Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson
Reviewed by Brian L. Frye

One of Sitney's Ersonian subjects, filmmaker Marie Menken

One of Sitney's Ersonian subjects, filmmaker Marie Menken

by P. Adams Sitney. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 417 pp., illus. Hardcover: $99.00 and Paperback: $27.95.

Indeed, our national philosopher is still Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth- century advocate of “self-reliance,” or the idea that knowledge comes from intuition, not tradition. Emerson’s self-reliance is the philosophical equivalent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Smith’s laissez-faire economics showed that self-interest is efficient; Emerson’s transcendentalism showed that it is moral. Both advocated revolution in favor of the individual.

Of course, Emerson has long since yielded to his acolytes, like Norman Vincent Peale. Self-reliance became self-help and transcendentalism became the power of positive thinking. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” is now, “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” Today, Emerson is well known but little read, a curiosity, rather than a philosopher.

But Emerson’s theory of art has persisted, in practice, if not in name. Emerson claimed that the ineffable quality of great art arises out of the zeitgeist demanding expression, a process he called “Necessity.” In his new book, Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson, Sitney argues that American art is fundamentally Emersonian, primarily because American artists assume that art necessarily expresses social experience. Notably, American artists tend to theorize their work in polemical essays and lectures, the twentieth-century equivalent of Emersonian homiletics, or secular preaching.

Sitney traces Emersonian themes in the work of Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage, among others, from modern to postmodern. Of course, few American artists consider themselves Emersonians. Many have probably never heard of Emerson. While Sitney identifies knowing, unwitting, and unwilling Emersonian artists, he concedes that the latter categories are considerably more populous. And yet, even artists like Melville, who rejected Emerson, couldn’t escape his influence.

Ironically, the least philosophical nation has produced the most metaphysical art. Not only did America invent abstract expressionism and postmodernism, but also it invented avant-garde cinema. Eyes Upside Down explores Emersonian themes in the work of eleven avant-garde filmmakers—Marie Menken, Ian Hugo, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, Robert Beavers, Andrew Noren, Ernie Gehr, Warren Sonbert, Abigail Child, and Su Friedrich. It’s an eclectic and rather surprising set of examples. If Stan Brakhage and Abigail Child are both Emersonians, Sitney’s theory really has legs.

But in the event, Brakhage unsurprisingly looks a lot more Emersonian than Child. Brakhage’s epic egoism certainly reflects Emerson’s emphasis on individual expression, Child’s ironic reserve rather less so. Essentially, Sitney argues that Child is Emersonian in her rejection of Emerson. If it sounds circular, maybe it is.

As usual, Sitney is at his best and most valuable when he is describing and analyzing the films. Avant-garde cinema scholarship is woefully sparse and many of the filmmakers Sitney discusses are quite obscure, even by avant-garde standards. In particular, Eyes Upside Down provides careful descriptions and thoughtful analysis of beautiful, rarely seen films by Ian Hugo, Robert Beavers, Andrew Noren, and Warren Sonbert, among others.

Sitney’s success depends on his peculiar humility, cloaked in erudition. Most film scholarship is deductive. Scholars gin up a theory and pick some films to illustrate it. By contrast, Sitney’s scholarship is inductive. He closely watches many films and develops a theory to explain them. As a result, his theories are descriptive, rather than aspirational.

That’s why Visionary Film still defines the avant-garde cinema canon after thirty years. It proposed a taxonomy, rather than a theory. Essentially, Sitney named avant-garde genres—the trance film, the psychodrama, the lyrical film, the graphic film, the mythopoeic film, and the structural film. Even if you reject the genres, the project is valuable.

Eyes Upside Down almost manages the same, in spite of its dogged focus on Emerson. While Sitney purports to see an Emersonian thread running through American avant-garde cinema, his commitment to following that thread seems desultory at times. His real focus is on the films, each one of which is carefully, lovingly dissected and reconstructed. Emerson figures prominently only in the introduction and conclusion of each profile, bookending rather than dominating Sitney’s analysis.

Nevertheless, Sitney does a fine job of ferreting out Emersonian themes in filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton. Of course, it’s something of a mug’s game. Brakhage bleeds Emerson, like few other filmmakers. Dog Star Man might as well be subtitled “Self-Reliance.” Every image glorifies heroic individualism and self-realization, culminating in Brakhage’s struggle to climb a snow-clad hill.

By contrast, Frampton’s wry and enigmatic films will readily accept almost any reading you like. Was Frampton anti-Emerson? Sure. But like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., he was cynical enough to both admire Emerson’s principles while rejecting his metaphysics on the merits.

Others are a different story entirely. For instance, Abigail Child is an “Emersonian” only in the sense that she rejects him and everything he stands for. Her rigorously structured, deliberately impersonal films do not celebrate Emersonian individualism, but deconstruct it.

In any case, Emerson figures considerably more prominently in some profiles than in others. Which should come as no surprise. While Sitney’s criticism is brilliant, his theory is not persuasive.

Or rather, it proves too much. While some artists may have Emersonian sympathies, at least in some general sense, others clearly do not. Rejecting Emersonian values does not make you an Emersonian, today or yesterday, any more than rejecting capitalism makes you a capitalist.

Ultimately, Sitney seems to use “Emersonian” as a kind of shorthand for metaphysical whiggism. Fair enough. The whiggish strain of American ideology is hard to dismiss, a more cheerful analogue to the paranoid style identified by Richard Hofstadter. But it doesn’t include many artists.

On the contrary, artists tend to prefer utopians. And America has produced its fair share of those as well. Sitney says Emerson, I say John Brown. It doesn’t take an art critic to cultivate an esthetic, or a polemic.

To buy Eyes Upside Down, click here

Brian L. Frye is a filmmaker, journalist, and lawyer living in New York City.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2