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The Garden in the Machine: Two American Avant-Garde Films and the Nineteenth-Century Visual Arts

  • Scott MacDonald


One of the primary reasons I became interested in film studies was the seeming open-endedness of the field. Cinema was new, I reasoned, and would continue to be new, unlike other academic fields, and particularly those devoted to historical periods: as a scholar and a teacher, I would face the future, endlessly enthralled and energized by the transformation of the potential into the actual. That my development as a film scholar/teacher increasingly involved me in avant-garde film seemed quite natural — a logical extension of the attraction of film studies in general: Avant-garde film was the newest of the new, the sharpest edge of the present as it sliced into the promise of the future. Scholars in some fields may empathize with the attitude I describe, but scholars in all fields will smile at its self-defeating implications: of course, I can see now how typically American my assumptions were — as if one could maintain the excitement of youth merely by refusing to acknowledge the past! Obviously, film studies, like any other discipline, is only a field once its history takes, or is given, a recognizable shape.



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1. While I am not entirely comfortable with the term avant-garde film, I use it here because it has somewhat broader currency than other terms used to refer to this general cinematic terrain: experimental film is a term many filmmakers dislike (they do not see their films as experiments); independent film has been used to refer to many kinds of film that share only an independence from big Hollywood budgets; and underground film and the New American Cinema seem closely connected with the particular social—historical context of the 1960s. In my own writing and teaching, I prefer the pragmatic critical cinema, as a way of emphasizing the pedagogical value of the films discussed here as a means of critiquing mainstream commercial cinema and television (and as a way of polemicizing the accomplishments of these films as works of art).

2. As is discussed later, Altick, Richard B.'s The Shows of London (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) is a most valuable introductory overview of many forms of precinematic motion-picture entertainment, including still and moving panoramas and Daguerre's Diorama. Carr, Gerald C. discusses the phenomenon of the Great Picture in connection with Frederic Church's work, in Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1980), ch. 1.

3. For a review of some of the many single-shot films that were made during this period, see MacDonald, Scott, “Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket: A Survey of Single-Shot Film,” Afterimage (U.S.A.) 16, no. 8 (03 1989): 1016. Jonas Mekas's dedication of Walden (1969) “To Lumière” is a function of the same attitude.

4. In fact, “landscape film” was one of the early commercial film genres. Between 1897 and 1910, dozens of films of American landscapes were produced, including many that recorded places familiar from 19th-century painting. See Cahn, Iris, “The Changing Landscape of Modernity: Early Film and America's ‘Great Picture’ Tradition,” Wide Angle 18, no. 3 (07 1996): 85100.

5. This is Gottheim's own metaphor. I have heard him compare the clearing in the fog in the landscape to achieving intellectual clarity, during in-person presentations of his films. It has become a convention in America (and European) avant-garde filmmaking for filmmakers to appear with their films, to introduce screenings and answer questions afterward.

6. Of course, Eadweard Muybridge was not the only important motion-study photographer whose work often focused on animals. The Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey provided major contributions to photographic motion study. See Marta Braun's definitive history of Marey's work (which includes a detailed comparison of the contributions of Muybridge, and Marey, ): Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

7. If one can accept the horses as an implicit reference to Eadweard Muybridge's study of horses, the flight of the bird may provide an even more subtle implicit reference to Etienne-Jules Marey's (and to a lesser degree, Muybridge's) motion photography of flying birds.

8. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed de rigueur for some film artists to forswear credits, as if their identity were implicit in their imagery; some of these filmmakers have continued to abjure credits, presumably in defiance of the visual, collaborative, and legal traditions of the commercial cinema.

9. The particular look of Fog Line — and Gottheim's other early films — has changed over the years, not simply because all film, and especially color film, decays, but because certain printing stocks that were available in 1970 are no longer manufactured. The early Fog Line prints were a gorgeous pea green; the green in recent prints is a bit greyish — and less memorable as a film color, though the film remains lovely.

10. See Miller, Angela, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), 42.

11. Indeed, Leo Marx's original machine, the increasingly ubiquitous locomotive, shares a particular technological heritage with the machine of cinema: the advances that brought the railroad track ultimately brought the image track and sound track as well; and when the Cinéematographe arrived on the scene, it declared its technological kinship with its sibling technology in the Lumière, Express Arriving at Lyon (1895) and in what became a considerable tradition of cinematic trains, from Porter, 's The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Hale's Tours, to Keaton, 's The General (1926) and Hitchcock, 's North By Northwest (1959).

An early experiment in what would now be called virtual reality, Hale's Tours were introduced by George C. Hale, and Fred and Ward Gifford at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. “Passengers” interested in embarking on a Hale's Tour would enter a railroad car and take seats. During the tour, movies taken from moving trains would be projected outside the car so as to cover the entire field of vision, and the car itself would be moved slightly from underneath so that passengers would feel and hear the typical sensations of rail travel. Hale's Tours became popular in American amusement parks from 1905 to 1907 and may have lasted as late as 1912. See Field, Raymond, “Hale's Tours: Ultrarealism in the pre-1910 Motion Picture,” in Film Before Griffith, ed. Fell, John L. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 116–30.

12. Although few viewers who see the film now are familiar with the actual light sign, in fact, much of Murphy's original audience in Iowa City would have recognized the sign, though he did not make the film solely for that local audience.

13. See Altick, , Shows of London, ch. 12, p. 167. Even taking into account the somewhat more spectacular effects provided by the transformations in the diorama images and the tendency of diorama performances to condense time, the fact that audiences were enthralled by Daguerre's invention is a further indication of the changes in taste between the early 19th century and the late 20th century, and it suggests that there is nothing about Fog Line that renders it intrinsically boring: the most we can say is that Fog Line provides a type of experience most audiences are no longer prepared to enjoy.

14. See Altick, , Shows of London, 129. Altick's history of still panoramas is extensive: see chapters 10,11,13, and 14.

15. The Gettysburg “cyclorama” (as it is called in Gettysburg tourist brochures) is presented in a manner analogous to a movie. Viewers gather on a central platform in the semidarkness. The painting is contextualized by narration and is revealed, first, in a series of “close-ups” — a light source reveals rectangular details of the painting — and “medium shots,” as Pickett's Charge is contextualized historically and geographically. The presentation culminates in Pickett's Charge itself, with the entire panorama illuminated and the visual action accompanied by sound effects.

16. Richard B. Altick discusses the development of the moving panorama and John Banvard in chapter 15 of The Shows of London, but more elaborate discussions of the St. Louis panoramas are available in McDermott, John Francis, The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); and Miller, Angela's “The Imperial Republic”: Narratives of National Expansion in American Art, 1820–1860, a Ph.D. dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Yale University in 1985, Section Two: “The Moving Panoramas and the Cultural Colonization of the West.”

17. The original moving panoramas were hand cranked from one side of the viewing rectangle to the other. The Hamm's light sign imagery is printed on a plastic loop that is lit electrically from the inside and revolves continuously.

18. Many scholars have noted the relationship (or at least the analogy) between the moving panorama and the modern motion picture, including McDermott (see note 16) and Willard, Charlotte, “Panoramas, The First Movies,” Art in America 47, no. 4 (1959): 6469. See also Novak, Barbara's and Parry, Ellwood C. III's discussions of Thomas Cole in Nature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 20; and The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (Newark, Delaware: Associated University Presses, 1988), 124–25.

19. See Miller, “Imperial Republic”: “Implicit in the panoramic narrative was the image of the river linking together both the regions of the republic and the stages of national progress. A great artery running the entire length of the valley, the Mississippi encapsulated in its two thousand mile length the phases of western community, from its wilderness beginnings to its fully realized urban form in New Orleans” (409). “As a popular art form, the panoramas identified geography with cultural identity, and brought both into the service of America's collective mission, the colonization of the continent” (419). See also Miller, Angela, “The Panorama, the Cinema, and the Emergence of the Spectacular,” Wide Angle 18, no. 2 (04 1996): 3469.

20. All in all, the effect of Murphy's film for most viewers is a bit surreal, and reminiscent of the scene in Duchamp, Marcel's peephole erotic landscape composition, Étant donnes: 1° la chute d'eau 2° le gaz d'éclairage (19461966).

21. See Kinsey, Joni Louise, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1992) for the details of Moran's involvement with the Northern Pacific Railroad.

22. Miller, , “Imperial Republic,” 276–77.

23. This “accuracy” could be of more than one kind. Cole's The Oxbow paints a real turning in the Connecticut River as seen from the Mt. Holyoke hills, but avoids revealing the degree to which that vista had already become a popular tourist attraction. That is, Cole paints “reality,” but distorts our sense of the space in the interest of demonstrating his attitudes toward development. But Cole, and other artists often designed composite, “fictional” images of wild scenes, on the basis of precise accurate plein air studies of the geological, biological, and atmospheric particulars of a region.

24. Murphy interviewed in MacDonald, Scott, A Critical Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 182.

24. Murphy might have used a recording of a stream, of course — though in fact, he recorded the stream live.

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