FILM / Guardians of the faith: 'Distributors are chickenshit. They think audiences have become less adventurous.' Sheila Johnston on the avant-garde

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The Independent Culture
A while ago, Channel 4 ran a series called Art is Dead - Long Live TV, deriding sacred cows of the avant-garde. It featured a sculptor whose raw materials were excrement and rotting meat and a novelist whose work transcribed conversations from telephone chatlines. Then came a programme on Richard Bradley-Hudd, guru of the American underground, who wowed critics with films set inside his own fridge. That was the programme that really blew it, which established that the whole series was a hoax.

Theatre critics are known to have been dragged (albeit kicking and screaming) to the odd evening of performance art on the Edinburgh fringe; they will review Robert Wilson with respect. Fine arts critics fret over the avant-garde as a matter of course; the past month has the Daily Telegraph, the Late Show, even Time Out worrying whether it has produced anything worthwhile since Marcel Duchamp's urinal. But the cinema is one art form where the vanguard has failed to take hold.

Even if he existed, Bradley-Hudd's films wouldn't have been reviewed in the daily press, or the weeklies, or even the more adventurous monthly magazines. And, while it's hardly surprising that your average multiplex-goer doesn't have much of an inkling of the avant-garde, the film festival buff is unlikely to know much about it either. Michael Snow, the Canadian film-maker, said during a rare UK appearance last November: 'At the London Film Festival you can meet people who have seen Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin, but who have never heard of the avant-garde. It's as though a literature student had never read James Joyce.'

One reason might be the investment of time it demands; you can clock an Andy Warhol soup can in a flash, but you would need to earmark eight hours to get the measure of Empire, his film of the Empire State building (even Warhol is said to have refused to sit through it). Snow's 1967 film Wavelength, a staple of cinema study courses, consists of a single, 45- minute zoom shot across an empty room. Snow's work represents the hard, pure core of the avant-garde. 'My new film, To Lavoisieur, is somewhere between alchemy and chemistry. It uses film processing and the chemical modifications of the image. I have no relations with the mainstream film business. I'm also an artist and a musician; maybe my work has more to do with painting, sculpture and music than with cinema.' And he is perfectly content to confine screenings of his work to the university and art gallery circuits.

That's not the view of the outspoken American director Jon Jost, whose films like Last Chants for a Slow Dance, Angel City, All the Vermeers in New York and The Bed You Sleep In feature regularly at festivals. 'What it really means when people say a film is avant-garde is 'you don't have to go and see it',' he says. 'I've received various awards and honours, but it's all total horseshit, just a symbolic pat on the head - 'good little boy'. Well, thanks] Then you see someone who's made a piece of Hollywood slime rolling in dollars because he's been a bad little boy.'

Experimental artists used to assume that the avant-garde was the vanguard - pushing back the boundaries of the art for less adventurous spirits to follow. That may have held true of other art forms, but the notion that what Stan Brakhage is doing today, Arnold Schwarzenegger will be doing tomorrow has, sadly, turned out to be an illusion. If anything, Hollywood has proved the centripetal force, sucking more maverick forms of cinema into its vortex. 'If it was opened properly, All the Vermeers in New York could run in London for two months,' says Jost, who is not given to false modesty. 'Distributors are chickenshit. They think audiences have become less adventurous. I don't believe that. They're bored with the crap they're offered to see.'

One giant problem is the uneven playing field. 'If an avant-garde film started to make money, Hollywood would copy it instantly. But they're gonna walk out with 10 times the production and marketing budget and an inbuilt ideological apparatus which says that Kevin Costner is important, so that you have Kevin Costner leering out at you from every magazine cover. And then they say: people wanna see this, all other things being equal. But things aren't equal.'

It's not just the preferences of the film business; intellectual interests have changed too. Simon Field, who runs the cinematheque at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, one of the few places where one might see these films, says: 'In the Sixties and Seventies, the avant-garde was much more philosophical about what is cinema. Now there are no longer the same theoretical debates, or the same theoretical magazines - they've moved over to cultural studies.' And that means popular cultural studies. In publications like the Modern Review, Hollywood makes the running.

Amazingly, Britain has produced a handful of film-makers, like Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman, who have managed the transition to the arthouse mainstream. Sally Potter is the latest example. After one austere, low-budget short film, Thriller, and a cryptic feature, The Gold Diggers, which played briefly at the National Film Theatre to critical dismissal, her new film, Orlando, opened last week to unanimously great reviews. And it is taking a lot more money in London than its American rival, the Oscar-nominated Al Pacino vehicle Scent of a Woman ( pounds 15,925 as against pounds 10,833 per screen average, according to Screen International).

'I've been living with the legacy of The Gold Diggers for 10 years and it has made my life incredibly difficult,' she says. 'I was nervous that I would get tarred with the same brush. But I had travelled a lot with Thriller and The Gold Diggers and really listened to people's reactions. I learned that, unless there are certain pleasures in your film, the ideas you deal with don't have a chance. But if they are there, you can be much more radical than you could be within the avant-garde mode. I still believe that art can change the world - but it's a matter of being much more subtle.'

The general view is that the avant-garde is not dead - but it has undergone a dramatic mutation. Films like Snow's, about zoom shots, or sprocket holes, or chemical processing, are out. The advent of video has helped put paid to that - but also partly a new pragmatism. 'It's hard now to anticipate a series of grants from the Arts Council for the rest of your life,' Field says. 'And the clear-cut avant-garde has disappeared. In the Sixties you could always say what an art film was. Now it's not so easy.'

Many film-makers are turning elsewhere, where their ideas do have clout and where they might even make a living. 'The impact of the avant-garde has found its way into commercials,' Potter says. 'It's known that the ad agencies send scouts to places like the London Film-Makers Co-op to pick up ideas.' Indeed, on balance, many of us will have seen lots of avant-garde movies while thinking all the time we were watching MTV.

Orlando continues to play at selected cinemas.

Jon Jost will give a two-day seminar at the London Film Workshop on 27-28 March; pounds 125. Details from Elliot Grove, 071-351 7748.

Innovation '93, an international forum on experimental film-making, is held at the Manchester Cornerhouse from 30 March to 4 April. Details from Janneke Geene on 061-228 2463.

(Photograph omitted)