It’s often been taken for granted that avant–garde cinema is a marginal pursuit, a mode of filmmaking too strange in content and too hindered by low-budget production values to be anything more than a flame kept burning by theaters and museums caring for subversive art over mainstream mediocrity. In some ways things haven’t changed since the heyday of the American avant–garde in the 50s and 60s – while Spiderman 3 opens to multimillion dollar earnings in megaplexes around the nation, those who make avant–garde film their life’s work toil for recognition only within an extremely insulated sphere.
The avant–garde community has certainly adapted to the technology of its age, able now with the help of digital cameras and editing systems to produce films more quickly and for cheaper than previous generations did. But while the web has made available previously obscure and hard to find films, it remains to be seen how far the artistic challenge of the avant–garde can travel.
A few websites portend the expansion of the avant–garde beyond the festival circuit and metropolitan artistic hubs like New York City and San Francisco. UBUWEB archives the canonical works of the avant–garde, while Next to Heaven and Aaron Valdez present the latest in found footage mash-ups and general pop culture overthrow.
More on Jonas Mekas and his involvement with today’s digital film/video revolution after the jump.
###The 84 year-old Lithuanian-born poet has been the most influential champion of the avant–garde since he penned columns for the Village Voice in the late 50s expounding the merits of the widely misunderstood “experimental film.” Without his efforts in founding the journal Film Culture and the Film Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives it would be hard to say what the avant–garde would look like today. Surely the films of pioneers like Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Maya Deren and others wouldn’t be nearly as known or appreciated, and surely there wouldn’t be nearly the same amount of support for a space dedicated to screening their work.
It’s thus only fitting that Mekas be one of the first proponents of the avant–garde to bridge the gap between gritty 16mm and sometimes 8mm film, still the preferred antique formats for DIY filmmakers, and digital viewing technology. jonasmekas.com offers a wealth of content (including work by guest filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Bruce Baillie, avant–garde classics, and 40 selected entries from Mekas’ collection of famous portraits and moments) but none so potentially revolutionary and impacting than the 365 Mekas short films, one for each day of the year, available for free on the day of their release for subscribed users.
Featuring new films as well as those culled from old material, the Mekas calendar (started on January 1, 2007) is available for viewing and download on the site. As Mekas and critic Amy Taubin noted in an interview with NPR, the Ipod and private computer are perfect arenas for watching Mekas’ “diary” approach of recording everyday events, even if those quotidian gems include famous friends like Andy Warhol and John Lennon. Mekas’ films are “small” in the most humble and personal sense of the word, allowing the viewer to see through the filmmaker’s eye as he captures a poignant memory, from engaging in snowball fight with friends in Finland or visiting the Stradivari Museum in Italy; these are films that don’t necessarily “have to be seen on the big screen” (as so many serious filmmakers demand of their work), but which manage to impart more real emotion and emotional reality than most filmmaking, avant–garde or otherwise.
That these films can be downloaded by viewers unable to trek out to Anthology or another obscure viewing location collapses the distance between the physical inaccessibility of the avant–garde and the audience, for all its standoffish affectations, that the movement wishes to court. In this way, web distribution accomplishes in one simple step what word of mouth and ample niche cinema journals does in several – providing a friendly format for viewers new to the filmmaker’s work and a manageable means to access content for enthusiasts. It may not answer questions about the rise of digital video and its effect on a largely film-oriented community, but it sets a precedent for an embrace of broader outlets for art and the new generation of creative-minded viewers it commands.