The cinematic avant-garde

 It is important that you realise the aims :

1.To explore the aesthetic and political impulses behind certain experimental pieces from the classic avant-garde and from more recent sources.
2..To illustrate commercial applications of some of the techniques, and to discuss the paths that join the commercial and the experimental.
3.To engage in 'critical practice' by producing some experimental material on your own or in groups and analysing the conventions that are involved 'from the inside'.
4.To engage in more focused contemporary debates about broad aesthetico-political movements such as 'surrealism' or 'postmodernism'.

It is intended that there will be coverage of the following points:

1.Matters arising from the 'theoretical' material on surrealism, postmodernism etc., related to the essay tasks as well as  to more general issues.
2.The processes involved in constructing the pieces, including 'personal vision', artistic conventions and commercial pressures.
3.A focus on techniques and other implications for project work.

The module is, therefore, organised into blocks, and the pace will be variable. NB Material will be viewed which is often controversial in nature, which could involve erotic or political images or texts, and which may be designed to shock.

BLOCK 1 (Weeks 4& 5) The structure of 'taste'  (see file)
We explore Bourdieu's work on the sociology of 'taste', and begin to view material. Students can self-assess the dimensions of their own tastes in film and video and discuss the aesthetic impulses behind the 'avant-garde' or the 'underground'. The sessions can also review existing work on analytic frameworks encountered elsewhere - - especially those based on 'structuralism', or the realism debates (see page on realism).

Indicative Viewing:

Material from L'Amour Fou, Midnight Underground, Baby of Macon,White Noise, Animation Now

BLOCK 2 (Weeks 6-8) Realism and its Discontents: Inversions,
Subversions, Rejections
A block on experimental work that arose out of realism debates. The nature and politics of realism  (see file). Breaking the conventions of realism with the (French) 'avant-garde'. Techniques of the break: busted narratives , obtrusive techniques, artificial or imposed narratives, subverting the hierarchical order of narratives. Commercial equivalents - the non-narrative ad. or naive realism in camcorder cuts. Implications for the avant-garde.
Students follow the suggested agenda above, or suggest one of their own.

Indicative Viewing:
Godard         One or Two Things..., Weekend, Pravda
Greenaway      Drowning by Numbers, Darwin
Potter (D)     Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective
Almodovar      Tie Me Up Tie Me Down, Kika
Campion        Sweetie, My Two Friends

BLOCK 3 (Weeks 9-11) Surrealism: Harnessing (!) the Unconscious
The theory of the surreal from Freud (see file) and Marx. The politics (from dada to libertarian communism). The classics - Dali and Bunuel. The heritage - situationists and Czech animators. Cod surrealism, parodies, commercialisation, ads. Implications - the collapse and domestication of the surreal (see file) ?

Indicative Viewing:
Dali & Bunuel   Un Chien Andalou (BFI boxed set)
Bunuel          L'Age d'Or, Belle de Jour
Swankmajer     Darkness, Light, Darkness, The Flat, Alice
Bros Quay       Street of Crocodiles, Sledgehammer, Are We StillMarried?
Lynch          Eraserhead, Blue Velvet

BLOCK 4 Hyperrealism/Pomo

Defining postmodernism: the collapse of internal distinctions, the rise of historiographic metafiction, incredulity towards metanarratives  (see file). The basics in Lyotard, Eco and Baudrillard (eg on the TV audience).The music video/MTV controversy  (see file). Edutainment, and the heritage industry (see file) . Pomo as a commercial style and a response to an 'indifferent' audience.

Indicative Viewing:
Material from 'heritage television', MTV/music videos (eg Madonna, M.Jackson), Slackers, Muppet Babies, Twin Peaks, Pulp Fiction.

Project Work

Focus upon 'critical practice' and upon pre-production 'design skills' and/or post-production 'effects analysis' (in the broadest sense, and on your capacity to experiment with the equipment.

You are invited to produce a short experimental piece, in any medium, or a parody of one, or an ironic comment upon someone else's. Strictly considering the needs of the module, you are advised not to opt for high production values, even if they should prove appropriate. Of course, you might wish to exceed the brief for your own purposes. It is unsuitable, especially in this area, to assess the product directly: an aesthetic judgement would be the only basis for such an assessment, and aesthetic judgements are minimised in our agreed assessment regulations. You will be assessed instead on your individual report of the design processes you went through before, during, and after your project work. More details follow in the Assessment Guide below

Unlike your material, your write-up should be conventional and 'academic realist'. it should consider the following points (which you might consider as subheadings if you wish)

What was intended, what was actually done, and what part did you play? ( ie you need a brief summary of the project) Where did the ideas come from? How difficult or easy was it to generate unconventional ideas and why? What constraints affected the project and the implementation of the ideas? (including production and reception if appropriate) You will need to make reference to the material covered on the module in your discussions - eg on the way the best ideas tend to find their way into advertising which can blunt their impact, on the way tastes are shaped by economic and cultural capital, or on the specific movements or media folk you have studied.


What follows is an indicative list. Additional titles may be suggested during the sessions.

French avant-garde

Camera Obscura Collective Camera Obscura (special on Godard), 7-10, Fall 1982
Harvey S May '68 and Film Culture
Macabe C (Ed) Godard: Images Sounds Politics
Monaco J The New Wave
Monaco J & Walsh D Brechtian Aspects of Cinema

EXTRA EXTRA EXTRA    . I haven't looked at this for a long long time, but the big new stuff is of course Deleuze's work. There is a really good bit on the French avant-garde in his second book on cinema, including a discussion of Godard,  and a short essay on Six Fois Deux here. The other news (for me) is that lots of bits of Godard can be found on You Tube. There is also a full length copy of Pravda  and several other major works (under Jean-Luc Godard and Dziga Vertov) on the superb Ubuweb -- FREE!!


Aranda M Luis Bunuel: A Critical Biography
Benjamin W One-Way Street
Buache F The Cinema of Luis Bunuel
Chipp E History of Modern Art
Clifford J The Predicament of Culture...(ch.4)
Fotiade R ‘The untamed ego...’ in Screen 36, 4 1995
Gould M Surrealism and the Cinema...
Hammond P (Ed) The Shadow of the Shadow...
Lash S The Sociology of Postmodernism
Mellen J The World of Luis Bunuel
OU A352 Modernism from Manet to Pollock
Plant S The Most Radical Gesture

General "Methodological"

Arato A & Gebhardt E (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (Intro to Pt 11 and piece by Adorno ‘Commitment')
Bennett T (et al) (eds) Popular Television and Film
Berger J Ways of Seeing
Bourdieu P & Wacquant L An Invitation To A Reflexive Sociology
Bourdieu P Distinction
Caughie J (ed) Theories of Authorship
CCCS On Ideology
Cook P (ed) Cinema Book
Culler J Structuralist Poetics
Eco U Misreadings
Eco U The Open Work (esp Introduction)
Hall S et al. Culture, Media, Language
Lechte, J Fifty Contemporary Thinkers
Outhwaite W & Bottomore T (eds) The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth Century Social Thought
Stam R et al New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics
Williamson J Decoding Advertisements


Appignanesi, L (ed) Postmodernism - ICA documents
Baudrillard J Simulations
Denzin, N Images of Postmodern Society
Docherty, T (ed) Postmodernism - a reader
Eco U Travels in Hyperreality
Foster H Essays on Postmodernism
Foster H (ed) Postmodern Culture
Jameson F Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Jencks C What is Postmodernism?
Harris D A Society of Signs?
Lippard Pop Art
McRobbie A Postmodernism and Popular Culture


Cultural Studies
Journal of Popular Film and TV
Journal of Communication Inquiry vol 10 part 1 (special on MTV)
Media Culture and Society
Screen (eg. the specials on postmodernism or surrealism)
Sight and Sound
Theory Culture and Society

An example I wish I'd had time to do...

This example will almost certainly not be to your taste in terms of content. Try to isolate the principles, though. Strictly as an example, consider the following:

Dead Dog Productions (Family Harris) are asked to make a music video for a local community steel band. They review the options (including limited time, very limited budget, and a desire to work to the full potential their Hi-8 video camera, limited sound recording equipment, and limited access to facilities). At a brainstorming session, they make an early decision to abandon a 'realistic' video of the band actually playing. The members of the band are very ugly on the whole, and could be depicted only for shock value. Realism is suspect, both aesthetically and politically, for the reasons given in the Screen realism debate. All members of Dead Dog have viewed and admired experimental music videos and have noted their commercial success.

Dead Dog are well aware of the limits of their equipment. They decide not to hire steadicam or tracking or other devices, nor to use hand-held techniques, but to operate with a fixed tripod camera. They make a virtue of that by deciding to use only one camera position throughout - to give an effect like those famous 'art' movies of the 60s that showed one view of an office block for five hours. Analogies with ceiling-high security cameras are also tried (and later rejected). Sound dubbing will also be elementary - one number by the band will be dubbed, with no other sound. Limited possibilities of cutting to music will be explored at the edit stage. (The chosen number will be 'The Shadow of Your Smile')

An older project is revived and married with this one, following inspiration achieved by listening to the number (and playing it) in an unusual state of mind. A brief love story will be depicted using gendered objects only (hairbrushes, shaving gear, umbrellas etc) as metonyms and metaphors. Eg no actual people will appear. This saves lighting problems, make up and acting, and illustrates structuralist work on metonyms etc. Room signs (saying 'In' or 'Out') will indicate the course of the relationship (eg female in on her own, then joined by male, both are then in and out at the same times, then male out all the time, then female left in on her own again etc).

Thus the basic scenes are all variants of one or two people walking up and down stairs, changing their signs. Other metaphors of the relationship are added via objects placed on tables in shot - (eg flowers shoot, bud, bloom and fade, gendered objects come, go, separate and intermingle - umbrellas, tools, onyx eggs, cacti). Very modest attempts at animation can be explored as jars of shells (veiled - very veiled- refs to Svankmajer) rotate slowly between shots. Sets, lighting and camera angles are explored. A list of shots is compiled on file cards (a decision is taken to maximise time available in the edit suite by doing lots of paper editing), and a rational sequence established (eg shots are divided into 'day' and 'night', and items that change over time - like floral growth - are sequenced). Takes are timed (they will all be of the same length).

The musical number is recorded and timed (3:20 minutes), and the video is scheduled as 20 seconds of titles, and 15 scenes of 12 seconds each. Props are acquired (very cheaply). Continuity, of displays on tables, changes of clothing etc is rehearsed in a run-through, and the paper sequences are finalised. An interior is selected chez Harris. Domestic lighting is used. Given the simplicity of the fixed camera position, and the props actual shooting takes about 5 hours in one session. Editing and dubbing are equally straightforward and are accomplished in two sessions in the suite. A title is selected - Julia ate Jim (subtitle: ECSB plays 'The Shadow of Your Smile')

A subsequent discussion highlights technical flaws (briefly - what's the point if you can't afford anything else?) and expresses a collective wish for black and white film and a more French New Wave look, rehearses arguments about structuralism and the avant-garde (with reference to Derrida and the impossibility of controlling metonyms), generates more ideas, and discusses why audience reaction might be expected to be uncomprehending or hostile, with references to Bourdieu on the sociology of taste.