Experimental film  

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"Throughout the 1960s, “underground movies” were synonymous with all avant-garde or “experimental” films."--Midnight Movies (1983) by Hoberman and Rosenbaum

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Experimental film or "experimental cinema" is a term for non-mainstream cinema within the art film realm that describes a range of filmmaking styles that are generally quite different from, and often transgress the practices of mainstream commercial and documentary filmmaking.

The terms avant-garde film (popular from 1920s until the 1960s) and underground film (after the 1960s) have also been used in the past for this kind of cinema, although 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

Avant-garde film in Europe

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

Avant-garde film in the United States

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 New American Cinema and Structural-Materialism

The film society and self-financing model continued over the next two decades, but by the early 1960s, a different outlook became perceptible in the work of American avant-garde filmmakers. Filmmakers like Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Ken Jacobs, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, and Ernie Gehr, are considered by P. Adams Sitney to be key models for what he calls "structural film". Sitney says that the key elements of structural film are a fixed camera position, flicker effect, re-photography off screen, and loop printing. Artist Bruce Conner created early examples such as A Movie (1958) and Cosmic Ray (1962). As Sitney has pointed out, in the work of Stan Brakhage and other American experimentalists of early period, film is used to express the individual consciousness of the maker, a cinematic equivalent of the first person in literature. Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961–64) exemplified a shift from personal confessional to abstraction, and also evidenced a rejection of American mass culture of the time. On the other hand, Kenneth Anger added a rock sound track to his Scorpio Rising (1963) in what is sometimes said to be an anticipation of music videos, and included some camp commentary on Hollywood mythology. Jack Smith and Andy Warhol incorporated camp elements into their work, and Sitney posited Warhol's connection to structural film.

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. It has been argued that by breaking film down into bare components, they sought to create an anti-illusionist cinema, although Frampton's late works owe a huge debt to the photography of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and others, and in fact celebrate illusion. Further, while many filmmakers began making rather academic "structural films" following Film Culture's publication of an article by P. Adams Sitney in the late 1960s, many of the filmmakers named in the article objected to the term.

A critical review of the structuralists appeared in a 2000 edition of the art journal Art in America. It examined structural-formalism as a conservative philosophy of filmmaking.

Distribution and exhibition

Influences on commercial media

Though experimental film is known to a relatively small number of practitioners, academics and connoisseurs, it has influenced and continues to influence cinematography, visual effects and editing.

The genre of music video can be seen as a commercialization of many techniques of experimental film. Title design and television advertising have also been influenced by experimental film.

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.

By region

See also


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)

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