In the 1980s art scene, the fine arts were divided into camps. In one camp there was the dominating, self-proclaimed avant-garde, and in the other, smaller camps were the Surrealists, the expressionists, the pop artists, the hyper-realists, and the traditionalists. I tended to pitch my tent with the expressionists and, with some reservations, the Surrealists and the pop artists as well. While I never gave much credence at all to the hyper-realists or the traditionalists who bored me to tears then (now I simply have succumbed to impatient avoidance and dismissal of that unimaginative, fundamentalist lot), I also have kept the self-proclaimed avant-garde at bay, possibly because I suspect, like the Dadaists and Surrealists suspected, that the avant-garde tends towards overt, dull academia and/or superficiality.
A few years ago I read a review of a Ken Russell film (unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to document the source); the critic essentially took Russell to task for being a failed avant-gardist who straddled the road between populist art and the avant-garde. While the critic had some validity in his assessments of Russell’s work, I felt he missed the mark. Russell was never a member of the avant-garde. Rather, he was a hard school Surrealist whose work has been passionately uneven. Surrealism, of course, has as its vital focal point ordinary expressions, that are then blurred by dreams and imagination. The imaginative dream realm would not exist without the warm-blooded center of reality. Of course, bad Surrealism (or poor imitation of Surrealism) tends to look like the academia of the avante-garde when it loses that vital core, and perhaps that is why the “naïve surrealists” have been so rightly celebrated.
The avant-garde, on the other hand, has always promoted art for art sake. It is an atheistic aesthetic of pure abstraction, and while it first produced a startling movement in many mediums, its tendency towards superficiality quickly took hold. In painting, abstract expressionism became decorative works for the business office; in film, such experiments soon became tedious efforts which jettisoned any and all connections with humanity; and in music, post-Webern electronic experimentation became so disassociated that it made all-too valid Arnold Schoenberg’s question, “but, are they making music with it?” ((Schoenberg was the father of the twelve-tone method. His pupil, Anton Webern, became a favorite influence among the disciples. Towards the end of his life Schoenberg was asked if he realized young musicians were copying his twelve tone method, to which he replied with the question above)).
Of course, this is an over simplified and somewhat idiosyncratic distinction, and to do it justice is beyond the scope or goal of this review, but this description can temporarily suffice. Part of the problem in associating Ken Russell with the avant-garde is Russell’s impetuous giddiness, his desire to be the eternal bad boy, which is filtered through consummate craftsmanship and even occasional sophistication underneath that rebel persona. Russell’s work, while often deeply flawed, is seldom dull. The vitality of his Surrealist oeuvre (at least his strongest works) can be found in an idiosyncratic vision of a journey through dramatic, personal, human experience.
Recently, I came across Indiana filmmaker’s Adam Cooley’s 2010 feature, Currently Untitled,
Part 1 of Currently Untitled (see director’s YouTube page for the other 4 installments)
and if I had to slap a label on it I suppose it would be “adolescent avant-garde.” Cooley is not a Surrealist at all, but his pseudo-giddiness is as though filtered through the lens of a post Marvel Comics boy, wallowing in a naïve, after-the-fact assessment of the avant-garde in the medium of film.
In Currently Untitled Cooley plays in the snow, sucks on a pacifier, and announces it as symbolism in a no-budget film that no one is going to care about. Cooley’s images barrage the viewer, first at a kinetic pace. He laments his meaningless job as a stock boy at a grocery store and observes the thousands of equally meaningless consumers purchasing meaningless products, oblivious to Cooley’s presence, and their strict avoidance of anything that challenges them to think. To drive his point home, Cooley kicks a skid of pop product, juxtaposed against rambunctious, hip music. Now that’s challenging food for thought for the thoughtless masses. Cooley admits his embarrassment at having to stock frozen dinners during third shift.
Hectic editing, extreme close-ups of Cooley’s mouth producing really cool weird noises, compositions of Cooley leering into the camera laughing, narcissistic, self-pitying diatribes, and a complaint towards a critic who described Cooley’s films as incompetent, are all sandwiched between repeated layers of photo shopped images. Of course, if you want to appear really edgy then throw in that old standby: religious imagery. Cooley doesn’t hesitate to take the blasphemy route. His camera shows a statue of Jesus and he moans, “the f___king God is watching me right nnnooooow.” Of course, Surrealist Luis Buñuel was the quintessential producer of anti-clerical statements, but Buñuel was, as Orson Welles rightly observed, “the most religious filmmaker of all time.” It took a schooled Jesuit to make statements of validity and substance in regards to the complex fallacies of orthodoxy. To critique one must know and experience what one is critiquing, otherwise the statement is rendered exterior, hollow drivel. Cooley’s critiques often feel to be from an outside observer: overly simplistic, too childish to be academic, and inevitably superficial.
One gets the drift here. It’s not that Cooley is without ideas. He does have them, and his film is, at the very least, an antidote to the unimaginative, juvenile low-budget horror shlock scene, of which there is a depressing over-abundance. Before dismantling an academic structure, however, one must first absorb the structure. As is typical of avant-garde, the human element is lost here, and it is impossible to connect with a character who has no development. The only struggle Cooley shares with us is muted in very brief sound bytes of grotesque self-pity, casting himself as the put-upon outsider (we don’t know what makes him an outsider), and trying to convince us he is cool when he laughs at the camera and at himself. These vignettes are mere seconds surrounded by elongated moments of highly cliched, hipster MTV editing that was routine thirty years ago. Sadly, Currently Untitled is a lesson in style over substance, and if I read my Cooley correctly this criticism will only give him additional fodder to produce more of the same.
However, Cooley would possibly do better in removing himself from the camera lens and focusing instead on an exterior subject. For a basic, film 101 start, give the film a title in order to ground it. If Cooley’s art develops, and I hope it does, it could well develop into a body of work that would reap rewarding benefits for himself and potential viewers. He may go that route, or he may succumb to the adolescent narcissism of his amateur aesthetics. If he falls into the latter route, he and his work will fade into the anonymity of third shift at the local super mart.