Avant-garde film in the United States  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The United States had some avant-garde filmmakers before World War II, but as a whole pre-war experimental film culture failed to gain a critical mass.

Contents

The 1930s

The 1940s

Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren is considered to be one of the first important American experimental films. It provided a model for self-financed 16mm production and distribution, one that was soon picked up by Cinema 16 and other film societies. Just as importantly, it established an aesthetic model of what experimental cinema could do. Meshes had a dream-like feel that harkened to Jean Cocteau and the Surrealists, but equally seemed personal, new and American.

In 1947, the Art in Cinema film series began at the San Francisco Museum of Art, which screened a number of significant experimental films.

The 1960s

Early works by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Gregory Markopoulos, Willard Maas, Marie Menken, Curtis Harrington and Sydney Peterson followed in a similar vein. Significantly, many of these filmmakers were the first students from the pioneering university film programs established in Los Angeles and New York.

"Alternative film programs" were set up at Black Mountain College (now defunct) and the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly California College of Fine Arts), most notably. Arthur Penn taught at Black Mountain College, which points out some of the popular misconceptions in both the art world and Hollywood that the avant-garde and the commercial never meet.

Jonas Mekas organized New American Cinema. In 1974, P. Adams Sitney wrote Visionary Film in which he documented the history of post-World War II American avant-garde filmmaking.

The 1970s and time arts in the conceptual art landscape

Conceptual art in the 1970s pushed even further. Robert Smithson, a California-based artist, made several films about his earthworks and attached projects. Yoko Ono made conceptual films, the most notorious of which is Rape, which finds a woman and invades her life with cameras following her back to her apartment as she flees from the invasion. Around this time a new generation was entering the field, many of whom were students of the early avant-gardists. Leslie Thornton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Su Friedrich expanded upon the work of the structuralists, incorporating a broader range of content while maintaining a self-reflexive form.

Feminist avant-garde and other political offshoots

Laura Mulvey's writing and filmmaking launched a flourishing of feminist filmmaking based on the idea that conventional Hollywood narrative reinforced gender norms and a patriarchal gaze. Their response was to resist narrative in a way to show its fissures and inconsistencies. Chantal Akerman and Sally Potter are just two of the leading feminist filmmakers working in this mode in the 1970s. Video art emerged as a medium in this period, and feminists like Martha Rosler and Cecelia Condit took full advantage of it. In the 1980s feminist, gay and other political experimental work continued, with filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, Tracy Moffatt, Sadie Benning, Moira Sullivanand Isaac Julien among others finding experimental format condusive to their questions about identity politics.

See also




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