In this essay, I will analyze two avant-garde films entitled A MOVIE (1958), by Bruce Connor, and Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959). I will look at and discuss how both employ unconventional narrative structures to show the human hearts’ endless cycle. We will understand how Connor utilizes found-footage from numerous sources to display human nature and societal evolution on a grand scale, whilst Brakhage uses a handheld camera and highly subjective editing to show the love of a family unit. Focusing on the import both filmmakers’ place on rhythm of movement and human emotion, I will argue how both films present us with the circle of life; encapsulating the ‘Human Condition’ in both medium and imagery, in an effort to join their art with our heart.
Firstly, we should ask, what exactly is Avant-Garde? Avant-Garde refers to being outside the norm, but the norm of what? As Michael O’Pray writes in his book Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes, and Passions, “If we do acknowledge an avant-garde then we need to discover what it is the avant-garde of” (2003, pg.3). Historically, he explains that the term “’avant-garde’ was originally used to describe French painting of the early decades of the 19th Century. It represented an aesthetically and politically motivated attack on traditional art and its values.” The term originated within the military, where there ‘avant-garde’ denotes “an advanced group forging an assault on the enemy ahead of the main army”, and was borrowed for use in the Art world in a time of socialist politics. Therefore, when the subject turns to cinema, who -metaphorically-speaking- is the ‘main army’ and the ‘enemy’? As O’Pray suggests, “The main army could be the ‘true’ idea of cinema and film itself and the enemy, the dominant traditional cinema. Or the main army could be mainstream cinema, and the avant-garde it’s advanced group foraging for new techniques, forms of expression and subject-matter.” Ultimately though, there seems to much disagreement as to what ‘avant-garde’ truly connotes towards cinema. Ian Christie, perhaps rightfully and ambiguously remarks, it’s “an essentially contested concept, always open to dispute and redefinition” (1998, pg.453).
However, we can be fairly certain Avant-Garde filmmakers are operating and working outside of any studio system, free from the constraints of anyone else’s interference upon their artistic visions. This makes them truly outside the norm of Hollywood, but furthermore outside the aesthetic and narrative bounds of even independent cinema. Writer Murray Smith adeptly points out the fundamental differences, saying: “The avant-garde is an ‘artisanal’ or ‘personal’ mode. Avant-Garde films tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the film-makers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions. Such films are usually distributed through film co-operatives, and exhibited by film societies, museums, and universities” (1998, pg.395). Arguably, Avant-Garde film-making being more ‘personal’, means more ‘heart’; the director’s own humanity, emotion and message to viewers has the ability to be far more potent than mainstream Hollywood cinema- which is influenced by many.
One example of an Avant-Garde filmmaker is Bruce Connor, a renowned American artist who has worked in experimental film amongst sculpture, painting and more. Released in 1958, his first and potentially most famous film, entitled simply A MOVIE, is a short experimental collage film that seams together clips and snippets of found footage; showing a wide range of various imagery from soft-core pornography, B-movies, animals, car accidents, ocean and underwater scenes and short sequences of violence and war. According to Kevin Hatch, in his essay on Bruce Connor, he explains Connor “held unorthodox ideas about the possibilities of cinema even before he began making films himself.” In 1957, the year before A MOVIE was released, Hatch describes how Connor wrote his gallery in New York with a suggestion: “New horizons, Unexplored territory” (Connor, 1957). Apparently, explains Hatch of the film, “some 180 shots make up the film’s twelve minutes, in addition to sections of leader and a number of titles. The film divides roughly into three sections, in accordance with its soundtrack of three of the movements of Ottorino Respighi’s sweeping “Pines of Rome””(Hatch, 2012). Rather than simply being ‘A Movie’, the title itself is almost a misnomer, or perhaps a perfect disguise, because the unconventional narrative within the film creates a complete vision that is far greater than the sum of it’s parts.
When seen as a whole, just as experimental film critiques mainstream cinema, this film seems to analyze – and arguably critique – the human condition (or our very nature) and society itself. The film begins with a clip of a partially nude woman sitting removing her stockings, inter-cut with a misplaced “THE END” inter-title that occurs throughout, quickly followed by a much longer sequence of what seems to be a chase scene between cowboys and Indians. As Hatch’s description completely encompasses, “the first section seems to offer a premature climax, interleaving a chase scene from a Hopalong Cassidy western with shots of a speeding horse-drawn fire truck, an elephant stampeding, military tanks on the move, a locomotive’s spinning wheels, and 1920s/1930s style race cars colliding; the section ends with a spectacular mountainside car crash, capped with a title stating “The End”” (Hatch, 2012). Therefore, within this first section the main focus seems to be an amalgam of movie clips and footage from potential wildlife documentaries, with an already clear focus on themes of violence and war. Ed Howard describes the first section as ” a rapid-fire montage: […] it’s speed, pure and simple, and the racing, speeding object hardly matters in comparison to the overall impression communicated by the montage” (2008). From this first section it’s clear Connor is already, as Howard believes, “exposing the most basic workings of cinema here, intuitively grasping that he can cut together very different material and still achieve something that “feels” right because its editing has the proper rhythms” (2008). The fast, fluid editing indeed means that as a spectator the image- at least to begin with- is almost meaningless; instead precedence is placed on the affect and fluidity that the film achieves with it’s quickly established sense of fast-paced rhythm. In an interview with Paul. J. Karlstrom, Connor would later explain of his vision; that was, to create “the tremendous, fantastic movie going in my head made up of all the scenes I’d seen” (Connor, 1974). Or as Ed Howard describes the film, “it’s like a catalog of the cinema’s sensationalist devices, all of them blended together with little regard for their origins” (2008).
The seconds section begins with images of tribeswomen carrying heavy loads atop their heads, interjected with the ‘MOVIE’ inter-title (which also runs throughout the course of the film), followed by a longer sequence of a blimp, before showing a scene of two tightrope walkers balancing high above New York City. William Moritz and Beverly O’Neill remark on how “Conner’s judicious choice of sound excerpts enhances the drama inherent in each found scene” observing, “in the tight-rope walking sequence . . . the fear the acrobats will fall is allayed by the music’s [Respighi’s second movement’s] delicate, mysterious tones emphasizing the moment’s truly magical and gravity-defying properties” (1978). As the second section continues, matched by the “more ponderous strains of the second movement of Respighi’s symphonic poem” (Hatch, 2012), we get teases of soft-core pornography and phallic imagery with a nuclear submarine firing off a missile, causing a nuclear explosion. As Howard rightly notes, “the film’s general arc is towards more and more devastating images, even as the soundtrack becomes bombastic and stirring, its epic grandeur clashing against the images of starving children, dead soldiers, and the distinctive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb” (2008). By the halfway point of the film, distinctive key themes are heavily apparent; the clips are mostly filled with death and destruction whilst occasionally interspersed with lighter subject matter such as speed-boating and men racing on humorous bicycles. We notice how sound and editing is providing rhythm, whilst imagery focuses on the destructive side of humans- arguably the humorous clips occasionally cutting in are a metaphor for the happy, optimistic side of human nature even whilst in the midst of war and death.
At around seven minutes in, the third section starts. The theme of war and death continues, with bomber planes dropping their payloads, the Hindenburg crashing to Earth in a ball of flames, an Africa girl shaking seemingly suffering from illness, and a public execution taking place as crowds’ jeer. As the film comes to a close – and an argument could be made for a fourth section before the final shot- we are given an abstract final sequence of a scuba-diver underwater, as they finally enter and disappear into the depths of a sunken boat sitting on the ocean floor. The screen once more turns to black, with one final glimpse at sunlight filtering through from underwater. Here, A MOVIE concludes. So what is A MOVIE about?
Hatch believes that ultimately, “A MOVIE is a film that singularly resists verbal description: its sequencing refuses summarization as a story, while its diversity of images confounds any straightforward formal analysis” (2012). However, Bordwell explains that “in only 12 minutes, A MOVIE leads us through a range of emotionally charged ideas and qualities. It also creates a distinct developmental thread” (pp.376-81, 2010). The development thread he speaks of is as he explains later in regards to how the devastation and war imagery become increasing more notable, similarly to Howard’s analysis. From my analysis, I believe this film is about the ‘human condition’ and the evolutionary cycle. Humans, by their very nature are destroying the planet; Man is the beginner of War. Personally, I feel Connor is not only critiquing mainstream cinema with a menagerie of various clips that could be any action sequence of any Hollywood film -in showing how powerful editing and rhythm can be over imagery- but perhaps our own very way of living. Humans love to consume and use and disregard, always exploring for new places and new people to conquer, and perhaps in the end, Connor is showing us that that is the ongoing repetitive nature of the destructive side of the human condition. Though, just as the scuba-diver is swallowed by the unknown wreckage in uncharted territory, Mother Nature will reclaim what is hers, always and forever; ad infinitum.
Moving onto our second film, another Avant-Garde filmmaker is the renowned Stan Brakhage. In 1959, Brakhage directed Window Water Baby Moving. A twelve minute experimental short, the film documents the birth of Myrrena, Brakhage’s first child with then wife Jane Brakhage – now Jane Wodening. The first thing to note is how revolutionary it was at the time to have a film showing the act of giving birth. As Roxanne Samer explains, ” prior to the 1950s childbirth was for the most part off limits as subject matter for filmmaking” (2011). The film is indeed incredibly graphic, including extreme-close up’s of the female vagina contracting. Even to this day, it’s striking how raw and unfiltered the images are. Amos Vogel indeed says that: ” The cinema has treated birth as a guilty secret of mankind, a mystery to be kept from the impressionable young, a clandestine medical event reserved exclusively for physicians” (2005, pg.258). But once the 1950’s arrived, Brakhage “began testing censorship laws and the public’s tolerance by making their own films of the event” (2011). However, troubling the censors was not Brakhage’s main motivation for film his wife giving birth. Apparently he, like Bruce Connor before him, had a certain objective for his films; “from the beginning of his career as a filmmaker” Brakhage was “interested in healing the rift between art and science” (Clark, 2004). Window Water Moving Baby is a good representation of his thought process; the film is about childbirth and procreation- a biological event captured through the medium of film. As mentioned, prior to the 1950’s, childbirth was rarely captured, even though childbirth is the very origin of our existence. Brakhage clearly wanted to remove the “scientific” qualifications for viewing such a vision of life and creation, and create art to show biology and the human body in action; art itself.
Upon viewing the film, firstly we notice the distinct lack of any sound. Brakhage himself wrote a letter upon which he describes his reasoning behind the choice saying “the more informed I became with aesthetics of sound, the less I began to feel any need for an audio accompaniment of the visuals I was making”. Writing in 1966, he remarks: “I think it was seven/eight years ago I began making intentionally silent films…I now see/feel no more absolute necessity for a sound track than a painter feels the need to exhibit a painting with a recorded musical background” (1966, pg.49). Window Water Moving Baby was in fact his first silent film, in a time of “change and growth” in his career, as he moved onto a ‘lyrical’ film aesthetic (Sitney, 1974). Sound excluding, the film still manages to have incredible impact, visual rawness and a rhythmic heartbeat.
Once the title swiftly disappears, we see quick cuts of Jane, nude and with pregnant belly, stepping into a bath filled with water. We see Jane’s smiling face as she’s kissed by her husband, who we also see partially nude. The film’s editing keeps a quick pace, cutting back and forth from close-ups’ of Jane’s belly, to her breasts, then showing her vagina seeping blood. As the film progresses, so does the focus on her vaginal opening as her baby is slowly about to be pushed out. The film is certainly reminiscent of a science documentary, but is kept more art filmic through the imagery of kisses shared between Stan and Jane, and close-ups of her screaming in agony as the baby is thrust out of her body. Near the end of the film, as the baby is born into this world, we see the umbilical cord and amniotic sac shown. The film does not shy away from the true wonder and complexity of the human body, the doctor even going as far as to cut open the amniotic sac so we can witness what stipulates as the life and energy for the once-growing foetus. Throughout the film, Brakhage’s handheld camerawork is incredibly personal, showing us a whole gamut of human emotion; from the gentile nature of how Jane gets in the bath, caring for the baby inside her, the love shown between her and Stan through physical touch, then reaching a climax with the pain that is suffered as Jane gives birth, until finally the serene calmness and joy at holding her baby for the first time. Brakhage’s highly subjective direction contrasts with Connor’s use of pre-existing film clips- the former is the human condition in the microcosmic sense of a family unit; the latter is human condition on a global, historical, evolutionary scale.
Similarly, to A MOVIE, Brakhage’s Window Water Moving Baby is all about rhythm, which is what he uses to describe what his idea of what an Image is. Using Charles’ Olson’s poetry, he writes: “Of rhythm is image. Of image is knowing. And of knowing there is a construct” (Sitney, 1974). For Brakhage, the image is “the very beat of the heart”. Viewing film in this biological, rhythmic way is what Avant-Garde filmmakers seem to place a huge import on; hence their rejection of conventional narrative because, as Sitney explains, narrative has a “beginning, middle and end” and as Brakhage points out, “the heart has no definitive beginning or end when viewed in the endless cycle of reproduction”, therefore rationalizing that with narrative “the heart can no longer be represented rhythmically” (Sitney, 1974). This rejection of narrative is, in and of itself, a rejection of the cultural default commercial film. French filmmaker and critic Germaine Dulac emphasizes this, believing “the expression of a [cinematic] movement depends on its rhythm. Rhythm in itself and the development of a movement constitute the two perceptual and emotional elements which are the bases of the dramaturgy of the screen” (pg.47, 1932). Of course, in commercial film editing plays a huge role in how we feel and our affected by visual imagery, but here, the editing and flow of the imagery takes precedence over the actual images themselves, which is why A MOVIE works even whilst the images are seemingly utterly random. German-American filmmaker Hans Richter echoes Brakhage in his thoughts, explaining that “At the mercy of ‘feeling,’ reduced to going with the rhythm according to the successive rise and fall of the breath and the heartbeat, we are given a sense of what feeling and perceiving really is: a process – movement” (pg.22, 1924). Which, not coincidentally, is a word in the title of Brakhage’s film: Moving.
In conclusion, similarly A MOVIE and Window Water Moving Baby are the epitome of what Avant-Garde cinema represents. Whilst both filmmakers choose contrasting ways of displaying the ‘Human Condition’- Connor’s found footage grand-scope vs. Brakhage’s deeply personal gritty handheld view- both result in rhythmic creations with unconventional narratives that resemble Gunning’s “Cinema of Attractions” (2007, pp.13-19); opposing the structural confines, societal pandering and external studio influences of mainstream cinema. Ultimately, as Richter refers to, they are both films about a process. That is, in A MOVIE the cycle of the human condition where we destroy the Earth and often times each other- in short a retrospective on societal and human evolution; and in Window Water Moving Baby a look at a woman’s journey of giving birth- at the beginning of human existence, to start the circle of life all over again.
Together, they are encompassing of the ‘human condition’, from the biggest to the smallest sense.
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Conner, B. (1974) Interview with Paul J. Karlstrom (August 12, 1974), Oral History
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A MOVIE (1958) Directed by Bruce Connor, USA
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) Directed by Stan Brakhage, USA