.[xviii]
As an examination of a space “in between,” it stands to reason that Benning’s title, El Valley Centro, calls to mind that of Michael Snow’s 1971 landscape film La Région Centrale. Snow’s frantically mobile camera relentlessly examines the central region of Canada, an uninhabited tundra. El Valley Centro’s landscape is very much inhabited, and is very much alive. It is a center not only of agricultural activity but of other elements which are vital to the status-quo of business and government in California, such as state prisons and backbreaking labor by undocumented workers – elements which are strategically kept off the beaten track. The “absence” at the heart of the Central Valley, then, is not an absence of human activity, as in Snow’s film, but the lack of an immediately visible power structure, one which would be legible from the landscape itself. In accordance with this difference, Snow uses the multi-directional mobile camera to activate a space apart from human existence, while Benning plants his camera in the midst of all manner of activity, capturing what concentrated viewing can see.
Benning ends El Valley Centro in a manner which serves to retroactively recode everything the film has shown us up to that point. In the final credits, Benning gives a title to each shot, and lists the owner of the land depicted. Benning’s method, his unerring eye for composition, and his observational stance allow the Central Valley to tell its own story inasmuch as it can. But part of that story is precisely what is hidden from view, and without the consideration of those objective structures which do not meet the naked eye or the ear, El Valley Centro would be incomplete. In his investigation of the Valley as a site, Benning complicates the aesthetic with the political, reminding us that every space is polyvalent, and traversed by power.
El Valley Centro focuses its attention on a site of capitalist production, showing various types of labor alongside natural processes. In this way, Benning manages in the first film to give the lie to pronouncements on America’s new post-industrial economy, by showing the labor which makes this country function, and from which most of its inhabitants must be constantly distracted. But Benning also demonstrates how human beings interact and coexist with the natural world, how we manipulate it and how it shapes our lives. By employing a static camera and a specified duration for his shots, Benning uses film form to modularize certain experiential particularities which cannot in fact be equated or generalized. Each shot is a site-bound slice of late capitalist existence. Each has its own unique place in a larger network of relationships. By organizing his film according to an abstract scheme, Benning turns the methods of structural film into a metaphor for, if not capitalism and its capacity for abstraction, then at least the larger system of social relations, a largely imperceptible network which affords every discrete element its place in the totality.
10. Structural Cinema: a Political Gesture
To return once more to Rich’s implicit objections to structural film methodology, one can understand it as a metonym for the reduction of content to a mere placeholder within a formalist framework. This problematic has been articulated in numerous ways over the years. Bergstrom and Penley, for example, decry the “tautological” nature of experimental cinema in the phenomenological mode (of which, by extension, structural film could be the ne plus ultra). They favor films which concern “filmic enunciation,” who possesses the power to speak (Penley and Bergstrom 1985, 297). David James, a more sympathetic critic, has also cited structuralism as an example of the impersonal, the abstract, and the apolitical tendencies of the art world, run amok. Discussing Hollis Frampton’s film (nostalgia), James writes:
We may see Frampton’s denial [of personal history] as an emblem of structural film’s need to efface its social function, to burn the evidence of its social context, in order that its formal purity might shine through. [. . . ] Relinquishing the populist ambitions of the underground and the revolutionary ones of contemporary political filmmakers, structural film became Art, high culture distinct from and opposed to the mass media in general. [. . . ] Precluded from engaging or even recognizing its own social situation, it had no story to tell. The formal concerns, the absence of content, and the insistent reflexivity all corresponded to an absence of any positive social function, the denial of any audience but the specialist. Its symbolic utopia of an uncompromised film was achieved not merely by negating all previous uses and situations of film, but by negating cinema (James 1989, 275).
The relative denigration of structural film from the Marxist and feminist theorists cited above is for the most part argued within strictly filmic terms. Penley, Bergstrom, and James all take issue with structuralism as a faulty politics of representation. To bring this problematic to bear on the concrete issue of site and the construction of space – that is, to consider the work that representation performs upon space – is the logical conclusion to this critique. After all, if the representation of landscape or urban space is found wanting within structuralism, that critique will be most thoroughgoing if “content” strikes back on its own
One might imagine the line of argument: that what capitalists and city planners, in the service of the dominant order, do to actual city space – subdivide it, homogenize it, carve it up and divorce it from the landscape in its lived dimension –, the structuralist filmmaker does to representations of space, and in so doing, offers an aestheticized prop for spatial hegemony. This relevant passage from Henri Lefebvre could be an excerpt from “apparatus”-based film theory.
The eye, however, tends to relegate objects to the distance, to render them passive. That
which is merely seen is reduced to an image -- and to an icy coldness. . . . Inasmuch as the
act of seeing and what is seen are confused, both become impotent. By the time this process
is complete, space has no social existence independently of an intense, aggressive and
repressive visualization (Lefebvre 1971, 286).
However, in El Valley Centro, Benning uses the fixed frame to accomplish so much more. In shots like the river / highway horizon line described above, or the voices-off of good ol’ boys, heard but unseen on the main drag in Modesto, Benning orchestrates the frame as a tool which both affords the viewer a specific look, and withholds key information. The experience of this film is one of qualified knowledge, and the nature and extent of that knowledge develops across the 2 ½ minute viewing time. The frame asserts itself not as a window onto the real, but as an arbitrary boundary on our ability to know. Catherine Russell has written about Benning’s work, and the power of the fixed frame more generally, as a formal organization or epistemological potential. Of his earlier film Landscape Suicide, she writes, “[The film] is about representation, about looking and about the language of film. [. . . ] The imposition of form onto the landscape through Benning’s rigorous framing and slow pacing has the effect, again, of showing how reality is transformed into images” (1999, 182). She continues, making claims for Benning’s work as a form of ethnographic documentary.
Cinema shares its apparatus of vision and techniques of representation with many
other media, and the “structure” of structural film extends far beyond cinema. As
a form of experimental ethnography, its phenomenological premises are conjoined
with a documentary realism within a specifically aesthetic sphere of representation.
When people appear within the “frame” of landscape, they enter the sphere of
representation through the back door, through the pictorial properties of the medium,
and so they can be seen differently, not as exoticized “Others” but as functions or
extensions of their environment (Russell 1999, 183).
Within El Valley Centro, Benning uses the unmoving frame and a mathematical schema to fix our attention on those sites of contemporary life in late-capitalist California which would otherwise remain obscured. This in-between space exists, within the abstract spatial logic of capitalism, precisely in order not to be offered to vision. These sites must be kept off-scene. And I would go further, to argue that by fixing his camera and removing segments of visual knowledge of the central valley, his is in fact creating the sites he depicts. The spaces pre-exist his intervention, of course, but the spaces have been relegated to the sphere of “non-site,” the unseen and the placeless. By organizing these spaces as views, Benning allows them to speak, to reveal their inner-workings, inasmuch as these truths can be read off their surface.[xix]
At the same time, Benning’s end credits underscore the limits of knowledge in the most extreme way possible. What the grid format cannot show is presented in the form of text – a table of contents of private ownership, something not immediately legible off the land itself. Through this supplement, Benning also puts his own project under instantaneous revision. But I reiterate, this is only the most obvious example of a practice which is in evidence within each frame. Benning gives us time to experience the perceptual ambiguities and misdirections which are a function of any cinematic organization of the world. He clarifies for his audience the fixed boundaries of filmic knowledge.
[Note: I am still working on a conclusion which ties these threads together, that demonstrates that Benning is significant partly because he clarifies the spatial and political potentials already at work within Warhol, Snow and Gehr. What I do not want to do – and fear is the case at present – is make Benning seem like the happy culmination of structural film, since he brings back “recognizably political content.” That is, I do not want to cast Snow and Gehr, especially, as apolitical. Rather, they show that the fixed frame performs its Heideggerian function by making us see the world, giving it over to vision and giving us over to the world as well. Benning does this in different ways, obviously, but I think I need to sum up by returning to the Heidegger and perhaps briefly bringing in the October-ists’ political defense of minimalism (esp. Foster and Krauss).]
[i] In actuality, Severson located her participants through the network of sexuality seminars based at Glide Memorial Church in 1972. See Scott MacDonald’s interview with Severson in MacDonald 1992.
[ii] It seems to be the Sitney is using the word “minimal” here simply to mean sparing and relatively unimportant, and not to allude to the category of minimalist art. Elsewhere, however, Sitney does refer to structural film’s relationship to minimalism in the arts.
[iii] Brakhage’s writings and public statements, as well as the evidence of the films themselves, have led to the assessment that the artist’s project was a Romantic, if quixotic, attempt to use art as a record of his sensorium, trying to deliver it to his viewers with as little mediation as possible. (In narrative cinema, one thinks of the opening sequence of Persona, wherein Bergman struggles so passionately for direct access to the spectator that the film’s material support burns away.) While I do not want to question Brakhage’s motives, or call into question the sincerity of his accounts of his project, it is important to keep in mind that this Romantic sincerity is a rhetorical construction. The “character” Brakhage creates in his photographic films is that of a fully embodied, perceiving Brakhage, fully present behind the camera. It is a character that encourages its addressee not to consider it a character at all, to ascribe full presence to the man with the movie camera. This is largely due to the extremely non-linguistic, phenomenological address of Brakhage’s films. Their visceral qualities connote the unmediated impressions of a body moving through the world, and the films’ radical silence and spatiality transfers this visceral impact to the viewer. At the same time, the camera movements, end flares, rapid edits, and the like are filmic codes, generating a rhetoric of immediacy. Granted, this point has been abused in the past by semioticians anxious to undercut claims by Brakhage (and in some cases, the avant-garde more generally) in favor of a non- or pre-linguistic sensory experience. Semiotic criticism has tended to want to trump “the body” with “language,” throwing out the phenomenological disarticulation of bodily and conceptual knowledge. That is not what I’m asserting here. Rather, the space between Brakhage’s use of the camera (the record of immediacy) and his organization and projection of films (a mediated record of immediate sensations) operates precisely on the pivot-point between bodily sensation and film rhetoric. It is in the quixotic, ever-doomed struggle for immediate communication that the Romantic dialectic operates, and the activation of this dialectic requires the performance of these struggling, doomed rhetorics. As Paul de Man demonstrated with respect to Romantic poetry, part of the power of the Romantic gesture stems from its construction of an impossible quest, a set of untenable positions organized through the language of accursed mediation. (See, for example, “Lyric and Modernity,” and his discussion of Yeats.) All this to say, criticism (pro and con) of Brakhage has tended to accept the way his project constructs Brakhage-the-man, either as unproblematic (Brakhage’s-eye-as-camera) or naive (Brakhage-the-self-aggrandizing-masculinist-hero). But early on, Sitney clarified Brakhage’s Romantic stance as a dialectical rhetoric. When Sitney refers to the “protagonist” of Anticipation of the Night (165), or to the filmmaker adopting intellectual positions vis-a-vis Locke and Blake (168), we understand that Brakhage’s no-doubt-sincere adherence to these Romantic philosophies is somewhat beside the point, and that the films enact positions within an overall rhetoric of address. In sum, they create a rhetorical “Brakhage,” whose consistent traits include both a preternatural sensitivity to the bodily sensations of the material world, and “his” constant struggle to transpose those sensations onto the eyes of his audience.
[iv] I here borrow the title of Christopher Doyle’s 1999 directorial debut, without having seen it. I like the turn of phrase. And I’m confident that a film by the DP of Wong Kar-wai’s major films could not help but be attentive to the sensuous surfaces of things.
[v] This term came up in an on-line debate between self-avowed “right-wing film geek” Victor J. Morton (http://cinecon.blogspot.com/) and film critic and Brakhage expert Fred Camper (http://www.fredcamper.com/).
[vi] See Testa, “An Axiomatic Cinema: Michael Snow’s Films,” in Presence and Absence: The Michael Snow Project (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1995).
[vii] To risk stating the obvious, this is the exact opposite procedure of narrative feature cinema. All films (prior to the tragic, inevitable conversion to digital) retain artifacts of their physical substrate – scratches, hairs in the gate, improper masking, inexact focus – but the narrative and actorly content of the image encourages the spectator to bracket out her or his awareness of these problems. These phenomena are just as present as they are in structural cinema, but we are cognitively coached not to see them. Sadly, it works. Who among us hasn’t waited in vain for some other film patron to get up and complain that the film is out of focus? Who hasn’t watched numerous other film viewers sit still for battered, wobbly prints that provoked us to get up and request a refund? This is the result of a never-ending commercial tutelage to expect less and less from cinema, to fall prey to the cognitive shell-game. (“Never mind the crappy projection – look! Here comes Bruce Willis!”)
[viii] While several of the films Sitney cites in his chapter do not employ the fixed frame, Jacobs’s Tom Tom the Piper’s Son has achieved canonical structural-film status without employing it.
[ix] I borrow this term from Gilles Deleuze, who describes “any-space-whatever” as ------
[x] Naturally, environmentalists will disagree on this point. For Heidegger, there can be no true encounter with nature “in itself,” since nature is the brute material against which human being defines itself. While his system of thought certainly remains locked within a troubling active / passive binary, in which the natural world is relatively inert, Heidegger goes on in other works to elaborate a philosophy of care for the earth, one in which earth and humanity are mutually defining and each knowable only through the other. He is locked in a form of humanism, in that he can never elaborate a system with no humans present in it, but to ask this would be to shatter the very limits of philosophy, understood as a human search for meaning. See Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
[xi] David James refutes strictly formal analyses of Warhol’s cinema by drawing attention to the specifically filmic aspects of their performative side. Warhol’s practice, according to James, entails “an investigation of the process of being photographed and of being made the object of film.” He continues by noting that the films, as forms of pinned-and-mounted portraiture, :narrate [the subjects’] anxious response to the process of being photographed” (James 1989, 68-69). My contention seems consonant with James’s, in that this process of “superstardom,” of enacting the anxious drama of performance before the camera, also carves out a place in the image for those photographed. That place is usually the Factory, and the locale combines with the ritualized filmic practice to form the palpable Factory “atmosphere” in the films.
[xii] This suggestion is only partly glib. According to Scott MacDonald, Ken Jacobs has described Serene Velocity as a “sexy film,” seeing the thrusting of the hallway (particularly its red exit sign) as suggestively phallic. While this has not been my own experience of the film, I sincerely applaud Jacobs for his dirty mind.
[xiii] The relationship between structuralist cinema and minimalist art is addressed in Paul Arthur’s essay, “Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the artifact. Part Two.” He identifies a precedent for Sitney’s discussion of the intuition of the overall shape of a film in the discussions around minimalism. “In the writings of Michael Fried, Robert Morris, among others, shape is given a fairly precise function, particularly in relation to the restructuring, or displacement, of object / viewer relations. Morris’s idea of “unitary form,” an immediately assimilable “gestalt,” bears a close correspondence to Sitney’s criteria of pre-determination, simplicity, and primacy in perception” (Arthur 1979, 123).
[xiv] Heath writes, Frame space . . . is constructed as narrative space. It is narrative significance that at any moment sets the space of the frame to be followed and "read," and that determines the development of the filmic cues in their contributions to the definition of space in frame . . . Narrative contains the mobility that could threaten the clarity of vision in a constant renewal of perspective; space becomes place -- narrative as the taking place of film – in a movement which is no more than the fulfillment of the Renaissance impetus . . . (Heath 1976, 392).
[xv] It is important to also recall that the loft is real estate. Snow does not comment on this directly, although the opening scenes of new tenants moving in represent an oblique acknowledgement. In her film The Man Who Envied Women (1985), Yvonne Rainer includes both a clip of Wavelength, and an extended scene in a New York loft, during which the camera conducts an inspection tour.
[xvi] . . . most prominently that majority of the film in which no human beings occupy the screen. Shortly after one of the women near the beginning of the film switches off "Strawberry Fields," the wave begins and they exit. The entrance of Hollis Frampton signals a return of synch sound, which terminates upon the character's death. The sine wave begins again. It continues through the phone call placed by Amy Taubin and does not stop until the ambulance or police sirens overtake it. Indeed, Amy's character is "frightened," since she has not only discovered a dead body in her flat; she has stumbled in upon the secret world of objects in and of space, coming to life in her absence. The mundane process of living or occupying cannot, Snow seems to say, really coexist with the codisclosure of dwelling, performed by Snow and his camera.
[xvii] Benning even makes a mocking reference to the structural film idea in his 1980 film Grand Opera. He has his daughter, Sadie Benning (now, of course, a famous video artist in her own right) recite the alphabet. She concludes by announcing, “This is for P. Adams Sitney!”
[xviii] Benning’s images recall filmic masters such as Tati and Antonioni, as well as Diebenkorn’s California landscapes. Nevertheless, his compositions do not simply “prettify” the realities they depict. Rather, they simultaneously denature the scenes, marking them out as “for contemplation,” and confer respect upon them, reminding us that aesthetic beauty – and being looked at with a loving, compassionate gaze – is a right of all.
[xix] Borrowing once more from Lefebvre, perhaps we could say that Benning does not dominate space, but appropriates it for a Marxist aesthetic. Property in the sense of possession is at best a necessary precondition, and most often merely an epiphenomenon, of 'appropriative' activity, the highest expression of which is the work of art. An appropriated space resembles a work of art . . . (Lefebvre 1971,165).