Scholars' Association News
Issue 22
May 2012


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The Avant-Garde, in Cinema, in Greece
By Rea Walldén

I would like to share with you some thoughts on the application of the term “avant-garde” in cinema, as well as on the representatives of the avant-garde cinema in Greece.

The French term “avant-garde”, which means “advance guard” or “vanguard”, originates in military jargon and never lost its militant connotation. It was first used in the realm of ideas during the Enlightenment, when the notion of the intellectual as a guide for social progress was introduced. It spread to the field of arts around the 19th century with the figure of the romantic artist, prophet and visionary. At the beginning of the 20th century, the function of avant-garde was claimed by revolutionary parties and artistic movements. The history of art distinguishes two peak periods for avant-garde movements: (a) the “first” or “historical” avant-gardes, in the early 20th century to the 1930s; and (b) the “second” or “neo-” avant-gardes, mainly during 1960s and 1970s.

There is a series of theoretical questions relating to the meaning of the avant-garde in 20th century art. The first question regards its dialectic relationship with modernism. One position considers the avant-garde as the most radical expression of modernism; for the other, though, it constitutes an independent gesture, probably even antithetically defined. A second issue regards the definitional characteristics of an avant-garde movement. There is one view that focuses on structural innovation at the level of the signifier, and particularly on the kind of innovation which questions the once established system and forges a “new language”. Another view focuses on the questioning of the institution of art itself, a hitherto unprecedented gesture. Despite the intense polemics that has emerged between the two, these standpoints are not necessarily mutually exclusivei. A third set of questions regards the function of the avant-garde movements: to what extent and in what way they fertilised art and culture; and to what extend they retained their subversive function or were assimilated by institutional art. This leads us in turn to the fourth theoretical question, regarding the differences between the historical avant-gardes and the neo-avant-gardes, and the extent in which their similarities in gestures and techniques serve or not the same social functions. Finally, there have arisen some ideological interpellations regarding the concept of avant-garde, emerging from political philosophy and spreading to the theory of art. On the one hand, the model of revolution – metaphorical or not – is disputed; on the other hand, the function of avant-garde as revolutionary subject is questioned.

The relation of cinema with the avant-gardes, and also with modernism, is peculiar, mainly due to its short history. At the beginning of the 20th century, the newly born cinema was governed by no classical “canon” against which it needed to rebel. This condition was as much a source of freedom as of conservatism. On the one hand, forefathers and classics of this new art were the representatives of the avant-garde movements, like German Expressionism and the Soviet Montage. It is significant that the first film that was ever accepted by the critics as a work of art was the Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Kaligari by Robert Wiene (1919). At the same time, cinema seemed to fulfil all avant-gardes’ aspirations for intermediality and the lifting of boundaries between the arts. In any case, cinema in the first decades of its existence was overall a much more radical art than in the years that followed. On the other hand, it was this newness that led cinema to an extensive use of loan concepts and techniques from the other arts and thus hindered the realization of its own particular potentialities. Furthermore, the desire for acceptance in the artistic firmament – an inclusion that was anything but given – often led cinema into absorbing the representational elements abandoned by the visual arts and the narrative conventions challenged by literature. Just when the other arts were redefining their classical canons, cinema was struggling to build its own.

Another element that complicates the relationship between innovation and conservatism regarding cinema is its technological grounds. On the one hand, cinema was by necessity and par excellence modern at an extra-semiotic level; because it was based on a completely new technology, which created an unprecedented experience for the senses and was accessible to an unprecedented number of spectators. On the other hand, this new technology provoked a very strong reality effect, which often led viewers to disregard its conventional nature. In other words, both the general public and film theorists sometimes forgot that films are as much constructions as the other works of art; this fostered a fixation on the metaphysics of representation and realism. In addition, the accessibility to a large audience was used over the years as an element for both radicalism and conservatism.

Hence, the history of avant-garde cinema is parallel but not identical with the history of the avant-garde in the other arts. A series of movements and trends and filmmakers comes to mind: German Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Soviet Montage, Lettrism, “art-cinema”, “pure” cinema, “abstract”, “metric”, “structural”, “underground”, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, Dziga Vertov, Man Ray, Maya Deren, Kurt Kren, Peter Kubelka, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Gregory Markopoulos, Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Marguerite Duras, Laura Mulvey and so many more.

A debated issue of definition regards the distinction between “avant-garde” cinema and “experimental” cinema, where the latter focuses on formal innovation, while the former has additionally a more political function and aspect. This is not a discussion we want to get into at this point, as the two terms are more often than not used interchangeably as synonyms. Moreover, the relationship of the avant-garde cinema with the visual arts and video-art, as well as with the new audiovisual technologies and the Internet, also poses a number of rather interesting questions.

In our attempt to categorize the features shared by all breakthrough films which can be dubbed “avant-garde”, we settle on five sets of criteria which relate to the following: (a) alternative financial and technical methods, (b) form research, (c) political radicalism, (d) the self-awareness of the film-makers, (e) acknowledgment by theorists and critics. Even though none of them is considered a necessary and/or sufficient condition, they all contribute to systematizing our approach. I will come back to these later with examples from Greek cinema.

In Greece, there is no historical avant-garde cinema. One could even claim, if based on a strict definition of the notion of “avant-garde”, that the existence of historical avant-gardes in general is doubtful – with the exception of Surrealism in the 1930s. During the 1960s, in a generally optimistic climate of change, a Greek avant-garde scene emerged – a “second” avant-garde scene, without there being a “first” oneii. Indeed, it was exactly then that a number of young people started watching passionately foreign art cinema, while films were made that heralded of a new trend. This optimism was violently quashed by the dictatorship. Yet, in 1969, the magazine Σύγχρονος Κινηματογράφος [Synchronos Kinimatografos, Contemporary Cinema] iii published its first issue; it was the first publication to systematically introduce the theory of cinema in our country. The New Greek Cinema (known by its Greek acronym, NEK) would be created around this magazine around the early 1970s. NEK was basically inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague but was more politicized. As part of the international New Cinemas trend, NEK flourished in the 1970s, after the fall of the military junta, and expanded into the 1980s.

It is clear that the New Greek Cinema focuses on form research to a hitherto quite rare extend, and with a clearly subversive intention. It often poses self-reflective questions, disrupts the illusion of cinema and chooses non-classical means of narration. Actually, several NEK films fall into the category of avant-garde cinema or feature typical avant-garde elements. Nevertheless, there are four filmmakers that for many years consistently served a more radical conception of the avant-garde: Costas Sfikas (1927-2009), Stavros Tornes (1932-1988), Thanasis Rentzis (born in 1947) and Antoinetta Angelidi (born in 1950). This list excludes world-renowned Gregory Markopoulos, Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki, because they worked outside Greece and thus did not affect the local scene. Sfikas, Rentzis, Angelidi and Tornes worked within the framework of NEK and actively participated in the publications, festivals and events that featured the movement. They never formed a distinct sub-group. Each followed their own path, experimenting with different means and developing their own distinct style.

As far as technique and finances are concerned, almost the entire New Greek Cinema could be characterized as avant-garde, since it generally produced very low-budget films, was in many aspects “hand-made”, not made in studios, not for big-scale distribution, with the cast and crew offering their labour, and the director taking a personal risk; even later on, in the 1980s, when they got financing from the Greek Film Centre. To date, many Greek films are still filmed this way. However, no one can doubt that the most radically avant-garde filmmakers always laboured under even more extreme conditions. It is worth noting that Sfikas enlisted all the members of his family to cut and paste the hundreds of pieces of the truca animated collages he made.

Regarding their form, avant-garde films are generally characterized by their search for the particularity of cinema as a language and as an art, by their questioning or subversion of basic film conventions – such as the conventions regarding representation, realism and linear narration – , as well as by their quest for a transgression of the boundaries of this medium. Greek avant-garde films constitute a research on form at all these levels. They show an intensified interest in the visual aspect of films, either through a particular emphasis on visual composition or by means of an intentional roughness. A typical example of the first choice is the firm geometricity and the painting qualities of Angelidi’s films, as opposed to the intentionally inartistic crudeness of Tornes’ films which represent the second choice. Additionally, one can witness a huge spectrum of unconventional techniques, which stress cinema’s heterogeneity and intermediality, and reach its physical boundaries: from Sfikas’s and Rentzis’s truca animated collages to Angelidi’s multilayered filmed collages. Thirdly, cinematic spatiality and temporality are studied in their extremity. An example of the subtle play with scale and the inside-outside relation is Angelidi's film Topos (1985). An extreme test of the viewer’s relationship with duration is the single stable shot which comprises Sfikas’s film Modelo (1974); the whole film lasts 71 minutes and there is absolutely no motion within the first six. Finally, one notices a search for alternative narrative structures, such as, for example, juxtaposition in Sfikas, Rentzis and Angelidi, the dream-mechanism in Angelidi and false documentary in Tornes.

Avant-garde cinema is characterized by an ideological radicalism, which is also expressed in the choice of its subjects but mostly in the increased awareness of the political potential of form. In other words, avant-garde filmmakers do not accept content as separated from form; they firmly believe that form is content, and even occasionally the only content. In any case, they consider that subversive form constitutes a political statement or even a revolutionary act. Angelidi’s film Idées Fixes / Dies Irae (1977), for example, is a feminist critique on the representation of women in Western art. It denies the Aristotelian narration and the Oedipus course as interconnected patriarchal structures. It criticizes both the philosophical concept of representation and the specific representations of femininity, by comparing and contrasting images and words. In a shot of the film, a bound and castrated woman sits in front of an advertisement of two young girls, behind the word “mimesis” and confined by the double reflection of the phrase “naked woman”. She is imprisoned by mimesis, in the senses of representation, imitation and stereotype.

To classify a film as avant-garde, the filmmaker’s intention should also be examined. The films by Sfikas, Angelidi, Rentzis and Tornes are consciously in dialogue with the international avant-garde, without compromising their originality. Not only do they share the interests, the strategies and the techniques of their contemporary avant-garde artists, they also incorporate intertextual comments, such as dedications or reference lists, or integrations of other works as raw materials for their collages, or allusions to them through interpretive re-dramatizations.

Finally, film critics have often distinguished the films by Sfikas, Rentzis, Angelidi and Tornes as either avant-garde or experimental – the categories attributed either in a positive or in a negative sense. Their limited theoretical study is not unrelated to the relatively small development of original and systematic film theory in our country.

(Rea Walldén has a PhD in Philosophy and is a visiting researcher in the Department of Theoretical Art Studies at the Athens School of Fine Arts)

i Proponents of the structural definition are the poststructuralists, as well as Renato Poggioli in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968); the institutional definition was introduced by Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974).

ii See E. Hamalidi, M. Nikolopoulou & R. Walldén, “A Second Avant-Garde Without a First: Greek Avant-Garde Artists in the 1970s” in S. Bru, L. Nuijs, B. Hjartarson, P. Nickolls, T. Ørum & H. Berg (eds.), Regarding the Popular: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture, Berlin & New York, Walter De Gruyter, 2011.

iii Synchronos Kinimatografos appeared from 1969 to 1973, and from 1974 to 1984.

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