Primary Sources: An Interview with Scott MacDonald

Last December, Scott MacDonald, one of the country’s foremost film scholars, visited UnionDocs for two evenings to explore the intertwined histories of documentary and avant-garde film. In his varied programs and during the sometimes contentious discussions that followed, MacDonald confirmed just how valuable his work is to the continued relevance of experimental film. In a field often marked by high-flown theorizing, insiderism, and indifference to the world outside its immediate purview, his lucid prose, his humility, and the enthusiasm he brings to basically unsexy research is unique. Perhaps more than any other writer who specializes in the avant-garde, MacDonald is capable of opening up this work for new audiences. He is best known for the Critical Cinema series, a 5-volume set of interviews with independent filmmakers, about which he Pills spoke at length with Michael Sicinski last year. He sat down with me on his last evening at UnionDocs to discuss a few of the other books he has published in the last two decades of his long, fruitful career.

UnionDocs: You talk a lot about your students in your writing. You have also described some of your other projects as introductory to avant-garde films Do you think of yourself primarily as a teacher?

Scott MacDonald: I do. I wrestled for years about whether I should do scholarship. When I was a grad student back in the Sixties and early Seventies, it seemed to me that most scholarship was about building careers. It didn’t seem attractive to me, and wasn’t something that I wanted to do. It seemed to create a competitive academic atmosphere that I wanted no part of. I struggled for a long time over this.

My M.A. and Ph.D. were in American lit. I did do some articles out of my dissertation, and they got published, but there was no pleasure in it. I didn’t feel I was doing anything for anyone. It just felt like creating this list of publications in order to get to a better economic status within the academic culture. It’s not what I wanted to spend my life doing. At some point soon after I started to get interested in avant-garde film, I  realized that this was a world that I might actually be useful to.  Remember that Dylan song “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody”? That song meant something to me. I do think you have to serve somebody. Realizing that my writing about avant-garde film or interviewing avant-garde filmmakers might serve their work gave me a reason to do the work.

In the end,  I realized that writing scholarly work and interviewing is just another form of teaching. So yes, I think of myself fundamentally as a teacher.

I always work in an introductory level, in two senses . First, the audience for avant-garde film is still tiny. So I’ve almost never written for standard avant-garde film journals. I’ve always tried to write for film publications that have a broader audience, in the hope that I might attract a larger audience to these films.  Second, I’m  addicted to the idea that my writing should be as clear as possible. My Ph.D. dissertation was on Hemingway’s short stories. For better or for worse, Hemingway was crucial in transforming the nature of American prose so that terse, clear, powerful writing came to be considered good writing. He changed the way we think about what good writing is. I never assume that those who come across my writing will have seen the films I write about and so it’s my responsibility to create a context for what I say.

UD: You have said that, after having studied literature, one of the things that attracted you to film was its newness, and its potential to keep being new. Do you still feel that way? Are you still being excited by things?

SM: I was just saying to someone that I feel like a Greek underworld figure. I’m not Sisyphus, but if there could be a figure who, the older he gets, the more interests he has, and the less time he has to explore those interests, that’s me. I’m excited by lots of stuff that’s going on, but I’m also excited by lots of stuff that’s already happened. I don’t feel the way I used to feel about the earlier periods of  literature or film, the old stuff. The “old” is a constantly expanding territory to be explored. I got into modern American lit as a grad student because I wanted the field to have one open end if I was going to be in it. But you know 19th century fiction or early cinema have an open end too. The past opens up as the future does.

Pills UD: You have an interesting relationship with canon-formation. You talked a lot early on about wanting to abjure canon-making as part of your practice as an academic. But I think you’ve said more recently that, to some extent, you’ve embraced it. Garden in the Machine is a canon-forming project, and there are certain filmmakers that you have helped canonize–J.J. Murphy and Larry Gottheim for example. What changed?

SM : I guess I’d say I got more mature about it. The Anthology Film Archives project of canonizing an “Essential Cinema” created a kind of rebellion in many of us. I went to the Collective for Living Cinema a lot, which I thought of as a response to to Anthology. Given the filmmakers I was interested in, rebelling against P. Adams [Sitney] and the Essential Cinema seemed like the thing to do. But my motives weren’t so pure. I wanted to find my own “essential cinema.”

There can’t be a canon, there are canons and what we think is important is evolving all the time, but since we have limited time in our lives, I’m grateful for those who help me find the films that are “worth my life” to see. Because if films aren’t important enough to make time for, i.e., worth my life, I’d rather read Proust or Emily Dickinson, or watch basketball or go for a walk. There are lots of things in life that I like to do. Canons are just useful tools for getting into the field. I believe Gavin Smith is putting together a list  of the best 50 avant-garde films of the last ten years for Film Comment, I will pore over that list to see which films I’ve not seen, because if somebody thinks they’re really important, I’ll probably go see them.

In a way not forming a canon is the safe, easy thing. But at some point you have to say what do you think is important enough that other people should spend time seeing doing it, because they could be reading Faulkner.

UD: I wanted to ask you about Screen Writings. I think that’s a really interesting project. It seems like a combination of two impulses – on the one hand it’s about films that themselves use text, and on the other, about showing the texts behind films that are a little more abstract, films where you don’t usually see the written process behind them. How did it come about?

: For a long time I wrote for Afterimage (the Rochester, NY publication). What I loved about working with them was that you could design a piece about film that was very visual; I’ve always tried to work visually with writing when I’ve had the opportunity. For a little while, I fancied myself a visual poet, a concrete poet. I did a lot of that kind of work. I studied its history. In a way my interest in films that made text a visual factor came out of that interest. I’m a word person, and I always loved looking at words on screen. It’s strange and fascinating. Then, as I assembled that book, I broadened the concept, because I was also discovering documents related to Bill Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, and Yoko’s scripts, not exactly visual pieces, but somehow relevant to this other work. It’s my literature background coming back, a kind of return of the repressed. I had wanted to do a second book, even had a title for it that was a little too cute, “Screen Texts,” but I never got around to it.

UD: It seems like over the past decade you’ve focused a lot of your energies on documenting avant-garde film institutions – Art in Cinema, Cinema 16, Canyon, and I believe you’re working on something now about the Flaherty Seminar. I’m wondering why, first of all, it’s important to you to create these documentary histories of these institutions, and why the shift away from individual films or filmmakers.

SM: I’ve not really shifted away from individual films and filmmakers. I’ve just expanded my interests. It gradually became clear to me that my ability to be interested in the field of independent cinema was a result of things that people other than filmmakers did. One of the books that mattered the most to me was Film As a Subversive Art. Not just because of what it said, but because of the form of the book. It was a picture/text  book, and I discovered all kinds of worlds of film that I didn’t know about just from picking up and looking through that book. And that book was, in a sense, the final report on the seventeen years of Cinema 16. It seemed to me that creating audiences of 3,000 people a night for experimental documentary and avant-garde film was an amazing accomplishment, as much an accomplishment as making a really interesting film. And yet nobody seemed to be interested in this kind of work. Cinema 16 was the first book I did, and nobody was interested in it.

It just seemed logical to talk about these institutions, not just because the institutions are important, but because all these filmmakers moved though them, and this book was a way of getting letters and all kinds of primary documents relating to important films and filmmakers into circulation. It also seemed tome that film scholarship had taken a really insane step, which was that it got to theory before it got to basics. In literature, which is a much older field, the idea that you would write a theoretical book about Emily Dickinson before you published her poetry or her letters seemed foolish. The archives of Cinema 16 had fantastic primary documents that deserved to be a resource available for other writers before some conjecture of mine about what film is or something like that needed to go into print.

Once I had done the Cinema 16 book, it seemed inevitable that there would be a companion piece – Art and Cinema, the other major American film society of the 1940s. The biggest unhappiness of my whole publishing life was Temple University Press’s decision not to publish that book in paperback, and to move to cheaper paper. And they did a sloppy editing job on Art and Cinema. I didn’t discover any of this  until the book was already out. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever screamed into the phone at somebody I liked. I’ve never recovered from it. That book costs something like 75 bucks to buy, so of course nobody would ever buy it. For all practical purposes, or at least for my purposes, that destroyed the book. Temple did a beautiful job on the Cinema 16 book, so I trusted them. Ah, well.

Canyon seemed like the next obvious organization to look at. Patty Zimmerman and I are working on the Flaherty book. When we’ll finish, I don’t know. I think there should be a book on The Collective [For Living Cinema]. I’m waiting for somebody else to do it. These books are fun, but also a pain in the ass to do. For example,you have to get a permission to use every letter, every sentence that somebody has  written. You spend a lot of time tracking people down.

UD: You talked about the desire to publish these primary sources, and the Critical Cinema books are sort of these oral histories. Do you have any desire to write narrative history?

SM: Not so much. I’m not actually interested in my own ideas all that much. Although I’ve done a couple of encyclopedia-type entries on the history of avant-garde film, I’m always very uncomfortable doing that kind of work. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s something I can do, and somebody ought to it.

UD: What it is then about the material you talk about in Garden in the Machine that prompted you to write a book that’s so different from a lot of the other projects you’ve done?

SM: Almost all the writing I do is tactical in one sense or another. In this case, I was interested in introducing the world of avant-garde film to academic audiences—American Studies people and Art History people—who were unacquainted with it. I thought that if they knew that many independent films related to issues these fields were dealing with, they might use these films more frequently and that would be healthy for the field. I went to two National Endowment for the Humanities summer institutes, one on the history of the Hudson River Valley in the arts, and one on nature writing. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more interested in New York State history and Hudson River painting, and it seemed to me that many  of the independent films that mattered the most to me  were related to that interest. My work is always driven by the films I care about. I wanted do something more on Larry Gottheim, and J. J. Murphy, and James Benning, and I wanted to do something on Nick Dorsky, and all of this came together as place-oriented work. It was fun to think about that book;  it’s organized topographically — it starts in the country and then goes to the city then moves away from the city.

But the bottom line is that I wanted to promote those films. In the end, the editor I was working with – a great editor to work with, Eric Smooden– got fired from California Press, I think because he wasn’t bringing in enough titles for the press. University presses have to publish enough books a year to maintain their business. The Garden in the Machine was originally supposed to be marketed as an American Studies book, not a film book – American Studies and Art History. The editor who replaced Eric just saw me as a film critic, so it got published and marketed as a film book. That was another disappointment .  I’m proud of that book, but it is, on a certain level, a failed project.

: It also seems like, looking at the films you programmed here this weekend, landscape really is this nexus around which you can interestingly talk about avant-garde film, documentary, and commercial film as well – you write about Twister and Do the Right Thing in the book. Do you think that’s a product of your interests or is there something else there to make it a place to talk about all these different things?

SM Cheap : Well, I do think film is very involved in place. I think it’s as much about place as it is about character. But then I’m obsessive in the sense that when I watch a movie I’m looking at the background as well as the foreground and trying to figure out where it was shot. I just saw The Road Order yesterday, and I felt pretty good because I recognized it was Mount Saint Helen, and Multnomah Falls, and I recognized another section was shot in Pennsylvania.  I’m very place-oriented. We move through spaces all the time. If you show me films that create a pleasure in being in these places, I’m a happy dude. I think Gottheim’s Horizons is one of the greatest of all avant-garde films because that film helped me be happy to live central New York. There’s never a day that I don’t think of Brakhage, that I don’t see something Brakhage alerted me to, that I wouldn’t have seen before Brakhage. Same thing with Gottheim. I like having my life invigorated by seeing more in the surroundings I’m in. I also like finding out about places I ought to go see. I love looking at maps, I like looking at pictures of places and films about places.

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