National News

Annette Michelson, Influential Film Writer, Is Dead at 95

Posted September 18, 2018 6:38 p.m. EDT

Annette Michelson, who was a founder of the arts journal October and whose essays on film helped establish cinema studies as its own discipline and influenced generations of students, critics and scholars, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 95.

Stuart Liebman, a fellow film scholar and longtime friend, announced her death. She had dementia and had been in declining health for some time, he said.

Michelson was a New Yorker who steeped herself in the intellectual ferment of Paris in the 1950s and early ‘60s before returning to teach at New York University and write erudite articles for Artforum and, beginning in 1976, for October, which she founded with Rosalind E. Krauss. (Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe was also instrumental but left after the third issue.)

She wrote much-admired essays on Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein (the journal October was named in part for his late 1920s silent movie, “October: Ten Days That Shook the World”) and championed avant-garde and experimental films at a time when they were not receiving much critical attention.

“Through her cover stories at Artforum in the 1960s and later with her co-editorship of October,” the critic and curator Amy Taubin said by email, “she was enormously influential in bringing American avant-garde film to the attention of the museum and gallery world, enabling its current investment in the moving image as a serious visual art medium.”

Krauss said that Michelson wrote the manifesto that announced October’s intentions in the first issue. (It was signed “The Editors.”)

“Our aim is not to perpetuate the mythology or hagiography of Revolution,” the statement said after making reference to the tumultuous period of the Russian Revolution and Eisenstein’s film about it. “It is rather to reopen an inquiry into the relationships between the several arts which flourish in our culture at this time, and in so doing, to open discussion of their role at this highly problematic juncture.”

Annette Michelsohn (she later removed the second H to Americanize the name) was born on Nov. 7, 1922, in Manhattan. Her father, Adrian, who was from a Yiddish-speaking Romanian family, was a businessman who got his start working in his father’s hosiery business, and her mother, Theresa (Roth) Michelsohn, who was from a German-speaking Hungarian family, was a homemaker.

Her family eventually moved to Brooklyn, where Annette, a voracious reader, spent many hours in the public library. She commuted to Hunter College High School in Manhattan, then attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1945. She pursued graduate studies in art history and philosophy at Columbia University. She left New York for Paris in 1950, continuing her studies at the University of Paris and immersing herself in the city’s artistic life.

Michelson initially hoped to become an actress. Liebman said she fell in with a circle of theater people around director Roger Blin and had the opportunity to observe his rehearsals of the world premiere of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” first staged in early 1953.

At the Sorbonne, she heard lectures by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose writings about perception and aesthetics influenced her, and by Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose ideas on Structuralism — a school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to underlie all human activity — she would later help bring to the United States.

While in France she wrote and edited for several publications and translated the essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others. She returned to New York in 1966 and, the next year, helped start a program in cinema history and criticism at New York University’s Graduate School of the Arts and Science.

Michelson taught at NYU for decades, leading courses, seminars and conferences on a wide range of topics. She was named a professor emerita in 2004.

“She was for 50 years — in her writing and teaching — in the forefront of repositioning the study of film from being a subset of literature to being a discipline in its own right, in dialogue with the visual arts,” Taubin said.

In 1966, Michelson became an associate editor of Artforum, and she wrote for and helped plan numerous issues over the next decade. She was not given to write about popular movies of the day, but an exception was her 1969 Artforum essay on Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which had been released the year before.

The article, titled “Bodies in Space: Film as Carnal Knowledge,” connected Kubrick’s film all the way back to Georges Méliès’s 1902 short “A Trip to the Moon” and pondered its effects on the culture and on critics. “Like that black monolith whose unheralded materialization propels the evolution of consciousness through the three panels of the movie’s narrative triptych,” she wrote, invoking one of the movie’s central images, “Kubrick’s film has assumed the disquieting function of Epiphany. It functions as a disturbing structure, emitting, in its intensity of presence and perfection of surface, sets of signals.”

In the mid-1970s, Michelson was one of several Artforum figures who were becoming disillusioned with the direction of the magazine under the editorship of John Coplans. Another was Krauss, who said that the magazine was being taken over by its advertising and that Coplans, catering increasingly to the art galleries, was refusing to publish anything on film or video.

“This was taking place after Annette’s stupendous special issue on independent cinema, which opened a whole generation’s eyes to the brilliant phenomenon that had been building right before them but unnoticed,” Krauss said by email. “Coplans was also allergic to French theory and criticism. We both left in frustration over the roadblocks that had been set in our paths.”

Their response was to found October. Michelson once described that journal as aiming for “a shotgun marriage of theory and practice.” From the first issue — which included Krauss’ essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” — it cast an interdisciplinary net, and it quickly became a significant voice in scholarly circles. Not everyone was a fan. The conservative social commentator Roger Kimball, writing in 1988 in The New Criterion about the newly published compilation “October: The First Decade,” called the journal a leading example of a phenomenon in which “arcane, pseudo-philosophical jargon and radical sentiment compete to forestall genuine engagement with aesthetic or intellectual issues.”

Detractors aside, the journal remains influential, and Michelson’s writings, Liebman said, “became formative, ‘must’ reading for the first generation of film studies scholars.”

In 2015, when Michelson donated her papers to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Thomas Gaehtgens, its director, said that she had “played a hugely significant role in the advancement of scholarship in avant-garde visual culture, especially film, around the world.”

She leaves no immediate survivors. Michelson did not just write about films; in 1980 she acted in one, Yvonne Rainer’s “Journeys From Berlin/1971,” playing a woman undergoing psychoanalysis.

Krauss recalled another time when Michelson had displayed her exploratory side.

“Working closely with Annette has been a continual broadening of my own horizons,” she said. “At one point, Annette became fascinated with the Structuralist paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan” — André Leroi-Gourhan, who studied cave paintings. “That summer Annette and I drove through southern France to many of the caves.”