Experimental FilmEARLY HISTORY
THREE TYPES OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM
THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE
Experimental films are very different from feature-length Hollywood fiction films. In Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) completely avoids "normal" filmmaking (he doesn't even use a camera) by sprinkling seeds, grass, dead moths, and bee parts directly onto the film stock; the result is a three-minute rhythmic "dance" between nature and the projector mechanism.
There are many types of experimental film, but despite their diversity, it is possible to pin down tendencies that help make experimental film a discrete genre. Edward Small identifies eight traits of experimental films and in the process defines important differences between the avant-garde and Hollywood.
Most obviously, production is a collaborative enterprise, but most experimental filmmakers conceive, shoot, and edit their films alone or with a minimal crew. Often they even assume the responsibility for the distribution of the finished film. It follows that experimental films are made outside of industry economics, with the filmmakers themselves often paying for production (sometimes with money from small grants or the rentals on previous films). This low-budget approach buys independence: Maya Deren (1917–1961) bought an inexpensive 16mm Bolex camera with money she inherited after her father's death, and used this camera to make all of her films, forging a career completely apart from the Hollywood mode of production.
Unlike mainstream feature films, experimental works are usually short, often under thirty minutes in length. This is in part because of their small budgets, though most filmmakers make short films for aesthetic reasons too: to capture a fleeting moment, perhaps, or to create new visuals with the camera. Ten Second Film (Bruce Conner, 1965) was originally shown at the 1965 New York Film Festival, and all ten seconds were reproduced in their entirety, as strips of film, on the festival's poster. Experimental filmmakers are usually the first to try out new ways of making movies, after which these technologies are adopted by Hollywood. Scott Bartlett's (1943–1990) films, such as OFFON (1967, with Tom DeWitt), were the first to mix computer and film imagery, and influenced Douglas Trumbull's (b. 1942) light show in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The reverse is also true: avant-garde filmmakers continue to use formats such as Pixelvision or 8mm long after the height of their popularity. Also like OFFON, experimental production often focuses on abstract imagery. The quintessential example is Stan Brakhage's notion of "closed-eye vision," the attempt to duplicate on film the shimmers of light we see on our eyelids when our eyes are closed.
As Brakhage's films suggest, most experimental films avoid verbal communication, giving primacy to the visual. Unlike "talkie" Hollywood movies, experimental films are typically silent, or use sound in nonnaturalistic ways. As well, experimental films typically ignore, subvert, or fragment the storytelling rules of Hollywood cinema. Some films—such as Harry Smith's (1923–1991) Early Abstractions (1939–1956)—abandon narrative altogether and focus instead on creating a colorful, ever-changing picture plane. When experimental films do settle down into a story, it's often one that shocks or disturbs conventional sensibilities. Sometimes their subject is themselves and the medium of cinema.
Many experimental films violate one or more of the above traits. Andy Warhol's (1928–1987) Empire (1964) is over eight hours long, and Peter Hutton's movies photograph nature in objective terms, avoiding the avant-garde tendency toward subjective psychology. The traits, though, provide a rough guide to the ways that experimental films differ from feature-length narratives, and provide an entrance into the history of the avant-garde.
b. Eleanora Derenkowsky, Kiev, Russia, 29 April 1917, d. 13 October 1961
One of the most important women in American experimental cinema, Maya Deren emigrated with her parents in 1922 to the United States, where Eleanora developed a keen interest in the arts that launched her into a varied early career, including a stint touring with Katherine Dunham's dance company. In 1941, while with the company in Los Angeles, she met and married filmmaker Alexander Hammid. In 1943 Deren adopted the first name Maya (Hindu for "illusion") and made Meshes of the Afternoon, a psychodrama rife with symbolic, fascinating repetition that rejuvenated the American avant-garde.
Deren's love of dance manifests itself in the films following Meshes. At Land (1944) is a dream of female empowerment that foregrounds Deren's own graceful movements, while A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) is a portrait of dancer Talley Beatty as he moves from repose to a vigorous, ballet-like jump. Meshes, At Land, and A Study are unified by Deren's signature editing strategy: flowing motions that bridge abrupt cuts between different locales. In A Study, for instance, Beatty's single leap travels through a room, an art museum, against a backdrop of sky, and then ends in the woods, as he falls into a crouch and stops moving.
The combination of real-life incident and artistic manipulation is, for Deren, the essence of cinema. In her essay "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality" she argues that photography and cinema is the art of the "controlled accident," the "delicate balance" between spontaneity and deliberate design in art. Deren further extends the notion of the controlled accident to include those formal properties—slow-motion, negative images, disjunctive editing—that shape and alter the images of real life provided by the film camera.
Deren's other films are the Meshes -like Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the dance film Meditation on Violence (1948), and The Very Eye of Night (1958). In 1946 Deren divorced Alexander Hammid. In the late 1940s she became passionately interested in Haitian religion and dance, and traveled three times to Haiti to do research that resulted in the book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953) and hours of footage of Haitian rituals (some of which was edited into the video release Divine Horsemen). Deren became a legend in New York City's Greenwich Village, both for her practice of voodoo and for the assistance she provided to younger experimental filmmakers. The Creative Film Foundation (CFF) was founded by Deren to provide financial help to struggling filmmakers; Stan Brakhage, Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer, Shirley Clarke, and Carmen D'Avino received CFF grants.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation on Violence (1948)
Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, vol. 1, part 1: Signatures (1917–42). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984.
Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, vol. 1, part 2: Chambers (1942–47). New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.
Deren, Maya. "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality." Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 187–198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Many of the seminal texts of US experimental film history, such as P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film, begin with a discussion of the production of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). More recent scholarly work, however, has unearthed a vibrant post–World
War I avant-garde American film movement with roots in European art and culture. American artists such as Man Ray (1890–1976) and Dudley Murphy (1897–1968) lived in France and took inspiration from dadaism and surrealism in the 1920s; Ray made his first film, Le Retour à la raison (Return to Reason, 1923), for a famous dada soirée, and Murphy collaborated with Fernand́ger (1881–1955) on the surrealist Ballet mécanique (Mechanical ballet, 1924). Technological innovation, Le specifically Kodak's 1924 introduction of 16mm film and the user-friendly Cine-Kodak 16mm camera, helped to jump-start the 1920s avant-garde (Lovers of Cinema, p. 18).
The creators in this first wave of experimental filmmaking came from different careers and interests. Elia Kazan (1909–2003), Orson Welles (1915–1985), and Gregg Toland (1904–1948) dabbled in the avant-garde, but achieved true success in mainstream film. Douglass Crockwell was a magazine illustrator of the Norman Rockwell school, but his Glens Falls Sequence (1934–1946) is an abstract dance of mutating shapes. Several film teachers and scholars (Theodore Huff, Lewis Jacobs, Jay Leyda) made avant-garde films too. Yet, despite these different backgrounds and motivations, most experimental film practitioners thought of themselves as amateurs rather than professional filmmakers, but the term "amateur" was praise rather than a pejorative, implying a commitment to art over commerce. The types of films by these "amateur" avant-gardists fall into distinct genres. Many made offbeat stories inspired by literary sources and cutting-edge art movements. James Sibley Watson, Jr. (1894–1982) and Melville Webber (1871–1947) invoke such sources as Edgar Allan Poe, German expressionism, and Old Testament narratives in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933). Other films told stories that parodied film genres, such as Theodore Huff's first movie, Hearts of the West (1931), which features an all-children cast in a spoof of silent westerns. Filmmaker and artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) made collage films that turned Hollywood narratives into studies in surrealism. In Rose Hobart (1936), Cornell took footage from a Universal B movie that featured the contract player Rose Hobart, scored all of Hobart's actions to an old samba record, and projected the reedited footage through red-tinted lenses.
Other filmmakers abandoned narrative. Paul Strand (1890–1976) and Charles Sheeler's (1883–1965) Manhatta (1921), the first avant-garde film produced in the United States, was the first "city symphony" film, a genre of associative documentaries that celebrate urban life and the machines of modernity. Other American examples of the genre include A Bronx Morning (Jay Leyda, 1931) and The Pursuit of Happiness (Rudy Burkhardt, 1940), but the most famous city symphony of all, The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), was made in Soviet Russia. Another common type of nonnarrative documentary was the dance film; Hands (Stella Simon, 1926) and Introspection (Sara Arledge, 1941–1946) use innovative form to capture bodies reacting to music, and are clear inspirations for Maya Deren's work. Rhythms are at the center of both dance films and abstract films, those works that focus on unfamiliar objects and patterns. H2O (1929) by Ralph Steiner catalogs how water reflects light in raindrops and rivers; the films of Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967), Mary Ann Bute, and Dwinell Grant are paintings in motion, dances of colors and shapes instead of the human body.
There were four venues for the exhibition of early experimental film. In the United States, for example, the "little cinemas," the art theaters that emerged during the 1920s and 1930s to program repertory classics and European fare, sometimes showed experimental shorts before their features. The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1928) was paired with a German/Indian coproduction, Light of Asia (1926), at the Philadelphia Motion Picture Guild, and Roman Freulich's Prisoners (1934) was followed by Sweden, Land of the Vikings (1934) at the Little Theatre in Baltimore (Lovers of Cinema, p. 24). On occasion, avant-garde shorts were even on the same program as Hollywood features. Art galleries were another venue for experimental films, as were the screenings of the Workers Film and Photo League, a branch of the Communist Party that regularly exhibited nonmainstream films of all types. The most important exhibition space for the avant-garde during this period was provided by the Amateur Cinema League (ACL), founded in New York City in 1926. The ACL nationally distributed key avant-garde films, organized "ten best" contests for amateur filmmakers, and published extravagant praise for experimental work in the ACL magazine, Amateur Movie Makers. As Patricia Zimmerman points out, the activities of the ACL were just a small part of the amateur film phenomenon: "The New York Times speculated that that there were over one hundred thousand home moviemakers in 1937 and five hundred services for rental of films for home viewing" (Zimmerman in Horak, p. 143). No wonder experimental filmmakers from this period embraced the "amateur" label so readily. However, most of these activities vanished as the Depression ground on. Though several important experimental filmmakers—Arledge, Burkhardt, Cornell—began to make work in the second half of the 1930s, it would be another ten years before a new avant-garde generation would build systems of production, distribution, and exhibition that rivaled those of the amateur film movement.
In the immediate postwar period, the most important exhibition space for experimental films were the ciné clubs, organizations of film fans who would rent and discuss offbeat films. The first flowering of ciné clubs occurred in France in the 1920s, as venues for the impressionist work of such avant-gardists as Germaine Dulac (1882–1942) and Jean Epstein (1897–1953). Luis Buñuel made Un Chien Andalou (1929) in collaboration with the painter Salvador Dali. Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Jon Jost, and Jean Cocteau are among the many other avant-garde filmmakers to work in Europe.
In the United States, the first such club, Art in Cinema, whose screenings were helmed by Frank Stauffacher at the San Francisco Museum of Art, was established in 1947. Stauffacher helped Amos and Marcia Vogel start a club, Cinema 16, in New York City, and for sixteen years (1947–1963) the Vogels sponsored programs that included experimental shorts such as Kenneth Anger's (b. 1927) Fireworks (1947) and Bruce Conner's A Movie (1957) with documentaries, educational shorts, art films, and special events featuring speakers such as playwright Arthur Miller and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1950 the Vogels also began to distribute experimental films around the country (primarily to colleges and other ciné clubs) through Cinema 16. Although financial troubles forced the Vogels to shut down Cinema 16 in 1963, its effect was lasting and profound.
Other exhibition spaces besides ciné clubs included college classes, art galleries and museums, and bars. Occasionally, an entrepreneurial filmmaker might even screen in a mainstream theater. Between 1946 and 1949, for instance, Maya Deren rented the two-hundred-seat Provincetown Playhouse eight times for programs of her films. As opportunities for the exhibition of avant-garde films grew, trends began to form. Following Deren's example, several filmmakers in the immediate postwar period made surrealist, dream-inflected narratives. Sidney Peterson (1905–2000) and James Broughton (1913–1999) collaborated on The Potted Psalm (1946), a loose-limbed tale featuring gravestones, mannequins, and other irrational symbols. Peterson's subsequent films, such as The Cage (1947) and The Lead Shoes (1948), combine disturbing images with recursive narratives and compulsive repetition. Broughton made his first film, Mother's Day, in 1948, and across four decades of filmmaking his works shifted in emphasis from offbeat, erotic comedy to an unabashed celebration of gay sexuality. Willard Maas (1911–1971) was another practitioner of the postwar experimental narrative; his Geography of the Body (1946) turns close-ups of human anatomy into a travelogue of a surreal continent. For his first film, Stan Brakhage made Interim (1952), a romantic Derenesque narrative, but afterwards he quickly took off in new directions.
Animation was also a vibrant part of the postwar avant-garde. The most prolific avant-garde animator was Robert Breer (b. 1926), who between 1952 and 1970 produced at least one film a year. James (1921–1982) and John Whitney (1917–1995) pioneered computer-generated films, and their success gave them the opportunity to make cartoons for the mainstream UPA studio and to produce animated effects for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Australian artist Len Lye (1901–1980) painted directly on the surface of the film strip in such films as A Colour Box (1935) and Free Radicals (1958). And Jordan Belson's (b. 1926) San Francisco light shows evolved into symmetrically patterned, Buddhist-influenced films such as Mandala (1953) and Allures (1961).
Several postwar filmmakers explored film form in ways different from animation. Bruce Conner began his career in the arts as a sculptor, but became famous as the conceptualizer-editor of a series of "found footage" films that edited previously shot footage into new and bizarre combinations. In A Movie, Conner subverts our cause-effect expectations (and makes us laugh) by juxtaposing, for example, a shot of a German soldier staring into a periscope with a picture of a girl wearing a bikini and staring into the camera. Other Conner films subject newly shot footage to unorthodox cutting: in Vivian (1963), Conner filmed his friend Vivian Kurz in various environments—in an art gallery, in her bedroom—and then edited the rolls into a kinetic flow of images that comments on the nature of photographic representation. Vivian has a pop music soundtrack—as do other Conner films, such as Cosmic Ray (1961) and Mongoloid (1978)—and Conner's synchronization of editing and musical rhythm is the origin of the music video.
Marie Menken (1909–1970) used time-lapse photography as the formal center of many of her films. A team player in the New York Underground—she worked on films by Warhol, Deren, and her husband, Willard Maas—Menken also crafted miniature movies that condense time. Moonplay (1962) is a collection of full moons photographed over the course of several years, while Menken herself described Go! Go! Go! (1962–1964) as "a time-lapse record of a day in the life of a city."
b. Andrew Warhola, Forest City, Pennsylvania, 6 August 1928, d. 22 February 1987
Probably the best-known American artist of the twentieth century, Andy Warhol studied commercial art at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1949 he moved to New York City and carved out a career as an advertising artist. In the early 1960s Warhol became a pioneer of pop art by creating paintings that showcased the most ubiquitous icons of American popular culture: Campbell's Soup cans, Brillo boxes, celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. With his paintings and silkscreens in high demand, Warhol established the Factory, a workshop and hangout where he supervised "art workers" in the making of Warhol "originals." The subjects of his art were the mass media and mass production, and the art was created on the Factory's improvisational assembly line.
A neglected aspect of Warhol's 1960s artistic production was his work in experimental film. Just as his graphic art used simplicity to challenge notions of "art," Warhol's avant-garde films embraced the realist aesthetic strategies of the putative fathers of cinema, Louis and Auguste Lumière. Warhol returned to cinema's zero point by setting up a 16mm camera and encouraging the artsy types who inhabited the Factory to perform for the lens. Sometimes Warhol commissioned writers (most notably off-off-Broadway playwright Ronald Tavel) to provide screenplays, but usually the Factory crew filmed with just a central conceit—open to extended improvisation—as a rough guide. In Kiss (1963), Warhol showcased various couples (hetero- and homosexual) kissing, each for the three-minute length of the camera magazine; Sleep (1963) uses a few camera angles to photograph poet John Giorno's body as he slumbers. Warhol's films had a profound effect on avant-garde film practice of the 1960s, especially the decade's structural filmmakers.
Warhol's movies of the mid-1960s built on the simple structures of his earlier work. Inner and Outer Space (1965) juxtaposes ghostly video images of Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick with film footage of her commenting on her own video reflection, while Chelsea Girls (1966), which played commercially in New York City, uses two screens to depict the inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Warhol's epic was perhaps **** (Four Stars, 1966–1967), a twenty-five-hour explosion of superimpositions (two projectors fired footage simultaneously on the same screen) that was shown only once and then disassembled.
After Warhol was shot and almost killed by Valerie Solanas in June 1968, he stopped making films. Instead, he farmed out the Factory's filmmaking activities to his protégé, Paul Morrissey, who went on to direct several Warhol-influenced but more mainstream features, including Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Heat (1972), Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), and Blood for Dracula (1974).
Kiss (1963), Sleep (1963), Empire (1964), Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), My Hustler (1965), Chelsea Girls (1966), The Nude Restaurant (1967), Blue Movie (1969)
Gidal, Peter. Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings. New York: Dutton, 1971.
Koch, Stephen. Stargazer: Andy Warhol's World and His Films. 2nd ed. New York: M. Boyars, 1985.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. Andy Warhol. New York: Penguin, 2001.
O'Pray, Michael, ed. Andy Warhol: Film Factory. London: British Film Institute, 1989.
Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Radical content as well as form was common in the postwar avant-garde, particularly films that addressed homosexual desire. Probably the most famous "queer" experimental filmmaker of this period is Kenneth Anger, who made the trailblazing Fireworks at the age of seventeen. Fireworks is a mélange of same-sex flirtation, sadomasochism, and sailors; the film's finale features a sailor lighting a Roman candle (firework) in his crotch. (Fireworks was shown several times at Cinema 16, often as part of a "Forbidden Films" program, and Amos
Vogel also distributed Anger's work.) Anger's epic Scorpio Rising (1963) connects gay desire and satanism—for Anger (as for Jean Genet), being gay means repudiating traditional norms and embracing the subversive and decadent—and the film juxtaposes a chronicle of California biker culture with a pop-rock soundtrack in ways that, like Conner's works, anticipate music videos. Anger's films treat homosexuality as inherently transgressive; in contrast, many of Gregory Markopoulos's (1928–1992) works place same-sex desire in a classical context. The Iliac Passion (1967), for example, features several members of the 1960s New York gay demimonde—Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Taylor Mead—cast as mythic characters such as Poseidon and Orpheus. Markopoulos also pioneered a single-frame, scattershot approach to editing that made his films tightly wound, dense fabrics of allusions, classical and otherwise.
As Markopoulos explored the deep connections between sexuality and myth, Jack Smith turned popular culture into his own queer playground. Soon after meeting experimental filmmakers Ken Jacobs (b. 1933) and Bob Fleischner in a film class at the City College of New York in 1956, Smith collaborated with Jacobs on a series of films—including Star Spangled to Death (1958/2004) and Little Stabs at Happiness (1959)—that ditch plot and instead allow Smith to improvise personas for the camera. Both the charm and narcissism of this approach finds its perfect expression in Jacobs, Fleischner, and Smith's Blonde Cobra (1963), where Smith delivers a monologue to his image in a mirror. After a falling out with Jacobs, Smith directed several films himself, the most notorious being Flaming Creatures (1963), a mad chronicle of a pansexual orgy, complete with simulated rape and faux -earthquake, that was declared obscene in New York Criminal Court. Even while Smith worked on such films as the unfinished Normal Love (begun 1964) and No President (1968), he increasingly shifted his energies to performance art, letting his love of Z-grade Hollywood stars (especially the beloved Maria Montez) and radical politics run rampant in theater pieces, slide shows, and "expanded cinema" experiences such as I Was a Male Yvonne de Carlo for the Lucky Landlord Underground (1982).
The 1960s deserves its own subsection primarily because of Andy Warhol, who began making 16mm long-take, quotidian extravaganzas in 1963, and whose popularity throughout the decade brought visibility to experimental films as a whole. In addition, the rise of a leftist counter-culture during the decade and the increased distribution of nonmainstream movies led to an exponential increase in the number of artists who made avant-garde films during this time. Among the most important filmmakers of the era were Bruce Baillie (b. 1931), Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers (George, b. 1942, and Mike, b. 1942), Robert Nelson, Stan Vanderbeek (1927–1984), Michael Snow (b. 1929), and Joyce Wieland (1931–1998). However, much of the credit for the explosion of creativity in the 1960s in the United States belongs to Jonas Mekas (b. 1922).
Born in Lithuania, Mekas published several books of poetry and literary sketches—and spent time in forced-labor and displaced-persons camps during World War II—before he and his brother Adolfas emigrated to the United States in 1949. He quickly became a fixture at Cinema 16, where he shot footage that would later appear in his diary film Lost Lost Lost (1975). In January 1955 he began Film Culture, "America's Independent Motion Picture Magazine," whose early topics included classical Hollywood filmmaking (the journal published Andrew Sarris's first articles on auteurism), the international art cinema, and Mekas's own criticism. Within a few years, Film Culture's focus zeroed in on the avant-garde and Mekas became experimental film's hardest working promoter.
In the 1960s his weekly "Movie Journal" column in the Village Voice publicized experimental filmmakers and the events where their films could be seen, and Mekas himself was one of these filmmakers: his feature Guns of the Trees (codirected by Adolfas) was released in 1961, his film document of the play The Brig in 1964, and his first ambitious diaristic film, Walden, in 1969. In 1964 he organized the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, a venue for US avant-garde film that provocatively overlapped with vanguard artists in other fields as well. With Shirley Clarke (1919–1997) and Lionel Rogosin (1924–2000), Mekas started the FilmMakers' Distribution Center, a distribution exchange that he hoped would supply an ever-expanding circuit of theaters with experimental work. Although both the Cinematheque and Distribution Center failed, Mekas established Anthology Film Archives in 1970, a museum/theater/preservation complex devoted to experimental films. Although various controversies have erupted throughout its history—most notably, perhaps, around its attempt to establish a list of canonical "essential" films that would be in permanent repertory—Anthology endures to this day, a tribute to Mekas's commitment to the avant-garde.
Perhaps Mekas's most unusual contribution to experimental film exhibition was the midnight movie. Mekas's midnight screenings at Manhattan's Charles Theatre between 1961 and 1963 followed an open-mic structure: audience members either paid admission or brought a reel of film to show, and Mekas supplemented these submissions with works by Markopoulos, Menken, Jacobs, and others. Later in the decade, entrepreneur Mike Getz resurrected the midnight movie model when he used family connections to begin Underground Cinema 12. Getz's uncle, Louis Sher, was the owner of a chain of Midwest art cinemas, and Getz persuaded Sher to exhibit midnight programs of avant-garde shorts at many of these theaters. Underground Cinema 12 brought experimental film out of its centers in New York City and San Francisco and gave it exposure elsewhere in the country. In 1967, for instance, in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, viewers had the opportunity to see Conner's A Movie, Vanderbeek's Breathdeath (1964), Peyote Queen (Storm De Hirsch, 1965), and Sins of the Fleshapoids (Mike Kuchar, 1965) at Sher's local art theater. Mekas's Charles screenings and Getz's Underground Cinema 12 were important precursors to the 1970s midnight movie experience as it coalesced around cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977).
Mekas's nurturing of the avant-garde led to an explosion of experimental auteurs. In such works as Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–1964) and Quick Billy (1967–1970), Bruce Baillie welds his love for the West with a poetic, Brakhage-inspired spontaneity. In his best-known film, Castro Street (1966), Baillie, who also cofounded in 1961 Canyon Cinema, an exhibition program that evolved into the biggest distributor of experimental films in the United States, uses multiple superimpositions to celebrate his beloved San Francisco neighborhood; All My Life (1966) consists of a single three-minute shot (a track along a picket fence that ends with a pan up to the sky) that captures the ravishing light in a California backyard. After collaborating with Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs made a number of avant-garde films, including Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969). Subsequently, Jacobs began researching optical effects and illusions, which resulted in his "Nervous System" performances, improvisations where Jacobs "plays" two projectors in ways that display how various properties of the film medium (flicker, lenses, projection) can mold and alter images. The Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, grew up in the Bronx, and as teenagers used an 8mm camera to shoot their own tawdry versions of Hollywood melodramas. They then showed tiny epics such as I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960) and Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961) at open screenings for amateur filmmakers, where they garnered attention from the avant-garde. Later films jumped up to 16mm, but their movies remained campy, unprofessional, rude, and thoroughly hypnotic, implicit subversions of Hollywood standards of "quality." After the mid-1960s the brothers worked separately, and Mike has made few films since. George has remained astonishingly prolific, producing films and videotapes at the rate of at least two a year.
The profane jokester of the 1960s avant-garde explosion, Robert Nelson first courted controversy with Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), his second film, a chaotic mix of gags and images involving melons accompanied in part by a racist Stephen Foster soundtrack. Nelson's tour de force, Bleu Shut (1970), functions as both a ruthless parody of structural film and a perfect example of Nelson's tendency to pack his films with crazed digressions and absurd asides. Best known as a performance artist, Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939) made several influential autobiographical avant-garde movies, including Fuses (1967), a portrait of Schneemann's sex life with composer James Tenney, for which Brakhage inspired Schneemann to paint and scratch directly on the footage to capture the joy and energy of lovemaking. While studying filmmaking at New York University, Warren Sonbert (1947–1995) shot a number of short diary films—including Where Did Our Love Go? (1966), Hall of Mirrors (1966), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1967)—that combine pop music soundtracks with candid footage of such 1960s Manhattan scenemakers as René Ricard and Gerald Malanga. With The Carriage Trade (1971), Sonbert shifted into a more rigorous type of filmmaking based on silence, extremely brief shots, and graphic contrasts. Sonbert's later films, such as Divided Loyalties (1978) and Honor and Obey (1988), use this rigorous form to create portraits of a world full of alienation and sorrow. Sonbert died of AIDS in 1995. Stan Vanderbeek pioneered the use of computer imagery, collage animation, and compilation filmmaking. Terry Gilliam's cutout animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus was inspired by Vanderbeek's Science Friction (1959), and many of Vanderbeek's earliest films were political satires in collage form. In the late 1960s Vanderbeek collaborated with Kenneth Knowlton of Bell Telephone Laboratories to make some of the first computer-generated films, and built an avant-garde movie theater, the Movie Drome of Stony Point, New York, that was equipped to properly present his own multiprojector works.
In Canada, painter Joyce Wieland (1931–1998) also made films with a dry wit that anticipates many structural films. Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) juxtaposes footage of mice with a narrated soundtrack that defines the rodents as heroes of a narrative about political oppression and liberation. After making two avant-garde films—La Raison avant la passion (Reason Over Passion, 1968–1969) and Pierre Vallières (1972)—devoted to Canadian issues, Wieland reached out to a larger audience with her narrative feminist feature The Far Shore (1976).
During this period, many challenging experimental films were made outside the United States. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Norman McLaren (1914–1987) produced playful animated and live-action shorts for Canada's National Film Board. French philosopher Guy Debord made several films—including Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps (On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Period in Time, 1959) and Critique de la séparation (Critique of Separation, 1961)—designed to vex conventional audience expectation and dissect mass media manipulation. In Japan, Takahito Iimura (b. 1937) began a series of scandalous shorts with Ai (Love, 1962).
In the late 1960s experimental film headed in a new aesthetic direction. In an article published in FilmCulture in 1969, critic P. Adams Sitney defined the structuralist film as a "tight nexus of content, a shape designed to explore the facets of the material" (Film Culture Reader, p. 327), which becomes clear when these films are compared with previous avant-garde traditions. In the films of lyricists such as Brakhage and Baillie, rhythm is dependent on what is being photographed, or on the associations possible through manipulations of form. In Window Water Baby Moving (1962), for example, Brakhage's quick cuts fragment time and connect his wife Jane's pregnant stomach to the birth of their daughter. In contrast, structuralist films don't have "rhythms" as much as they do systems that, in Sitney's words, render content "minimal and subsidiary to the outline" (Film Culture Reader, p. 327). Watching a structuralist film, then, is a little like watching a chain of dominoes: after the first domino tumbles, our attention is on how the overall organization plays out rather than on the individual dominoes. Sitney considers such Andy Warhol Factory films as Sleep (1963) and Eat (1963) to be important precursors of structural film, particularly because of their reliance on improvisatory performance and fixed camera positions. Later in the decade, other avant-garde filmmakers turned to structural film. Michael Snow's influential Wavelength (1967) is organized around a forty-five-minute zoom that moves from a wide shot of a New York loft to a close-up of a picture of ocean waves on the loft's farthest wall. Snow continued to explore reframing with Back and Forth (1969), a shot of a classroom photographed by a camera that pans with ever-increasing speed, and La Région centrale (The Central Region, 1971), a portrait of a northern Quebec landscape photographed by a machine that runs through a series of automated circular pans.
Critic David James has isolated the origin of structural film in the "radical film reductions" of the 1960s Fluxus art movement: works such as Nam June Paik's (1932–2006) Zen for Film (1964)—a projection of nothing but a bright, empty surface, occasionally punctuated by scratches and dirt—points to a cinema preoccupied with its own formal properties. Fluxus films, and the structuralist movies they spawned, explore the material nature of film as a medium and the various phases of the production process. For example, Peter Kubelka's (b. 1934) Arnulf Rainer (1958–1960) and Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1966) consist solely of alternating black-and-white frames of various lengths to explore the optical effects of flicker. Paul Sharits's (1943–1993) Ray Gun Virus (1966) and S:TREAM:S: S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1968–1971) add color, emulsion scratches, and even portraits of faces to rapid-fire flicker. The distortion of space through changes in lens focal length is the subject of Ernie Gehr's (b. 1943) Serene Velocity (1970), which juxtaposes long shots of an empty corridor with shots of the same hallway while the camera zooms in. Larry Gottheim's Barn Rushes (1971) explores the nature of filmic representation and duplication by photographing a landscape under different light conditions and with different film stocks. J. J. Murphy's Print Generation (1973–1974) subjects a one-minute piece of film to fifty duplications, and the process renders the footage abstract and unintelligible. (Murphy also distorts sound, and one twist of Print Generation is that as the image distorts, the sound becomes clearer, and vice versa.) In Britain, Malcolm le Grice and Peter Gidal, and in Germany Wilhelm and Birgit Hein, also worked in this mode.
The graininess and dirtiness of the film image is considered in Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (Owen Land, 1966), which offers a starring role to one of cinema's most ignored performers: the "Chinagirl" that lab workers would use to check the quality of a print. Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969) analyzes a 1905 short of the same name by speeding up and rewinding the original footage, and by zooming in on portions of the mise-en-scène to such a magnified degree that details become grainy abstractions and blobs of light. The nature of projection itself is the subject of Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973), which requires an audience to stand in a gallery space and watch a projector throw a light beam that gradually (over a half-hour) changes shape into a cone.
The most important structuralist filmmaker is Hollis Frampton (1936–1984), who began his career with a series of films that explore minimalist elements. Manual of Arms (1966) organizes portraits of New York artists into a rigid grid structure, and Lemon (1969) subjects the fruit to a series of ever-shifting lighting designs. Frampton's vision expanded and deepened with Zorns Lemma (1970), which was strongly influenced by the animal locomotion studies of proto-filmmaker Eadweard Muybridge. The seven-film series Hapax Legomena (1971–1972) is Frampton's Ulysses, a compendium of formal innovations that, at its most accomplished—as in part 1, Nostalgia (1971)—is both intellectually and emotionally moving. Frampton died in 1984 at age forty-eight, having spent the last decade of his life on the unfinished epic Magellan (1972–1980), fragments of which (particularly Gloria! ) function as stand-alone films.
Structuralist film was influential enough to spread to many different countries. Filmmakers such as Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal congregated at the London Film Makers' Cooperative to screen their structuralist works and debate the future of the avant-garde, while in France, Rose Lowder began a series of 16mm loops that explored frame-by-frame transitions and their effects on audiences.
b. Kansas City, Missouri, 14 January 1933, d. 9 March 2003
The most prolific and influential experimental filmmaker in US film history, Stan Brakhage also wrote insightfully about his own films and the work of other filmmakers. The most oft-quoted passage in experimental film criticism is the opening of Brakhage's text Metaphors on Vision (1963): "Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception." This passage explicates the major aesthetic strain in Brakhage's films: abstraction. From the beginning of his career, Brakhage combined the photographic image with marks and paint applied directly onto the filmstrip, and many of his films of the 1980s and 1990s are completely abstract, partly for financial reasons and partly because he believed in the liberating power of nonlinear, nonnarrative aesthetic experiences. Some of Brakhage's abstract "adventures in perception" are Eye Myth (1967), The Text of Light (1974), The Dante Quartet (1987), and Black Ice (1994).
Brakhage briefly attended Dartmouth College on a scholarship, but he found academia so uncongenial that he had a nervous breakdown, left school, and spent four years traveling and living in San Francisco and New York. During this period Brakhage made his earliest films, including psychodramas such as Interim (1952) and Desistfilm (1954).
While making Anticipation of the Night (1958), which he intended to end with footage of his suicide, he fell in love with and married Jane Collom. Stan and Jane remained married for twenty-nine years, and a major subgenre of Brakhage's work chronicles the rise and fall of this marriage, from domestic quarrels (Wedlock House: An Intercourse, 1959) and the birth of children (Window Water Baby Moving, 1959) to Brakhage's increasing estrangement from Jane and his teenage children (Tortured Dust, 1984). Many critics consider Brakhage's singular achievement to be Dog Star Man (1962–1964), a four-part epic that uses multiple superimpositions to connect the activities of his family (then living a back-tothe-land existence in rural Colorado) to myth and the rhythms of nature.
In 1996 Brakhage was diagnosed with cancer, which might have been caused by the dyes he had used to paint on film. His last works include the live-action self-portrait Stan's Window (2003), and Chinese Series (2003), a film Brakhage made on his deathbed by using his fingernail to etch dancing white marks into black film emulsion.
The Wonder Ring (1955), Reflections on Black (1955), Anticipation of the Night (1958), Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Mothlight (1963), Dog Star Man (1962–1964), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), The Text of Light (1974), Murder Psalm (1980), The Loom (1986), Commingled Containers (1996)
Brakhage, Stan. Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Film-Making. New York: McPherson, 2001
James, David E., ed. Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.
Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1942–2000. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
"Stan Brakhage: Correspondences." Chicago Review 47/48, nos. 4/1 (Winter 2001–Spring 2002): 11–30.
Yet the structural film movement was essentially over by the mid-1970s. Structuralist films were triumphs of formal design, but a new generation of leftist experimental artists criticized the apolitical nature of films such as Wavelength and Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, and began to make movies with ideological content that tackled social issues such as feminism and colonialism. Yet, reverberations of structuralist film continue into later avant-garde film. Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) follows a Zorns Lemma–like alphabetical structure, while Teatro Amazonas (Sharon Lockhart, 1999) is a witty commentary on cultural colonialism and a stylish update of Standish Lawder's structuralist Necrology (1971), a one-shot film of people on an escalator projected backwards.
But structuralist filmmakers realized that cinema's formal properties could do more than just tell stories, and made artworks that revealed to us that sometimes a zoom can be more than just a zoom, that it can embody nothing less than a way of seeing.
Another important wave in 1970s experimental film, roughly concurrent with structuralist film, was the rise of the "new talkies," feature-length works influenced by critical theory and the politicized art films of Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Jean-Marie Straub (b. 1933), and Daniele Huillet (b. 1936). Although most experimental films are short, the feature-length experimental film has a long pedigree. During the 1950s and 1960s, as Deren and Brakhage were making their influential short films, other avant-gardists dabbled in longer, more narrative forms. Ron Rice's (1935–1964) Beat-saturated The Flower Thief (1960) and The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963) are feature-length showcases for actor Taylor Mead's inspired improvisations, while Warhol's 1960s films were often longer than most Hollywood films. Some, such as Chelsea Girls (1966), ran in first-run mainstream movie theaters.
The feature-length new talkies that emerged in the 1970s were a more specific type of avant-garde genre. The new talkies are typified by an engagement with critical theory and a return to storytelling, albeit to deconstruct storytelling as a signifying practice. (Many new talkies are simultaneously narratives and essays on narrative.) These traits are clear in the quintessential new talkie, Laura Mulvey (b. 1941) and Peter Wollen's (b. 1938) Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), which tells the story of Louise, a woman who talks with coworkers about childcare and decides to move from a house to an apartment. Sphinx's form owes much to Godard, but its narrative is something new: an attempt to capture the life of a woman without recourse to genre, "erotica," or the male gaze.
Other key new talkie auteurs are Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) and Trinh T. Minh-ha (b. 1953). Rainer began her career in dance, bringing aesthetic and political radicalism to the performances she orchestrated as part of the Judson Dance Theater. Her movies such as Film About a Woman Who … (1974) and Privilege (1990) form a kind of spiritual autobiography, tackling various subjects as Rainer herself goes through a lifetime of experiences and observations. Shot through all these films is Rainer's belief in everyday life as a site of political struggle, showing how the personal is always political. Trinh T. Minh-ha's own multicultural background—she has lived in France, the United States, and West Africa—informs Reassemblage (1982), Naked Spaces—Living Is Round (1985), and Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989). These films renounce traditional narrative and documentary forms, and search for avant-garde ways of representing people of different societies (including Senegal, Mauritania, Burkino Faso, and Vietnam) to First World audiences. But Minh-ha's recent career reveals the difficulty of sustaining new talkie practices in today's film culture. In his seminal essay "The Two Avant-Gardes," Peter Wollen argues that the politicized Godardian art film and the formalist experimental film were the twin poles of 1960s cinematic radicalism, and that the new talkies can be understood as an attempt to bring these poles together (Readings and Writings, pp. 92–104). Yet, since the 1960s, art cinema has shifted decisively away from radical politics, while experimental cinema has exploded into a multiplicity of approaches, some formal in emphasis and some not.
One mutation in experimental film occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a group of New York artists made films that emulated the do-it-yourself aesthetics and catchy nihilism of early punk rock. Made in 8mm on miniscule budgets, these films rejected both Hollywood norms and the pretensions of the more formalist tendency in experimental film. Although this movement went by various names ("new cinema," "no wave cinema"), "cinema of transgression" is the most common because of its defining use in Nick Zedd's infamous "The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto" (1985), which begins with a denunciation of the "laziness known as structuralism" and the work of "profoundly undeserving non-talents like Brakhage, Snow, Frampton, Gehr, Breer, etc." and a celebration of films that directly attack "every value system known to man" (p. 40). Like most manifestoes, Zedd's "Transgression" slays the father and claims a complete break with an outmoded past. But many of the cinema of transgression films were, in essence, exhibitions of scandalous behavior, and are logical descendants of an experimental film tradition that includes Kurt Kren's (1929–1998) material action shorts of the 1960s and Vito Acconci's (b. 1940) early 1970s 8mm performance documentaries (which record Acconci plastering up his anus and crushing cockroaches on his body). One significant difference between these precursors and the cinema of transgression is venue: Kren's and Acconci's works were screened in film societies and art galleries, while the transgression films were shown mostly in New York City punk bars.
Although Zedd's manifesto was clearly an act of publicity-seeking hyperbole, the cinema of transgression delivered, throughout the 1980s, a robust wave of avant-garde filmmakers and films. In several works made between 1978 and 1981 (Guérillère Talks , Beauty Becomes the Beast , and Liberty's Booty ), Vivienne Dick combined documentary interviews, melodramatic narratives, and a jittery camera style perfectly suited to low-fi 8mm. Beth and Scott B.'s Black Box (1978) is a stroboscopic aural assault that treats its spectators like tortured prisoners. Other important transgressors include Richard Kern, Alyce Wittenstein, Cassandra Stark, Eric Mitchell, Kembra Pfahler, James Nares, and Zedd himself, whose affinity for over-the-top parody is present in his films from Geek Maggot Bingo (1983), a send-up of cheesy B-movie horror, to the video spoof The Lord of the Cockrings (2002). Several factors, including the steady gentrification of New York City's Lower East Side and the spread of AIDS, ended the cinema of transgression. Yet the films of many contemporary avant-gardists, including Peggy Ahwesh, Jon Moritsugu, Luther Price, and Martha Colburn, bear the influence of the transgression example.
According to many critics, the experimental film world went through a period of flagging energy and diminished creativity during the 1980s. Among the reasons, according to Paul Arthur, were the skyrocketing costs of 16mm processing, cutbacks in government and private-foundation funding, and the economic and aesthetic challenges posed by video. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that the movement had undergone a resurgence. Older figures such as Brakhage, Mekas, and Jacobs remained active, and a new generation of artists, aesthetic trends, and exhibition strategies emerged.
One such trend in contemporary experimental production is the use of "outdated" formats. Sadie Benning (b. 1973), the daughter of filmmaker James Benning (b. 1942), shot ghostly autobiographical movies like If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990) and It Wasn't Love (1992) with the Pixelvision–2000, a black-and-white toy video camera that records small, blurry images on audio cassette tape. The Pixelvision camera was only available from 1987 to 1989, but the work of Sadie Benning and other filmmakers (Joe Gibbons, Michael Almereyda, Peggy Ahwesh, Eric Saks) have kept Pixelvision alive. Many avant-gardists have continued to use both regular 8mm and super-8mm, and are passionate about the aesthetic qualities of small-gauge filmmaking. Perhaps the ultimate validation of human-scale small-gauge filmmaking was the exhibition "Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films," which exhibited small-gauge works by Conner, Brakhage, Wieland, and many others at both New York's Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Cinematheque from 1998 to 1999.
Museum retrospectives such as the "Big as Life" program are an important part of experimental film distribution, but the real screening innovation of the last decade were microcinemas—small theaters run by dedicated filmmakers and fans as showcases for nonmainstream work. Total Mobile Home Microcinema, the first contemporary microcinema, was established in 1993 by Rebecca Barton and David Sherman in the basement of their San Francisco apartment building, and by the late 1990s, at least a hundred had sprung up in various cities around the United States. Some of the highest-profile microcinemas include Greenwich Village's Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, begun by filmmakers Bradley Eros and Brian Frye; San Francisco's Other Cinema, curated by master collagist Craig Baldwin; and the Aurora Picture Show, Andrea Grover's microcinema, housed in a converted church in Houston. Perhaps the microcinema with the most ambitious programming was Blinding Light (1998–2003), a one-hundred-seat, six-night-a-week theater in Vancouver.
The New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde," founded by critic Mark McEllhatten and Film Comment editor Gavin Smith in 1997, is an annual cross-section of the experimental film world. The continued activity of established venues such as Anthology Film Archives, Chicago Filmmakers, and the San Francisco Cinematheque, coupled with the rise of microcinemas and touring programs such as John Columbus's Black Maria Film and Video Festival and the MadCatFilm Festival, have made it somewhat easier to see experimental films, a trend pushed even further by the more recent ability to download films from Internet sites such as www.hi-beam.net.
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Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema. Ithaca: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Horak, Jan-Christopher, ed. Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919–1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
James, David E. Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Le Grice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.
MacDonald, Scott. Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
——. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Posner, Bruce, ed. Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1893–1941. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 2001.
Rabinovitz, Lauren. Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–1971. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Rees, A. L. A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Sitney, P. Adams, ed. Film Culture Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 2000.
Small, Edward S. Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Wollen, Peter. "The Two Avant-Gardes." Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, 92–104. London: Verso, 1982.
Zedd, Nick. "The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto." Film Threat Video Guide 5 (1992): 40.