A dippy and earnest documentary about avant-garde and experimental film in America. Twenty-five years ago, the Emmy-nominated director of this film, Chuck Workman, made an eight minute collage of scenes from classic Hollywood films called Precious Images that won him an Oscar; so with appropriate inversion, he’s now made a documentary about the American avant-garde as a pedestrian, traditional talking-head documentary.
It is a great service to celebrate Jonas Mekas and filmmakers featured in this documentary, including Stan Brakage, Sadie Benning, Hollis Frampton, Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubelka, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Downey, Jack Smith and many more. But it does some of these films a disservice to be presented this way. There is something perverse about presenting Michel Snow’s seminal, essential film Wavelength with overtitles describing that it is a forty-five minute continuous slow zoom “making a definititive statement of pure Film space and time,” but choosing to show disruptive clip after clip of the film with the description “nine minutes layer” and then “three minutes layer” and then “five minutes later.” And to transition from David Lynch talking about the subconscious to the rigorous, intelligent structuralist work by Snow? Bizarre. It seems that these experimental filmmakers would be better served by linking them with the traditional but transgressive narrative filmmakers who were taking similar risks and addressing similar questions; the filmmakers featured here deserve to be taken out of their experimental ghetto, not have their ghetto covered over with a glass case and banal descriptions that offer these films as simply an alternative to the “mainstream.” Also, these films simply deserve a better-made documentary.
The two moments that work best are vintage clips when the filmmakers interviewed play with the traditional documentary format themselves, notably a 1962 TV interview with Stan Brakage in which he has the television studio cameraman zoom in and out on small details on the spare set, attempting to show that the human eye sees like that and not in a traditional camera pan. And then Andy Warhol, who knows the value of banality and the appropriate, subversive use of a talking head has this terrific summary: “Jonas Mekas was in charge and he was the most exciting person, I mean he just got excited about anything. I mean, he got excited about just leader. And so, well, I decided, if he can get excited about leader, I’ll just do leader. And so I just did a lot of leader. And it was exciting.”