Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2017
Ara Osterweil Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014. 304 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9780719091919)
Thumbnail

Ara Osterweil argues in Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film that the medium operates on the spectator’s sensorium in a uniquely direct and intense way. Films can emphasize this link by depicting bodies in extreme circumstances; for instance, bodies immobilized by drugs, dead and being autopsied, or epileptic and seizing are just some of the precarious versions of corporeality that experimental filmmakers documented in the 1960s and 1970s. But within the array of films considered in Osterweil’s book, representations of the body engaged in sexual activity are the most central. Postwar avant-garde film, like the hard-core pornography that emerged in the same period, harnessed the medium’s inherent fetishization of motion—what film theorist Linda Williams termed “the frenzy of the visible”—to represent erotic encounters (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). American experimental cinema of this period moved away from interiority and psychology to interrogate surface and the body, doing so by both drawing upon and deconstructing the very aspects of the cinema apparatus fundamental to pornography. Osterweil’s larger project is thus to articulate “flesh cinema” as a coherent, if shifting, category of postwar film. She defends biographical criticism, not so much by rooting the “meaning” of the films in the lives of their makers, as if any such singular meaning were identifiable, but rather by insisting on the impossibility of divorcing “flesh cinema” from the flesh of the world: the films in question themselves, she demonstrates, manage in their best moments to dissolve that facile but persistent binary.

The first chapter examines Barbara Rubin, a figure whose output and omnipresent role in the collaborative networks of 1960s New York (she introduced Andy Warhol to Bob Dylan, for example) has been overlooked. Rubin’s life reveals what Osterweil also detects in her film Christmas on Earth (1963): a remaking of traditional romantic structures into a panoply of queer relational schemes, including sexual friendships, sexless marriages, and more. If her relationships—especially a fraught, sometimes sexual connection with Allen Ginsberg—resisted codification, so too did the bodies she filmed in Christmas on Earth, which is more sexually explicit than Jack Smith’s epochal Flaming Creatures (1962–63); its two reels depict a capacious range of sex acts shot from various distances (from close-ups to long shots) featuring different performers of many orientations. Like Flaming Creatures, Christmas on Earth elicited censorship, and in one case Rubin actually tied up a “secretly compliant projectionist” to allow a screening to proceed (39). Because the film was presented by simultaneously double projecting its two reels onto each other, no screenings were identical. Osterweil terms these overlaid projections “dialectical images of lovemaking” (31), referring to the way competing models of sexuality (from straight to gay and beyond) could, through this technique, coexist and interpenetrate.

The next chapter opens with the striking observation that “Andy Warhol was one of the most innovative and prolific pornographers of the twentieth century” (56). Osterweil focuses on Warhol’s Couch (1964), which consists of a series of reels each depicting a different set of factory denizens having sex (or sometimes not) on a couch. Because the performative element of each coupling is emphasized, and seemingly more banal rituals such as house cleaning are intermixed with the sex, Osterweil argues that the film conflates sex and labor. And since the sex is also playful and often without climax, she further argues that the film formulates an anti-futurist stance, drawing upon queer-theorist Lee Edelman’s argument in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) that cultural valorization of reproduction undergirds heteronormativity. Osterweil also suggests that one of Couch’s reels may comprise one of the first interracial sex scenes in porn or experimental film. She sees this scene, a threesome between Kate Heliczer, Gerard Malanga, and dancer Rufus Collins, as more intimate and less farcical than the others, arguing that Warhol evacuates irony to destigmatize interracial sex; for her, it is “one of the most daring ‘civil rights films’ of the era” (75). As Osterweil notes, however, interracial sex was swiftly commercialized by mainstream pornography.

Turning from the affectless work of Warhol to the sensuous and emotional films of Stan Brakhage, chapter 3 frames him as using the flesh of his film to mediate between the flesh of the world and the flesh of the body. Brakhage produced a brand of realism that registered the trauma of existence only to wrestle with and move beyond it. Thus in Window Water Baby Moving (1959), the depiction of childbirth oscillates between defamiliarization and documentation: abstracted via close-up, the pregnant body sometimes appears alien, but elsewhere shows up as familiar human flesh. Osterweil suggests the film’s celebratory aestheticization, though seemingly objective, inculcates reproductive futurism. Brakhage’s subsequent, literally gruesome film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971)—the title is Brakhage’s translation of the Greek “autopsis,” etymon of “autopsy”—documents autopsies as they are performed. Despite its quasi-scientific style, it invites comparison with the lowbrow genre of slasher film, and tests spectatorship’s limits by encouraging the viewer to identify with the corpses—that is, with a form of materiality that at first sight appears utterly alien.

The fourth chapter is an important contribution to the expanding scholarship on Carolee Schneemann. Osterweil situates Schneemann’s watershed film works, especially Fuses (1965), within the larger field of her practice, which Schneemann has always insisted is rooted in painting. Fuses’s painterly, heavily collaged celluloid is an even more corporeal instantiation of Brakhage’s concept of film as skin. Rejecting Brakhage’s mode of documenting sex in the context of domestic life from a position of mastery, Schneemann placed the camera into her own hands and the hands of her then-partner James Tenney, sometimes giving the angle over to the cat’s point of view, or, by hanging the camera from ropes, to sheer chance, thereby diminishing the privilege of any one participant’s perspective. This decentering allowed Fuses to approach what Schneemann called “lovemaking’s erotic blinding core” (165; Osterweil’s emphasis), a Merleau-Pontian coinage if ever there was one (and indeed, the philosopher’s theory of the inextricability of embodiment and vision recurs throughout Flesh Cinema). As one of Osterweil’s students complains, Fuses idealizes heterosexual sex by omitting moments of failure and awkwardness: “‘all of the times Tenney’s dick didn’t work’” (162). The student’s complaint sticks; if Fuses reveals a blinding core, it is surely not a universalizable core. But forms of this critique have been leveled against Schneemann since critics dismissed her work as essentialist in the 1970s, and what is more productive about Osterweil’s account is its focus on Schneemann as an artist specifically attuned to the way media interfaces with the body, reshaping our experiences of ourselves as bodies, and of others’ bodies too.

The fifth chapter turns to Yoko Ono, analyzing her film Fly (1970), in which sedated flies slowly crawl over the immobile body of a drugged performer. Fly expanded the earlier challenge Ono’s 1964 performance Cut Piece had issued to all forms of viewing that preclude empathy. Unlike porn (or the academic female nude), Fly insists on slowness, proximity, and, at least for its first minutes of close-ups, hapticity over the opticality that a full body shot facilitates. Fly thus undermines the male gaze’s structuring role in cinema, anticipating Laura Mulvey’s important work of just a few years later. Yet Osterweil departs from apparatus theory in simultaneously insisting on the hope of transcendence—through the image of the insects’ flight—that Fly offers alongside its critique.

Critics have foregrounded the abstractness of Paul Sharits’s films while overlooking his use of sexual imagery. Highlighting Sharits’s use of such imagery in the final chapter, Osterweil reveals that structural film was far from disinterested and cool; it, too, reveled in the frenzy of the visible. By interweaving erotic clips into what have been seen as “purely” optical flicker films such as Piece Mandala/End War (1966), Sharits showed that “perception renders all bodies vulnerable to penetration” (231). Moreover, his potentially seizure-inducing flicker effect underlined the deep physiological connection between sensorium and cinema. His later installation Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976) projected scientific films of medically induced epileptic seizures onto gallery walls. Eliciting the same combination of empathy and pained physiological response as Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, its intense corporeality and violence are continuous with Sharits’s earlier flicker films. Though Osterweil does not frame it as such, this use of appropriated imagery recalls the early place of cinema in carnival settings, where pseudo-scientific imagery generated similar reactions, but as pure spectacle. Drawing on Kaja Silverman’s work to address the abjection of this imagery from a psychoanalytic perspective, Osterweil suggests that the violent eliciting of empathy in Sharits’s oeuvre was a means of grappling with the childhood trauma of his mother’s suicide.

Flesh Cinema raises questions about the complex relationship between high art and mass culture; part of Warhol’s project, Osterweil suggests, was to trouble this opposition by producing demanding art films that overlapped with mainstream porn in terms of audience, channels of distribution, and content. Still, some local arguments hinge on the ways “flesh cinema” replaced the spectacular tropes of pornography with more intimate effects: Rubin’s film, for example, rejects the hard-core “money shot” of ejaculation (which would only become a mainstay of porn a few years later) in favor of the haptic pleasure of coming inside. But one also wonders whether “flesh cinema” sometimes served, to use Thomas Crow’s formulation, as R&D for the culture industry (Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). As Osterweil notes, the tenderly filmed fellatio in Fuses anticipated Deep Throat’s scandalous 1972 depiction of oral sex by years. Similarly, she suggests Warhol’s voyeuristic prioritization of viewing anticipated porn’s denigration of the haptic in favor of the optic that was codified with the emergence of the money shot years later. Crow’s formula is too simple to account for the psychic structures of identification and empathy that the films Osterweil discusses produced as part of their broader reimagining of spectatorship. But the reverse—that avant-garde films consistently depicted sex while subverting sometimes still-to-be-codified pornographic conventions—is also inadequate. Flesh Cinema carves out a new territory in which these problematics become legible. Through careful close readings, it develops a nuanced conception of spectatorship in which corporeal pleasure and intersubjectivity can be at least partly reconciled with the fully mediated conditions of contemporary life. The existence and influence of a pornographic avant-garde is now undeniable; Flesh Cinema is one of the most compelling studies of the body’s relation to avant-garde art and film.

Nicholas C. Morgan
PhD candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.