In Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud distinguishes between “harmless” wit, or humor that evokes sympathetic laughter, and “tendency-wit,” a more hostile form of comedy that targets its subject with derisive laughter (Abrams 382). One finds tendency-wit in the satirical works of artists inhabiting the avant-garde. Renato Poggioli writes that the task of avant-gardism is “to struggle against articulate public opinion, against traditional and academic culture, against the bourgeois intelligentsia” (123). Bearing that in mind, it’s not surprising to encounter avant-garde films that employ the weapon of tendency-wit against mainstream culture and commercial cinema. Specifically, Hollywood is the target of derision in such early experimental works as James Sibley Watson’s Tomatos Another Day (1930), which mocks the redundant uses of sound employed in early talkies. More generally, however, one finds in avant-garde film a subversive and parodic approach to conventional notions of causality and temporal sequence; one example from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) is the use of title cards that arbitrarily denote “Once upon a time,” “Eight years later” and “Sixteen years earlier.”
Such expressions of disengagement from mainstream practice are characteristic of what Poggioli describes as the “alienation” of the avant-garde. He asserts that an avant-garde can only exist in a liberal-democratic, bourgeois-capitalistic society, and that art which declares itself antidemocratic and antibourgeois pays involuntary homage to the society it negates. Further, he states that the avant-garde is “wrong in blaming its isolation on the single type of society in which that isolation has become necessary and possible” (119). In its struggle against public opinion and conformity, the avant-garde forms its own social order, a specific culture in opposition to a general one. It is here that the institutionalization of the avant-garde makes possible a culture of negation within the avant-garde—in other words, artists begin to emerge who feel alienated within the institutionalized avant-garde, and they turn a satirical eye upon it.
In film, there have been few instances of such critiques; notable early examples include Even—As You and I (1937), a mockery of Surrealist film by Roger Barlow, Harry Hay, and LeRoy Robbins; and The Hearts of Age (1934) by William Vance and Orson Welles, conceived as a parody of Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. P.Adams Sitney writes that Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) is a parodic inversion of the avant-garde dream tradition (349). However, the avant-garde filmmaker whose work consistently takes a critical stance toward avant-garde cinema is George Landow, otherwise known as Owen Land.
Land’s films, typically categorized as structural films, contain numerous references to other avant-garde films, including several of his own. By using parody and self-parody, Land provided a humorous contrast to the seriousness of the theorists and academics who insist on avant-garde film as an institution. In so doing, he maintained an ongoing cinematic dialogue with the avant-garde film community, which he judged as equal to the mainstream culture in its susceptibility to fashions and trends.
His references to other filmmakers are not always obvious. One striking image that appears in his film Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970), then reappears in New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976), is that of a running man with the text “This is a Film About You—Not About Its Maker.” (In New Improved Institutional Quality, the running man appears as an alien, a visual gag that echoes Poggioli’s notion of the alienated avant-garde artist.)
Land explained the image as follows:
The films of Deren and her contemporaries were about their makers, the personal, poetic/lyrical (highly subjective) cinema. This filmmaker in 1970, running uphill in the Sierra Nevada mountains, needs to distance himself from the lyrical cinema and from its centres [sic] in New York City and San Francisco. He borrows a Big Lie from advertising: This is a film about you, not about its maker. (Land 86)
In referencing his own contemporaries, Land was less oblique. Wide Angle Saxon (1975) contains a film-within-a-film that parodies Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). Michael Snow, who narrated Frampton’s film, also narrates Regrettable Redding Condescension (whose title is a play on Land’s own Remedial Reading Comprehension), directed by the fictional Al Rutcurts, whose name is an anagram of “structural”:
Since 1966, I have been filming the process of pouring red paint on a wide variety of objects. A few weeks ago, I felt an urge to film another object being covered with red paint. What I believe I see recorded in that piece of film fills me with such fear, such utter dread and loathing, that I think I shall never dare to make another film again. Here it is…
An electric hotplate, shot from above, is covered in dried red paint.
Look at it. Do you see what I see?
Silence. More red paint is poured from a bucket over the hot plate. It starts to bubble and steam as it heats up. Image fades to black.
Shot of cinema audience applauding the film.
Land chose to parody (nostalgia) because of his disappointment with conceptual art and the conceptual tendency, and because he felt Frampton’s film was hindered by its over-conceptualization (Land 105). Land’s film-within-a-film, in edging Frampton’s idea closer to absurdity, achieves the ironic incongruity and satiric impulse that characterize the parody mode (Harries 6). Interestingly, in Visionary Cinema Sitney identifies Land, Snow and Frampton as the “severe ironists” of structural film (431).
Tendency-wit is not only a technique utilized by Land, it’s also referenced directly in his film On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmund Freud in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Wholed? (1979). The film was conceived after Land read Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious: “I was struck by the fact that Freud keeps citing marriage broker jokes. They’re the only jokes that he uses as examples, and they’re bad jokes! Freud didn’t have any good material. He would have bombed in Las Vegas” (107-8). The film’s many references to Freud’s marriage broker jokes are particularly amusing in light of the influence that Freud had on the avant-garde “tradition.” Land’s film consists, among other things, of two people in panda costumes discussing avant-garde film:
What game are we going to play tonight?
We each have to tell one marriage broker joke, and then pretend we are avant-garde filmmakers making a film about marriage broker jokes.
What’s a “structural film”?
That’s easy, everybody knows what a structural film is. It’s when engineers’ [sic] design an aeroplane, or bridge, and they build a model to find out if it will fall apart too soon. The film shows where all the stresses are. (Land 54)
The first panda goes on to mention how “more avant-garde filmmakers are using animals in their films these days” (54). In addition to such self-reflexive statements, the absurd remark that “everybody knows what a structural film is,” and the false definition that follows, highlight the confusing and impractical nature of the term “structural film.”
Shortly before Marriage Broker Joke ends, a character recites some text from Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious:
The object of attack by wit may equally well be institutions, persons, in so far as they may act as agents of these, moral or religious precepts, or even philosophies of life which enjoy so much respect that they can be challenged in no other way than under the guise of a witticism, and one veiled by a façade at that. No matter how few the themes upon which tendency-wit may play, its forms and investments are manifold…(Land 74-75)
The avant-garde, a culture of stylistic dissent and a philosophy of life for some, is nevertheless occasionally threatened by an institutional quality. Fortunately, there are filmmakers who use tendency-wit as a weapon against the conformity of institutionalization. Owen Land was such a filmmaker.
Harries, Dan. Film Parody. London: BFI, 2000.
Land, Owen. Two Films by Owen Land. Ed. Mark Webber. London: LUX, 2005.
Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.