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Experimental film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980


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In the LA Review of Books, film critic Jordan Cronk reviews Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, a collection of essays and historical texts about the golden age of experimental film in LA. Among other things, the book seeks to show that LA had an experimental film scene that rivaled the more historically lauded scene in NY during the same period. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The key to approaching Alternative Projection’s history of localized, noncommercial cinema is to consider it in relation to its parent industry of Hollywood, which it has evolved alongside both technologically and geographically, and oftentimes in harmony. In his complementary study The Most Typical Avant-Garde, David E. James, co-editor of Alternative Projections, explains why the relationship between the avant-garde and Hollywood is so frequently misrepresented as a struggle between two completely opposed entities. Among other traits, James notes the avant-garde’s self-conscious filmmaking with regard to the “otherness” of its artistic and geographic character. Such self-consciousness is borne out in many of the subjects discussed in Alternative Projections, not only in the creative directive of the organizations which have traditionally programmed experimental film in Los Angeles, but also the professional practices of the filmmakers themselves, many of whom cross-pollinate between marginal cinema and Hollywood.

Historically, the study of the American avant-garde has followed the developments of the New York underground, and in particular the achievements of the New American Cinema Group, founded in 1962 by filmmaker, poet, and critic Jonas Mekas. This is an impression that The Most Typical Avant-Garde, and now Alternative Projections, push back on. The bicoastal evolution of experimental cinema is a noteworthy (if under-recognized) phenomenon, with New York and California informing and occasionally opposing one another. This tenuous dynamic was heightened early on by the writings of Mekas and avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney, both New York intellectuals who at first only begrudgingly acknowledged the work of their West Coast peers. Josh Guilford examines the history of this contentious moment in his Alternative Projections essay, “Against Transparency: Jonas Mekas, Vernon Zimmerman, and the West Coast Contribution to the New American Cinema.” He outlines Mekas’s “late-modern anxieties” and how a fundamental resistance to not only the creative, but also the natural, environment of Southern California informed his criticism. Mekas only relinquished his anxiety upon the arrival of Zimmerman’s To L.A. … With Lust (1962), one of the first works by a Los Angeles artist to be overtly praised in print by the former Village Voice columnist and founder of the highly influential magazine, Film Culture.