PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Loss of privacy is often cited as a downside of the rise of social media. Sixty years ago, the same concerns echoed among a subculture of filmmakers known as the New American Cinema. But instead of railing against media, as some of today’s detractors do, they embraced it as a way of sharing their concerns.
In his dissertation, Homeless Movies: The Redemptive Project of the New American Cinema, Joshua Guilford returns to the New American Cinema to study the film culture through a historical and conceptual lens to better understand the artists and motivations involved in what he describes as the “redemption of human interiority.” For his research, Guilford received a Ph.D. in modern culture and media at the 2015 Commencement ceremony.
As a culture, the New American Cinema was, and still is, hard to define. The filmmakers involved were using different concepts and techniques under the umbrella motivation of redeeming intimacy and privacy, but many of them also deliberately resisted being categorized, according to Guilford.
“There was this tension between wanting to have a movement or unified experimental film culture, and also wanting to resist unification or organization,” Guilford said.
The NAC began in the late 1950s at a time when systemization and organization were being called into question, which also fueled the filmmakers’ desire to keep boundaries loose. Jonas Mekas, who is often credited as the primary spokesperson of NAC, once described the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, an independent film distributor established by the NAC, as a project that sought “disorganized organization.”
“It was a way of leaving room for a diversity of perspectives and also leaving this organization open to pursuing really different directions,” Guilford said of the NAC.
What resulted were films that fell into a range of genres, including American avant garde and Beat cinema, that were made as a response to what the filmmakers saw as the disappearance of the inner self in post-WWII American life. To counter this, they sought to create a more spontaneous aesthetic that celebrated intimacy, inner experience, and a sense of belonging in one’s surrounding social environment.
One common theme, for which Guilford titled his dissertation, was that of homelessness.
“It becomes this term through which concerns about the loss of traditional configurations of private and public life become expressible,” Guilford said.
Although the overarching ideas are similar, the concept of homelessness manifested itself in ways that varied film by film.
In On the Bowery (1956), it’s a concept that was used literally to show the life and struggles of homeless men living in New York City. On the other hand, Pull My Daisy (1959) took a radically different approach in celebrating the Beat poets evasion of an accepted, normative domestic lifestyle.
Much of Guilford’s analysis of NAC films focuses on these films, as well as The Flower Thief (1960); Guns of the Trees (1961) and works by other artists such as Ron Rice, Shirley Clarke, and Edward Bland.
Despite many of the same concepts and ideas popping up in the NAC’s films, Guilford is quick to point out that it’s a mistake to say the filmmakers approached their projects with a unified message in mind.
“It sounds a little too scripted. It was more that this was a central preoccupation, this concern with the loss of privacy, and it keeps sort of popping up despite their claims to be acting spontaneously.”
It was perhaps paradoxical then that the NAC did become somewhat intertwined with mainstream Hollywood, with both camps drawing inspiration from each other.
Citing David James’ book Allegories of Cinema, Guilford discusses the appropriation of innovations and themes used in American avant garde films by Hollywood filmmakers like Dennis Hopper.
Guilford says Hopper’s Oscar-nominated Easy Rider is one example where avant garde techniques like experimental montage and the use of characters affiliated with the counterculture appear in a mainstream work.
At the same time, the NAC was drawing on the thematic and more formal tendencies associated with film noir, a popular cultural form at the time, Guilford said.
Still, the seeming acceptance of NAC’s works as an art form did not guarantee that the way in which the film culture communicated concerns over loss of privacy and intimacy in society were always welcome.
“There were those concerns in the ’50s and ’60s that the aesthetic of publicizing these seemingly private experiences was furthering this loss of privacy,” Guilford said.
Guilford, who begins a position as visiting assistant professor in film and media studies in Amherst College in the fall, said he was struck by how much the refrain still rings true six decades later, only played out on much smaller screens.
“It’s this weird paradox that we are still dealing with,” Guilford said. “We’re worried about the loss of privacy but at the same time people are publicizing private experiences more than ever before.”