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REVIEW: H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-California@h-net.msu.edu (December 2005) David E. James. _The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles_. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. xiv + 548 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-24257-2; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 0-520-24258-0. Reviewed for H-California by Andrew Dawson, School of Humanities, University of Greenwich, London Filmmaking in the Heart of the Beast This is a weighty tome in more ways than one. At over five hundred pages _The Most Typical Avant-Garde_ gives thorough coverage to the diverse range of Los Angeles cinemas that lay outside Hollywood. At the same time, James elaborates a sophisticated framework in which to document the development of these discrete alternatives, and to chart the complex relationship between them and the dominant industrial form of production. There is a great deal of local detail, not surprisingly as the author teaches at the University of Southern California, a major institutional incubator, along with UCLA, of much post-war minor cinema. Los Angeles's alternative filmmaking is often ignored or marginalized in standard histories but in James's capable hands it is placed center stage. Treating each discrete sub-school in turn, this book excavates the historical detail of a wide range of cinemas: labor, socialist, communist, amateur, artistic avant-garde, African American, feminist, Asian, Chicano, homosexual, and more. Close textual attention is given to a range of films covering almost the whole of the twentieth century from _From Dusk to Dawn_ (1913), the city's first labor film, to Pat O'Neill's nourish _The Decay of Fiction_ (2002), set entirely in the city's crumbling Ambassador Hotel. Along the way the activities of such diverse groups as the Los Angeles Cinema Club, Film and Photo League, and the UCLA film school are detailed. But the author not only pays attention to the local and the particular, he also addresses a much broader canvas by drawing attention to the political, economic, and spatial contexts of each cinema's development. Almost all of these cinemas sprang from specific social movements, and James meshes the political characteristics of each with the practices of its emergent filmmakers. If Hollywood is thesis then Los Angeles minor cinemas are antithesis. James is keen to gauge the independence of these alternative filmmakers who live in the heart of the Hollywood beast: could each fashion an alternative to the studios' capitalist aesthetic; and could they collectively create a truly popular cinema to act as a counterweight to Hollywood domination? The spatial pattern of Los Angeles, with its distinct and isolated ethnic/class communities, aided the emergence of alternative cinemas. Waves of new arrivals--Anglos from the Midwest, African Americans from the South, and immigrants from Mexico and East Asia added to the ethnic character of the city and provided fertile ground for filmmakers to practice their art. At the same time, living in the shadow of Hollywood has some advantages as it gave alternative filmmakers easy access to equipment and training. But autonomy--that is, ideological, industrial, and commercial independence from Hollywood--was impossible, as this volume conclusively demonstrates. Minor cinemas were alternatively colonized, patronized, ignored, or starved of commercial distribution. While the social and spatial character of Los Angeles encouraged the development of alternative cinemas, the same social and spatial forces also prevented the emergence of a cinema with mass appeal. Reflecting the character of the social movements from which they were drawn, each minor cinema failed to reach out and connect with the experiences of other oppressed groups and instead pursued its own individual salvation. A good part of alternative cinema was, anyway, not oppositional: amateur filmmakers aped professionals, and industry outsiders, including film-school graduates, created signature films in the hope of becoming insiders. Most cinemas followed the trajectory of identity-politics filmmakers: initially low-cost and community-based, asserting a cultural or sexual nationalism, they collapsed in the face of lucrative film deals, budding careers, and the powerful ideological and aesthetic pull of Hollywood. In the process, filmmakers moved from "a position of more or less complete autonomy and rejection of the entertainment industry to various kinds of rapprochement with and eventually integration into it" (p. 305). Out of such cross fertilization emerged a number of innovative independent feature films, blaxploitation, and most famously, the San Fernando Valley's world-beating pornographic film industry. James argues that of all the alternative filmmaking groups, only working-class cinema remained immune to such a process. "Other forms of popular cinema eventually negotiate with the industry, but working-class cinema alone has been categorical in its opposition. Since it has been constructed in direct antithesis to Hollywood, it has constantly been assaulted and repressed by Hollywood and by local and national state power" (p. 96). While Hollywood needed to adapt to shifts in popular culture, and therefore willingly appropriated popular ideas, it remained deeply opposed to the collectivist practices at the heart of working-class movements. Just as powerful local employers assumed the lead in the open-shop campaign, often joined by studio bosses, so hostility to trade unionism permeated the cultural fabric of the city. Not surprisingly, socialist and labor films, such as _From Dusk to Dawn_ and the later newsreels of the Los Angeles Film and Photo League, were ignored. Readers may be disappointed to find no maps in _The Most Typical Avant-Garde_. Perhaps I am old fashioned--or too literally minded--but when a book claims to tell me something of the importance of place in defining the character of Los Angeles's minor cinemas, then I would expect maps. There is an abundance of film stills--which are of some value--but no maps. Framing the book around the notion of avant-garde has its problems. Firstly, it may, unfortunately, turn away readers who would be interested in the significant filmic and political issues addressed in this volume but who associate the term with an inaccessible film style and peripheral bohemian practices. Secondly, as James himself reveals in chapter 3, sometimes alternative filmmakers were not in the intellectual vanguard. For example, Hollywood dealt with the highly sensitive issue of the sexual exploitation of young women eager to find work in the industry in such "cautionary tales" as _The Extra Girl_ (1923), _Hollywood_ (1923), and _Stranded_ (1927) well before alternative filmmakers Florey, Vorkapich, and Toland produced their critical short film, _The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra_ in 1928. Thirdly, not all alternative filmmakers identified themselves as avant-garde. Labor filmmakers, for example, saw themselves as part of the people, providing stories readily accessible and easily understood by their audiences. James's subtitle, "minor cinemas," is a far better choice. We can sympathize with the problem the author faces: the difficulty of finding an appropriate title is symptomatic of the cultural power of Hollywood such that alternative cinema can only be defined by what it is not. Given the disparate nature of alternative cinema it is not surprising that a suitable collective title proves illusive. This volume can be read with advantage not just by film studies specialists but also by historians, political scientists, and those with an interest in urban studies. James knows his Los Angeles cinemas but he also knows his city, its politics and its history: _The Most Typical Avant-Garde_ integrates an understanding of working-class movements, civil rights, the beats, counter culture, and the women's movement with the respective alternative cinemas that they inspired. There is much here, and I am sure that readers with a range of interests will dip into this volume. James provides us with a useful and stimulating book that merits close attention. _The Most Typical Avant-Garde_ moves smoothly with confidence and style from the local to the national and in the process tackles important questions of ideological autonomy and film practice under capitalist hegemony. Note . Christopher Ames, _Movies About the Movies: Hollywood Reflected_ (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), p. 22. Copyright (c) 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: email@example.com.