The 1978 film Argument, made in a collaboration between the British visual artist Anthony McCall and the American media commentator Andrew Tyndall, uses the men’s fashion ads in an issue of The New York Times Magazine as a starting point for exploring the relationships between American mass media (including cinema) and its consumers (including filmmakers). The film, which for many years was difficult to see, has recently been digitally restored by the British distribution company LUX, and will be screening at the New York space Light Industry on July 2 with the filmmakers in person. (The film can also be viewed, albeit in a much lower-quality version, through the avant-garde art online database UbuWeb.) In honor of the occasion, McCall and Tyndall share some words below about their film. I will also be publishing a blurb about the screening for The L Magazine, and will link back to this page at that time.
How and why did you make the film Argument together?
The project was born in the atmosphere of discussion and cooperation, both political and aesthetic, in the avant-garde film community of the late 1970s. That community included experimental filmmakers, artists, exhibition spaces, critics, and film theorists. It was routine, almost obligatory, for film screenings to be followed by formal question-&-answer sessions with the makers of the film, and informal discussions subsequently over drinks. The project was devised to turn those arguments into Argument, as it were. Back then, there was little separation between making a film, watching a film, and talking about a film.
We wanted to literalize those social conventions. So the structure of the Argument project—namely its screenings, its accompanying documentation, and its organized discussion groups—was a deliberate effort to create such a political-aesthetic context. Similarly, the film itself was preoccupied with both formal questions and political ones. Formally, if we try to make films that are not abstract or individualistic, but engage the world, what would be their building blocks of meaning? Politically, if the cultural forces that shape our understanding of the world are beyond our control, what leverage do we have to bend them to our own purposes anyway?
How did you divide your roles as co-directors? Who did what?
Our backgrounds differed, in that Andrew had been trained as a journalist and Anthony as a visual artist. So you would think that Anthony was responsible for the look and Andrew for the words. You will see that in the film itself we worked as hard as possible to make that formal (look-vs.-word) division as problematic as possible: We tried to make words into things, and images into objects for examination. Similarly, we tried to divide our work co-directing the film as little as possible.
How do you believe that the film is relevant today?
With its social preoccupations (the avant-garde film community), its cultural preoccupations (specifically the contemporary representation of the masculine image), and with its political preoccupations (the relationship of avant-garde film production to the mass media), the film was obviously designed to be in and of its time. So, to the extent that it works the same way now as it did then (or fails in the same way now as it failed then), that would have to count as a shortcoming. So first, its relevance is as a historical reminder of a previous generation’s preoccupations. Some of the visual elements that were experimental at the time—especially those dealing with manipulating print on a screen—have been utterly superseded by technology. Nowadays the idea of words on a screen does not belong to the category of “film” at all. So the film’s relevance today can only work by looking for analogies: What is the modern equivalent of those 1970s circumstances and technologies today? This leads logically to your last question…
If you were making the film today, how do you believe it would be different?
…almost certainly it would not be a film at all, probably not even video. The modern day equivalent of the social medium of independent film, back then, would be…social media itself! Perhaps Argument, nowadays, would be a project concerning and using the medium of Twitter. It might investigate using such a social medium, self-referentially, to discuss what it is, and does, and organizes us to do, and prevents us from doing. Formally, how does time work in such a feed? When can words stand alone or when can they exist only in context? How does one integrate images (photographic and video) into a feed to subvert it or to interrogate it? Can one carve out a discrete bloc of social media to make it stand alone and be the starting point for some other cultural investigation? In other words, can one use social medium as a politically aware art form? Or will it always be using you?