Minor Cinemas, Artists’ Film and Video: Books by David James and David Curtis

Lucy Reynolds


Approaching David James and David Curtis’ ambitious and thorough accounts of American and British histories of artists’, or minor cinema, I found my thoughts returning to a panel that I had attended at the 2007 Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia, entitled Collection and Canon: Affirmative Historiographies of International Experimental Film. The speakers addressed the notion of the canon, questioning whether it had, in the past, misrepresented the multiple and fragmented histories that contribute to the story of experimental filmmaking, and asking whether a canonical methodology was still useful. For example, Michael Zryd’s paper opened the discussion with what he saw as a central dilemma when writing about avant-garde film: ‘how to construct an experimental film canon that represents its provocative energies without killing it dead.’[1]


Along with his fellow panelists,[2] Zryd raised a contradiction particular to histories of experimental film. In a desire to remain outside of categorization, many artists reject the canonization of their works, arguably favoring a marginalized or outsider status. But at the same time, many seek some form of recognition. Complicating this process is the fact that many of their chroniclers are wholly embedded within the systems that uphold the experimental film community. A community in which, as he observes, ‘there are often conflicts of interest as the same person might be an artist, programmer, employee at a co-op, jurist for an arts council and/or grants officer.’[3] In terms of access to funding, screenings and other practical support systems for artists, it could be argued that this complicit position translates into a system of preference that has often meant visibility for some at the expense of others. It also suggests that the small scale operation of much artists’ film/minor cinema, whether at the point of funding or reception, results in relatively few voices of dissemination, or dissention, making the threat of canonic orthodoxy a pressing one.


The necessarily selective nature of creating canons – what Zryd terms a dangerously ‘subjective and arbitrary’ process - has been further complicated in recent times by a new interest in experimental and avant-garde film from the art world and art market. This attention has had both negative and positive effects on the canonization of artists’ film and video, as well as on the academic community that has traditionally documented and researched it. In the art world, as in the experimental film community, the cycles of exhibition and review required for the canonization of individual artists and their works are dependent on institutional validation, here through particular exhibitions, screenings and the catalog essay. This process of validation has been spearheaded in the US by the work of Chrissie Iles, beginning with her 2001/2 Whitney exhibition Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964 - 1977 and in Europe and the UK by curator Mark Webber, through initiatives such as the LUX traveling exhibition Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Filmmakers’ Co-operative and British Avant-garde Film 1966-1976. This program reintroduced the Structural experiments of the London Filmmakers Co-Operative to an international audience. Still, while the success of curatorial projects such as Shoot Shoot Shoot and Into the Light may have been instrumental in reawakening audiences to the work of experimental filmmakers who have slipped outside the canon of art, or the walls of the museum, it could be argued that this new interest from the art institution, and latterly the art market, has introduced an additional canon, one which could be accused of being reductionist, obfuscatory, badly researched and unaware of the breadth of a history of artists’ film and video that has spanned a century. Zryd has accused many curators of ‘a lack of historical and aesthetic understanding of the medium,’ which he believes leads them to produce texts that ignore the tradition of experimental film and media, in addition to denying artists’ film’s present. Zryd cites curator Marco Mueller who looks back on artists’ film and video as “a phase we’ve already passed through.[4] Mueller, and those like him, stand accused of not consulting the canons already laid down.


This judgment brings me back to the recent publications of David Curtis and David James. Both books betray an urgency to set the record, or rather the canon, straight. Indeed, in his introduction, David Curtis passionately argues that ‘the art world’s frequent assumption that the only significant film and video artists are those who design their work for the gallery and sell them in limited editions has distorted many national collections and is indefensible in terms of what it leaves out.’[5] Curtis’ words suggest that the art world’s current myopia to the broad, and long-established, history of artists’ film had helped provide the impetus for his book. As more artists direct their gaze towards the gallery as the most viable option for the visibility and funding of moving image work, providing a context for their work has never been more important. This aesthetic and historical contextualization is important not only to prevent the reductionist views and omissions feared by academics but to present a history of ideas that still has currency.


Returning to Zryd’s dilemma of not ‘killing it dead,’ revisions of the canon need to be relevant to an emerging generation of filmmakers and scholars. Because as a history and an ongoing practice, the strategies, concerns and engagements of past experimental filmmakers have much to tell us about the current situation for artists’ film. Just as Laura Mulvey’s book Death 24x per Second and Rosalind Krauss’ A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition would seem to be motivated by the slow death of the film gauge and the analog age, so I am grateful to the occasionally heavy-handed assessments of the wider art world for encouraging experimental film academics to question, and claim ownership of the canon again.


Of course, this is not the only reason that scholars such as Curtis, James and most recently P. Adams Sitney, have presented re-assessments of the experimental film canon. They are all responsible for shaping its histories across the latter part of the twentieth century, as chroniclers, teachers, curators, and in the case of Curtis, as a sponsor for many years in his role at the Arts Council. And it should also be noted that their new books are reassessments, and even rejoinders, to their own influential canons. Curtis was one of the first British writers[6] to attempt a history of experimental film with his 1971 book Experimental Cinema, and James’ Allegories of Cinema (1989) is widely acknowledged as the accepted post-Visionary Film text (book) on American experimental cinema. Thus it would seem inevitable that personal history is intimately enfolded into these recent accounts, and it does open the books to the question of complicity raised earlier. Curtis and James are in a contradictory position: they perceived as among the best qualified to approach a history of artists’ film/minor cinema through their proven experience and authority in the area, but it is this very authority which may also prevent them from bringing new insights and fresh perspective to scholarship in the area.


Certainly Curtis’ book could be seen as a consolidation and continuation of what he began with Experimental Cinema, but now focused on a British perspective. When writing that first book in 1971, Curtis could not have known the extent to which a vigorous and distinctly British experimental film culture would assert itself in the intervening years. Indeed Experimental Cinema shows how deeply Britain was in thrall to American underground cinema, with much of Curtis’ focus being on that dominant movement. With the hindsight of nearly four decades, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain addresses a much broader sphere of activity and, if anything, could be accused of trying to compress into one volume the several books that need to be written on British artists’ film culture. Curtis’ book takes an ambitious approach, seeking to encompass the many diverse developments and impulses of British artists’ cinema across a century of production, emphasizing contexts, influences and structures, rather than more in-depth accounts of specific periods.


Eschewing a purely chronological canon, Curtis divides his book into two distinct parts, one of which provides a welcome focus on the institutional structures underpinning the development of artists’ cinema, and the other focusing on artist movements and practices. The former section exemplifies how Curtis’ status as privileged insider offers not bias but insight, clearly mapping the complexities of funding patterns, the figures and decisions that influence them, and their wider agency on film and video practice. While previous research and books[7] may have set this area out in more detail, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain provides a useful and timely schema for the uninitiated into the influence of funding and institutions on artists’ film, guiding the reader through its labyrinthine twists and turns and introducing key protagonists and determining factors. He charts the development and demise of support systems from The Telecinema, which produced curiosities such as Norman McLaren’s 3D film Around is Around for the Festival of Britain in 1951, to the BFI production board, the emergence of the Arts Council as one of the most consistent supporters of film as art, as well as discussing the short-lived support from television in the form of Channel 4 commissions in the 1980s and early 1990s.


As public funding streams for film art in Britain are reduced to a trickle, Curtis’ survey of changing sponsors and institutions also provides a useful context for the current situation, although the implicit refrain is unchanging: that artists must remain reliant on their own resources and initiative as funding support and interest from institutions have proven to come and go. Particularly fascinating in this regard is Curtis’ account of the early part of the Twentieth Century, drawing together the disparate strands of activity that constituted the beginnings of a British experimental film culture, from the first screenings of Battleship Potemkin by the London Film Society in the 1920s to John Grierson’s GPO film unit, and the commitment to writing on film by the poets and artists who contributed to Close Up magazine. At a time when institutional support of any kind was negligible, Curtis plots a history of an intellectual and artistic community keen to explore and discuss the potentials of a new medium. What is revealed is an unexpected internationalism, showing British film artists equally engaged in the concerns of early modernism and politics as their European counterparts, with much cross-fertilization and communication through festivals, such as La Sarraz (1929), and the visits of luminaries like Sergei Eisenstein and László Moholy-Nagy.


Because there is a relative lack of writing about this period outside of specialized research journals, the lost or forgotten films that Curtis describes make fascinating reading, often tantalizingly accompanied by stills and images; what of Oswell Blakeston’s 1931 photogram patterns made with a nutmeg grater, for example?

Blakeston is discussed in a section entitled ‘Abstraction,’ one of the thematic sections making up the latter part of Curtis’ book, addressing the question of the canon by asserting a vertical thematic approach rather than a more linear history. This thematic approach relates to a previous curatorial project at Tate Britain for which Curtis produced discreet film programs, mingling traditional art historical terms, such as the portrait, landscape or still life, with more open-ended headings, such as work or politics.[8] Reprised as a written history, Curtis’ thematic strategy allows him to delineate a century of artist filmmaking in broad sweeps, drawing parallels between pioneers and recent artists and giving shape and purpose to many disparate practitioners and movements. However, while this theme-based structure effectively draws together the diverse strands of British artist filmmaking, it inevitably poses problems of interpretation and analysis. What of those artists who might equally fulfill thematic criteria across several sections? Does this approach misrepresent the nature of their work, and prevent other potentially illuminating readings? Might it perhaps offer fruitful comparison to place the later abstract films and expanded cinema of Malcolm Le Grice or Gill Eatherley alongside Blakestone, rather than solely under a separate heading of ‘Film as Film’?


David James’ book The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinema in Los Angeles is a most original addition to the canon due to his use of a spatial model; his focus draws solely on the geography of Los Angeles to reveal an active and diverse filmmaking community existing in the shadow of Hollywood’s dominant industry. Setting LA’s minor cinema in relation to the behemoth of Hollywood helps James define his history; Hollywood provides the counterpoint and oppositional measure against which the ‘minor cinemas’ he explores can be examined. While this oppositional binary is in keeping with the avant-garde’s somewhat romantic image of its own alternative, marginal status in relation to Hollywood, it is also a compelling strategy with which to examine the confluences and convergence of the two poles – yielding new insights into both.


While Curtis navigates the questions of canon through a vertical thematic approach, James’ book can be seen as one of the first canonic readings of alternative cinema to be explored through geography. James’ LA focus allows him to make meticulous interpretative analysis of a wide range of filmmakers and movements, from fine artists such as Jack Goldstein or John Baldessari to the short-lived black filmmaking initiative at UCLA, which produced filmmakers such as Charles Burnett, and later Julie Dash. The Most Typical Avant-Garde navigates LA’s rich, sedimented cinematic history through a combination of chronology and thematic categories, the concerns particular to periods of history are thus drawn out in chapters such as ‘An Impossible Avant-Garde: Working-Class Cinema in Los Angeles,’ which focuses pre-war working class films, and finally ‘Documenting Southern California: Structural Film and Landscape,’ which addresses the excavation of LA’s forgotten and suppressed political histories through the textures of the landscape and cinema itself in the work of Thom Andersen and James Benning. Like A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain, this thematic approach does result in some compression, most prevalent in around the subject of gender and race. Specific chapters in both books can give the impression that discrimination and the fight against racism and sexism is something only addressed during the ‘identity politics’ of 1970s (James) and ‘politics and identity’ in the 1980/90s (Curtis). This lack of diversity is tempered in The Most Typical Avant-Garde as a result of its focus on such an ethnically mixed metropolis, which allows James to examine in some detail films and filmmakers who might otherwise have been passed over, and have in the past been omitted from the canons of documentary or avant-garde cinema. Reading The Most Typical Avant-Garde encouraged me to attend a screening of The Exiles, Kent MacKenzie’s fascinating 1961 portrait of the Native American community of LA’s Bunker Hill district. In this way, James’ book has the makings of a valuable rehabilitation project, bringing back into the light forgotten films and figures for renewed consideration. It could be argued that the interest in The Exiles, created by James’ book, resulted in a new print of the film, which had not been shown since its inaugural screenings.


I was also struck by James’ descriptions of the lively and inventive filmmaking of Haile Gerima, for example, the Asco group’s subversive No-Movies performances,[9] or the committed political filmmaking of Salt of the Earth (1949).[10] Indeed, the last film provides one of several shocking examples of Hollywood censorship and sabotage, as it was effectively black-listed and suppressed for its socialist politics and sympathetic portrayal of Mexican workers. The revelations of Hollywood’s deplorable behavior in the case of Salt of the Earth raises profound questions about the dominance of commercial cinema and its control over the marginal status of other filmmaking ventures. How should one acknowledge and appreciate the innovations and creativity within Hollywood, when its attempts to thwart any other cinematic form, for both commercial and political reasons, were so deplorable?

One of the recurring themes that echo throughout The Most Typical Avant-Garde is the impossibility of minor cinemas to escape from the influence and control of Hollywood. This power of influence appears to also be true for David James, himself, as he struggles to assimilate and understand his position as a scholar of minor cinema in relation to cinema’s industrial contexts. Throughout the book, James’ position remains conflicted, sometimes displaying an admiration for aspects of Hollywood cinema, while at the same time rightly denigrating some of its practices. On one level, this ambivalence prevents James’ book from descending into reductionist polemics at the expense of considered and objective scholarship. Yet more intriguingly, the complex and symbiotic nature of the relationship between LA artists’ film culture and Hollywood that James’ research increasingly unfolds, introduces a further, more personal, narrative that runs alongside the histories that he examines.


Thus, Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is explored in relation to the genre of Zombie films, which emerged around the same period. James argues that Deren’s cinema could not be so ‘profoundly and comprehensively important had it not been deeply rooted in popular experience and mass culture, that is, in Hollywood,’[11] going on to talk of how her primacy for the avant-garde confirms rather than negates her relation to the film industry and the ‘consanguinity of major and minor cinemas.’[12] Despite my reservations about James’ interpretation, it could be argued that it offers new contexts for reading a seemingly unimpeachable example of the canon. However, are they useful ones? James puts a different emphasis on the ‘psycho-trance’ thesis that P. Adams Sitney has for so long cast over Meshes, but he by no means discredits or dismantles it to allow Deren’s body of work to be viewed in other contexts, such as her connection to modernism in poetry or dance. Examples such as this return us to the author’s conflicted position and reveal the double bind of his project.


In fact, the case for the ‘consanguinity’ of major and minor is at its best when expressed through the biographical case studies that James gives of filmmakers, such as Curtis Harrington,[13] for example, whose cross over into Hollywood from more avant-garde practices speaks eloquently for itself. Here, Harrington’s experiences, both in his admiration of Hollywood auteurs, such as Von Sternberg, and in his attempts to introduce experimental tropes into Hollywood cinema, show some fascinating, if not always successful, strategies for synthesis.


In a country where experimental cinema often feels more cohesive than its industrial counterpart, David Curtis is spared the specter of Hollywood. Indeed, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, the current power of the art world may be said to exert more control than the British film industry, and exists in a similarly ambivalent relationship to artists’ film as Hollywood has to experimental practices in LA. And like The Most Typical Avant-Garde, Curtis’ book is as much a personal navigation, in this case of the competing and conflicting tides of influence from art and cinema which have washed over British artists’ film and video. This is no easy task and Curtis’ conscientious attempt to be inclusive means that at times his book includes more artists and works than it is possible to meaningfully accommodate. The personal framing is also hard to avoid for someone who remains such an active part of post-war experimental film culture, and there is the sense that this book is addressed to its participants, from a generation of London Filmmakers’ Co-operative members to more recent exponents, such as Cerith Wyn Evans or Tacita Dean.


The Most Typical Avant-Garde and A History of Artists’ Film and Video are both admirable attempts at establishing alternative forms of the canon, using spatial and vertical models, which open up new readings of familiar films and introduce the reader to unknown or forgotten communities of filmmakers and their works. In the face of changing funding patterns, shifting media and cultural contexts, politics and art world omissions, both provide illuminating historical contexts for the current conditions of minor cinema and artists’ moving image. However, I found myself continually drawn back to the personal narrative glimpsed beneath the histories both books delineate. This narrative concerns the author’s presence, both in the spaces and scenarios of late twentieth century experimental filmmaking and as a questioning implicated chronicler of its events.


Of course, it could be argued that academic texts are always palimpsests, as the unfolding story of the writing and the writer become overwritten, yet remain discernible, beneath the subject material. In the canons of experimental cinema, it may be that these two texts are more closely written and harder to untangle because the chronicle often occupies the same temporal space as the chronicler; as friends become subject matter and events experienced become historical evidence. Caught inevitably between the desire for objective hindsight and their subjective experience, both books betray this struggle and the anxiety not to descend into personal anecdote or bias. Perhaps aware of the impossibility of this task, Curtis’ writing often finds more freedom in the earlier periods of emergent British cinema before his own involvement in the events of British post-war cinema. Whereas, despite its impressively detailed and fascinating delineation of LA minor cinemas, The Most Typical Avant-Garde is finally a portrait of Hollywood, and the author’s struggle to assimilate and understand its complex and undeniable role in experimental film scholarship.



[1] Michael Zryd, “Canon Formation and Cultural Capital in North American Experimental Film,” SCMS conference, March 2008, p. 1.

[2] John Sundholm and Miquel Renandez Labayen presented the paper ‘Quoting and Creating History, or, Institution and Organization: Film Collections at Major European Art Museums.’ Peter Thomas presented ‘Consecration and Categorisation: The Impact of Perspectives on UK Avant-Garde Film’ and Lars Andersson presented ‘Australian Avant-garde film, the Art World and Film Performance’ on behalf of Danielle Zuvela.

[3] Michael Zryd, “Canon Formation and Cultural Capital in North American Experimental Film,” SCMS conference, March 2008, p. 6.

[4] Marco Mueller quoted in Zryd, Canon Formation and Cultural Capital in North American Experimental Film, SCMS conference, March 2008, p. 2, from Collateral: When Art Looks at Cinema catalogue, ed. Adelina con Furstenberg (Milano: Charta, 2007).

[5] David Curtis, A History of Artists Film and Video in Britain (London: BFI Publishing, 2007) p. 2.

[6] The other was Steven Dwoskin, who wrote Film Is…The International Free Cinema, (London: Peter Owen, 1975).

[7] British Cinema: Traditions of Independence, ed. Don Macpherson is one such example, which focused on British alternative filmmaking in the 1930s.

[8] A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain screened at Tate Britain between 2003/2004. See www.tate.org.uk/britain/artistsfilm/default.htm.

[9] David James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinema in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 65.

[10] Ibid, p. 122.

[11] Ibid, p. 176.

[12] Ibid, p. 176.

[13] Ibid, pp. 187-193.