From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Experimental film, or "experimental cinema," is a term that describes a range of filmmaking styles that are generally quite different from, and often trangress, the practices of mainstream commercial and documentary filmmaking. "Avant-garde film" and "underground" have also been used in the past this kind of cinema, though with slightly different connotations. While "experimental" covers a wide range of practice, an "experimental film" is often characterized by the absence of linear narrative, the use of various abstracting techniques (out of focus, painting or scratching on film, rapid editing), the use of asynchronous (non-diegetic) sound or even the absence of any sound track. The goal is often to place the viewer in a more active and more thoughtful relationship to the film. At least through the 1960s, and to some extent after, many experimental films took an oppositional stance toward mainstream culture. Most such films are made on very low budgets, self-financed or financed through small grants, with a minimal crew or, quite often, a crew of only one person, the filmmaker. It has been argued that much experimental film is no longer in fact "experimental," but has in fact become a film genre and that many of its more typical features - such as a non-narrative, impressionistic or poetic approaches to the film's construction - define what is generally understood to be "experimental".
The European avant-garde
Two conditions made Europe in the 1920s ready for the emergence of avant-garde film. First, the cinema matured as a medium, and highbrow resistance to the mass entertainment began to wane. Second, avant-garde movements in the visual arts flourished. The Dadaists and Surrealists in particular took to cinema. René Clair's Entr'acte took madcap comedy into nonsequitur, and artists Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac and Viking Eggeling all contributed Dadaist/Surrealist shorts. The most famous experimental film is generally considered to be Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un chien andalou. Hans Richter's animated shorts and Len Lye's G.P.O films would be excellent examples of European avant-garde films which are more abstract and less focused on formal analysis.
The postwar American avant-garde
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.
The New American Cinema and Structural-Materialism
- Main article: Structural_film#Context
The film society and self-financing model of the pre-war era continued over the next two decades, but by the early 1960s, a different outlook became perceptible in the work of American avant-garde filmmakers. Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man exemplified a shift from personal confessional to abstraction. Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising was an inverted musical of sorts and a camp commentary on Hollywood mythology. Jack Smith and Andy Warhol incorporated camp minimalism into their work.
Some avant-garde filmmakers moved further away from narrative. Whereas the New American Cinema was marked by an oblique take on narrative, one based on abstraction, camp and minimalism, Structural-Materialist filmmakers like Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow created a highly formalist cinema that foregrounded the medium itself: the frame, projection, and most importantly time itself. By breaking film down into bare components, they sought to create an anti-illusionist cinema.
Distribution and exhibition
Influences on commercial media
Many experimental filmmakers have also made feature films, and vice versa. Notable examples include Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Jean Cocteau, Isaac Julien, Sally Potter, Gus Van Sant and Luis Buñuel, although the degree to which their feature filmmaking takes on mainstream commercial esthetics differs widely.
Key critical texts
- A. L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video (BFI, 1999).
- Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond (MIT, 1977).
- Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 1992 and 1998).
- Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- James Peterson, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-Garde Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994).
- P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).
- Michael O’Pray, Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions (London: Wallflower Press, 2003).
- David Curtis (ed.), A Directory of British Film and Video Artists (Arts Council, 1999).
- David Curtis, Experimental Cinema - A Fifty Year Evolution. (London. Studio Vista. 1971)
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema. (Albany, NY. State University of New York Press, 1997)
- Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds.) Experimental Cinema - The Film Reader, (London: Routledge, 2002)
- Stan Brakhage. Film at Wit's End - Essays on American Independent Filmmakers. (Edinburgh, Polygon. 1989)
- Stan Brakhage. Essential Brakhage - Selected Writings on Filmmaking. (New York, McPherson. 2001)
- Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History. (New York: Grove Press, 1969)