Easy Pieces

(Yvonne Rainer, from Five Easy Pieces, 1966)

When students criticize an experimental film (said Laska), one of the first things you tend to hear is “I could do that!” – and the tone of this remark is the most interesting part. It’s usually delivered angrily, like, why is this movie supposed to be a big deal when clearly I could do that?

There’s an interesting assumption embedded in that statement – that the job of film, or art for that matter, is to show us something we can’t do – to go beyond our capacity, our skills. This film is worthy of my time because I couldn’t do it myself. Therefore in watching this I can experience something I have no access to otherwise.

That’s a common enough sentiment, central to the appeal of the film spectacle – take me to another world! Show me wonders that will shock and amaze me! Certainly this is one form of value that film can provide: access to the new, the heretofore unseen.

If the audience has been led to expect that this is part of the value proposition of all cinema, then it’s a breach of contract to show me something that I could make myself. We are not getting our money’s worth, or the experience is not worth our precious time.

And yet, we’re willing to give many hours of our daily lives to Facebook and Youtube, which mostly offer us the familiar, delivered by our friends and family. Even with viral videos, the appeal is generally not that someone had the skill to make it – it’s that they were in the right place at the right time to capture something we haven’t seen before.

Five Easy Pieces shows us, probably, nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s filmed in a straightforward and simple way that practically guarantees that we could do it ourselves, if we wanted to. It is almost surely nothing special on purpose – the unironic use of the word “easy” in the title makes this clear.

The difference between narrative film and experimental film (said Jason) is that narrative film tells a story, experimental film asks a question. I think this is a great basic definition. If you’re telling a story and setting it down, on film or even in text, then you know how it ends. Even if you don’t know when you begin the story, it will have ended for you, the writer or filmmaker, before it begins for me. It is resolved, to the degree that it’s possible to resolve. The ending can be happy, sad, or ambiguous, but it will be complete.

The relationship between the author of a story and the audience is thus necessarily unbalanced – because the author knows things the audience does not, the author has the power in the relationship. The author controls where the story is going. Even if it’s biography or documentary, the author has the power to shape it and determine the perspective, to edit the details, to choose the end point.

Part of the contract then, perhaps, between narrative author and audience is that, in exchange for submitting to this power imbalance, the audience will be given something either entertaining or edifying. They will expect either spectacle or perhaps education in exchange for their time and attention.

When a viewer goes into a film screening with an expectation of answers (a narrative with a beginning and an end) and receives only open-ended questions, it’s perhaps understandable that they feel the contract has been broken. Their anger is appropriate, in a way, given the power imbalance – due to their misunderstanding of the terms of this particular author-viewer contract, they have been somehow exploited.

If this film is about asking a question rather than providing spectacle or edification, what is the question? Rainer’s famous “No Manifesto” pretty much outlines the framework of the film:

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.

… the film is basically a case-study in enacting the manifesto on screen. What would cinema be without these elements – spectacle, virtuosity, seduction, etc? It would be Five Easy Pieces. Would that be a good thing? … to answer that question is to take a moral or ethical stand on all of these aspects of the cinematic experience. Most students, most people, probably choose the opposite of the No Manifesto pretty much every day in our viewing habits – without necessarily knowing that a choice is being made.

However enlightened we may be on the subject of experimental film, most of us have probably felt trapped at one point or another in a screening – we have ceded power over the experience, we are a passive audience member, and feel victimized by the unspooling images before us, whether they are ultraviolent, boringly abstract, or merely something we feel we could do ourselves, better.

In pretty much any screening scenario, we are always left with the somewhat dramatic option of asserting our own agency and power by getting up and walking out. Sometimes we convince ourselves to stay out of generosity and patience, forbearance to wait and see what will happen next, to give further consideration to the questions being asked. Sometimes we stay in our seat out of social fear that we will offend someone if we leave, that the public, dramatic act of departure will impact our relationships with other people in the audience (including sometimes the filmmakers themselves).

One question that has come up a number of times already around the new Mediatheque at the Walker Art Center, which provides an interface that allows viewers to choose which films appear on the screen and stop and switch films at will, is: How does this shift the power dynamic in watching experimental film? We can now browse the Walker’s archive like Youtube, watching a minute or two of whatever catches our fancy (though you can’t fast forward or rewind, which is probably a good thing).

Walking out of a screening has always been an option, but for an audience with an ingrained expectation of spectacle, heroism or seduction, it’s very easy to obey the initial angry response to a filmic waste of time, exercising this new control in the relationship by simply turning the film off, moving on to something else. If there’s no spectacle and no incentive to get to the end of the story, to discover the lesson or the resolution, why stick around? Just to ponder whatever question(s) the filmmaker might be asking?

A good question doesn’t have an easy answer, it will require effort on the part of the viewer. We are culturally not used to our media asking us to work – quite the opposite, in fact. Making the archive of experimental films readily available on tap, free of the social constraint of offending the filmmaker or even the emotional/financial investment of buying a ticket to the screening, makes them very easy to dismiss – to say no to the No Manifesto, or a double-negative yes to every comfortable, easy, pleasurable, entertaining aspect of our mainstream media diet.

But what’s the alternative? I keep suggesting a time-activated lock on the doors of the Mediatheque that forces the viewer to stay until the end of the film they have selected. But sadly, that idea doesn’t seem to be getting any traction at all.

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