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If one approaches the ubiquitous Jean-Luc Godard from the “other side,” the other of Peter Wollen’s “Two Avant-gardes,” it seems that the experiment is what made it possible (for Godard and others) to make film politically in an ideal film world. What did this mean to experimental filmmakers? In how far is (and was) their work political?
In The Two Avant-gardes, an essay that appeared in Studio International in November 1975, Peter Wollen describes the discussions between two avant-garde movements. The filmmakers he mentions the auteurs in France and a few Germans are on one side, while the co-ops – experimental filmmakers who come from art, most of them from New York and England are on the other. For the purposes of this small contribution, the debate between these two side can be summed up as follows: the filmmakers accused the co-ops of being elitists; the co-ops refuted this with an attack on the traditional form, whose retention would make real change impossible.
In fact, this debate has its history, if one looks at Eisensteins rather traditional narratives only interrupted by short experimental sequences and reads it in relation to Dziga Vertov, whose films Eisenstein criticizes as being camera games and nonsense. But it was precisely Vertovs enthusiasm for formal experiment that made him into the forerunner of Cinéma Vérité AND experimental film. Eisensteins influence on Jean-Luc Godard is just as well-known as his love for Vertov, as manifested in the foundation of the Groupe Dziga Vertov (with Jean-Pierre Gorin and others). Godard was to radicalize Eisensteins concept of montage, breaking it open with camera experiments, though by that time, he had become an unknown to most of the audience.
Last but not least, the political in film is also a question of audience: who is actually watching it? But realities of this problem are very complex: stuck in a traditional form, television is currently in a state of crisis; it seems that less and less people really want illusionistic attempts at the depiction of reality. The filmmakers mentioned above discussed the problem/danger of realism through their entire work, suggesting ways to either circumvent or unmask illusion. At the end of Godards Le Gai Savoir (1968), a film about the possibility of making TV, there is an announcement that half of the footage is actually missing. The answer was to use footage by other filmmakers, that of Bertolucci, Straub, and Glauber-Rocha. Peter Wollen, in conclusion to his research on the two avant-gardes, sees this as Godards mistake: in reality, the missing sequences should have been contribution of the other, co-op avant-garde. In this sense, it is important to keep examining the production of moving images, films, and video, breaking them open through experiments. Today this might happen by working with video games, internet film piracy, mobile-phone journalism, etc. as well as all artistic strategies from the beginnings of film until today.
Florian Zeyfang, artist, Berlin, is a professor for Moving Image at the art academy in Umeå, Sweden. His work video-installations, photography and objects – has been exhibited in international shows and film festivals. Publications include: I said I Love. That is the Promise. The TVideopolitics of Jean-Luc Godard (Berlin 2003), Florian Zeyfang: Fokussy (Frankfurt/M. 2004), 1,2,3 Avant-Gardes (Warsaw/Berlin 2007) and upcoming: 4D – Pabellon de Cuba (Vienna/Berlin 2007), Poor Man’s Expression (Berlin 2008).