by Tony Nigro
A recurring argument in avant-garde cinema circles regards watching a film projected versus any other way. The idea is that one cannot truly “see” a film except in an ideal projection setting, which excludes home and online video. (Video art is another story, and I’m not going to touch that now.) The broader discussion breaks down into two camps: purists and people the purists think are philistines. Sometimes, the purists call each other philistines. For more purist-on-purist action, check out the archives of Frameworks.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the irony that many avant-garde film folks, those supposedly ahead of the curve, are really purists. Or maybe I mean “puritans.” Anyway, that’s a different essay altogether.
Film Studies For Free is a tremendous resource of links and videos that fulfill the promise of the blog’s title. (I only wish it existed before I went into hock to get a college diploma.) A recent post there about Michael Snow included an embed of Snow’s avant-garde touchstone Wavelength, a 45 minute zoom that blah blah perception blah blah textures of film blah blah, or something. Look Snow up sometime, because he’s fascinating. Right now I’m more concerned with comments sparked by the embedded video, comments about how the only way to watch Wavelength is on film.
I understand the ideas of textures and grain and all that. If that’s what’s important to the artist, then yes, seeing a film shown in it’s originally intended medium is important. But to call it the only way is too limiting. I’m reminded of something Marilyn Brakhage said at a screening in Los Angeles. Late in life, when Stan Brakhage was working on Criterion’s by Brakhage DVDs, the filmmaker came to terms with the idea of not watching films on film. The analogy that soothed him involved art books — text books, coffee table books, what have you — that have photos of paintings for the purpose reference. So went the by Brakhage DVD: Watch it as a representation of the original, but if you ever have a chance to see the films projected, do it because you ain’t seen “Guernica” till you’ve actually been in a room with it.
So I present an enticing embed of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, strictly as reference…
There’s another argument hiding here that’s bigger than this post, and that is how cinema is a more reproducible medium than other arts. Time has no doubt seen multiple prints of Wavelength and various Brakhage films, and I never hear the purists moan about that unless a specific print has deteriorated. Cinema is more along the lines of publishing, disseminating art to the masses with little regard for the generation of the print so long as the content stays intact. Would you ever think that to really read Faulkner you need to read a single original manuscripts? Of course not. What counts in both literature and in cinema is the experience, emotional, intellectual, and occasionally physical. As much as an avant-garde filmmaker might want the medium to be the message, he or she will never get around that.
With the proliferation of screens in our lives and movies on our telephones, an already widely disseminated cinema is now even more accessible. Whether or not one projected film is the best way to watch something may always be up for debate, but I’m inclined to call bullshit on the puritanicals that try to force feed One True Way. An artist’s intention is all well and good, but just as an artist has no responsibility to me, I have not reponsibility to an artist. We need to experience objets d’art differently in order to understand them differently (see also, sampling and remixing), and while one way may not be the original intention, it in no way eliminates the possibility — and joy, and discovery — of having a new experience.
Brakhage himself spoke of tossing away his glasses and squinting at movies to see the light dance. I see no reason to not do so with any film, video, or painting. Books are another story.