Toward a Geo-Cinematic Hermeneutics:
Representations of Los Angeles in Non-Industrial Cinema--
Killer of Sheep and
Water and Power
David E. James
The cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a
culture group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium,
the cultural landscape is the result.
--Carl Ortwin Sauer
It is commonly recognized that the loss of authority in the great
paradigms of modernist culture was accompanied by a shift from time to
space as the more fundamental category for cognition.
John Berger's novel, G, for example, both instanced and
articulated the sense that the narrative line of the traditional novel
was no longer adequate to the complex synchronic patterns that make
up contemporary experience. "Prophecy," the narrative voice declared,
"now involves a geographical rather than a historical projection; it is
space, not time, that hides consequences from us." Foucault reached
similar conclusions, arguing that history had been the nineteenth
century's "great obsession," so the "present
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epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space;" and his proposal
that our present experience of the world was one "of a network that
connects points and intersects with its own skein" inspired a generation
of postmodern geographers.
As a consequence of the historical shifts these re-orientations
manifest--and among them the closing of all spaces outside the global
consolidation of capital must be reckoned as primary--the discipline
of geography acquired a new importance, and generated new projects for
cultural studies, notably questions about the relations between the
local and the national, and then, as the international restructuring
of capital transformed the status of the national itself, questions
about the local and the global. In film studies, the response
has been primarily a re-investment in the national as a fundamental
historiographical concept, a somewhat paradoxical development since the
world-wide hegemony of the American corporate entertainment industries
leaves the concept of any other national cinema with little more than a
heuristic value--a fact that is often the very point from which these
Commonly approaching cinema as essentially representation (rather
than material production, which will be the particular concern of the
present essay), projects of this kind have comfortably intersected
with both postmodernist assumptions of the collapse of all reality
into media spectacle and poststructuralist conceptualizations of
reality as textuality. So, for example, the introduction to a recent
collection of geographical considerations of cinema takes as it point
of departure Baudrillard's conflation of the city and the cinema, a
conflation that understands the cityscape as itself a screenscape: "Where
is the cinema? It is all around you outside, all over the city, that
marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios." From such a
standpoint, David Harvey's attempt to retain an ontological difference
between film and reality, one that obliges him to affirm that film is
"in the final analysis, a spectacle projected within an enclosed space
on a depthless screen," appears to be a distinctly uncinematic
foreboding, and therefore to be discredited.
Whatever the overall status of readings of contemporary social reality
as intrinsically cinematic, their claims are nowhere more pressing
than in Los Angeles where, for the century of its existence as a major
city, cinema has been central to its economic, social, and cultural
developments. All have been shaped in
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the magnetic field of cinema; and cinema, as it has imitated urban growth
in metastasizing at points increasingly remote from the original downtown
center, in Silver Lake, Hollywood, Culver City, the San Fernando Valley,
and (as the mutual imbrication of the electronics and the entertainment
industries bridges the north/south division of the state) now in Silicon
Valley, has preoccupied the entire region. As Reyner Banham observed,
"Hollywood... the movies found Los Angeles a diffuse fruit-growing
super-village of some eight hundred thousand souls, and handed it over
to the infant television industry in 1950 a world metropolis of over
More scrupulous historians have recognized the formative role of
other industries, though from real-estate through aerospace to crack
cocaine, they have exhibited a Hollywood-like combination of spectacle
and speculation--they have all been imaginary signifiers. But wherever
the industry's actual geographic location, for three quarters of the
century "Hollywood" has been recognized nationally and internationally
as the tertium quid between Los Angeles and the movies, the proper
synecdoche for each simultaneously.
More categorical even than Chicago's hegemony in meat-packing, the
city's unique appropriation of an entire medium is reciprocated
by that medium's similarly unique influence on the city, on its
industrial base, its architecture, and its overall cultural tenor.
The "Hollywood" sign remains the city's trademark, and stamps its
influence on other arts in the city, enriching them or depleting them,
financing their experimentation or drawing them into its own aesthetic
and entrepreneurial orbits. From the urban facades satirized by thirties'
novelists to the more extravagant forms of hyperspace epitomized initially
by Disneyland and more recently by the fabricated urban environment
of Universal's City Walk, the continually-reconstructed identification
has been architecturally embodied, if not in concrete then at least in
stucco, with a renewed cross-fertilization evident in the work of Frank
Israel and other contemporary architects. In other cultural forms,
the incorporation has been no less integral. Until relatively recent
innovation by ethnic writers, the Hollywood novel was taken as the Los
Angeles novel, while the city's other significant literature has been
the screenplay. Local theater is sustained by film actors, and even the
most avant-garde forms of music--from the severe atonality of long-time
resident Arnold Schoenberg to the similarly severe amelodicity of Orange
County hardcore or South Central rap--have eventually found themselves
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the soundtrack and other modes of incorporation into the now-totalized
intermedia entertainment/advertising packages of corporate culture.
The attenuation of any real outside the media in Los Angeles has been
reciprocated by a parallel tautological reflexivity in the way the city
has been drawn into Hollywood films. Even in those that exploit local
topography, its features are essentially mobile and non-specific, with the
demand that they be internationally readable prohibiting any comprehensive
or accurate mapping of the city's spatiality and social structure.
The topographical variety, abundant light, availability of space,
and other local conditions that sustained the industry have been
deracinated, displaced from the actual geography of the region to
the non-restrictive, diegetic geography of "the movies." Two main
processes may be distinguished. First, in eras when location shooting
has been common and so the city has represented the narratives of all
other places, its own specificity has been concealed. Even films
that mobilize a thematic polarization of Los Angeles against some
geographical alternative often use the city as the site of both itself
and its other. Most of the "Berkeley" scenes in The Graduate
(Mike Nichols, 1967),
for example, were shot at the University of Southern California
(USC), while such films as Godzilla and the upcoming Arnold
Schwartzenegger actioner End of Days that trade on the
authenticity of their take on New York life were actually shot here.
The syndrome is long-standing. As early as 1911, it was recognized
that the growth of the film industry in the region was substantially
attributable to the topographical and architectural diversity that
facilitated location shooting.
And a map of Southern California produced at Paramount Studio in the
twenties shows the entire region over-written as other places; the
area north of Malibu is designated Coast of Spain; the Palos Verdes
peninsula is Wales, Catalina is South Sea Islands; the channel between
it and Long Beach is both the Malay Coast and Long Island Sound; the
Salton Sea is the Red Sea; and south of it lies the Sahara Desert.
In Foucault's terms, while the Los Angeles area is then effectively
a heterotopia, a site "capable of juxtaposing in a single real place
several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible,"
in any given film, perception of that plurality is sacrificed in the
simulation of a single diegesis and a unitary, self-identical space.
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On the other hand, when the topography of the area is used to represent
narratives supposed actually to take place there--when, to appropriate the
title of a film to which we shall return, L.A. Plays Itself--the
specific spatial conditions are similarly elided. The number of feature
films set in Los Angeles is by now so immense that any generalizations
are hazardous; but, despite conspicuous exceptions like Chinatown
(Roman Polanski, 1974), Hollywood films set in Los Angeles have rarely
explored its real historical and geographical specificity.
Instead, either the city is replaced by a handful of metonymic images:
sunset at the beach, Beverly Hills streets lined with high palm trees,
aerial shots of layered freeway intersections, the Hollywood sign itself.
Like the picture-cards in a deck, these have a greater resonance than
other, nondescript images of the city, and they can appear in various
combinations, but they always signify the same, a general sense of Los
Angeles, but only as it has been coded in previous media incarnations.
Or, when taken as a whole, the city is recruited to the fantasies of the
national and global imaginaries and made the site of utopian or dystopian
spectacles that may be justified by invoking real Los Angeles events
--earthquakes, immigration, race-riots, and life in Hollywood and Beverly
Hills are among the most prominent--but which transform these according
to the needs of the genre, ideology, or the entertainment function itself.
Again heterotopia is replaced by utopia; again Foucault: "Utopias
are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general
relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society.
They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society
turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally
So in both usages, representations of Los Angeles in mainstream film
and television have overlapped with and been overdetermined by the
requirements of the media itself. Whether the actual heterotopic
diversity of the region that facilities the media industry is repressed
in each film's selection of the one component its particular diegesis
requires, or whether the city is presented in an idealized or inverted
perfect form, Los Angeles has been an everywhere or a nowhere, but
never itself. Media images of Los Angeles refer essentially to the
media; in them the city's spatiality becomes the space of the cinema
industry. Hollywood's overall inability to map the space of its own
operation in any but the broadest and most sensationalized forms is
probably no worse than
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its abrogation of any other social responsibility, and certainly no worse
than its misrepresentation of the social geography of other spaces,
of the American West, for example, or of Viet Nam. But the failure
in respect to Los Angeles is particularly distinctive in that it has
concealed the other extraordinary, if not unique property of the city
that supplies its postmodern prototypicality--the urban structure itself.
While to the entertainment industry Los Angeles was "fundamentally
unreal," it became an all-too real prototype of the postmodern
conurbations now developing in many parts of the world, especially
the Third World. Reflecting the human development of the topography,
climate, and biota of the land and water masses, for the past century
spatiality in Los Angeles has been most determined by hydrology, the
automobile, and immigration. The first supplied the successive booms of
suburban real estate development and the second consolidated the rail and
road-car networks into the most extensive freeway system in the world,
one that simultaneously linked and segregated the local communities.
The resulting voracious peripheral growth, horizontal rather than vertical
development, produced a dispersed urban polynucleation, successively the
"six suburbs in search of a city" of twenties' witticisms; the "nineteen
suburbs in search of a city" of the 1939 WPA guide; and Edward Soja's
"Sixty-Mile Circle" of "at least 132 incorporated cities." Through
immigration these turned into "the most differentiated of all cities,"
"a combination of enclaves with high identity, and multiclaves with
mixed identity... perhaps the most heterogeneous city in the world."
The successive waves of immigration--Anglos from the mid-west and south,
blacks and Mexicans, and most recently East Asians and refugees from
U.S. imperial adventures in Meso-America--precipitated not the radial,
homogenous modern city, but a cosmopolitian megalopolis, more diverse
than any city since Shanghai in the thirties, inhabited by people
from all over the world--a microcosm of global diaspora. The unreal
places of the Paramount Studio map have all been occupied, and now a
corner at a mini-mall, with shop signs in Chinese and Tagalog as well
as English, leads from Mexico to Korea.
Together with the long history of anti-labor politics that inhibited
trans-ethnic working-class consciousness, this social dispersal precluded
full urban integration; but it also had the advantage of allowing minority
social groups, especially
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those that arrived in distinct waves of immigration, to settle in
relatively homogenous, relatively autonomous clusters. There, as well as
infiltrating into Los Angeles aspects of distant spatialities, they have
better sustained their original identity. Historically, these communities
have become visible to the hegemony mostly at moments of racial or
cultural strife: the anti-Chinese riots of the eighteen-seventies,
for example, or zoot-suiters in the forties, and blacks in the sixties
and nineties. At other times, within themselves they have nurtured and
sustained local colors and traditions. The barrios of East Los Angeles,
for example, or the African Americans's preservation of the culture of
the rural south, and more recently the "little" Asian cities of Tokyo,
Manila, Taipei, Saigon, and so on are distinct cultural formations,
some of which have flourished bountifully in relative obscurity, even
as components of them were assimilated into the uniformity of mass media
and advertising. These local places are structured between two primary
vectors: a centripetal pull towards the downtown area, which has always
been and remains the focus of the civic, economic, and transport networks
of the basin, and a centrifugal pull generated by the semi-autonomous
industrial and residential clusters.
The structural tensions that shape the city geographically generate
parallel tensions that shape its arts. Minority cultures in Los Angeles
are created in the tension between the centrifugal pull of the local
communities and their indigenous practices and the centripetal pull
of the entertainment industry. As over time and at different rates
for different groups the balance between these pulls has shifted, the
mediums they have used to sustain themselves culturally have similarly
matured and declined. But, reflecting the extent to which film has
been the city's medium in dominance, independent filmmaking in Los
Angeles has been a crucial site of alternative cultural activity.
Either unrepresented or misrepresented by the film industry, the city's
local communities have had to develop modes of film production alternative
to and counter to the studios' capitalist mode of production; and in the
alternative cinemas they have pioneered, both the discursive structures
of their films and their visions of the city and of their own relation
to it have been quite unlike Hollywood's. These alternative cinemas
have been intermittently recurrent since the beginning of the industry.
In 1914, for example, Frank E. Wolfe and a Socialist collective produced
a feature film, From Dusk to Dawn to counter anti-working class
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the Trust films, and in it they rewrote the bungled explosion at the
Los Angeles Times in 1911 and the subsequent Darrow trial as
the beginning of a progressive labor movement in the city that led to
the election of a socialist Governor. Conditions in Los Angeles,
Calif. (1934), the Los Angeles Film and Photo League's twenty-minute
documentary on the effects of the depression, was a parallel montage of
the rich and poor sections of the city; the out-of-work standing in
lines outside employment agencies or sifting through refuse for food
contrasted with golfers arriving in Rolls Royces at a resort hotel.
Hollywood Lockout! 1946, produced by the Conference of
Studio Unions (CSU) during that year's strike, showed pickets outside
the studios being beaten and arrested by the police who were protecting
scabs on behalf of the owners. The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie,
1961), a 35mm documentary made by a group of USC students, celebrated
the working-class Native Americans around the old Bunker Hill before
both the architecture and the community were destroyed in capital
restructuring. Requiem 29 (David Garcia, 1970) documented the
1970 anti-war Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles, where police rioted,
beating many people and killing L.A. Times journalist
Rubén Salazar. L.A. Plays Itself (Fred Halstead, 1972),
a Songs of Innocence and Experience of homosexuality in Los
Angeles, began with scenes of idyllic sex in the Santa Monica Mountains
that, when interrupted by the sprawl of urban development, cut to a
second half of ecstatic sado-masochistic sex on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Water Ritual # 1: An Urban Rite of Purification (Barbara
McCullough, 1979), a four-minute film opened on the skeleton of a ruined
building in a citycape so devastated that it looks like an impoverished
area in the Third World; a young African American woman enters, sits down
on the ground, blows sand through her fist, and then, hitching her skirts
round her hips, she urinates. These communities and the Los Angeles
they live have no place in the corporate cinema, except in caricature.
The dispersed, polynucleated but nevertheless ultimately centered
structure of the Los Angeles megalopolis and the broadly homologous
conditions determining the alternative minority cinemas it sustains
allows the question of the geographical relation of film to the city
to be posed in a new and properly materialist way. When the issue is
formulated exclusively as a question of representation, revolving on
the relations between a given film's iconography and diegetic space to
the architectural and social spaces of the city, the forces and
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materials that generate the representation are ignored--an idealism akin
to post-structuralist assimilations of the city to other forms of sheer
textuality. For studio films, the industrial mode of production and the
commodity social relations it sustains are relatively uniform, and so
only a concern with the overall implications of capitalist production of
culture can prompt consideration of its effect on the textual properties
of the films it produces and hence consideration of spatial factors
affecting production. But for films produced outside the studio system,
the geography of production is inscribed in the film itself.
In these cases, a geo-cinematic hermeneutic will investigate
the relation between a given film's representation of the city and
the actual urban resources that supply and govern its manufacture--the
cinematic registers of social and material production. The different
cities lived by Los Angeles's various local communities provide them
with different topographical, architectural, social, and economic
resources, and the visions of Los Angeles they produce reflect both the
architectural and social appearance of the spatiality they inhabit,
and also the resources it allows them: the different formal means of
cultural production--different stories, situations, images, rhythms,
and points-of-view and the different material
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means of cultural production. Since any given film is the point at
which cultural work transforms a specific set of human and natural
resources into a representation of and intervention in life in the city,
the particular image of the city it presents will always reflect the
resources from which it was made. The cultural means of production
mediates between the reality of the city and its appearance in film.
In order to develop a hermeneutic that can reveal these relations
between cinema and geography, we must take one last detour through the
mediating apparatuses, the actual institutions that have allowed
marginal communities to develop autonomous or quasi-autonomous cinemas.
In Los Angeles, these mediating apparatuses typically grew on the edges
of or in the interstices of the industrial cinema itself. They fall
into three groups: production (e.g. equipment sales and rental houses,
laboratories, and co-operatives that make equipment available to beginning
filmmakers, media arts centers, and community-outreach workshops);
consumption (e.g. distribution organizations, promotional mechanisms,
and screening organizations, including specialty art theaters, and groups
formed specifically for this purpose); and suffusing these, ideological
apparatuses (e.g. museums, archives, and libraries; journals, magazines,
and lectures). Of these mediating apparatuses and performing all these
functions, college and university film programs have been especially
important, sustaining an interface and intercourse between industrial and
independent production in Los Angeles. The city has historically been
rich in those resources that also feed directly into the industry, but
relatively poor in those independent of it. Hollywood has sustained many
para-industrial workshops, personnel marginally or partially employed in
the studios, and film schools, while cultural resources oriented toward
entirely independent cinemas have been correspondingly sparse. But though
facilities for independent distribution and exhibition have been meager
and attenuated, especially in comparison to equivalent institutions in
New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles has--sporadically, but
persistently--sustained the institutions of an independent film culture.
Below, rather than considering the relation between the highly specific
representations of Los Angeles in the marginal films mentioned above
and the specific conditions that allowed them to be produced and the
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functions they sustain, we will consider two films that more directly
negotiate with the apparatuses of commercial production and that partially
overlap with the industrial cinema. Their tendencies to autonomy and
opposition are interwoven with tendencies towards collaboration, and
in this, they foreground the combination of centrifugal and centripetal
impulses that characterize the overall cultural situation in the city.
To frame this broader project, I will invoke Reyner Banham's similarly
broad and provisional answer to the question of whether Los Angeles was
one city or 132; he said its architectural originality and multiplicity
could be schematized into four "ecologies": the beaches (surfurbia),
the foothills, the central flatlands and the freeways.
Combining Sauer's term, "cultural landscape" with Banham's ecologies,
we can then think of the spatialities in which non-studio film is
produced--including the different mediating cinematic apparatuses to
which they permit access--as "cultural ecologies," and so propose a
geographical allegory; just as every film silently tells the story of
the social relations and the material functions it serves, so it tells
the story of the cultural ecology in which it was produced. The way
the city is figured in a film made outside the studio system reflects
the way the city figured in the filmmaking.
The possibilities of such a geo-cinematic hermeneutic may be
sketched by a comparison of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep
(1977) and Pat O'Neill's Water and Power (1988), in which the
relation between each film's very different pictures of Los Angeles
and the cultural ecology that produced it is especially pointed.
Both resemble more traditional avant-gardes in being intensely
personal, for though both involved extensive collaboration, they were
each conceived, photographed, and edited essentially by one person;
and both were undertaken as self-justifying projects with comparatively
little attention to the possibilities of financial return, certainly not
to the valorization of invested capital. But both are more specifically
prototypical of the Los Angeles avant-garde in being alternative to yet
in clear negotiation with Hollywood; despite stunning formal originality,
both approach industrial norms in that one is a feature-length narrative,
while the other is close to feature-length, and shot and distributed
in 35mm. Though in these respects they are similar, their styles are
so diametrically different as to constitute a virtual case-study in
what introductory film aesthetics terms the "Bazin-Eisenstein debate,"
a textbook contrast between "faith in
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reality" and "faith in the image." And while one is overtly "political,"
the other is overtly "aesthetic." These two film languages and their
envisioning of Los Angeles reflect equally different spatialities in
terms of both representation and production.
Killer of Sheep
The Los Angeles of Killer of Sheep is almost entirely the African
American working-class neighborhoods of South-Central. Architecturally,
the ghetto differs from its counterparts in other cities in the
predominance of single-family dwellings and small apartment buildings.
The cityscape is flat, monotonous, dilapidated, of limited imageability,
and with no conspicuous internal differentiation. There are no signs
of commerce except a single liquor store, or of industry except the
slaughterhouse where the hero works (and it is generally seen only from
the inside, so that its articulation with the community is unspecified).
And there are no signs of connections with other parts of the city
except, briefly, the Southern Pacific railroad that appears to share
the area's defunct lethargy; its tracks are children's playgrounds and
its engines mostly immobile. No trace of any other Los Angeles may be
seen; no business districts, no supermarkets, no luxurious high-rise
appartment or office buildings, no technicolor sunsets, no homes of
the stars--not even the Watts Towers. Most remarkable of all, there
are no freeways. Indeed, there are almost no cars; and those few that
are not so permanently disabled that they have been re-invented as
street-furniture are at best unreliable. And so nothing can happen.
Life here is entirely constrained within only one of Banham's ecologies,
the central flatlands. The beaches, the hills, and the freeways are
all unavailable, and the only narrative event of any substance is the
protagonist's attempt to secure a car to take his family outside the
ghetto, if only for a day trip. But hardly is an outside glimpsed, than
the car breaks down, forcing a return to a stultifying carcereal stasis.
Here, lack of geographic mobility is a figure above all for the lack
of social mobility, and in presenting poverty as simultaneously an
economic and a spatial condition, the film foregrounds the racial and
class apartheid that constitutes the Los Angeles of South Central: that
lack of access to work, to communications networks, to self-governance,
or to any of the other resources of
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the city proper, commonly proposed as the immediate cause of the 1965
uprising, and which has only deteriorated since.
The image of African American family life and the quasi-documentary
verisimilitude of the representation both categorically differ, not
only from mainstream Hollywood (for which the area is essentially
unrepresentable and known only as a lair from which emerge the
predators who prey on bourgeois society), but also from the two eras
of para-studio African American filmmaking that frame it, the early
seventies blaxploitation that followed Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss
Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971) and its recent revival in films like Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), South Central (Steve
Anderson, 1992), and Menace II Society (Albert and Allen Hughes
1993). In general contrast to the generic conventions of both eras, in
Killer of Sheep the family is whole. It consists of Stan, the
father, who is present, regularly employed, and proudly independent; and,
however precariously, he supports his wife and children. He disdains
petty crime and the petty criminals of the community; alongside fellow
working-class whites, he continues in back-breaking labor in the
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slaughter-house; coffee is his drug of choice, and while the grind of
his life has its toll, it doesn't provoke promiscuity but rather destroys
sexual desire--the "impotence" of "a dream deferred," as Langston Hughes's
poem, "Same in Blues" puts it. Since his principle relation remains with
his wife, the film's action is mostly the melodrama of domestic space,
rather than the violence of exterior, public spaces. And though the
film's overall vision is bleak, it ends on a note of humanist optimism
as a crippled young woman announces that she is pregnant. The film's
portrayal of an African American working-class family stands as a heroic
demystification of the industrial-media's combination of neglect and
exploitation, not only of black but of all working-class life, and an
exemplary premonition of a community-inspired alternative cinema. But its
production was not a case of spontaneous community self-expression, so
much as a historically and geographically specific negotiation between
the community in which Burnett had lived since coming to Los Angeles
from Mississippi as a child and the cinematic apparatuses mediating
between that community and the film industry. In this case, the principle
agency was the film school at the University of California at Los Angles
(UCLA), where Burnett was the leading figure in a generation of young
black filmmakers who used its resources to produce industry calling-cards.
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One of the only four blacks in the film school proper,
Burnett was eventually joined at UCLA in the early seventies by Billy
Woodberry, Haile Gerima, and Ben Caldwell; in the same period, Julie Dash
was at the American Film Institute, an organization even more thoroughly
aligned with Hollywood than UCLA. All of their student projects were
realistic narratives, oriented towards the production of populist
feature films for mass distribution inside and outside the African
American community; and they all worked on each other's projects.
Burnett, for example, wrote and photographed Woodberry's Bless Their
Little Hearts (1983), and photographed Dash's Illusions
(1982), Gerima's Bush Mama (1976), and parts of Larry Clark's
Passing Through (1977). For these filmmakers, the academy made
the combination of three things available: production equipment and
a semi-professional filmmaking community; a degree of access to the
industry; and models of alternative film languages compatible with
low-budget feature production.
By the early seventies, the international hegemony of the Hollywood film
industry had been challenged by two modes of film production alternative
to the corporate-controlled film industry, each allowing different
mobilizations of political
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aspirations: on the one hand, the attempt to create non-or even
anti-commodity cinemas, and on the other the commodity production
of films by other industrial centers. The most strongly politicized
versions of these two productive possibilities were respectively the
militant "impoverished" and "imperfect" cinemas of Latin-America and
Viet Nam, and the sequence of "New Wave" art cinemas subsequent to
Italian Neo-realism that reached a culmination in the work of Jean-Luc
Godard and the Groupe Dziga Vertov. In the United States, the former
tendency produced the Newsreels, while the latter, the American political
art film, was essentially still-born, and would remain so apart from
the briefly-conspicuous exception of Speaking Directly (1974)
and other works by Jon Jost (some of which were made in Los Angeles).
Generally in Los Angeles, however--where the blacklist and the HUAC
investigations had extirpated virtually all traces of progressive film
culture, where the police and judiciary were notoriously racist, and
where spatial segregation made any class-based, trans-racial political
cooperation extremely difficult--neither was a real possibility.
There was, in fact, a L.A. branch of the Newsreel, and it worked very
closely with the Black Panther Party on a film intended to clarify the
Panthers' class-based analysis of American racism in an attempt to counter
the Black Nationalism of Ron Karenga's US organization, also based in
the city. But on December 8, 1969, two days after the Illinois police
murdered Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton, the LAPD in collaboration with
the FBI destroyed the Los Angeles Panther headquarters, effectively
ending Panther leadership of the Black community in Los Angeles, and
opening the road for the recrudescence of the gangs. And though Los
Angeles Newsreel had included well-equipped, experienced filmmakers and
sophisticated Marxist intellectuals, it failed to bring a single film
of its own to distribution.
Refracted through Hollywood's insistent presence, the impossibility
of an agitational cinema in Los Angeles in the early seventies thus
left only the option of populist narratives, made with a view toward
dissemination via the festival circuit and liberal public institutions;
that is, the art film, and specifically neo-realism, "a revolutionary
cinema in a non-revolutionary society."
The determining effect of these specific community and institutional
resources is everywhere apparent in Killer of Sheep. They
produce its thematics, its liberal humanist appeal for sympathy and
understanding--if not sheer pity--from the
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hegemony, rather than a historical analysis or a militant call to
contestation directed to the community itself. As a result, the film
has been primarily distributed, not in the black community it depicts,
but in the white institutions of liberal humanism, in festivals, schools,
And they produce its form: the combination of narrative strategies and
economic imperatives that prompt the use of deep-focus, long-takes;
the non-professional actors playing roles close to themselves; the
emphasis on an organic connection between people and the environment;
the documentary feel of grainy black and white; and especially the
attenuation of narrative, its replacement as a site of meaning by
studied takes of human faces permitting the observation of what
Rossellini called "the movements of the soul." In these respects,
the film is an audaciously ambitious accommodation of impoverishment
in resources and an accommodation to the politics of the liberal
institutions which, in the absence of a militant black cinema,
allowed it to be made. But in one other respect the film is wealthy.
Immediately available to it was the most bountiful resource of
African-American culture, music, and Burnett uses it to enrich and
extend the visual track of Killer of Sheep.
[End Page 39]
Used intra-diegetically, recorded songs affirm music's special role as
a means of spiritual sustenance and imaginative expression for African American
people. But Burnett's use of non-diegetic music in elaboration of that
role allows him metonymically to expand early-seventies South Central
into the whole history of African-American resistance. His visual
mapping of the environment may be constrained by the empiricism of realist
photography, as well as by the poverty of the community and by the poverty
of the resources for which he, as a UCLA student was only partially able
to compensate; but in the soundtrack he loosened the realism and used
music to access other times and spaces, and so introduce a historical
dimension and a sense of continuity, whose destruction he regarded as
primarily responsible for the degradation of the black community.
Both framing eras of blaxploitation were fuelled by contemporary black
music, soul and gangsta rap respectively, and indeed were essentially
attempts to reproduce in cinema the music's cultural intervention and its
enormous financial return; in both eras the films' overall ideological
postures were derived from and amplified by their soundtracks, which were
also marketed as commodities in the way that has typified the integrated
entertainment industry, especially since Saturday Night Fever.
Positioned outside even the compromises of independent commercial
feature production, Killer of Sheep lost the marketing platform
of such corporate-controlled music; but it also escaped determination
by commercial priorities. Not obliged to identify with a single,
simultaneously-marketed genre, it referenced a much wider library and
used music in much more complex ways.
Indeed, if the visuals alone resemble the verisimilitude of neo-realism,
the image-music relations create a variety of highly-artificial montage
effects, in which classical black music--blues from the thirties and
forties--add resonance and counterpoint to themes which the attenuated
narrative itself holds suspended: Paul Robeson's singing "Ballad for
as youngsters play on ruined lots, for example, and Dinah Washington
singing "This Bitter Earth" as Stan and his wife embrace each other in
their misery and slowly dance.
In some instances, the play of song lyrics across the visuals is very
complex. The scene where for the first time it becomes clear that
Stan's anomie is destroying his relation with his wife, for example, is
accompanied by Earth, Wind and Fire's
[End Page 40]
mid-seventies mega-hit, "Reasons." The tension between the timbre
of Philip Bailey's ecstatic falsetto that affirms erotic passion
and the lyrics that broach the inevitability of its fading over time
perfectly encompasses the tensions in the woman's life. But since the
sequence begins with their baby daughter singing along to the record,
the questioning of love is initially redirected from husband/wife to
daughter/ mother, with the child placed as simultaneously the objective
correlative of the erotic passion which once existed but has now been
drained away by the grind of poverty, and herself already in process
of being constituted as a subject by the mass media. "I don't want
to feel," the child sings, groping to follow the record, "I'm in the
wrong place to be real." Contextualized in this specific narrative,
these lyrics suddenly transcend their banality, and the moment becomes
a summary index of the history of a people.
Water and Power
If Burnett's Los Angeles appears as an oppressive enclosure that thwarts
all attempts to escape, O'Neill's is a shimmering vision through which
disembodied figures are transported by magic. No prison this; rather a
plethora of radically dissimilar spatialities that, linked by the restless
trajectories of camera movement, all incessantly dissolve one into
another. Their multiple-superimposition and constant interpenetration
create a composite space, for implicit in any one topography are an
unlimited number of others. For Burnett, the ontology of the neighborhood
and its boundaries are undeniable; for O'Neill any one place is only a
pocket in another, not even a momentary rest in the ceaseless twining
of heterotopias. None of these ever stabilizes sufficiently to become
normative, but instead a relation among them emerges as a kind of
deep structure to most of the film's sequences and its overall theme.
This consists of a dissolve from one or more shots of desert scenes into
one or more shots of the city, not necessarily authorized by some visual
resemblance, with the transition bridged by an interior showing traces
of human creativity and craft, a workshop, for example, or an abandoned
industrial space turned into an artist's loft.
Fundamentally then the film is an extended parallel montage, and though
it is one premised on continuity rather than collision, on Pudovkin
[End Page 41]
Eisenstein, nevertheless it marks a radical development for O'Neill.
His earliest works had been each mobilized around a single formal and
thematic principle, but his immediately previous films, such as Saugus
Series (1974) and Sidewinder's Delta (1976) had rather
been dossier-like compilations of discrete sections, each mobilizing a
different formal procedure in optical printing, and linked to the others
by only the loosest thematic continuity--they were generally scenes of
everyday events and wilderness landscapes all transformed by art.
These were essentially late underground films, even though the
theoretical and institutional infrastructure supporting such short
films had collapsed by the late seventies under the combined assaults
of structural film, the politicization of the avant-garde by feminism
and other identity groups, and the catastrophic increase in film costs.
The avant-garde's consequent turn to feature-length works designed
for commercial distribution was not an inimical direction for O'Neill,
except that the compositional principle of his entire oeuvre to date
had been montage. Water and Power marks the beginning of an
extremely tentative engagement with narrative.
[End Page 42]
In published notes, O'Neill has sketched a narrative underlay to the film.
Its main character is Aaron Haskell, who commits suicide by plunging
from the bridge in the movie's opening shot, just before the title.
(Perhaps the film is what he sees in the moment of his death, parallel
to the expanded moment of consciousness of the man in Incident at
Owl Creek [La Rivière du hibou, Robert Enrico, 1962],
who also falls from a bridge as he is hanged--or of Stan Brakhage,
whose suicide by hanging frames his visionary Anticipation of
the Night ). At any rate, according to the notes, Jack,
a detective investigating Haskell's death visits his wife, who lives
in a trailer in the desert near their mine, and her lover, Rudy, who
tells stories about corruption in the Russian army. Scenes from various
Westerns follow, which in turn lead the story back to The Studio, where
shooting is underway on the crowd scenes for The Biggest Picture of
All; the movie is sponsored by four multinational corporations,
lead by Seoul businessman, Kim Chong, who is actually Haskell, "very
much alive and... deeply involved in the picture business."
Many of these incidents do appear in the film--the corruption in the
Russian army, for example, is illustrated by scenes from The Lost Command
[End Page 43]
that are floated in over time-lapse photography of a desert lake bed--and
others are spoken or presented as text accompanied by black leader,
with the visual equivalents appearing elsewhere. But such a narrative
substrate is certainly not recoverable from the film, nor does the film
imply narrative as a compositional principle, except in so far that
subtitles satirize it by generating contradictory continuities in the
manner of the intertitles of Un chien Andalou. As remote as the
motive of a dream, narrative is dispelled by the immediacy and intricacy
of the optical printing, and by the insistence of the montage.
Knitting together a skein of Los Angeles associations, O'Neill's
deconstruction of the opposition between city and desert recalls the
metaphors of local lore: "The World is a Suburb of Los Angeles," "Los
Angeles is a cultural desert," "The World is a Ghetto" and so on.
And the visual trope may be read literally in several ways: human
industry has turned the desert into a city, or the artist's vision
is capable of seeing through the urban fabric to the land-form below.
It also has a very specific historical basis in the Owens Valley Project,
a visionary undertaking that brought the water that allowed the city's
expansion, even as it turned the previously fertile valley into a desert.
This was in fact the beginning of the city's Department of Water and
Power, and the pipelines bringing the water through the desert to the
city are a leitmotif in the film. But O'Neill's historical retrospection
is intertwined with a more contemporary attention to the rhetoric that
matured in the period of the film's production, proposing the city's
historical representativeness. Overnight and from several different
directions simultaneously, it was transformed from a more or less hideous
anomaly, a kind of late-capitalist Philadelphia, into "a protopos,
a paradigmatic place... a mesocosm, an ordered world in which the
micro and the macro, the idiographic and the nomothetic, the concrete and
the abstract, can be seen simultaneously in an articulated and interactive
combination"--the representative postmodern city invoked above.
Within the many different agendas at stake in such promotions, two
are especially important: first, the post-Fordist economics of the
Pacific Rim, and second, a putatively new mode of subjectivity, usually
correlated with the post-structural theory promoted in Orange County
by the "Parisian fakirs"
who flocked to the University of California at Irvine in the seventies
and eighties. Traces of the city's role in Pacific Rim finance capital
and the massive importation of both third world workers and third world
labor relations are glimpsed in
[End Page 44]
Water and Power: in the juxtapositions of the different downtown
skylines, for example, and in the fragments of a history of capital
restructuring stretching from Sir Francis Drake to Kim Chong, the Korean
businessman involved in shady corporate transactions in the picture
business. But implications of this kind are subordinate to those of
second area, postmodern subjectivity, specifically to a formal structure
which disassembles the filmic vocabularies of the classic narrative and
the humanist subject.
In Water and Power, stable narrative subjects are replaced by
fragmentary and evanescent protagonists, what Paul Arthur has called
"a set of vagabond voices and images connected briefly by theme or
proximity" and narrative continuity itself is replaced by the "intricate
semicoherence" of the montage.
Consequently the medium's unique capacity to redeem reality by
simulating unified, continuous space and time is abandoned in the film's
two most fundamental strategies, collage superimpositions of multiple
registers of the former and time-lapse photography condensations of
the latter. These technical effects
[End Page 45]
are persuasive as allegorical figurations of the conditions of
postmodernity, of its putative time-space compression and the continued
dissolution of one place into another that constitutes the Foucaultian
hetertopic space, "capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several
sites that are in themselves incompatible."
Such resonances may be pushed even further since, in so forcefully
making material space and time subject to the medium itself, these filmic
techniques lead all-but inevitably to the superimposition of found footage
over the landscapes, and so to the discovery that the topographies of
Southern California are all already inhabited by old Hollywood movies.
The difference between natural and filmic space is confounded, and
diegeses photographed elsewhere and often long-ago for other films are
discovered within O'Neill's own photography of the local landscapes--an
inverse recapitulation of the process that historically allowed Hollywood
to find all other places in its backyard.
In respect to these multiple figurations of media-dependent hyperreality,
O'Neill's chief industrial intertext is then the essential Hollywood
film, not of the seventies,
[End Page 46]
but of the eighties: not the Chinatown (which is usually cited as
the correlative to his investigation of the Owens Valley Project), but
Blade Runner. But rather than choosing between the nostalgic
modernist film and the dystopian post-modernist vision that has
replaced it as the key representation of the Los Angeles of all our
futures, it is probably more fruitful to see Water and Power as
superimposing these too. For its take on hyperreality and the trappings
of postmodernism is deeply ambivalent. Explaining this and so explaining
the film's unique visual appearance again involves a geographical detour,
for though like Killer of Sheep, Water and Power occupies an
interzone between the industry proper and the disaffiliated avant-garde,
its liminality is one of quite different contexts.
In Banham's terms, O'Neill's ecology is that of the foothills, the
space where several modes of cultural production intersect and nurture
each other. Predominantly it is the social space of Hollywood and
para-Hollywood workers; Hollywood Boulevard is its "main street,"
and its main activity is the manufacture of commodity entertainment. This
Hollywood also sustains the host of para-industrial enterprises of
the kind that, from the mid-sixties until computer-imaging became
the industry norm, allowed O'Neill to make a living and subsidized
his independent projects; his special effects work on commercials
and features, such as Return of the Jedi and Poltergeist
continues then the tradition of avant-garde interpolations in Hollywood
films that began with Slavko Vorkapich's experimental montage interludes
in thirties' features. But the foothills also sustains art that is not
so oriented to or completely dependent on the interests of capital.
For O'Neill himself, its significant institutions were UCLA, where
he was formally educated (not in the film school, whose industry
orientation was so fruitful for Burnett, but in art and design), and
two of Los Angeles's long-standing art theaters, the Coronet and the
Cinema Theater, where in the seventies he informally educated himself
in the classic European and contemporary U.S. avant-gardes.
And they sustain the other institutions of the avant-garde:
art galleries, cafés and bars, bookstores, and screening
organizations, most notably Oasis Cinema. For a number of years in the
late-seventies, Oasis was one of two independent screening organizations
in the city. Collectively organized by avant-garde filmmakers, it
became the focus of a distinct era in avant-garde production; O'Neill
was a founding member, and he premiered the most consummate of his
fourteen shorts there.
[End Page 47]
Located in the middle of this mixed cultural ecology is Lookout Mountain
Films, the most recent of the several independent production companies
O'Neill has headed. From this aerie on Lookout Mountain Avenue, high
in the Hollywood Hills off the Cahuenga pass, O'Neill does indeed look
out over some of the chief geographical and historical divides of the
city and the industry, all of which structure Water and Power.
He is midway between Los Angeles proper to the south, and to the north
the San Fernando Valley, the area added to the city to meet the terms
of the Owens River bond issue. He is also midway between the pre-and
post-war locations of the industry, between Hollywood itself and Studio
and Universal Cities. Further to the north lies the Owens Valley itself
(where most of the desert footage was shot), while closer is the town
of Saugus and California Institute of the Arts, where he taught for the
first half of the seventies, with several of his ex-students returning
to him to work on Water and Power in a team that also included
three animators, along with specialists in audio design, mechanical
design and construction, and optical printing.
These geographies and the schizophrenic combination of industrial and
artisanal potentials in this cultural ecology ubiquitously inform Water
and Power's production. A home-made film, only partially funded by
the National Endowment for the Humanities, it nevertheless cost $90,000;
it uses a very sophisticated motion-controlled time-lapse camera, but the
images were shot spontaneously; though the image processing is beyond
the industrial standards, it was ordered intuitively; it contains
fragments from O'Neill's commercial jobs and also from his dreams.
This interpenetration of avant-garde and industrial proclivities and the
combination of imaginative and arcane manual skills are also historically
specific, the former instancing the switch from shorts to feature-length
projects that a generation of avant-garde filmmakers made in the eighties,
and the latter a not-unconnected tension between technological nostalgia
and prolepsis. Occurring on the threshold of a totalized electronic
environment and electronic image processing, the implications of the
film's elaborate fabrication nevertheless shy away from the aesthetics
of postmodernism to reclaim a thick, modernist materiality, and invoke a
homespun pride in hands-on craftsmanship and authenticity figured in the
images of artisanal environments that bridge the city and the desert in
[End Page 48]
These tensions trace an individual and a general crisis for avant-garde
film. The pull between a modern past and a postmodern future, both of
which (though in quite different ways) were in the mid-eighties not
really here, was a specific historical and geographical moment.
For the effects of which O'Neill is a virtuoso master in film were all
becoming routinely possible, but as computer-generated using digital
technology. At this point the yearnings of avant-garde film to be
autonomous practice, independent of the now-international industrial
culture, give up the ghost. Antipathy to rationalized, corporate
electronic media will be expressed as a radical conservatism that
privileges earlier phases of Hollywood itself--a response that has
been endemic in the avant-garde at least since Kenneth Anger. To work
today, as O'Neill does, photochemically and in film bespeaks a longing
for a world of mechanical reproduction, of simple apparatuses like
optical printers that can be domestically assembled from WWII cameras
(as O'Neill himself did), and so it is a nostalgia for visual precision,
for full visual sensuousness, for vision itself. As we are absorbed by
television, a medium which makes vision redundant, Water and Power
appears as an attempt to reclaim Los Angeles for film and to reclaim
the medium in which Los Angeles lived. One of the last machine's last
master-craftsmen, O'Neill made what inevitably looks more and more like
the last Hollywood film.
David E. James teaches at the University of Southern California. His most
recent book is Power Misses: Essays Across (Un)Popular Culture
(London and New York: Verso Books, 1996).
My thanks to Clark Arnwine and Jesse Lerner for their reading of an
earlier draft of this essay. I have silently incorporated a number of
John Berger, G (New York; Pantheon, 1972), 40, and Michel Foucault,
"Of Other Spaces," trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics,16, 1 (Spring
1986), 22. Foucault's essay provided the point of departure for Edward
W. Soja's Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical
Social Theory (New York; Verso, 1989), a text to which the present
essay will return.
The scant geographical approaches to cinema include one ambitious attempt
to rethink cinema in global terms, a couple of collections of essays, and
an earlier issue of this journal, respectively, Fredric Jameson, The
Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (London;
BFI Publishing, 1992); Stuart C. Aitken and Leo E. Zonn, eds., Place,
Power, Situation, and Spectacle: A Geography of Film (Lanham,
Md.; Rowman and Littlefield, 1994); David B. Clarke, ed., The Cinematic
City (New York: Routledge, 1997); and Clark Arnwine and Jesse Lerner,
ed.s, "Cityscapes I,"Wide Angle, 19, 4 (October 1997).
David B. Clarke, "Introduction: Previewing the Cinematic City," in Clarke,
The Cinematic City, 3. The Baudrillard quote is from America
(London, Verso, 1988), 56; the Harvey quote is from The Condition
of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(Oxford; Blackwell, 1989), 308.
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (London;
"Spatiality" is Edward Soja's summary term for the "created space
of social organization and production," mediating between space
as a topographical given and the social relations constructed in
it. "The structure of organized space is not a separate structure
with its own autonomous laws of construction and transformation,
nor is it simply an expression of the class structure emerging from
social (and thus aspatial?) relations of production. It represents,
instead, a dialectically defined component of the general relations of
production which are simultaneously social and spatial."(Postmodern
See Robert Carringer's discussion with The Graduate's production
designer Richard Sylbert elsewhere in this volume.
Richard V. Spencer, "Los Angeles as a Producing Center," Moving
Picture World, 8 April 1911. Excerpts from the article are reprinted
in Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915
(Berkeley; University of California Press, 1990), 160-61.
The map was reprinted in a prospectus produced by Halsey, Stuart and Co,
"The Motion Picture Industry as a Basis for Bond Financing," dated 27
May 1927; the prospectus including the map was published in Tino Balio,
ed., The American Film Industry, Revised Edition (Wisconsin;
University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 195-217.
"Of Other Spaces," 25.
Exceptions to this are often the industry's most transparently ideological
projects. In his walk from one side of the city to the other, the
protagonist of Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993), for example,
passes through a cross-section of the city's ethnic and class divisions,
mostly fairly accurate in their geographical placing, while Rising
Sun (Philip Kaufman, 1993) can sketch the penetration of Pacific
Rim capital into the city, and even envision its relations with the
"boyz in the hood," the African-American working-class communities of
South Central, which have otherwise been almost entirely unrepresented
See Mike Davis's summary conclusion: "No city, in fiction or film, has
been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present,
for that matter). Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, overrun by terminators,
androids, and gangs, has become as much a cliché as Marlowe's mean
streets or Gidget's beach party. The decay of the city's old glamor has
been inverted by the entertainment industry into a new glamor of decay"
Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
(New York; Henry Holt,1998), 278.
"Of Other Spaces," 24.
These are drawn respectively from Kevin Starr, Material Dreams,
84); the WPA Guide to California ( New York; Pantheon Books,
1984), 208; Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 224; and Charles Jenks,
Heteropolis (London; Academy Editions, 1993), 17 and 32.
As Kevin Starr points out, it is "simply a myth to state that
twentieth-century Los Angeles had no downtown." See Material Dreams:
Southern California Through the 1922s (New York; Oxford University
Press, 1990), 78. Starr's mapping of the emergence of the Los Angeles
basin, and indeed Southern California in general, around the focus of
downtown recapitulates Soja's geography, which envisages downtown as
"a strategic vantage point, an urban panopticon counterpoised to the
encirclement of watchful military ramparts and defensive outer cities"
(Postmodern Geographies, 236).
Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (passim), makes a very strong case
that the disaster genre that so completely dominates Hollywood films
about Los Angeles are allegorial expressions of white, middle-class fear
of these working-class, ethnic peoples.
So, the filmic cities of Vertov, Ruttmann, Rossellini, Godard, or Mekas
are so extraordinary that the spatialities of their production are
foregrounded, and in some of them--Vertov and Mekas, for example--the
social relationships constructed in the filmmaking are proposed as
propaedeutic to those surrounding it, as a metonymy or even a blueprint
for the city's ideal form, a trope of the commonality it might allow.
The University of Southern California (USC) and the University of
California at Los Angeles (UCLA) both have very substantial film schools
dating back to the twenties and forties respectively, with more recent
programs being instituted at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal
Arts) and Occidental College. With the exceptions noted below, the first
two are essentially tributary to the industry and dominated by industry
values, while the other two have stronger commitments to alternative
film. Providing instruction and access to equipment for young artists
and employment for independent filmmakers, since WWII film schools have
constituted a specific mode of film production in intersection with
various avant-garde practices. In Los Angeles the most important of
such intersections was USC's Department of Cinema in the late forties,
where the presence of Curtis Harrington and Gregory Markopoulos (who
became seminally important--though quite antithetical--figures in the
evolution of the fifties avant-garde and its position in relation to
Hollywood) and of montage and special effects maestro, Slavko Vorkapich
(who chaired the department from 1949 to 1951), made it the global
center of avant-garde filmmaking of the time. Also important have
been the generation of ethnic filmmakers in UCLA's EthnoCommunications
Program in the early seventies; and an ongoing experimental tradition
at Cal Arts, distinguishable from the Disney orientation of the
Character Animation department. Academic/avant-garde filmmaking has
been increasingly important since the late sixties; especially when
consolidated with tenure, the economic stability of college teaching
for filmmakers transformed the avant-garde's social position, producing
in the seventies the academic iconography and themes of structural
film, and then the identity politics of feminist, ethnic, and queer
academic filmmaking. Los Angeles has also had a string of independent
screening organizations that has been virtually continuous since the
mid-forties. The independent distribution of avant-garde films also
began in Los Angeles with Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington's Creative
Film Associates in the late forties; it was followed by the Creative Film
Society (founded by Robert Pike in 1957, which emphasized locally-produced
films, including many UCLA student films), the Los Angeles Filmmakers'
Cooperative (which distributed mostly Los Angeles films, 1970-75), and
Visual Communications (which distributed Asian American work after the
seventies), though USC has also distributed its own student films. But,
in contrast to those of other American cities, the major museums have
been despicably servile to the industry and unsupportive of alternatives.
Despite its off-the-cuff casualness, Banham's attention to the social
discontinuity underneath Los Angeles' architectural heterogeneity
should be contrasted with the giddy facility of Charles Jencks's
proposal that the pastiche architecture of the Frank Gehry school is
"clearly intended to represent the different voices that make up the city"
(Heteropolis, 75). All the instances of this "hetero-architecture"
he cites are from the information industries' elite, privileged sectors
(mostly the beaches), and not at all from the aerospace and garment
industries of the central flatlands and the San Fernando Valley which,
despite huge areas of poverty, still employ more people than Hollywood.
Overall, the chief crucible for the independent black, Latino and Asian
American film cultures in Los Angeles of the seventies and since was
not UCLA's film school, but an Ethno-Communications Program in the
Anthropology department, founded in 1968 in the wake of the 1965 Watts
rebellion and the civil rights movements and in immediate response to
student complaints about the racial exclusivity of the film school itself.
Bill Nichols's account of what he considered "the most politically
advanced Newsreel center" cites the effect of geographical dispersion
of the city, the isolation of its people, and the relative weakness of
labor unions, all of which combined to "promote a climate of sectarianism
and dogmatism, and the worst kinds of unprincipled conflict between
various Movement groups." See his Newsreel: Film and Revolution
(MA Thesis, University of California at Los Angeles, 1972), 241 and 243.
Penelope Houston, The Contemporary Cinema. (London: Penguin,
1963), 29. Burnett has described his own disapproval of the Los Angeles
Panthers in an interview with Monona Wali, "Life Drawings: Charles
Burnett's Realism," The Independent (October 1988), 19. Despite
this, he did tape L.A. Panther Geronimo Pratt in San Quentin (when he
was incarcerated after being framed by law enforcement for murder), but
the project never came to fruition; see Lynell George, No Crystal
Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (New York; Anchor
Books, 1994), 140.
Killer of Sheep won First Prize at the United States Film Festival
and the Critics' Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival
in 1981; in 1990, it was selected by the Library of Congress as one
of twenty-five films chosen for preservation. Burnett has received a
Rockefeller Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1988 he was awarded
a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
In terms which directly address the narrative of Killer of Sheep,
Burnett has linked the loss of this historical sense to attacks on African
American social structures: "There has always been the attempt to destroy
our consciousness of who we were, to deny the past, and to destroy the
family structure; and, since for us each day has not a yesterday or
a tomorrow, to make the use of experience a lost art"; see his "Inner
City Blues" in Questions of Third Cinema ed., Jim Pines and Paul
Willemen (London; British Film Institute, 1989), 225.
Written by Earl Robinson of the Workers Laboratory Theatre, "Ballad
for Americans," has, as Michael Denning pointed out, "come to stand
for the aesthetic forms and ideologies of the Popular Front," with
Robeson's recording of it the "unofficial anthem of the movement." (The
Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth
Century [New York; Verso, 1996], 115). It also became a prime target
of post-war attacks on Front culture. As well as sustaining a terrible
irony in the film, the use of the song signals Burnett's commitment to
a non-racist, working-class populism that the combination of corporate
postmodernism and Balkanized identity politics has otherwise extinguished
as cultural possibility.
P. Adams Sitney observed, "One strains in vain to find a unity to the
'series' aside from the obvious invention of the imagery," and proposed
that the systematic disjuncture was linked to Los Angeles, "which
is so overwhelmed by fragmentation and gerrybuilt perspectives." See
his "Saugus Series," Millennium Film Journal, 16-17-18
(Fall/Winter, 1986), 158 and 160.
See O'Neill's own, "Water and Power; A Fragmentary Synopsis,"
Motion Picture, 3, 1-2 (Winter 1989):19-20. A selection of his
working notes for the film, "Notes for Water and Power," was
published in Millennium Film Journal, 25 (1991): 42-9.
"A Fragmentary Synopsis," 20.
Respectively the title of a collection by local poet, Michael Ford;
a mass-media cliché; and a best-selling record album by War, a
seminal interracial Los Angeles band of the seventies.
Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 191.
The phrase is Mike Davis's; see his City of Quartz: Excavating the
Future in Los Angeles (London; Verso, 1990), 70.
"In Two Dimensions: Lewis Klahr's In the Month of Crickets, Pat
O'Neill'sWater and Power," Motion Picture, 3, 1-2 (1989):
23. Paul Arthur has consistently been O'Neill's best commentator, and
my reading is indebted to his, even though he rejects the postmodernist
associations. I take the phrase, "intricate semicoherence" from Peter
Plagens's account of San Francisco collagist, Jess in his Sunshine
Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast (New York; Praeger,
Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," 25.
Arthur lists these interpolations: Detour, The Last Command, The Docks
of New York, and The Ten Commandments, as well as references
to Kenneth Anger's Fireworks ("In Two Dimensions," 21).
Banham, Four Ecologies, 101.
See Pat O'Neill, "Transcript of a Discussion"Cantrill's Filmnotes 59/60 (1989): 24-8 for his account of his youth "in the shadow
of the Paramount water tower" and for production details for Water
At various times Oasis members also included Paul Arthur, Morgan Fisher,
Roberta Friedman, Amy Halpern, Beverly O'Neill, Susan Rosenfeld, Grahame
Weinbren, and David and Diana Wilson. For an account of Oasis, see Terry
Cannon, "Through the Sands of Time: A Tribute to the L.A. Independent
Film Oasis, 1976-81" in Holly Willis, ed., Scratching the Belly of
the Beast: Cutting-Edge Media in Los Angeles, 1922-94 (Los Angeles,
Filmforum, 1994), 60-61.