The Distinction of Idioms: Non-Industrial Film in Los Angeles

By David James
January 1, 1994

Screening program notes from Scratching the Belly of the Beast catalogue, 1994

Their idioms were distinguishable, but not notably so; and if fuller knowledge were extant it might be necessary to recognize half a dozen dialects instead of the two which the presence of the missions has given the appearance of being standard.
-A.L. Kroeber, on the indigenous languages of the Los Angeles basin

The historiography of non-industrial film in the United States has generally been modeled on the European modernist, aesthetically autonomous, avant-gardes, especially painting, and so has posited the primacy of a tradition of similarly "avant-garde" film. Traced from French Surrealism and various experiments in abstraction (rather than from the commercially successful German Expressionism or the explicitly communist Soviet Constructivism), this tradition is supposed to have been brought here by emigres like Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger or reinvented here by Maya Deren and Sidney Peterson, and since then to have been self-producing and self-determining, unaffected by either the commercial film industry or the wider social field. The formulation, "the precise relation of avant-garde cinema to American commercial film is one of radical otherness. They operate in different realms with next to no significant influence on each other'" bespeaks both the binary and the autonomy of its parts.

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