In search of the "meta-artist"

Raphaël Bassan

In search of the "meta-artist"

For Marcel Mazé and Dominique Noguez

In 1971 the Collectif Jeune Cinéma (CJC) was founded. In retrospect, this was the halfway point between the appearance of the first experimental films that can still be seen today (Opus 1, by Walter Ruttmann, Manhatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, both from 1921) and the time when this article was written. What must be noted, because it will be one of the crucial aporias concerning the definition and identity of experimental cinema, is that these two films do not, at first glance, share any similarity, that they have little to do with each other. Opus 1 is an abstract film shot in Germany, in the midst of the vast multidisciplinary avant-garde movements that were shaking Europe at the time (Dada, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism); Manhatta is a poetic, non-“educational” documentary, whose subtitles are composed of excerpts from a text by Walt Whitman. Charles Sheeler is a painter now forgotten; Paul Strand, a great photographer who later became a member of the group of activist directors from the 1930s that gathered in Frontier Films. There, he co-directed with Leo Hurwitz, Native Land (1939-1942), one of the most subversive films of the time.


Multiple births

Manhatta was shown in Paris, brought by Marcel Duchamp, at the famous Dada evening of “Coeur à barbe” (Bearded heart) in 1923. This film probably influenced the “city symphonies”, including Rien que les heures (Nothing but hours) by Alberto Cavalcanti (1926) then Berlin, symphonie d’une grande ville (Berlin, symphony of a great city) of the formerly abstract Walter Ruttmann (1927) - it was often of an editing of shots and sequences that minutely depicted a city during twenty-four hours, passing from the upper to the lower districts.
During the 1920s, other tactics and techniques were used by avant-garde filmmakers. Henri Chomette (Cinq minutes cinéma pur, 1925) and Germaine Dulac (Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque, 1929) managed to create abstraction by the use of purely photographic and cinematographic elements. Germaine Dulac again (La coquille et le clergyman, 1927, from a script by Antonin Artaud) or Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali (Un chien andalou, 1929) use the same figurative, even paranarrative elements in their films. In the contemporary essay-film, the “dislocated” narrative influence those specimens whose one of the touchstone is La Jetée by Chris Marker (1962). We can also observe that in those pioneering times, the presence of the uncategorizable Ballet mécanique by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger (1924), a film ahead of its time that makes use of the “remote editing” well before Artavazd Péléchian. As early as 1924, with Crossing the Great Sagrada, the British filmmaker Adrian Brunel used found footage material hijacked using intertitles that had no relation to the images. This technique will spread after the war with the Lettrists, then Guy Debord, Ken Jacobs, Bill Morrison or Jean-Luc Godard. These few examples are all cornerstones of experimental cinema in the making. European avant-garde films are shown in New York in 1928, a city that was very much behind in this respect compared to the major cities of the old continent. But there were groups of amateur and activist filmmakers, some of whom (Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs, Jay Leyda) made experimental films that were recognized long afterwards.

But then, where are the keys? Going back to 1921, we can observe various things. For a few years (roughly since David Wark Griffith’s Intolerance, 1916), the length of the film, which was ten, fifteen or twenty minutes (a cinema screening included several works), then becomes around ninety minutes, and fiction becomes the predominant genre of cinema.
“Without fiction, it’s not cinema” people thought in the early 1920s. Opus 1 and Manhatta are short films, they are among the first real short films at a time when short films were no longer the norm. Opus 1 initiates, after some unsuccessful attempts, the birth of the experimental-abstract films. While Manhatta is one of the first documentary films, since the Lumière Brothers, the latter is no longer a genre taken seriously in cinema. A certain research on the plastic level also makes Manhatta an experimental film. (The experimental documentary is very common in 2021). It was during the screening of this film that the critic Robert Allerton Parker added the qualifier (experimental) to the noun (movie) for the first time. 1


Managing heterodoxy


In the 1970s, the critic Dominique Noguez dedicated himself, as no one else had done in France, to the testimony, research, and legitimization of experimental cinema and the identification of its styles, genres, filmmakers, schools. He was looking for a unity, a kind of Grail. He followed all the screenings programmed by his friend Marcel Mazé during the various sessions of the CJC, but also in Hyères and in many other places. He published in 1979, Eloge du cinéma expérimental 2. He then discovered the diversity and heterogeneity of his corpus and crossed out the qualifier experimental whenever it appeared in the text. Certainly, it is the least bad definition, he specified, but it is not completely satisfactory, hence his crossed-out writing. Having to find a unification process for these films, he evoked an “experimental pole” supposed to unite these dissimilar films, from Stan Brakhage to Marcel Hanoun. But it is a few years later with the writing of Une renaissance du cinéma 3, a book dedicated to American underground cinema, that Dominique traveled to the United States to take on this task, meeting artists, and made a huge reflection on the subject, still unrivaled in 2021. He was both attentive and doubtful towards P. Adams Sitney’s analyses (sometimes full of contradictions), that were found in Visionary cinema 4 - the first book to deal with this cinema in a relevant way and without folklore - rich in neologisms but which could not eliminate the contradictions and the heterodoxy of it (the “lyric cinema”, the “major mythopoetics”, the “structural cinema”). Noguez wrote, at the page 219 of the 2002 edition of his book: “The aesthetician is like Pascal or Turgot considering all humans “as one man” or “an immense whole”. He wants only one object at a time, even if it means admitting its variegation. Whether he left the One-Good - or rather the One-Beautiful -, or descended to some sub-prefecture of the empirical universe, it is the same reductio ad unum. Not the films, but the film; not Entr’acte and Ballet mécanique, but the experimental film. Thus will we do from now on, reasoning as if the few thousand films of the American “underground” cinema were by a single author and, better, as if they were one. Certainly, this arch-film will be quite difficult to describe, since it mutates.”


Case Studies: United States and France


If we go back to the reflections of Jonas Mekas, founder, in 1962, of the Film-Makers Cooperative (which served as a model for all the cooperatives in the world), as expressed in his Movie Journal 5, we can see many hesitations. Mekas wanted to see the emergence in his country of a New Wave close to the French one. With this in mind, he made films as Guns of the Trees (1963), The Brig (1965). But America is not France, a country where numerous state funds stimulate young filmmakers, while Hollywood monopolizes and absorbs everything. The experimental and independent American cinema then appeared to Mekas as the only way to practice a free cinema. To guarantee this freedom and independence, Mekas ensured the distribution of these films via the coop, he defended them in the magazine Film Culture which he founded in 1955 and in the columns of the weekly magazine The Village Voice during the 1960s. His efforts paid off. This group of filmmakers attracted the attention of visual artists, musicians and innovative writers. The faculties were interested in it and many members of the coop soon taught this cinema. In a recent documentary dedicated to Bob Wilson, we learned that for an Andy Warhol film, a Richard Foreman play or a John Cage concert, a circle of New York faithful was always there. In the 1960s, such an approach was impossible in France. With the New Wave, a corporate revolution took place. “Freer” filmmakers emerged.
But if we look back (and putting aside creators like Alain Resnais or Chris Marker who were not part of this galaxy, an informal one, for that matter), only Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette were really innovative, “revolutionary” and deserve to be compared to their Brazilian (Glauber Rocha, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade) or Japanese (Nagisa Oshima, Kiju Yoshida) counterparts. The radicalism of Godard and Rivette made other filmmakers benefit, for a while, from this prestige linked to the New Wave but which is obsolete today.
The “disturbed narrative” of Week end (Godard, 1967) or L’Amour fou (Rivette, 1968), among others, seems to open the way to an innovative post-Nouvelle Vague 6 generation that spent time at the Cinémathèque française and that Henri Langlois wanted to present it as the French avant-garde as a reaction to Mekas’ and Sitney’s attacks. The one who pushed this plastic research the furthest was Jean Eustache with La maman et la putain (1973), a monster film which devoured its author who could not continue in this way. The Zanzibar Group gathered around May 1968 and other filmmakers more or less close like Jean-Pierre Lajournade, Yvan Lagrange, Jacques Robiolles, Philippe Garrel (at his beginnings), Patrice Énard, Jacques Richard, Yves-André Delubac - most of them selected in Hyères before and after the arrival of Marcel Mazé -, represented in the eyes of the well-informed critics like Noël Burch and others a real French underground current. They were sometimes combined with the films of Etienne O’Leary or Pierre Clémenti, the latter being experimental in the American sense of the term at the time. Faced with this profusion of new forms and new ways of filming, the British critic Peter Wollen wished, in 1974, for the conjunction of the two avant-gardes, the European one generated by the various new waves of the old continent and films from cooperatives, especially American and British ones 7. It is the same wish that animates Noguez when he speaks of an “experimental pole”, he who had already paved the way by writing, at the beginning of his experimental adventure, about great innovative authors 8.




Finding the “experimental meta-film” as Noguez wished is impossible, but we can give an idea of what a “meta-artist” is by evoking the case of Jean-Luc Godard, who is like no other (the only filmmaker who maintains a relationship with him is the German Alexander Kluge, who goes from offbeat fiction to all the experiments that cinema, video and digital technology allow). Why did Eustache or Lajournade fail? Because they were shaping a future for the films of Godard and Rivette, which differed from the evolution of these masters, and because their cinema was overshadowed by the arrival of true French experimenters: Patrick Bokanowski, Patrice Kirchhofer, Claudine Eizykman, Guy Fihman - of no consequence to Rivette, but giving rise to ambiguous relations with the late work of Godard. From 1960 (À bout de souffle) to 1967 (Week-end), Godard worked on the narrative that he disarticulated in all directions, but no longer only as a filmmaker from Le Mépris (1963), but also as an artist looking for new models in painting or music: these references or borrowings were at first quotational in his first period, but later contaminated the totality of his films from 1979 (Sauve qui peut {la vie}) and his return to fiction. From 1963, Godard noted that the New Wave was on the wane, and no longer wanted to be a filmmaker but an artist. With the arrival of May 68, he founded with Jean-Pierre Gorin the Dziga Vertov Group and renewed during four years the militant cinema. Godard was on the lookout for anything new, whether artistic, societal or technical. He quickly seized the video and made a film without equivalent at the time, Numéro deux (1975), in which he tackled sexuality head-on for the first time.
The film was co-directed by Anne-Marie Miéville. Godard met her in 1972 at the end of his activist period. They founded the Sonimage studio in Grenoble. In 1977, they settled in Rolle, Switzerland, where Godard built a studio-laboratory that he gradually furnished - using part of his salary – with all the technological tools he may need (film and video cameras, various sound devices, editing workstations): “The Godard Studio” made the artist a laboratory operator. All the later evolutions of this creator - the videographer of the 1970s; the autobiographer of the 1990s, JLG/JLG, autoportrait de décembre; the master of reusing, from Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) to Le livre d’image (2018) - are anchored in the Sonimage experience. Godard envied Chaplin for having a real den at his disposal, with cameras and projectors that allowed him, permanently, to test his skills, in vivo, his intuitions. One cannot avoid thinking that his experience will be democratized from the 1990s onwards by the independent laboratories movement. Until ten years ago, JLG’s most ardent supporters were determined to keep him away from any comparison with experimental cinema. While he had been part of it throughout his life. Jonas Mekas wrote in 1968 in his Movie Journal: “Week-end confirms my impression that Godard, with each of his films, is getting closer and closer to the techniques and aesthetics of New American Cinema.”9 Even a blind person would see similarities between Le livre d’image and Phoenix Tapes, by Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller (1999). Nicole Brenez broke the taboo when she wrote: “The plastic experiments on the reusing extend the overall citation logic at work from the beginning, and contribute to one of the great traditions of experimental cinema, the recycling of images (and not only of narrative patterns, visual patterns, or quotations from texts or paintings) at the same time. Jean-Luc Godard then meets the masters of the replacement: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, Ken Jacobs, Malcolm le Grice, Peter Tscherkassky… and mainly Al Razutis, author of the series Visual Essays: Origins of Film (1973-1984), dedicated to a project similar to that of Jean-Luc Godard, creating a “true” story, made of images and sounds. Al Razutis was himself replaced by Godard from Vrai faux Passport (2006), as later Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi in Le Livre d’image.” 10

Jean-Luc Godard is probably this meta-artist who, alone, has been able to explore a dizzying number of artistic, formal and social proposals. He knew how to concretize this multiple avant-garde desired by Peter Wollen; his work and his life were (are still) an infinite experimental pole. His initials alone, JLG, concentrate all the heterodoxy of his career.


"The Art of the Camera: An experimental Movie" (cf. Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde. 1919-1945, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1995, p 391).


Dominique Noguez, Éloge du cinéma expérimental, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1979; reissued in Paris Expérimental, coll. Les Classiques de l'avant-garde, 2010.


Dominique Noguez, Une renaissance du cinéma. Le cinéma «underground» américain, Méridiens, Klincksieck, Paris, 1985 ; rééd. Paris Expérimental, coll. Les Classiques de l'avant-garde, 2002.


P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, the first major History of post-World War II American avant-garde filmmaker, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974 ; trad. Fr. Pip Chodorov, Christian Lebrat, Le Cinéma visionnaire : l'avant-garde américaine, Paris Expérimental, coll. Classiques de l'avant-garde, 2002.


Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal. The Rise of the New American Cinema 1959-1971, Collins Books, New York, 1972, trad. Fr. Dominique Noguez, Ciné-journal. Un nouveau cinéma américain 1959-1971, Paris Expérimental, coll. Classiques de l'avant-garde, 1992.


I discussed this topic in the catalog of the 17th edition of our festival: "Cinefils of the French underground?", pp 108-113, 2015.


Peter Wollen, «The Two Avant- Gardes», Studio International, vol. 190, n° 978, 1975, p. 171-175.


Dominique Noguez, Le Cinéma autrement, UGE, Collection. 10/18, Paris, 1977 ; rééd. Cerf, Coll. 7e art, Paris, 1987.


Ciné-journal, op. cit p.290.


« Jean-Luc Godard expérimental, remarques formulées ou rêvées en Suisse et ailleurs, que raison nous garde de généraliser », par Nicole Brenez, Trafic n° 112 (hiver 2019), page 39.