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Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film

by Jeffrey Skoller
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2005
264 pp. illus., 41 b/w. Trade, $74.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-816-4231 1; ISBN: 0-816-4231-x.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


In this fascinating book, film maker, teacher, and theoretician Jeffrey Skoller does not aim at analyzing how historical facts, events, characters, or situations are cinematographically represented, but at disclosing the many ways in which history is thought of——and therefore made——in contemporary avant-garde film. Each of these words——thinking, making, avant-garde, and film——has here its importance and helps the author to distinguish the corpus and the issues he is working on from the cinematic strategies of narrative Hollywood movies, where history is offered to be re-enacted in a transparent way by an audience that is no longer aware nor of the constructedness of what it is seeing it, neither of the very problematic nature of its actual looking at a past made present through fictional narratives. Contrary to what happens in dominant industry forms of cinema, avant-garde cinema takes into account the epistemological shifts in our thinking of history: our mistrust of narrative structures, our suspicion of the very idea of representation, our critique of the illusion of understanding, our classic belief in objectivity, our ancient notions of a clear-cut and unproblematic distinction of present and past, and our emphasis on empirical evidence. The basic ambition of Skoller is to present and analyze a small number of films (half of them strictly avant-garde in the strong sense of the term; half of them at the margins of progressive documentary cinema, such as works by Godard and Lanzmann) and to examine their exploration of thinking history with purely cinematographic means. For Skoller, avant-garde film is defined both negatively and positively: on the hand, there is the rejection of mainstream storytelling (and of fiction as a form of indexical illusion, i.e. deceit); on the other hand, there is the foregrounding of the proper materiality of the medium (and this medium is here, except in the coda of the book, not video or digital movie, but the by now anachronistic celluloid strip projected collectively in theatres).

The theoretical framework of the book is double. Walter Benjamin’s "allegory" offer the first key notion of all analyses: the allegorical view of history refuses the idea that the past exists independently from the present and enhances instead the possibility, i.e. the political necessity, of a constant reinterpretation of the past as it relates to the present. Gilles Deleuze’s "time-image" is the second major concept that is used throughout the book: contrary to the "movement-image", in which a given timeframe or sequence is inscribed within the moving image, a "time-image" produces a virtual time in the mind of the spectator. It is of course the combination of both concepts, allegory and time-image, that appear as revolutionary in the avant-garde’s (re)making of history outside the existing paths of traditional story-telling. For the avant-garde film, this "virtualizing" encounter with the past is a challenge as well as an opportunity: the former because the ethical and political dimensions of each rethinking of the past are not always easily compatible with the avant-garde’s non representative foregrounding of the film’s materiality; the latter because of the opening it gives to the avant-garde as a genre after a long period of asphyxiating and puritan formalism. The idea of "virtuality" plays a key role in this respect, since "virtual" is also a term that has to be interpreted in a Deleuzian sense, i.e. not as the opposite of "real", but as the opposite of "actual" or "current": the virtual completes the real, it is able to modify what exists, it is the horizon of the real rather than its negation. The avant-garde’s denaturalizing formalism de-realizes any reified view of the past, while projecting it into new, but equally unstable relationships between present, future and past. Virtuality, hence, suggests that avant-garde film-making cannot be reduced to an almost fetishist dialogue with the cinema’s formal properties, but that it is deeply rooted in an engagement with current thinking (more specifically with thinking on history)

Skoller’s book is a very radical plea for an absolutely intransigent and unconditional avant-garde of film-making, and one feels in almost every page of the book the moral urge to resist the use and abuse of history as entertainment. Yet thanks to Deleuze’s virtuality (and, to a lesser extent, of Michael André Bernstein "side-shadowing"), Skoller’s stance is not to be confused with any simplistic refusal of fiction or composition (nor of narrative as such, provided it is multilayered, contradictory, unending). The great variety of films analyzed (ranging from found-footage movies to testimonial films, over documentary interventions and historical reconstructions) guarantees a well-balanced survey of what is at stake in the hardly known field of avant-garde movies, whose very form and format make it even more difficult to find the audience it deserves (although the out-fashioned way of film-making on celluloid is, of course, a tactical ally in the case the avant-garde is making for the re-elaboration of the past). It was, therefore, an excellent idea to end the book with an explicit opening towards the post-cinema. In a more essayistic way, these notes on issues such as the mobile spectator, the VCR, interactivity, and so on, Skoller offers numerous challenging insights on new ways of reinventing the avant-garde now. This unexpected union of the avant-garde and the digital is a message of hope for all those who, spectators as well as makers, have been assisting the gradual fading away of the classic avant-garde.



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