No less than three times across the texts assembled in On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film, Annette Michelson quotes a statement attributed to Theodor Adorno: ‘I love to go to the movies; the only thing that bothers me is the image on the screen.’ The phrase has the zing of a punchline, eliciting an immediate smirk. At the same time, it possesses an aphoristic density, compelling the reader to tarry, to tug at the threads of its taut weave. Adorno’s distaste for film is well known; he excluded it from the field of art, decrying its representational illusionism, deeming it exemplary of the manipulative mass narcosis of the culture industry. But what was the pull of this ambivalent aspersion for Michelson, someone who, after an early career as an art critic in the 1950s and 1960s, devoted decades to the study and advocacy of cinema, according it a place in her cross-disciplinary thinking unrivalled by any other medium? She too found fault in mimesis and commercialism but was convinced that things could be otherwise. If only ‘the image on the screen’ were different . . . What then? From Adorno’s objection—from the deep frustration that it registers—she wrings out a drop of utopia. Disappointment with cinema’s mainstream iterations fuels a passion for recalling what it once was, what it might have been, what it could still be. In short, it opens the door to an assessment of modernist alternatives.
Michelson, who died in 2018 at the age of 95, devoted herself to this project with erudition and fervour. Through her activities as a writer, curator, translator, professor, and editor (first at Artforum and subsequently as co-founder of October, a journal that borrowed its name from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 film), she championed those moments when a glimpse of a different cinema flashed into view. The two volumes of essays she compiled in the final years of her life, comprising texts written between 1971 and 2001, correspond to the two clusters of activity that most seized her attention on this front: On the Eve of the Future examines postwar American experimental cinema and its precursors, such as Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, while the posthumously published On the Wings of Hypothesis: Collected Writings on Soviet Cinema, edited by Rachel Churner, concentrates on Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
The division between the books is logical yet risks implying a bifurcation in Michelson’s thinking that is hardly there. Her intellectual project is unified, with each context figuring prominently in the collection ostensibly dedicated to the other. Together, these twenty-one essays advance a powerful argument, one as grounded in historical fact as it is poised to spur future endeavours: if released from commercial imperatives and untethered from the demand to reproduce ‘reality’, film could take its deserved place amongst the modernist arts, becoming an epistemological machine, a philosophical device capable of inducing sophisticated reflections on the nature of perception and cognition. Her texts prolong and enlarge those rare instances when this potentiality has come to fruition, folding them into a rich genealogy, putting them in conversation with advanced thought across disciplines. The behemoth of Hollywood classicism becomes a mere footnote, as Michelson boldly argues for the persistence of a filmic modernism grounded not in any single aesthetics but in the problematization of mimetic referentiality, the intimate braid of theory and practice, the contestation of industrial norms, and, above all, the conviction that cinema is capable of producing knowledge. Her account of Eisenstein’s dream of an intellectual cinema—a cinema of concepts and ideas—neatly encapsulates her own position: ‘Film will indeed be philosophical or it will not, in any but a trivial sense, be.’
It is a conception of the medium that sits at a vast distance from more familiar notions: film as entertainment, storyteller, vehicle of personal expression, window on the world. At a time when the field of cinema studies was gaining ground in the us academy, principally as an offshoot of language and literature departments, Michelson played a pivotal role in establishing what would become one of the discipline’s leading programmes. At New York University, where she taught from 1967 to 2004, she asserted a vision of film as an art, in dialogue with painting and sculpture. She positioned herself against Bazinian realism and against the recuperation of Hollywood commercialism that characterized the politique des auteurs and its us iteration, promulgated by Andrew Sarris in his polemic ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962’.
The title of her first major text on cinema, ‘Film and the Radical Aspiration’, initially delivered as an address at the New York Film Festival in 1966 (and notably absent from On the Eve of the Future), names the vein she would mine. The essay straddles decades, setting forth a lapsarian narrative of failure and renewal that its author would never abandon: ‘The history of Cinema is, like that of Revolution in our time, a chronicle of hopes and expectations, aroused and suspended, tested and deceived.’ Michelson posits that the ‘Fall from Grace’ occurs circa 1929, a date that roughly aligns with the advent of synchronized sound and the rise of socialist realism in the Soviet Union, which together put an untimely end to a rich period of experimentation with the plasticity of montage. Eisenstein, with his unfinished projects—the unrealized adaptation of Capital foremost among them—is as exemplary in ‘his defeat as in his achievement’. All was not lost, though: in the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, on the one hand, and the fledgling experimental cinema of the United States, on the other, Michelson identifies two sites at which the embers of cinematic potentiality were being rekindled in her time.
If, in this first essay, Michelson establishes a transatlantic fight on two fronts for the renewal of the radical aspiration—one with significant parallels to the ‘two avant-gardes’ Peter Wollen would delineate nine years later in the pages of Studio International—she soon changed course. Her return from Paris to the United States in 1965 coincided with a striking efflorescence of adventurous independent filmmaking, particularly in New York City, where she took up residence after a brief stay in Los Angeles. Figures such as Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow were at the centre of a multifaceted reinvention of the cinema in total defiance of its representational and industrial conventions, working artisanally in the nonprofessional gauge of 16mm, producing formally daring films that tested the parameters of their medium. Michelson’s critical interest in the narrative cinema of her day diminished in the face of this valiant undertaking. The broad scope of the exhibition reviews she had written in Paris and initially upon her return to the us contracted into a narrower emphasis with an underdog twinge, even if occasional forays into other domains persisted. In a 2002 October roundtable on American avant-garde film, she remarks that her early encounters with this milieu led her ‘to think of filmmaking as the last of the heroic occupations’, naming this as one of the reasons behind her shift away from painting and sculpture. Alongside Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney, she became one of the most tireless and gifted advocates of the us manifestation of what Wollen called the ‘Co-op movement’, publishing articles that assessed its present and gave it a past.
‘Toward Snow’, the earliest effort included in the recently published volumes, is emblematic of Michelson’s excitement at this ‘movement’ and her conception of experimental cinema’s epistemological capacities. This classic study propelled the Canadian artist, and particularly his 1967 film Wavelength, onto the cover of the summer 1971 issue of Artforum, a magazine that had never devoted much attention to cinema prior to Michelson’s involvement. The article is symptomatic of a shift in the discursive location of experimental film, out of the countercultural underground and into institutional legitimacy—a realignment that would find further consolidation in the special film issue of the publication that appeared under Michelson’s direction in September of the same year. Wavelength is what Sitney called a ‘structural’ film: Snow orchestrates a relentless 45-minute zoom across a Soho loft, complicating this ostensibly minimal shape with colour filters, superimpositions, and a sine-wave soundtrack. As the artist explains, ‘The film is a crescendo and a dispersed spectrum which attempts to utilize the gifts of both prophecy and memory which only film and music have to offer.’ ‘Toward Snow’ picks up on this invocation of ‘prophecy and memory’, extending into a time-based arena an insight Michelson had already developed in relation to the minimalist sculpture of Robert Morris: ‘Our perception of the work of art informs us of the nature of consciousness. This is what we mean when we say—as I do say—that, although art no longer means or refers, it does have a deeply cognitive function.’ In Wavelength, she discerns an act of phenomenological reduction, a reflection on transcendental subjectivity. For her, this paradigmatic film is nothing less than an analogue of consciousness in which ‘epistemological inquiry and cinematic experience converge, as it were, in reciprocal mimesis.’