My Half-Century of Film Criticism


In 1965 P. Adams Sitney presented a month of American avant-garde films at the Instituto Di Tella. Subsequently he wrote Visionary Film, discussing many of those films in the light of Romantic poetry. The reception of the book led to his invitation to teach several colleges and universities: Yale, Bard College, New York University, Cooper Union, School of Visual Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, and Princeton University (from which he recently retired after thirty-six years on the faculty). In this lecture he will outline how first, the principles he learned as a student of Greek and Sanskrit philology, and later his studies of iconography, history, and philosophy, guided his analysis of cinema in his next four books: Modernist Montage, Vital Crises in Italian Cinema, Eyes Upside Down, and The Cinema of Poetry. < br /> Central to his understanding of film as a high art is the recognition of iconography and of the syntactical and rhetorical nature of the organization of cinematic shots. Traditional iconography underlies its imagery. The most basic unit of film syntax would be shot/countershot or reverse angle cutting. The greatest filmmakers (such as Dreyer, Brakhage, Vertov, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Deren, Bergman, Akerman, et al.) have either used this and other fundamental building blocks of cinema consciously and distinctively or dramatically rejected them. Similarly, the masters of the silent cinema, especially within the avant-garde cinema, made similar use of intertitles (or refused them). < br /> National cinemas and genres cohere through shared iconography. What the philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “types” are actually iconographic signs. Thus set designers and location scouts are iconographers without realizing it. Yet recognition of cinematographic iconography fades away quickly. One burden of film analysis is to recover and record these topical iconographic elements. < br /> Furthermore, syntactical and rhetorical innovation frequently reveal the meaning of so-called “difficult”, films, such as Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora, Bergman’s Persona, and Deren’s At Land. In these, and other instances, cinema becomes an instrument of discovery rather than a means of communication. As such its affinities are closer to modernist painting and poetry than to drama or fictional narrative. Pier Paolo Pasolini recognized this in his essay “The Cinema of Poetry.” Gilles Deleuze was unique among the major theoreticians of cinema in acknowledging and developing Pasolini’s insight. < br /> This lecture will trace the influence of classical philology, Leo Spitzer, Parker Tyler and Pasolini on Sitney’s growth as an interpreter of modernist cinema. He will discuss the application of Freudian psychoanalysis to cinema as well. In opposition to the major bias of film theory, he will speak on behalf of the advantage of pragmatic, “empirical” psychoanalytic studies (eg. the work of Arlow and Edelsteit) rather than broad Lacanian speculation. If, on the one hand, cinema resorts again and again to iconography to connect images to history, traditions, and dimensions beyond what can be made visible, psychoanalysis illuminates the unconscious forces selecting and employing that iconography. < br /> P. Adams Sitney (born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1944) founded at 16 years old the journal Filmwise, devoting issues to avant-garde filmmakers, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Gregory Markopoulos, Willard Maas and Marie Menken. He soon joined Jonas Mekas as an editor of Film Culture, where he edited Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision (1963). The following year he interrupted his studies in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit at Yale University to take the first International Exposition of the New American Cinema to Europe. He presented similar series at the Instituto Di Tella in Buenos Aires (1965), and in Europe (1967–1968). After directing of the newly created Anthology Film Archives in New York and moving to the position of director of the library and publications (1969), he taught at several universities and retired, after thirty-six years, from Princeton in 2016. He is the author of Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (1972, 1979, 2002) and four other books and the editor of six volumes.

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