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Underground Film: A Critical History

By Mike Everleth ⋅ June 12, 2007

Underground Film: A Critical History

This is the third entry in a continuing series on classic texts on underground and avant-garde film history. The first entry was Midnight Movies and the second was Movie Journal. So far, A Critical History by Parker Tyler has been my least favorite.

This is another book that picks an authoritative title all the while knowing it’s not trying to live up to that title. While that does get under my skin a little, it’s not something that would turn me off to a book completely. I guess my main problem with A Critical History is that after Midnight Movies and Movie Journal, which were so passionate about their subjects that in turn got me so very jazzed and excited about the films they wrote about, Tyler pretty much takes the opposite road. When first published in 1969, Tyler had become incredibly fed up with the underground film movement and it’s creeping infestation of “amateurness” where any cinematic activity was being called “a film.” This didn’t sit well with Tyler who felt that “true” underground film needed to maintain an air of high art before being considered “underground.”

Trying to tie the modern (at the time) underground film movement with prior classical art movements, both filmic and traditional arts, is an admirable goal. But Tyler was so disdainful of ’60s underground film that he barely covers any of it to say why it was so bad. Instead he makes broad sweeping gestures about both filmmakers he never names as well as some, such as the Kuchar brothers, that he does. Sure, the book is supposed to be a “critical” history and if Tyler wants to negatively criticize films in it, that’s fine. But, in effect he’s re-writing history by casually dismissing, for example, Sins of the Fleshapoids as if it has no worth and no effect on the movement at all. Whereas Midnight Movies and Movie Journal filled me with enthusiasm, A Critical History left me bummed out, even when he praised a modern underground director like Shirley Clarke.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything interesting in the book. Tyler does connect underground film with the Dada and Surrealist art movements, which is an interesting approach. He just spends a little too much time talking about Dadaism and Surrealism rather than about films, I got a little frustrated. Tyler also makes the case claiming that one of the “first” underground films is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The only bit that confused me is that this classic German Expressionist silent film is so readily available today, but I don’t know if in 1969 it was a “lost” classic or what. Tyler writes as if not many people of the time would be familiar with the film, which I don’t know if that’s true. And finally, what I found to be the most interesting was his explanation of underground film as having “vertical” storytelling structures rather than traditional narrative films’ “horizontal” structure, an idea he picked up from Maya Deren.

Picking up A Critical History, I wasn’t familiar with Tyler’s writing at all. Apparently at the time he was also a big contributor to Film Culture magazine where he wrote extensively on experimental film. It would be interesting to read those articles to see his growing disenchantment with the avant garde film scene. A Film Culture Reader collection does exist, so I might have to get my hands on that for a future installment in my series here.

Also, very coincidentally, at the library I picked up Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, wherein Tyler plays a prominent part. I’m only a couple pages into the novel, but Tyler’s been mentioned a few times so far. Weird.

Buy the 2001 Underground Film: A Critical History re-issue at Amazon.com!