Making It Essential

(Essential Cinema committee)

Earlier this week Mike Everleth over at Bad Lit, a site that should undoubtedly be near the top of your bookmark list, transposed The Essential Cinema repertory list, along with some of the history behind its conception.  To this day the list itself can serve as a very positive tool for those looking for valuable insight into some of the aims associated with key members of the movement at that time.  While the road to making the list seemed by all accounts predominantly paved with good intentions, there is no doubt that this effort rubbed some the wrong way.  In fact Scott MacDonald, a key scholar of the avant-garde, named his essential series A Critical Cinema in outright opposition to the committee’s repertory label of The Essential Cinema.  In a Critical Cinema 4 he muses:

"In The Essential Cinema there is a photograph of the Anthology Film Archives selection committee (Ken Kelman, James Broughton, Sitney, Mekas, and Kubelka), the group that had selected 'the Essential Cinema'-the 'nuclear collection of the monuments of cinematic art,' to use Sitney’s phrase-that would become the repertory of Anthology Film Archives.  Stephen Shore’s photograph of the committee, it seemed to me then, perfectly captured the dimension of Sitney that I was rebelling against.  There is something rather forbidding about the photograph, something arrogant, even hostile; and, in the 1970s, when so many of us were coming to grips with issues of gender and sexuality, and confronting whatever dimensions of patriarchy had infected us, this photograph seemed particularly reactionary…Of course, the committee’s presumption in selecting the ‘monuments of cinematic art’ seemed utterly typical of patriarchs everywhere."

Another key figure who had struggled with selection process was Stan Brakhage, who had written a mere two years earlier a fiery letter to Jonas Mekas concerning his withdrawal from the Filmmaker’s Co-op (which is an issue worthy of examination all unto itself).  In the following letter to P. Adams Sitney, Brakhage, among other things, highlights some his concerns surrounding the task proposed by the committee.

(and while we are on the subject of list-making, be sure to check out the 'best of the decade in avant-garde film' poll conducted by Film Comment magazine.  What say you?...)


Mike Everleth said...

Thanks for contributing to "the conversation." I decided against writing about the controversy surrounding the Essential Cinema list for my post and just stuck to the history. So, I'm very happy that someone -- you! -- picked up the slack!

And MacDonald is 100% correct. There's something very ominous about that photograph.

I've also written elsewhere on Bad Lit asking about what the hell happened to the underground in the '70s after the boom of the '60s. And it feels a lot like the "fun" of the avant-garde and the experimental just got drained out of the scene.

While the Essential list was a great service to preserving avant-garde history, perhaps something about it killed the avant-garde at the same time, that really didn't rejuvenate until No Wave and the Cinema of Transgression came on the scene.

Stuff to think about...