The Human Body and Cinema

Having recently (several weeks ago) been involved in a very unpleasant experience involving a sort of impromptu screening I put on of several works (Anger, Brakhage, etc., for accessibilities sake projected on video rather than film, for free of course) in a public area (i.e. library) in hopes of gauging the possibility of putting on a more official screening (ON FILM), and having just re-read Jonas Mekas’ enthralling Movie Journal..., I thought I would post one of his columns that relates in part to said incident (the lack of specific detail is intentional, but if anyone were perhaps aware of the cultural climate I currently reside in further light would be shed):


Sept. 2, 1965

    What is this 'pornography,' 'obscenity,' 'blue movie' business?
    The human body, unclad and naked, has been often and uninhibitedly (or, truer--aesthetically) portrayed in painting and sculpture.  It disappears, sometimes, for a generation or two, and reappears again.  It disappeared, partially, with the coming of Cubism, during the period of abstract explorations; now it's coming back.  Each time it comes back, it comes as a new discovery, as if the artist had never seen a naked body in his life.  He doesn't know how to deal with it aesthetically; subject matter takes over form.  Only slowly the balance is regained, the subject mastered, the ways of dealing with it aesthetically are found.
    Cinema is entering this naked stage for the first time.  The film artist did not know how to deal with the naked body so he stayed away from it.  Not that he didn't really know how to deal with it: There was, apparently, no real urgency for it.  Cinema had its hands full with the exploration of other aspects and areas of reality.  Cinema was looked at as basically naturalistic art--and who walks streets naked?  So he concentrated all his lights, all his shadows, lenses, and ingenuity on the only naturalistically possible open area: the face, with an occasional ankle, or a neck line, or --daringly!-- a leg.
    The renaissance of the poetic cinema during the last few years broke down the barricades of naturalism.  The avant-garde artist, the new poet mastered new techniques and approaches which now enable him to put on film poetically and filmically some of the 'untouchable' reality, including the body.  Against the screams of the majority of the public, the artist proceeds to reveal to that public (and to himself) the beauty of the world that surrounds us.  We can safely say now that the first and perhaps most important ground work in this area--in the aesthetic use of human body in cinema--has been laid down.  It can be seen in the work of Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Gregory Markopoulos, Robert Nelson, Jack Smith, Bill Vehr, Naomi Levine, Barbara Rubin (and, some years earlier, in the work of Willard Mass).  In some of the cases it is being used decoratively, in others dramatically, in still others phenomenalistically. 
    Newspapers and magazines, for their own perverted reasons, have often accused the new cinema of being too preoccupied with 'pornography' --by which they mean the human body.  Nakedness in most cases is identified with pornography.  The poetry escapes them.  The beauty escapes them.  Venus herself, in cinema, should be clad, they tell us.  A culture of penis without Venus.
    The public (and the film-maker) should not let themselves be distracted and confused by an irresponsible press.  There is a tradition of human body in art, and our work continues that tradition, although with natural and unaccustomed changes called for by the implicit qualities of the film medium.  Cinema is (or will be) revealing different aspects of the body from those sculpture or painting reveal.  It is true that cinema doesn't yet know all of the aesthetic possibilities of this new subject, in terms of the medium--but the subject is there.  As with every newly discovered subject, there is much empty and excited running around--but that doesn't change the historical importance of what's happening, of what's going to happen.  It's part of the larger revolution that is taking place in us.
    These artists are working with no real precedent--there are no real masters to learn from in their own art, as far as the naked body goes--they are the first masters.  Many mistakes are being committed and all for the good.  Let the gentlemen and ladies scream: It will do them some good, they have to scream out their own ugliness.  Time will pass, like this summer is passing, and they will call us 'classics,' and our children will be amazed and wonder what all that noise was all about. 


After again having breezed through the compilation, its hard to imagine such confrontational (at times) and inspiring columns appearing in what was at the time a very influential publication.  I suppose for many this could serve as some sort of very distant relative of the blog, but I imagine you would be very hard-pressed to find one written with the mastery, poetry, insight and vitality contained on these pages.


Camouflage Lenses said...


This post is fascinating, but I want you to tell your story in detail. I can get the drift of what this relates to pretty well, but I think you should ram the story straight up someone's backside and tell it with a hard light thrown on the details. You could leave out the names, but tell the story.

The Mekas column is wonderful and cuts right to the truth of a problem that persists through all ages and all arts: people only want to see what they expect to see.

If I see a poster for a showing of experimental films somewhere, I immediately get an impression of what this showing will be like. I project a series of 'experimental' film images in my head and satisfy myself that I know what this screening will involve. I create my own little world of experimental cinema just for myself inside my limited little head. Then I go to the screening. And what do I see? I see a giant penis exploding with flowers. Or a tit in someone's mouth. Or a vagina splayed out in a crowd of naked bodies and I know damned well it's beautiful, but it doesn't match what I was expecting and it scares the living daylights out of me and I start sweating and I shake and I turn bright red and wonder if anyone is watching me instead of the film and I'm in a full panic and I can't stand it so, guess what... I get angry.

That's my protection device. Anger. I rage and call this confusing series of images 'pornography.' I try to enlist others in my personal anger and they are more than willing to join me because they are sweating too.

But that's a pretty good reason for a film to exist. If you're showing things and making people get mad, you're doing something very well indeed. Some of these films you were showing are probably 40 or 50 years old and they're still giving people heart attacks! Wonderful. Those filmmakers would most assuredly enjoy your story and encourage you to continue your showings.

And chances are that someone who screamed loudly about pornography is at this moment wondering what all the fuss is about and slightly modifying his or her emotions about the whole thing. Just think about that one person who might be slipping slightly out of their usual flight plan and keep going. Ultimately, you will find people who want more of the films. They are there, they just want to be found.

Just remind angry confused people that film is an art just like writing or painting. They can walk into any Barnes & Noble and find scenes depicted in fine literary works that put most experimental films to shame. They can walk into their nearest art gallery and see nudity on all four walls.

And in the final analysis, if they are reluctant to get smart, you can just tell them to stop eating the Twinkies, shut up and get out of your way.

Jacob W. said...

Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply, I am going to take some time to mull it over and then am going to make another post involving this with a little more detail...

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that you are severely misinformed. Cubism largely represents the female naked form - many of Picasso's most famous works such as desmoiselles d'avignon depict the women's naked body. Also it is riduclously far-fetched to suggest that abstract expressionism did not depict the female form, as it is abstract and therefore does not represent anything figurative. You should get your facts right before you post this on the internet.

Jacob W. said...

While I certainly don't appreciate your overly aggressive tone, I do appreciate your knowledge. It does not however invalidate the primary point of my posting the Mekas article. Nevertheless as I mentioned in the very first post I made on this blog, I am very likely to makes mistakes. I have no doubt that I have made many more on here in the year since this post was made and will continue to make them on here in the future. What I care about is continuing to learn about these subjects, so if you would like to engage in something more substantial/helpful than anonymous drive-by insults, I would genuinely appreciate hearing more of what you might have to offer on the subject of Cubism...