Post-Deleuzian Investigations of U.S. Avant-Garde Film, 1943–81

Project: Dissertation

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Studies on Film



The aim of this research project is to explore North American avant-garde film-making practices of Maya Deren, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and others in relation to the aesthetics of mind by reading the films as mental spaces. American avant-garde films are often given as the filmic examples of surrealism, American transcendentalism or poetic lyricism (e.g. the interpretations of Dickran Tashjian, P. Adams Sitney, David Bordwell) or as the attempts at a new audiovisual sight defying established masculinist scopic paradigms (Barbara Hammer's reading of Deren's films). However, not much attention has been given to the films as immanent wholes in the process of being perceived by the spectator and their world-making abilities. This new approach would position the American avant-garde differently in relation to the contemporary film-making practices.

The filmic mentalscapes as subjective mind spaces are what film scholar Thomas Elsaesser observes to be quite a recent phenomenon, namely the “mental worlds morphing into or taking shape as observable material realities [...] where the diegesis – the spatio-temporal 'world' of a film – turns out to be a figment of the protagonist's imagination, no longer obeys the laws of nature, or is explicitly created so as to deceive or mislead the spectator.” What Elsaesser observes to be the case in contemporary art and mainstream cinema (such films as David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko (2001) or Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006)) is not, I would argue, entirely new. American avant-garde films are similar mental worlds, albeit in a less direct sense, i.e. their universes and their respective virtual dimensions present images of the mind and of reality as mental experience. Sitney already hinted at the possibility that this could be precisely the most significant aspect of the movement as a whole: “The ultimate aspiration of [Gregory – A. M.] Markopoulos’s form has been the mimesis of the human mind. In different degrees and different ways this might be the aim of the American avant-garde film-maker in general.” The task of this research project then will be to characterise these spaces as idiosyncratic modes of mental existence and to show how mental aesthetics permeates their respective operative logics.

The theoretical framework for this pursuit will be (post-)Deleuzian film-philosophy. It is not merely philosophical ideas that will be related to cinema where films would be the illustrations of or challenges to various philosophical ideas but it involves a new way of perceiving cinema as the locus of philosophy itself. Therefore, Gilles Deleuze's and subsequently my approach relies on the assumption that cinema is not merely a product of socio-economic forces (as in a Marxist analysis), a sum of stylistic features (Bordwellian historical poetics of cinema), or a textual construct (semiotic analysis) but is capable of inducing a movement of thought, a certain way of perceiving. This power of cinema does not simply relate to the external world and its representations, it stems from the immanent filmic universes; a film comes to be seen as a living organism (a Whole) capable of affecting one's perception. Thus the method or, rather, the tool of exploration of American avant-garde films as mental spaces will be a close film-philosophical reading of the works.
Effective start/end date2013/09/012017/12/16