Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Anthology Film Archives is like a world headquarters; The world of independent cinema -- and its guardians

If there is a world headquarters for independent cinema, it's probably Anthology Film Archives in New York. Led by Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker himself, this feisty organization is a museum , a library, and a movie theater all in one -- championing every kind of noncommercial, non- narrative, non-Hollywood film and video. Among its activities are frequent screenings of hard-to-see movies, acquisition of film-related research materials, and maintenance of a "repertory collection" that sets the standard for classic "experimental" film.

Now the 11-year-old Anthology has launched a new adventure. In 1979 it purchased an unused courthouse building on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street and announced plans for a major expansion. When renovated, the new quarters will contain three theaters -- one for repertory screenings, one for video, and one for special events. The largest will be equipped for videotaping and transmission, like a small cable-TV station, and will be available for public uses such as neighborhood meetings and conferences on the arts.

About these ads

And that's not all. According to Mr. Mekas, the building will also house "the most up-to-date film preservation vault on the East Coast, and maybe in the whole United States," complete with temperature, humidity, and air-chemical controls.In addition, a library space will hold "the country's largest collection of material on avant-garde film."

Filmmakers will be invited to deposit original materials, on paper or celluloid, and rooms will be available for research over periods of days, weeks, or months.

Even in its present cramped quarters at 80 Wooster Street, in the downtown SoHo district, Anthology has been a major force in the world of non-Hollywood film. Scholars, researchers, and student groups have used its screening facilities and its collection of about 3,000 movies, plus documents and photographs. And its reach has been wide. "Just this week," Mekas said recently, "the head of the Austrian Film Archive is coming familiarize himself with recent avantgarde works and make some purchases. Then someone is coming from a New England college to see some films of Dreyer." Not to mention the regular Anthology screenings, which provide a major showplace for noncommercial movies.

Yet fund raising for the new project has not been easy. According to Mekas, the organization is relying on a variety of sources, from private patronage to a federal Urban Development Action Grant, and -- the latest hope -- sale of impressive portfolios especially prepared by leading artists and photographers. Corporate support is hard to come by, Mekas says, for two reasons. First, it has already been tapped by larger, more established outfits. Second, "the foundations and corporations like to support projects that immediately benefit larger numbers of people" than Anthology traditionally deals with.

Still, he says, the project will continue "no matter what," and the corporations "will come around after we've actually moved and shown what we can do." At worst, the vaults and library spaces will be postponed until after the opening of the new theaters. "We will succeed," says the ever-confident Mekas, who went on to answer questions about Anthology in particular and independent film in general: Your plans for the new building are ambitious, and very encouraging for people who care about independent film.Why is fund raising so hard?

Everybody asks, How may people will you serve? They'd like to hear it will be millions. But we work on a different principle -- we go for quality and selectivity. It's a very compact, nuclear kind of situation. And it has strong results: If you serve scholars and researchers, you eventually do reach millions , indirectly. Just on a local level, I imagine your presence will have a good effect on your new neighborhood.

The area has been deteriorating. Our venture will help revive the area, just as we assisted in reviving SoHo when we started the first cooperative here. We're already helping to set up coops in buildings near the courthouse that haven't been used for years. What brought Anthology Film Archives into existence?

About these ads

Around 1960, a large movement started among independent filmmakers, which grew and even exploded during the '60s.

For a while, most universities and other institutions ignored this. Then another pattern developed. In the late '50s, perhaps 10 large universities offered one or two film courses apiece. By 1970, accroding to a survey by the American Film Institute, more than 1,000 colleges and universities were teaching film. Today about 1,600 are teaching film -- with more than 10,000 courses. How did you enter the picture?

Around 1968 and 1969, as film teaching increased, educators kept coming to me and a couple of other people -- P. Adams Sitney and Stan Brakhage, for instance -- who were known to be authorities in the field. Every year, we got calls and letters asking for information about what was happening, and guidance in programming films. If you live in New York or San Francisco, the films are available to you. But in small university towns, information is harder to get. If you are teaching a course, and you need to assemble three or four representative programs of independent film, what do you choose?

So we spent a lot of time, and wasted a lot of time, serving each case as it came up. Then we decide to get together and stop relying on individual taste. We formed a committee of five people that could preselect films. We wanted to reduce the thousands and thousands of titles and names to a more manageable list. It was really in the thousands?

Oh, yes. In the New York Filmmakers' Cooperative alone, there are now about 700 members, and the Canyon Cinema cooperative in San Francisco represents another 600 or 700. So there alone are about 10,000 titles. Just what did you and your associates do?

We screened films, and argued and argued and argued. And we tried to reduce the field to a list of about 300 titles. It was controversial, and some felt it was unjust, but what choice did we have? If a professor writes from a university and asks for one program of films, you simply have to make choices. Anyway, 300 titles by 30 or 40 filmmakers is still a large number. What is the guiding principle of this collection?

To cover all directions and styles, show their development, and represent every major achievement and filmmaker. Some are not there, true. But the collection is not a closed project. The repertory collection of Anthology Film Archives is a tool, a means of criticism. We constantly reevaluate the field and add new titles. And a title is never removed: If it was included once, there was a reason for it at that historical moment, so it stays for good. And new works keep joining it. Who is on the committee now?

P. Adams Sitney, a film scholar. Peter Kubelka and James Broughton, who are noted filmmakers. Ken Kelman, a playwright and film theoretician. And myself.

We haven't met for four years now, so we will have a meeting around the time of the move to our new quarters. And there may be changes in the committee at that time. The filmmaker Stan Brakhage used to be on it, but left because of a dispute over veto power. Now we are sometimes reproached for having no women on the committee, and that may change, since there are some women film scholars now. ? You maintain a collection of nonfilm material, too.

Yes. Besides giving guidance to films and titles, we provide reference materials -- scripts, letters, clippings, photographs, and so forth. Will independent film, of the type championed by Anthology Film Archives, ever reach a truly large audience? Or will it remain a minority art?

That's a relative question, because "mass appeal" is a relative concept.

Look at the nature of avant-garde film -- the content, the techniques, the forms. In general, it represents exploration in the nonnarrative forms. The language is more concentrated that that of most narratives. But it's not so different than in literature, where we have both prose and poetry -- and one form reaches many more people than the other. The analogy with literature is very good. Few poetry books sell a lot of copies or are read by many people. Yet poetry is taught in schools, so most people know at least a little about it and it continues to have outlets through some publishers and publications. It has little mass appeal, but it carries on.

It's the same in film. Cinema has matured in the past two or three decades -- branched out, strengthened, and developed nonnarrative forms.

Not all avant-garde film is nonnarrative; we have very condensed forms of narrative, too. But I don't think any of these works can reach a huge number of people, even though every filmmaker -- like every poet -- wishes for a large audience. That sort of thing is possible only in a country like the Soviet Union, where the government controls things. And they you lose freedom and creativity, and also standards: You go just because you are told to go. So you are resigned to a limited, though surely a growing, audience.

The nonnarrative, avant-garde cinema will always attract a limited number of people. But how limited? Around 1950, there were only about 40 film societies across the US. A film by Maya Deren or Sidney Peterson could reach only 300 or 400 people. Then Maya Deren started traveling to universities and pushing avant-garde film, and she managed to open some universities, so her films could be seen by thousands. Then in the '60s, because of both good and bad publicity, more universities opened up to us.

Now the Filmmakers' Cooperative has a card list of more than 6,000 users who rent films. And Stan Brakhage can say that his "Dog Star Man" has been seen by more than 1 million people in this country. In 1950, only a commercial film could do that. Even in the avant-garde, though, some works must be more popular than others.

There are many outlets for important avant-garde filmmakers who make an impact on cinema and on the audience: George Landow, Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr. There are gradations -- Ernie Gehr is still very difficult for many people, so he has less exposure. But for some of these people, the audience can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. And some Hollywood films are seen by no more than that.

Of course, being seen by as many people as a Hollywood movie doesn't make an avant-garde film "commercial." Our films tend to deal with feelings and content that are not everyday stuff. Bruce Baillie may get excited about some red roses on a fence, and make a very ecstatic little haiku film about them. This isn't everyday emotion.

Narratives, with plots and protagonists you can identify with, will always appeal to larger audiences. But in arts, somebody has to deal with those areas that are not everyday matters. This is part of the human condition. Art that doesn't cover the whole human experience -- art that covers only entertainment, or strong and dramatic needs and feelings -- would not be a full art. Has avant-garde film had much impact on commercial cinema?

It's hard to determine. The main impact is that certain filmmakers are by nature more poets than novelists. Once, they would have turned to the novelistic, dramatic, commercial cinema, and destroyed themselves. Now they have a choice: They know they don't have to go into commercial, Hollywood, narrative film. they can stay in the independent area that suits them best, and work within those forms.

Then too, there are times when a commercial filmmaker wants to use some technique that has been used in nonnarrative film. But usually it fails -- it doesn't work, doesn't stick. It's the same thing that often happens when a novelist decides to be "poetic." It's watery, and we say he should have stuck to the basics! What is the status of avant-garde film today?

It comes in waves. It was very strong in the '40s, and again in the '60s. The forms of "structural film" developed in the '70s and the semi- "punk" super- 8 movement are still goin on. Meanwhile, the movements of past decades are continuing, and have developed into classical forms. Such classic filmmakers as Brakhage, Snow, and Ken Jacobs are still continuing their work, while new notes come in at the same time.

But right now we're at a pause. We need more perspective on the work of the '70s, and we must review the '60s. So much has been produced! In 1955 or 1965, I could sit in New York and have a good overview of the whole situation. But that's impossible today. We simply don't have proper perspective on what's been done in France, in London, in Tokyo, or even across the US. So the future will be . . . ?

We have planned two years of surveys at Anthology: the avant- garde in Britain, in France, in the smaller Eastern countries as well as Japan. . . . And then, of course, video comes in! We need to have a much better idea of where we are, and what has been done.

In general, this is not an exciting time for new film and video. It's a time for consolidation, for review. I feel the new Anthology quarters can help a great deal -- helping young artists to see what has been done, to review their predecessors for their own inspiration. And to preserve the best of the past, for the future.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.