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Experimental and Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1940s - Postwar Film Culture, Conclusion

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After World War II, non-Hollywood films became a more visible part of U.S. urban movie culture, and a greater number of people experienced new types of cinema. A perceived difference emerged between Hollywood fare and independent or foreign cinemas, an opposition that theater exhibitors and critics alike promoted in the practice of differentiating customer groups for their movies. Within this divergence, independent cinema (any movies made independently from or outside of Hollywood production studios) developed a widespread film culture similar to that of the prewar European cine club movement. 1 While such a model for film culture held sway in the United States in the 1930s among leftist cultural-political clubs like the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) and the John Reed Clubs, it reemerged after the war as the model for a system of alternative cinema as art rather than of cinema conceived as a political weapon.

Postwar Film Culture

After the war, more students were able to learn the techniques of 16mm filmmaking because military veterans’ benefits packages and a booming postwar economy provided new sources of funding support for new educational programs. Not only did the GI Bill subsidize college-bound veterans, but the resulting increase in college enrollments and tuition revenues allowed schools to expand curricula and to introduce such new subjects as filmmaking and film appreciation. In 1947, the California School of Fine Arts became the first art school in the United States to teach 16mm filmmaking as a regular part of its curriculum. The integration of filmmaking into arts curricula helped to legitimate independent cinema’s status as an artistic medium among the vanguard arts. Such institutional integration occurred in a number of key places and through a number of significantly decisive moves, such as the George Eastman House’s 1947 opening of a film archive to preserve cinema’s history as an art form. Even New York City film societies took field trips to Rochester to view cinematic art at Eastman House.

Measuring the growth of a postwar film culture in numbers is just as impressive as the measure of institutional “firsts.” By 1949, there were more than 200 film societies in the United States, with an estimated audience of approximately 100,000, whereas at the beginning of the decade only a handful of film societies had operated, with a small membership. 4 Museum art schools and colleges that had begun to teach filmmaking also began to sponsor film societies that screened classic European movies and independent cinema. As an analog to their filmmaking courses, they offered film appreciation courses. One could see experimental cinema almost anywhere because the MOMA Circulating Film Library distributed movies nationwide to colleges, universities, museums, film appreciation clubs, and study groups.

At both East and West Coast art centers, new film societies especially became important models for a national culture of experimental cinema. In 1947, two students at the San Francisco Museum of Art launched a series of screenings on independent cinema. Their program was so successful that the “Art in Cinema” series ran at the museum until the early 1950s as a film society with approximately six hundred members. 5 Because they also published their screening lists and program notes as an art catalog, they offered a widely circulated prototype of experimental cinema canon formation and aesthetics.

On the East Coast, Cinema 16 became the preeminent showcase for independent film, as well as the largest film society in the United States—by 1949 it boasted a membership of 2,500. 6 In addition, Cinema 16 began distributing independent films in 1948. From their first screenings, Cinema 16’s directors, Amos and Marcia Vogel, emphasized a discourse of film appreciation in the selection, arrangement, and presentation of film programs. The film critic Scott MacDonald characterizes this programming policy: “One form of the film collides with another so as to create a maximum intellectual engagement on the part of the audience, not simply in the individual discrete films, but with film itself and the implications of its more conventional uses.” 7 Programs regularly included scientific films, government-sponsored documentaries, independently made documentaries, experimental films, animation, foreign features, and classics. The Vogels supplemented the films with written program notes and even with appearances by the filmmakers themselves. Among those who authored program notes were the film critics Arthur Knight, Parker Tyler, and Siegfried Kracauer. 8 The program notes discussed cinematic aesthetics within a context of modern psychological and literary thought. They implicitly defined artistic cinema through the use of symbols and spatio-temporal experimentation.

At the same time that film societies experienced significant growth, postwar expansion of art-house cinemas and a small system for commercial distribution of independent cinema facilitated significant theatrical alternatives to Hollywood movies. When the major Hollywood studios reduced the number of films released annually and booked them for longer runs at first-run theaters, they were slowly squeezing smaller second- and third-run theaters out of the distribution circuit. As the film historian Janet Staiger describes the economic situation: “The growth of art houses may have been due less to any new audience demand per se than to an opening of exhibition options arising from changes in the U.S. film industry’s structure and conduct.” 9 Smaller theaters then, needing an alternative product, increasingly turned to foreign films, documentaries, and reissued classics. While not a direct economic or institutional model for the emergent cine club culture of independent cinema, foreign films differentiated through art-house marketing and exhibition practices provided a highly visible discourse for the future of aesthetics and sexuality, issues that would be explored in experimental cinema.

It is interesting that Americans would patronize movies other than Hollywood fare at precisely the moment when Hollywood was experiencing a postwar drop in theater attendance. By articulating its difference from Hollywood cinema primarily in terms of social consciousness, explicit sexuality, and artistry, art-house cinema promoted a new type of movie to patrons who, for various reasons, sought alternatives to standard Hollywood fare. Literary journals and art magazines provided an important base for thinking about and defining foreign, experimental, and independent films in these ways. Such periodicals as Saturday Review, New Directions, Kenyan Review, and Theater Arts featured stories on independent cinema, and magazines such as the New Republic and The Nation regularly reviewed non-Hollywood films in the latter half of the 1940s. By the very act of including cinema in discussions of the arts, these popular magazines promoted cinema’s status as a contemporary radical art form.

Critical discourse about experimental cinema emphasized the preoccupation of new short films with interior psychology or the experience of interiority. The criteria for understanding the new cinema was not so much the intelligibility of its narratives but more importantly the ways that it disrupted time and space logics for self-expressive purposes. The discussions foregrounded the new stylistic strategies, which countered narrative causality with dream logic and challenged the dominant conventions of established film style—the linear story film, Hollywood styles and genres, standards of professionalism, and mainstream production values.

Conclusion

The rise of an independent cinema after World War II, a cinema specifically defined as anti-Hollywood, had important political and cultural consequences. As the film critic J. Hoberman has observed, “A film practice that opposes the dominant culture, resists commodity status, invents its own means of production, and sets out to challenge habitual modes of perception is political—no matter what it seems to be about and sometimes because it’s not ‘about’ anything.” 33 Hoberman’s characterization, made more than thirty years after the fact, that the postwar experimental cinema was an important political alternative to Hollywood cinema is echoed by the participants themselves in the late 1940s. The legendary story of the diarist Anaïs Nin about Deren’s 1946 public screening at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village resonates with the same sense of cultural import: “The crowd was dense, and some policeman thought he should investigate. He asked: ‘Is this a demonstration?’ Someone answered: ‘It is not a demonstration, it is a revolution in film-making.’” 34 Independent cinema in the 1940s that became understood as anti-Hollywood, sexually and aesthetically daring as well as intellectually elite, allied cinema more broadly as a medium to other avant-garde media understood as radical artistic activity.

Once the booming postwar economy of New York City and the West Coast art worlds opened up the means through which an alternative cinema in the United States could flourish, cinema was increasingly identified as an object divided on the basis of the intellectual discourse associated with different groups of media objects. By the end of the decade, “highbrow,” “lowbrow,” and “middlebrow” had become the popular designations of hierarchical categories of aesthetic taste. Such categories signaled the ways in which popular and conventional cinema had become differentiated from more experimental or avant-garde films, and intellectual dispositions or aesthetic interests at the movies could be identified with certain moviegoing audiences. More important, these sets of interests shared among filmmakers, critics, and audiences were organized through an apparatus understood as a challenge to the hegemony of the Hollywood studio system. The implications then of independent cinema practices in the United States immediately after World War II are far-reaching, because they did nothing less than signify that resistance to Hollywood’s practices of meaning construction could also reform cinema’s place in culture.

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