A textual analysis of the famous article.


Wollen's 'The Two Avant Gardes' begins as a theoretical model, a binary dialectic between two European avant-garde film 'groups' , the Co-op movement and what I shall refer to as the Straub/Godard avant-garde. He then compares this split in the '75 avant-garde with a split in the European avant-garde of the 1920's.

'To understand further the split which has developed within the avant-garde it is necessary to go back into history. A similar split can be seen in the twenties.'
(p. 171.)

However by the end of the article this comparison, between the split of the twenties and the split in Wollen's contemporary avant-garde, has become a single historic division of two separate developing traditions: it is the split of the twenties which caused the split in '75.
It is the same split.

'I have tried to show how the two avant-gardes we find in Europe originated and what it is that holds them apart.'

And this is the axis of the article, for Wollen traces the origin of the split to the development of modernism in painting:

"Painting, I think it can be argued, played the leading role in the development of modernism in the other arts. The break, the coupre - to use the Althusserian terminology - the shift of terrain which marked the substitution of one paradigm or problematic for another, the beginning of modernism, the work of the historic avant-garde, was a break which took place in painting pre-eminently, with the discoveries of cubism.'

Cubism, then, is the modernist shift and its influence spreads throughout the 'other arts ' , literature, poetry, theatre and music.

'The innovations of Picasso and Braque, were seen as having an implication beyond the history of painting itself. They were intuitively felt, I think, very early on, to represent a critical semiotic shift, a changed concept and practice of sign and signification, which we now can see to have been the opening-up of a space, a disjunction between signifier and signified and a change of emphasis from the problem of signified and reference, the classic problem of realism, to that of signifier and signified within the sign itself.
When we look at the development of painting after the cubist breakthrough, however, we see a constant trend towards an apparently even more radical development: the suppression of the signified altogether, an art of pure signifiers detached from meaning as much as reference....'

This is the key to Wollen's split, the binary division of avant-garde film, for he is essentially constructing in this passage two types of modernism. The abstract trend of the 'suppression of the signified' in painting produced the avant-garde tradition that culminated in the Co-op movement :

'One powerful influence has come from painting , bringing with it a tendency to abstraction-pure light or colour; and non figurative design-or deformation of conventional photographic imagery, involving prismatic fragmentation and splintering, the use of filters or stippled glass, mirror shots, extreme and microscopic close ups, bizarre angles, negative images etc. all of these are to be found in twenties films.'

Whilst the earlier 'disjunction between signifier and signified' produced the Straub/Godard avant-garde by way of literature and theatre:

'Literature on the other hand, tended to fall back into forms of writing in which the signified clearly remained dominant. Modernism could be interpreted in terms of the expansion of subject-matter, new narrative techniques (stream of consciousness,etc.) or play on the paradoxes of meaning and reference (Pirandellism).

For Wollen the key figure in the Straub/Godard avant-garde is Godard :

'In a sense , Godard's work goes back to the original breaking point at which the modern avant-garde began- neither realist or expressionist, on the one hand, nor abstractionist, on the other.'

Whilst Wollen's model is provisional and paradoxical, and whilst he allows for exceptions to the binary classification , the oppositions and membership of the groups can be systematically laid out:

The Co-op avant-garde   Straub/Godard avant-garde
Painters.   Dramatists. Sound Poetry.
Pure signifiers.   The signified.
Abstraction.   Realist.
non-narrative   Narrative.
anti-illusionist   Naturalism.
Film as material.   Cinema as expression.
Self-reflexive.   Intertextual.
Visual.   Verbal.
Silence or music.   Words and stories.
Film-makers.   Directors.
Artisanal.   Commercial.
Performers.   Film stars.
'Reconciled' to minority audience.   'Uneasy' about minority audience / aimed at mass audience.
Implicitly political.   Consciously political.
Political subject matter.    
1920's film-makers    
Leger - Murphy   Eisenstein
Picabia-Clair   Dovzhenko
Eggeling   Vertov
Man Ray
Van Doesburg
1975 film-makers    
David Curtis   Godard
Steve Dwoskin   Straub and Huillet
Kren   Jancso
Gidal   Hanoun
Malcolm Le Grice   Godard and Gorin-
Dziga Vertov Group

This systematic dialectic is beautifully symmetrical and intellectually refreshing, the trouble is it doesn't actually exist in Wollen's article, I have deceived you.
It is not exactly the sub-text of the article either, it is an unresolved intertext, it lies between the lines, it is implicit, it is a spectre that haunts the text.
The pleasure of reading 'The Two Avant-gardes' lies in the implication of this simple dialectical binary model, if the reader accepts the rules then they can join the game; they can apply the model. But Wollen's text is not a simple binary dialectic between two traditions, it is on close analysis a complex matrix of interdependent assumptions and contradictions, it is unstable. Throughout the article the concept of the two avant-gardes constantly drifts and loses integrity.
At points this is ascribed to the historical development of the two traditions, of the Co-Op movement tradition Wollen writes :

'Film-makers at a certain point became dissatisfied with the search for kinetic solutions to pictorial problems', as in the films of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, and began to concentrate on what they saw as specifically cinematic problems. '

And so we are to understand that the Co-op Movement tradition which began with the modernist experiments of the 1920's underwent a fundamental change in practice, however they did this in continuity with the binary dialectic:

'Structural film-making over the last decade has thus represented a displacement of concerns from the art world to the film world rather than an extension. The way of thinking has remained one which film-makers have in common with painters and other visual artists, but an effort has been made to insist on the ontological autonomy of film. '

The two avant-gardes then are far more than simply two opposing film 'groups' they are two separate historical traditions which have developed different practises in different historical phases but always within a binary dialectic determined by the modernist (semiotic) shift of cubism. This is a teleological history, it is 'Avant-Garde' history, it is progressive.
The assumption of progress ascendant can be discerned in certain key phrases used in the article.

The model is fixed with the opening line :

'Film history has developed unevenly.....'

From this it must be assumed that film history could, or rather should develop 'evenly'. What would an 'even' film history be like ? At the end of the article Wollen tentatively suggests:

'The facts of uneven development mean too that that it would be utopian to hope for a simple convergence of the two avant-gardes. '

'Nevertheless,though a simple convergence is very unlikely, it is crucial that the two avant-gardes should be confronted and juxtaposed'

And why is this confrontation crucial ? Wollen declares in the final passage of the article:

' a way, the cinema offers more opportunities than any other art - the cross fertilization which was so striking a feature of those early decades, the reciprocal interlocking and input between painting, writing, music, theatre, etc. could take place within the field of cinema itself. This is not a plea for a great harmony , a synesthetic gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense.
But cinema, because it is a multiple system, could develop and elaborate the semiotic shifts which marked the origins of the avant-garde in a uniquely complex way, a dialectical montage within and between a complex of codes.
At least writing now as a film-maker, that is the fantasy I like to entertain.'

Despite his doubts and protestations to the contrary, the convergence of the two avant-gardes is exactly what Wollen desires and believes is necessary. This is the synthesis of the two avant-gardes dialectic , a single modernist avant-garde which would combine the formal experiments (painting) of the Co-op Movement with the semiotic strategies and political radicalism (literature/drama) of the Straub/Godard avant-garde. This would be the 'evening' of film history as the two parallel avant-gardes meet at the cusp of the present to form a dialectical semiotic cutting edge, a new cinema. Because cinema is a 'multiple system', capable of combining all the other arts, this synthesis would supersede all other arts, it would be the 'gesamtkunstwerk ' the 'complete-art-work', this is Wollen's fantasy.
And Wollen's language of ascendant progress suggests that this convergence is possible and even immanent:

The modernist shift of cubism is a 'breakthrough'. (p.172.)

Literature after the breakthrough 'tended to fall back'. (p.172.)

Vertov's 'Man With The Movie Camera' was an avant-garde 'milestone'. (p.173.)

'During the first decade of this century, when the historic avant-garde embarked on its own path, the years of the coupure, the cinema was still in its infancy, scarcely out of the fairground and the nickelodeon, certainly not yet the Seventh Art. for this reason- and for others, including economic reasons- the avant-garde made itself felt late in the cinema and it is still very marginal , in comparison with painting or music or even writing.'

In this passage from the end of the article the path of ascendant progress is mapped out for us, the infant cinema joins the climb late and so the modernist film avant-garde has not yet ascended to the pioneering role of the avant-gardes in painting, music and writing. This is because at the time of the modernist shift it had not joined the other 6 arts, it was not yet Art.

But this 'lateness' and the vaguely mentioned 'economic reasons' are not the principal reasons for the marginality of the avant-garde, for the necessary convergence of the two avant-garde traditions. It is implicit in Wollen's model that the progress of the avant-garde has been blocked by the separation of the two avant-gardes, the distinct traditions are polarised around mutually exclusive practises and ideologies, in the Co-op Movement :

'....the impact of avant-garde ideas from the world of visual arts has ended up pushing film-makers into a position of extreme 'purism' or 'essentialism'.

'The frontier reached by this avant-garde has been an ever narrowing
preoccupation with pure film, with film 'about' film, a dissolution of signification into objecthood or tautology.'

'It is perhaps perhaps the idea, so strongly rooted now, that film is a visual art which has brought about a blockage. Yet this idea is obviously a half
truth at best. The danger which threatens is that the introduction of words and stories-of signifieds-will bring back illusionism or representation in full flood.'

Wollen implies that Godard/Straub avant-garde is also blocked ;

' was pressure to re-discover a mass, popular audience which led to the artistic retreat of 'Tout Va Bien', which abandons avant-gardism for a stylised didactism, set within a classical realist frame, though with some interpolations in the Eisensteinian way.'

'The most revolutionary work , both of Godard and of Straub-Huillet, was done in 1968 -' Le Gai Savoir' and 'The Bridegroom, The Commedienne and the Pimp'. In comparison 'Tout Va Bien' and 'Moses and Aaron' are a step backwards. Godard works increasingly in isolation, cut off from any real collective work or movement.'

The dialectic of the two avant-gardes condemns both to isolation, only a synthesis can revitalise the avant-garde project ;

' In Le Gai Savoir Juliet Berto says towards the end that half the shots are missing from the film, and Jean-Pierre Leaud replies that they will be shot by other film-makers: Bertolucci, Straub, Glauber Rocha. We can now see how wrong Godard was in some of his judgments - the shots which were missing from his film would be supplied by the other avant - garde - and it is not clear that he ever realised this.'

Writing in 1975 Wollen believed there was going to be a synthesis, as a filmmaker and a radical theorist his work could help bring this about 28 , British cinema could be transformed. The Co-op movement and the emerging Independent sector, in which Wollen was an activist, believed in transformation, they believed that they were the vanguard of a revolutionary new socialist cinema, a new way of seeing even. But before we find out what happened to the revolution we had better come to terms with the Avant-Garde.