Marginal Circulation of Marginal Films? The “Travelling Exhibitions” of New American Cinema in the 1960s

Faye Corthésy University of Lausanne

My dissertation research project focuses on the history of the New American Cinema Group (NACG), a collective founded in New York in 1960 by Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, Gregory Markopoulos, Jonas and Adolfas Mekas, and Lionel Rogosin, among others, and its transnational connections. While some scholars have researched the history of the NACG on a national, or even local scale, in New York, little attention has been paid to the participation of the Group in the shaping of a transnational “independent” film culture in the 1960s. It is this broader scope that my dissertation embraces, focusing on phenomena of displacements, with two main goals. First, it aims to shed light on the understudied networks of filmmakers, critics, programmers, and institutions that fostered the circulation of “independent” films and related discourses outside strictly national contexts in the 1960s. Second, and more broadly, it argues that the transnational circulation of “new” and “avant-garde” cinema before the so-called “global era” was of crucial importance in constructing the various film movements.

For the Seminar, I would like to introduce a specific case study that plays a major role in my dissertation: a series of  “travelling exhibitions”[1] of films organized by the NACG during the 1960s in Europe (January – May 1964, in eight countries; May 1967 – June 1968, in thirteen countries) and South America (summer 1965, in Buenos Aires only, due to organizational deficiencies). Different kinds of institutions such as cinematheques, film societies, film schools, art centers, and occasionally even private spaces such as hotel rooms, hosted the film programs that were accompanied on each occasion by P. Adams Sitney, a very young film critic acquainted with Jonas Mekas.[2] As I hope to show, this case study can prove productive to discuss the positional variability of the concept of “marginality” in relation to my workgroup’s sub-theme, the transnational.

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If the manifesto of the NACG written in 1960—when members of the Group still hoped to make feature films that would get wide distribution—stated that “[i]t is a sad fact that our films first have to open in London, Paris or Tokyo before they can reach our own theatres,”[3] the transnational circulation of films associated with “New American Cinema” (NAC) was later recognized as tactically important to gain recognition and initiate a dialogue with filmmakers and film communities in foreign contexts.

The magazine Film Culture, founded by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas in 1955 in New York, already brought together a small network of people interested in film art not only in New York and the United States, but also across countries and continents. The magazine that became the main discursive space establishing NAC in the 1960s took part in the transnational network of film journals promoting and discussing “new cinemas,” and published articles written by its “foreign correspondents.” Moreover, the first large program of films gathered under the umbrella of NAC took place not in the United States, but in Europe, in the Italian city of Spoleto. It was part of the summer 1961 Festival of Two Worlds, an event dedicated to classical music and living arts from the United States and the European continent.[4] Jonas Mekas and David Stone put the program together, that was prominently advertised on the back cover of the Film Culture issue in which the “First Statement” of the NACG was published. Thus, even if an account of the festival written in Spoleto by Gregory Markopoulos uses the word “fiasco” to describe the progress of the film program, it would still be mentioned as a valuable antecedent in a letter sent in 1963 to different people and institutions around the globe to ask about their interest in hosting a touring program of NAC films.

At that time, the Group had founded the Filmmakers’ Cooperative (1962), whose distribution catalog contained mainly short and non-narrative 16 mm films, like those of Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage or Stan Vanderbeek. In the United States, the films were then mainly circulating in universities and film societies, as their formal qualities and format were not fitting the commercial theaters’ circuit. In the same way as the Cooperative was created as an alternative to the existing distribution channels, the “travelling exhibitions” project proved best to acquire some visibility abroad as a movement than to try to enter films individually to international festivals or find occasional, individual distribution.  Repeatedly during the 1960s, film festivals—some of which were still selecting films as representing their nation—would be targeted in the discourses from the Group: they are, for instance, “almost exclusively business ventures [and…] not the most potent vehicles for the presentation of a new aesthetic abroad.”[5] Hence, on the one hand, the “travelling exhibitions” can be read as activist interventions in the field of film distribution: a way to make “marginal films among the margins,” fitting neither the commercial world nor (or almost not) the official film festival circuit, and before the massive presence of moving images in the art context, be seen and discussed. On the other hand, though, the “American” origin claimed by the Group returns a priori more to “centrality” than to “marginality.”

Along the 1960s, especially with the return to Europe for a second time in 1967-68, some protest began to emerge against what was seen as the “dominance” of the American avant-garde cinema. In Knokke-le-Zoute, where the only experimental film festival of that time was taking place[6], German students, among them Harun Farocki and Holger Meins, protested against what they viewed as an “American cineimperialist  aggression.” The agitators related this “aggression” to the political unfolding of the decade, and in particular the escalation of the U.S. implication in the Viet Nâm war. These criticisms finally lead to the decision to put an end to the travelling programs: “with the United States using all kinds of powerto influence other countries,” wrote Mekas in 1968, the NAC exhibitions could be seen “as America’s long fingers to manipulate the film avantgardes [sicof other countries.”[7]

My research does not aim to take a position on whether or not the travelling exhibitions were projects of cultural imperialism. Rather, I tackle this issue with archival documents that help me reconstruct and contrast, on the one hand, how the Group (or members thereof) conceptualized, organized and talked about the project, and, on the other hand, the local receptions of the travelling exhibitions in the different countries and cities where they stopped.[8]

Such a concrete case study allows us to recognize the plurality of actors and discourses, and the cross-cultural exchanges that are at the core of transnational circulation. At the same time, it brings forth questions of power in the historical narrative of “experimental,” “avant-garde,” or “independent” cinema—a narrative that is still often conceptualized only in terms of “resistance,” “subversion,” or, indeed, “marginality,” in a sometimes romantic view of an actually rather complex field. In other words, it adds a vertical dimension to the sometimes criticized emphasis on “horizontality” in transnational studies.

 

Images:

A banner promoting the “nuovo cinema americano” film series in Spoleto in 1961. © Jerome Hill Papers, Minnesota Historical Society.

Harun Farocki holding a protest sign at Knokke-le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival in December 1967. The beginning of the text reads: “Combattez dans tout le monde l’agression impérialiste américaine et l’agression cinéimpérialiste ouverte et underground.” Screenshot of the film Exprmntl 4 Knokke (Claudia von Alemann and Reinold E. Thiel, RFA, 1967-68) “quoted” in EXPRMNTL (Brecht Debackere, Belgium, 2016).

 

[1]The words “exhibition” and “exposition” are used although there wasn’t any attempt to install the films in space.

[2]Barbara Rubin, Barbara Stone, David Stone and Jonas Mekas all joined Sitney at one time or another.

[3]“The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” Film Culture, no. 22-23 (summer 1961): 132. The text was first written in fall 1960.

[4]The presence of a program of films associated with NAC in this festival that never before organized a film section may seem rather odd. It is in fact due to Jerome Hill, one of the most important—though unpublicized—sponsor of the NACG, who was part of the board of directors of the foundation of the Italian festival and asked Jonas Mekas if he would be interested in putting up a film series.

[5]Letter from P. Adams Sitney to the filmmakers, New York, July 1st, 1965, Jonas Mekas private collection.

[6]It is also one of the only festivals to which Sitney went when he was touring Europe with the films.

[7]Letter from Jonas Mekas to the filmmakers, New York, July 15, 1968, collection Anthology Film Archives.

[8]One of the main methodological model for my research is art historian Hiroko Ikegami’s study of the travels and collaborations of American artist Robert Rauschenberg around 1964. The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art (MIT Press, 2010).

 

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