Most people have preconceived ideas about what experimental cinema is. That avant-garde films are unwatchable, self-indulgent, incomprehensible, a waste of time. Culture editor Beau Beakhouse and Film & TV editor Sadia Pineda Hameed ask what, at its basic level, an experimental film is.
It might be argued that conventional narrative cinema, the popular cinema of any particular time, is at one end of a scale. It is what audiences have come to expect and understand from the language of film. If this is the case then on the other side of this scale is the avant-garde, the experimental film. These are films that do not conform to expectations, may not use the techniques of narrative cinema and that may need to be watched in unconventional ways. The methods of production, the artistic intention behind the film and its reception may be so far outside of what is expected by a collective audience that the film becomes an outlier, at the edge of what the word ‘cinema’ can represent. Between these two boundaries lies the rest of the spectrum of cinema, from narrative films that push boundaries of content and production, to films with the semblance of a narrative, films more akin to poetry, that use some of narrative cinema’s techniques but with distinctive methods of their own. Experimental film is often far more popular than people are aware of, and films of the past, deemed experimental, even avant-garde at the time, come to be accepted by the canon of cinematic history and influence the directors that come after them. At any period in the history of film, what is acceptable to an audience has been different. What can be shown, what can be made, has appeared differently to the filmmakers confronted with the decision to make a film and how to go about creating it.
Experimental films were being made around the beginning of cinema, in the silent era. Visual storytelling had its roots in theatre, and with the technical developments around the turn of the 20th century this new art form was created by combining moving images, acting and music. As cinema developed it led to the creation of what are now perceived to be the classics of the silent era, works by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau. Silent cinema told stories through action, through the grammatical elements of film – editing, cinematography, music and mise en scène, among others – often with title cards to convey dialogue. But within this era there were artists and filmmakers who wanted to express something outside of the ‘rules’ of cinema that were developing, rules that were, and still are, often linked to commercial success.
An early film considered to be experimental in this way, even by its director, was Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary Man with a Movie Camera. It was a conscious move towards ‘the creation of a truly international absolute language of cinema’, one that would be universal. It would use the techniques of cinema to express its point, without dialogue in the form of title cards and without actors. It follows a cameraman as he explores and films Soviet cities, and captures the changing state of the city in a period of new technology and expansion; as well as the divide between machinery, social progress and natural human physicality. By showing the filming process itself, in all its stages and intercut with his own footage, Vertov also conveys the actual process of making a film and the relationship between a film and the world. This style of filmmaking has had many influences, including documentaries such as the Qatsi trilogy directed by Godfrey Reggio, Sans Soleildirected by Chris Marker and Chronos, Baraka and Samsara directed by Ron Fricke – all of which use scenes without actors and without dialogue to convey their point.
Another film from the silent era considered avant-garde, though for other reasons, was An Adalusian Dog from 1928 directed by Luis Buñuel, with the screenplay co-written with Salvador Dali. It is a surreal short film most famous for its initial sequence in which what looks like a real eyeball is sliced with a razor. The events of the film are often absurd, shocking, funny and unsettling, and they are always left unexplained. But the film’s effect is compounded because of its use of cinematic technique. To an extent it follows the ‘rules’ of cinema; it has a continuous logic and uses these techniques to engage the audience. But, like the surrealist paintings of Dali, it is a logic that involves unusual themes, images and connections. These connections seem to express latent themes of sexuality and violence. But equally its impact may come from a lack of meaning, as Buñuel argued that there was no meaning, that ‘no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted…Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything.’
From these beginnings of avant-garde cinema, the genre has been developed upon, taken in various directions much more complex than that of absurdist elements and subversions of traditional cinema. One such direction can be seen in the art films of various eras, where experimentation with the visual form can reach extremities that are arguably unwatchable. Kurt Kren’s 16/67 September 20th, dubbed the ‘Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Film’ involves clips of exactly what the title suggests, and seems to exist to shock its audience purely by portraying this human cycle. But one reading is that it also makes a comment on cinema and the more graphic processes that are often sacrificed for a ‘prettier’ film. Jørgen Leth’s 1982 film, 66 Scenes From America, features a painfully long static shot of Andy Warhol eating a Whopper from Burger King. The scene scrutinises Warhol, his arbitrary actions and the gaze upon him as a pop culture figure of the time, just as much as his own art did; according to Leth, ‘it’s a pure homage to Warhol.’ Films such as these are often screened in a gallery setting, clearly imperative to its reception and to an understanding of the film’s impact for the audience. In these cases the film is durational, only being exhibited for a set time. Patrons stand and watch the looped film beginning at any point, and watch for as long as they please. Viewing experiences such as this invite a different consideration of the piece, and ask the audience to ask questions of its meaning and possible interpretations that are unlike those encouraged in a traditional cinema setting. At this end of the experimental spectrum, the film is far closer to visual art, with each technical choice being like the purposeful strokes on a canvas – unlike full length avant-garde cinema where its experimentation comes from a manipulation of the traditional language and expectations of film.
This blurring of the distinction between cinema and art can also work in reverse. Curators may choose to displace experimental art film , taking it from the art gallery to the cinema screen. In the past, the BFI have screened the works of Jonas Mekas and Nathaniel Dorsky within avant-garde seasons. Mekas’ Diaries, Notes & Sketches a.k.a. Walden (1964–9), owned by and exhibited at the Tate Modern, was screened less than a mile away at the BFI Southbank cinema. The 16mm film is focused largely on aesthetics, with no narrative, and is a tender collection of footage over six years thoughtfully compiled into a 180 minute long piece of moving poetry. When viewed at the Tate Modern, the piece is rarely watched in its entirety and the experimental sequence of moments is lost in this non-cinematic environment. In the cinema however, it is watched to be appreciated in its entirety; and it is also made accessible to potential audiences who would not have experienced the film in its original environment. By screening these types of films, often with a short talk beforehand explaining aspects or the impacts of the piece, conversation around the piece is started and this can achieve a greater public understanding of the ‘incoherent’ world of experimental film. The accessibility of these films also can determine whether or not they are thought of as avant-garde. For instance, none of Nathaniel Dorsky’s films have been released on DVD or been exhibited in UK galleries, and they are not even available to stream online. In this regard, screenings from places such as independent cinemas, for example Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff – which featured a short introduction before their showing of Man With a Movie Camera in November and a live score – have been helping to make experimental film more ‘watchable’ in both a literal and figurative sense of the word.
However the gap between avant-garde and traditional narrative cinema is unclear. As cinema developed and new directors were influenced by the old, the features and the techniques of previously experimental films became accepted parts of cinematic language and style. As such, avant-garde cinema began to find a strangely comfortable place among more popular films. David Lynch, the director of Blue Velvet, Inland Empire and the television series Twin Peaks, has been labelled ‘the first popular Surrealist’ due to his combination of avant-garde aesthetics within his subversive yet mainstream works. His style of expression resembles filmmakers Buñuel, Jean Cocteau and Bruce Baille, whilst also being influenced by more ordinary dramas and soap operas. His films have absurdist visuals, appear incoherent and have ambiguous meanings that do not necessarily subvert mainstream films but push the limits of what is acceptable and capable of being understood by the audience.
At other points in history many filmmakers and auteur directors have been considered experimental to varying degrees. Even Alfred Hitchcock, the ‘master of suspense’ now considered to be one of the most famous and popular directors of all time, innovated in production, filming techniques and in the content of his films. Rope’s long takes, and Psycho’s shocking midpoint change of genre, are examples of a master filmmaker pushing the limits of what was acceptable to a mainstream audience. Other directors, such as Nicholas Roeg, director of Don’t Look Now, Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout, experimented particularly with editing, using cross-cutting to disrupt and to create a linear narrative. Stanley Kubrick’s films (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) were technically inventive in their production methods and in the actions and themes that they showed on screen, whilst also having had a massive impact on mainstream culture.
Today types of experimental cinema are perhaps at their most popular. Films by an array of auteur directors, such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, Gaspar Noe, and Nicolas Winding Refn, all experiment in their own diverse and stylistic ways, making narrative films that are often well received by popular and critical audiences. Some explore violence, sexuality and other previously censored themes. Others, for example Malick’s The Tree of Life, explore topics and create narratives less through plot and action and more through poetic style.
The 2015 Oscars are a clear example of the popularity of experimental cinema, with Birdman directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, and Boyhood directed by Richard Linklater, as the central runners for best picture, both experimenting with theme, production and style. The rise of independent cinema, particularly in the 1990’s (of which Linklater was a part), is another way in which filmmakers were able to experiment away from the commercial strictures of Hollywood. This has led to a huge increase in independent films, and even the creation of major Hollywood studios such as Sony, Fox and Paramount developing independent distribution arms to cater for and release these types of films. In fact the line between independent and mainstream is now practically non-existent, with famous A-list actors often working in independent films where expression, ideas and great filmmaking are put first and commercial success second. Even with mainstream cinema being at a peak in terms of mass cultural influence, with huge sums of financial investment, advertising, and worldwide releases, there has also been a rise in cinema as an art form in its own right, and on making films with integrity and quality.
Experimental cinema, at first a term that might evoke something unknown and abstract, actually becomes a term almost synonymous with great film-making in which the filmmakers, actors and production team bring something to the screen that is entertaining, but that is also a genuine work of art.