M.M. SERRA: VENTURE FIRST INTO UNEXPLORED TERRITORY
M.M. Serra is the Executive Director of the Film-Makers Cooperative whose latest work, Chop Off, is a literal exploration of amputation as art. She co-curated the Counter Culture, Counter Cinema Avant-Garde Film Festival at the Pacific Design Center with films featuring headless naked bodies, silent bloody births and psychedelic be-ins. This interview by Lainna Fader.
The concept of identity is clearly central to a festival about counterculture. How does the structure of film—and more specifically avant-garde film—affect the exploration of identity? And how is film a particularly useful medium for women to explore these issues?
The concept of identity is key to an exploration of the counterculture—one of the traits that characterizes these films as avant-garde is their creation of new forms of personal vision. The term avant-garde originates from a French military term for the advanced guard that ventures first into unexplored territory. Avant-garde artists, like these soldiers, are the ones on the forefront of cultural and aesthetic innovation, often putting themselves in the line of fire, both on the screen and off, in order to explore the boundaries of transgression and break cultural taboos with the unorthodox, daring and radical. This position on the forefront is often a singular one, influencing the artist to impart on a journey of individual exploration and a study of identity. For example—Jack Waters’ film The Male Gayze questions issues of race, white privilege, homosexuality, and the commodity fetishism of the black male within media representation. It does not address just one issue of identity, but presents a multiple layering of race, class, gender and creating politics within the avant-garde tradition. By turning the camera on himself, by being both subject and object of the spectacle, operating the camera, and being the voice of the narrator, Jack Waters creates a unique reminiscence of himself as a 23-year-old African-American dancer in Europe. After a photo of Waters’ partially undressed body—with the head removed—was circulated around Europe as a commercial postcard without his permission, Waters felt his body was appropriated and objectified in similar fashion to the commodification of female sexuality. The fetishization of the body as spectacle is prevalent in mainstream cinema, television and advertising, so an avant-garde artist is able to engage in the process of critiquing and taking back control of the gaze.
What are some of the questions that film can articulate? In what ways do other specific mediums fall short?
Early in film history, cinema had to separate itself from the carnival, vaudeville, theater and literature, therefore critics like Germaine Dulac (‘Visual and Anti-Visual Films,’ 1928) and later Hans Richter (‘The Film as an Original Art Form,’ 1955) championed cinema’s unique visual capabilities (the close-up, temporality, rhythm, texture) to distinguish itself as ‘the seventh art form.’ When sound was introduced in the late 1920s, theorists were concerned that the addition of sound would destroy the visual art and turn film into the illustrated novel or recorded theater. As we have seen, particularly with avant-garde and experimental cinema, artists have used sound to enhance mood or even subvert the entertainment value. For example, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures intersperses sound with silence as a counterpoint to the visuals instead of as illustration or enhancement. Personally, I feel that film is another tool to express individuality and personal vision alongside painting, poetry, performance, literature and so forth and there is room to blur these once rigid categories.
Is this a case of form following function or function following form? Does avant-garde film exist because radical concepts demand such a medium? Or does the existence of a medium such as film draw avant-garde ideas into expression?
One of the reasons that radical concepts and transgressive ideas can be explored in avant-garde cinema is because it is not a commodity like the commercial mainstream cinema that are dependent on attendance, marketing, press and the rating system. Also, avant-garde form isn’t tied to a feature-length product, so the message can dictate the length of the film. Film is one of the many forms where avant-garde concepts can be explored, but film is unique in that it can raise questions or explore its subjects through language, graphics and sound. For example, Stan Brakhage’s 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving — showing his wife Jane giving birth — is lyrical, romantic and graphic, but still disturbs viewers of both genders today. It is a silent film so Jane’s birth agonies are not heard, but the visuals carry the weight of the bloody and agonizing—but beautiful—process that is common to us all. The film and its subject were censored by the hospital refusing to let Stan in with a camera to film the birth of their first child and the subject was considered inappropriate for a theatrical audience in the late 1950s.
I read an interview with Jose Rodriguez-Soltero about the remastering of Lupe by Anthology, and he said that removing all the scratches and blemishes—its ‘ugliness’—took away some of its character and muddled its message. Do these experimental films have to be ugly in order to capture the experience of being a part of underground or counterculture?
In my opinion the film is very avant-garde and different than a mainstream Hollywood film in many aspects of its aesthetics that supersede the question of whether it’s clean or dirty. The strength of Lupe is in its tactile, visceral and sensuous quality, particularly in regards to its expressiveness created with a vivid color palette saturated with warm tones such as reds. The aesthetics of the avant-garde are not about beauty or ugliness, but about exploring possibilities through textural, rhythmic and even tonal ranges that expand on our traditional sense of reality.
What is the ‘traditional sense of reality’ and through what traditions is it reinforced?
The traditional sense of ‘reality’ found in commercial film and television is the illusion where you become so engaged in the story that there is a seamless, unchallenged spectatorship. The camera, actors and narrative all become part of an invisible artifice, so that you—the spectator—become fully engaged and the overall cinematic apparatus totally dissolves. Avant-garde cinema challenges and disrupts the spectator by foregrounding screen surface, layering of visual imagery, speaking directly to the spectator, distorting spatial perspective, and through its transgressive subjects—for example the explicit graphic body which is repressed in mainstream entertainment. Creating a more visceral palette creates a more engaged spectatorship where one is more aware of the cinematic apparatus, the surface of the screen.
Through what ways can artists connect with the ‘visceral’? Why is this of value?
For example, in an early avant-garde masterpiece like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the impact of the film is not told simply through the story, but through the powerful visuals and the sculpted painted space, the expressions painted on the actors’ faces, the tilted camera to express the disturbed mind, and the unnatural jagged landscape. These stylistic aspects not only advance the narrative plot but also draw the spectator into the twisted mind of the storyteller. Here the visceral quality is the visual texture, or grainy surface, that gives an enhanced viewing experience and aims to create an intellectually and sensually stimulated spectator.
Avant garde music and film have a lot of the same rhythms, which is something you clearly picked up on with selections like Jerry Abrams’ Be-In, set to music by Blue Cheer. How important is the interaction between sound and image to the impact and durability of experimental film? How do you feel about the trend of doing new live scores over pre-existing films?
Sound in Jerry Abrams’ Be-In is important in capturing the immediate feeling of being in the summer of love. The music works with the psychedelic visuals to create the dynamic mood of the culture at that time in San Francisco. The importance of the sound/image interaction depends on the filmmaker—for example Stan Brakhage felt that a soundtrack destroys the visual rhythm and mood of the film, while other filmmakers liked to work with avant-garde musicians and were interested in experimenting with sound and music for their films. Jack Smith would play records and create live sounds to accompany his films, so I think it’s okay in the cases where the filmmakers’ are open to experimentation or in cases where original soundtracks may have existed but have been lost.
Do you feel that today’s technology is deployed in a way that can expand identity and perspective? Is it used in a way consistent with the aims and ideologies of filmmakers like Jerry Abrams?
I wouldn’t say that one technology is better than the other, but that they are different tools that create different visual and audio experiences. An example of an innovative use of new technology is Ken Jacobs’ work Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), which shows a two-dimensional stereograph of a factory child at work and uses his three-dimensional patented technology to show the dehumanization of the child by visually merging the child with the machinery and as part of the industrial system. Jacobs describes his new technology as ‘Eternalism, a method for creating an appearance of sustained three-dimensional motion-direction of unlimited duration, using a finite number of pictures.’ This is an example of the avant-garde exploring new frontiers of technology.
I read that Sonata For Pen, Brush & Ruler was made for three dollars worth of clear movie film and five bottles of ink, for a total production cost of nine dollars, but took seven months of the director’s life to produce ten minutes of film. Do you think knowing the difficulties of a film’s production impacts one’s enjoyment of the film, or the value placed on it?
I think knowing the technique affects the viewing experience and that the process is part of the journey. Jasmine Hirst’s Trailers contains Super 8 footage shot of Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer executed in Florida whose life was appropriated for the film Monster. Hirst writes, ‘I met and filmed Aileen Wuornos on death row in Florida in 1997. We had been corresponding for 5 years and Aileen had asked me to film her talking about the truth of her life and crimes as part of her preparation to die.’ Hirst’s conversations with Wuornos in the short film reveals stories of Wuornos’ horribly abusive childhood that challenges and disturbs the entertainment factor of her story. Knowing the filmmaker’s ten-year correspondence with Wuornos in addition to and in contrast to dehumanizing and trivialized coverage of Wuornos in popular culture, creates a deeper understanding of the subject of the film.
Curator David E. James described Jonas Mekas’ work as a heroic cultural activity in the context of the NYC film community, and all of Program 4 is devoted to his work. Who in L.A. is making the most significant cultural contributions, and what form do these contributions come in? Is it possible for arts organizations in L.A. to thrive financially and avoid corporate cultural investment?
I would say Charles S. Cohen and Jeffrey Deitch are performing a heroic cultural act in L.A. by recognizing the importance of these films and filmmakers and bringing this groundbreaking program of Counter Culture, Counter Cinema with 60 titles and seven programs to L.A.. Culture is not cannibalized by corporate America as long as pockets exist where individual expression and personal vision are allowed to thrive and while galleries, cooperatives, museums, collectives and performance spaces are funded and available to a diverse range of artists. I think there will be a new evaluation of the economy, food structures, the ecology, and more global concerns addressing these political issues. It’s not an East Coast-West Coast thing; counterculture cinema is spread across the wider culture of this generation of artists, activists, and members of the counter culture. Though communities of artists continue to exist in specific pockets, with mass digital/media access for all individuals, the movement becomes more global and less restricted by physical space.
COUNTER CULTURE, COUNTER CINEMA FROM THUR., OCT. 14 TO SAT., OCT. 16., AT THE SILVERSCREEN THEATER AT THE PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER, 8687 MELROSE AVE., WEST HOLLYWOOD. VISIT MOCA.ORG FOR COMPLETE PROGRAM AND SCHEDULE. $10-$45. MOCA.ORG.