The image at the bottom of this posting is a screenshot of a Facebook invitation to today's event: THE FILM-MAKER'S COOPERATIVE & the 6TH STREET / AVE. B GARDEN present: The 2nd ANNUAL CHILDREN'S FILM FESTIVAL of the AVANT-GARDE(N) FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES! <http://www.facebook.com/events/470413842969867/>
That a Film-makers' Coop event would promote itself with the wonderful Helen Hill-created image from Scratch and Crow (1995) is, well, something of a surprise. And a nice one, to be sure.
|"Chickens are good animals...."|
In "Media Artists, Local Activists, and Outsider Archivists: The Case of Helen Hill" (published in the 2010 anthology Old and New Media After Katrina), I drew a distinction between the utopian experimental cinema of Helen Hill and the canonical American avant garde film world.
. . . However, there is also a gulf between the influential “essential cinema” of Brakhage’s cohort and the world of Helen Hill. The humor, love, whimsy, sweetness, and accessibility (even to children) of Helen’s films differentiate them from the experimental films usually taken as emblematic of the post-WWII American avant garde. The latter is generally represented by the work of structuralists, contrarians, and male individualists -- Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, et al. This artists’ film culture has historically been characterized as filled with conflict, internecine grudges, denunciations, and darkness. As the New American Cinema Group famously expressed in its 1961 manifesto: “we don’t want rosy films -- we want them the color of blood.” Helen wanted -- and made -- rosy films, figuratively and literally. Flowers were a motif in her work. Throbbing red Valentine hearts were another. And of course her pet pigs were Rosie and Daisy). Hers was, as Egan puts it, a cinema of optimism. Even when it dealt with death, resurrection followed. Scratch and Crow concludes with the written, biblical-sounding evocation “If I knew,/ I would assure you we are all / Finally good chickens / And will rise together, / A noisy flock of round, / Dusty angels.”Certainly Helen’s work also shares traits with the canonical avant garde. Like the Group, she preferred films “rough, unpolished, but alive.” She knew that Mekas, Brakhage, Jerome Hill (no relation), and other cineastes had long valorized the art of amateur cinema. (“I studied home movies as diligently as I studied the aesthetics of Sergei Eisenstein,” said Brakhage.) Helen also taught her students the history of experimental animation, showing work by Lotte Reiniger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and other artists who influenced her. These two schools came together briefly when Anthology Film Archives, epicenter of avant garde American cinema, hosted a retrospective, The Life & Films of Helen Hill, in October 2007.
 “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” Film Culture 22-23 (1961): 131-33.
 Bruce Jenkins, “Stan Brakhage: The Art of Seeing” (1999), Walker Art Center, http://filmvideo.walkerart.org. See also, Jan-Christopher Horak, Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (U of Wisconsin Press, 1995), and Jeffrey Ruoff, “Home Movies of the Avant-Garde: Jonas Mekas and the New York Art World,” Cinema Journal 30.3 (1991): 6-28.
Perhaps the distinction is so blurry now as to be obsolete? Of course it is in many ways remarkable that the Film-Makers' Cooperative is still in operation, much less in such active form as it (like its sibling Anthology Film Archives) is. But perhaps no less remarkable than the huge impact that the late Helen Hill, the quintessential DIY filmmaker, continues to make on the world.