10. Scott MacDonald and the alternative American Cinema

IN THE spring of 1979, an article appeared in Film Criticism, Edinboro, Pa, USA. In it, Scott MacDonald, an American film teacher and historian who has specialized in documenting the work of major alternative American filmmakers, and has a number of important books to his credit, wrote about my 1970 film, PUNISHMENT PARK; Larry Gottheim's HORIZONS; J. J. Murphy's PRINT GENERATION; Anthony McCall's LINE DESCRIBING A CONE. Omitting the section dealing with PUNISHMENT PARK (which can be found in my Lithuanian website under the section dealing with that film), I will let Scott continue in his own words:

"A careful examination of many recent films, in fact, makes clear that there is even a danger in our traditional attempts to force viewers to respond in a single fashion, for a number of important filmmakers have taken the potential variety of audience response into account and have created films which cannot be fully understood or appreciated without the alteration or elimination of "ideal" audience habits. Peter Watkins' Punishment Park, Larry Gottheim's Horizons, J. J. Murphy's Print Generation, Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone, and other films require new audiences made up of individuals who cannot be satisfied simply to sit quietly, who must develop and activate themselves before any meaningful response to the filmmakers' efforts is possible.

... While Punishment Park can be fully appreciated only when people change the activities they engage in after the screening, several recent films can, and in my opinion should, cause changes in audience activity during screenings. In two instances in particular - Larry Gottheim's Horizons and J. J. Murphy's Print Generation - I have found that people in an audience come to understand and appreciate what they see to the exact extent that they feel free to work together as the film is being shown.

Horizons is Gottheim's magnificent feature-length exploration of the upstate New York countryside over the period of one year. The film is so full of subtle beauties of color and composition that to an extent it is easy to sit back and allow the film to flow past. Anything more than the most cursory, passive glance at Horizons, however, tends to involve the viewer with the intricacies of Gottheim's structure.

This film is divided into four seasonal sections, each of which is made up of numerous shots grouped and separated at intervals by one-second strips of colored leader. Summer is made up of forty-seven pairs of shots, each pair separated from the next by green leader. Fall is composed of twenty-seven groups of four shots, each group separated from the next by an interval of red leader, and so on.

This structure is further complicated by the fact that during each season the individual shots within each group are organized so that they "rhyme" visually. In Fall, for example, each group rhymes a, b, b, a, that is, shots 1 and 4 and 2 and 3 have a visual factor (or factors) in common. In some instances these rhymes are quite obvious; in others they are extremely subtle, so subtle, in fact, that once the viewer is engaged in recognizing the rhymes, he feels compelled to search each image carefully in order to see and remember each detail.

Other complicating factors offer the viewer further challenges. Within each season the groups of shots are arranged in a careful and suggestive order, and throughout all four seasons specific images or kinds of shots are repeated until they become motifs which are meaningful on several levels.

This film can be fascinating to watch, even if one is alone in a theater. When an audience is present, however, the film can be an exhilarating experience, at least to the extent that individuals feel free to share their observations and insights while the film is in progress.

When I have shown Horizons to groups in the normal way, assuming that silence should reign during the screening, I have found that most members of even a relatively sophisticated audience are exhausted long before the film is over. Since Horizons is silent, the silence itself becomes very oppressive. On the other hand, when I have suggested that the members of the audience feel free to exchange observations and reactions, I've found that most individuals have a very exciting time. More important, I've found that more of what is in Horizons is revealed and experienced this way. No one can see all the rhymes or the many other visual relationships created during the film in a single screening, and unless one has enough money to buy a print and screen it over and over and over, full awareness of Horizons' complexity and brilliance is an impossibility.

While audience interaction does not guarantee that all details or implications of Gottheim's imagery become apparent, a good deal more of the film is seen by a good many more viewers. Thus, since nothing is gained by silence, other than the satisfaction of conforming to the pressure of a long-held cultural assumption, it seems obvious that audiences should be encouraged to participate and interact with one another.

J. J. Murphy's Print Generation poses different problems for an audience, though, like Horizons, the film gains when viewers are urged to feel free to interact. Print Generation uses an exploration of the process of contact printing as a basis for forging a vision of the simple beauty and fragility of life. To make the film, Murphy made a one-minute film of sixty one-second images he had photographed during the summer of 1973. He made a contact print of the film, then a print of the print, then a print of the print of the print, and so forth. Since each generation of printing subtracted from the photographic quality of the imagery, it was inevitable that when Murphy had printed prints of prints long enough, the images would decompose altogether.

Having made fifty print generations, Murphy constructed the film so that we first see the sixty images in an extremely disintegrated state, and then follow every second print generation until, halfway through the film, we see the images fully developed. During the second half of the film we move through the other generations back to the point where the film began. The sound track, though less complex than the constantly changing visuals, corroborates this basic structure, though it moves in reverse order. At the start of the film we hear a tape recording of ocean waves, then we hear a tape of that tape, and so on until the sound is in an extremely disintegrated state halfway through the film. During the second half, the process is reversed.

More fully than Horizons, Print Generation tends to create activity in the audience. During early repetitions of the sixty images the viewer sees only faint dots of light, but he quickly becomes accustomed to the pace created by the repetition of one-second images and begins to realize that a limited number of images are being repeated over and over. Before long many people in the audience feel compelled to count the images in order to determine for sure exactly how many there are, and many count out loud so as to be better able to concentrate. If viewers have been encouraged to respond freely to the film, they soon become engaged in another process: that of trying to define, image by image, what the final content of each one-second shot will be. It is here that interaction can add to Print Generation, for the ambiguity of the imagery during early generations suggests a wide variety of possibilities, and the audience has a good deal of enjoyment sharing widely differing guesses.

Not only does audience interaction add to the pleasure of viewing Print Generation, it helps to emphasize fundamental thematic concerns. One of the themes of Murphy's film is that many of the most important realities of our existence are simple, natural things. We may assume that the future promises exotic mysteries of many kinds, but when the time comes, we are likely to find that the best parts of our experience are the simple pleasures provided by the cycles of nature and by our friends, lovers, and family. When viewers exchange guesses about what the imagery will ultimately be, they dramatize that process of anticipation which the final appearance of the sixty images of flowers, birds, children, landscapes, and so forth undercuts.

During the second half of the film, as the sixty images degenerate, Murphy demonstrates how fragile memory is. After a dozen generations or so, it becomes very difficult to recall what the long-awaited images actually were. If viewers interact and attempt to remind each other about what they remember, they dramatize Murphy's belief that memory is often as inaccurate as anticipation, that the beauties and pleasures of life can be fully apprehended, if at all, only at the moment when they are present to us.

When they were making their films, Gottheim and Murphy did not consciously assume that viewers might talk during screenings. At the same time, when I have described what has happened when audiences have felt free to interact, both have expressed guarded approval, guarded necessarily, because they would want to be very sure that what I am calling audience interaction is not simply lack of attention.

Unlike Gottheim and Murphy, Anthony McCall has expressed enthusiasm for the idea of audience interaction during screenings. Further, he has consciously designed films which have as their goal the creation of this interaction. In order to activate his audiences, McCall presents his films in an unusual way. Line Describing a Cone, for example, and the other films in McCall's "cone series", are not presented in a theater, and no screen is used. Instead, viewers sit or stand in an empty, pitch-dark room, where their attention is directed to the projected beam of light, not, as in standard screenings, at the imagery this beam carries. Usually, a bowl of incense has been placed on the floor prior to the running of the film so that the smoke created by the incense will make the beam of light easier to see. At the start of Line Describing a Cone a single ray of light is thrown across the room. As the minutes pass, this ray enlarges to become the curved side of a hollow cone which has the projector lens as its apex and the far wall as its base. By the end of the film this curved side has grown until a hollow cone has been completed.

That the audience is meant to participate in McCall's film is evident from the beginning, for the original ray of light is only visible at extremely close range, and those sitting or standing at any distance from the ray must move in order to see it. Once begun, such participation almost automatically continues. As McCall himself says in his program notes for Line Describing a Cone:

'No longer is one viewing position as good as any other. For this film, every viewing position presents a different aspect. The viewer, therefore, has a participatory role in apprehending the event: he or she can, indeed needs, to move around relative to the slowly emerging light-form. This is radically different from the traditional film situation, which has as its props, row upon row of seats, a giant screen and a hidden projection booth: here the viewer sits passively in one position whilst the images of the film are "brought" to them; these people can only participate vicariously.'

Given McCall's goals for Line Describing a Cone, he must be regarded as an extremely successful filmmaker. While viewers tend to be suspicious at the beginning of the film, within relatively few minutes they grow enthusiastic about the idea of the film, and many individuals become extremely active, moving from position to position to avoid missing anything. Thirty minutes is a long time for a film so simple, but this very duration can cause a further development in the audience, one which goes beyond simple appreciation of McCall's ingenuity. Often, once the original enthusiasm has worn off, individuals begin to relate more fully to one another. To a large extent this group development is necessitated by the movement of the viewers in a limited space in a largely dark room. People walking around quickly learn to be careful of those sitting and lying on the floor. Those exploring the growing cone with their hands become aware of the effects of their activities on people further from the projector. By the time the circle on the opposite wall is complete and the cone in its finished state, the viewers themselves have been drawn together into a more intimate circle.

While McCall's films are abstract, their effect on an audience reflects a fundamentally political intent. For him the normal screening situation, with its rigid rows of seats and "hidden projection booth," is an implicitly totalitarian situation:

'In film, all analytical, critical and creative attention is [usually] devoted exclusively to this thing, this product, this event, this temporal moment of the film's life, up there on the screen. We say, look there, don't look anywhere else, that's where it's all happening, that's where the struggle is; the dialectic is in your relation to that. But suppose that we see all audienceship as a special kind of passivity? "Look there" is a call to your consciousness to perceive my problems, not yours, my view of the world. In granting me an audience, the spectators surrender their personal cognizance of their world, and in granting the audience over and over again, under all kinds of circumstances inside and outside art, in schools, work, civic, and political life, they become captives to the habit of listening to others. In art, this is important precisely because the form is made exemplary, because this servitude of always being in a passive relation to action, is publicly reinforced. And almost without exception, film art maintains this unilateral broadcasting format.'

Line Describing a Cone and McCall's other films reflect a continuing attempt to draw attention to the dangerous political and social implications of our standard viewing habits. Further, by creating a context in which individual viewers can act on their own initiative and relate to one another in practical and sympathetic ways, his films function as models for effective community action which may have the potential to effect change.

The four films discussed here are certainly not the only ones which profit from, or require, a change in audience activities. Many of the other films of each of the filmmakers discussed, for example, could be included in the present discussion, and other filmmakers and films -Tony Conrad (The Flicker), Hollis Frampton (Zorns Lemma), Taka Iimura (24 Frames Per Second, 1 to 60 Seconds), Robert Huot (Rolls: 1971) among them - could have been included.

What is central is the realization that if we are to understand and appreciate some of our filmmakers' most impressive achievements, we must begin to develop our flexibility as viewers. Doubtless we will always search for good screening conditions and from time to time will feel compelled to silence someone who is distracting us. At the same time, to assume that silence and stillness are automatically virtues for a film viewer is to run the danger of missing the accomplishments of many fine films. We must become more aware that as film continues to evolve there will be times when we need to do more than sit silently and alone in the darkness and force others to do so. If our filmmakers are not to leave us behind, we must evolve with them."

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© Peter Watkins 2016