American Experimental Film

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Thematically and symbolically, topical subjects were occasionally addressed in experimental films. Protests of social injustice and the American presence in Vietnam were prominent in several shorts, just as these issues figured significantly in the popular culture of the time. Particularly in Bruce Conner's Report (1967) and Scott Bartlett's Moon (1969), news footage was incorporated to make a direct comment on issues ranging from the assassination of JFK in the former to the impact of the moon landing in the latter. Mysticism, mythology and the occult were conjured in the films of Ron Rice (Chumlum, 1964) and Kenneth Anger. In Anger's Lucifer Rising (1970-1980), ceremonies for the invocation of the "lord of light" convey (in the director's words) that the "key to joy is disobedience." Sexual liberation and homoeroticism surfaced in the films of Carolee Schneeman (Fuses, 1967), Barbara Rubin (Christmas on Earth, 1963) and much of James Broughton's work. Clearly, although experimental films are largely free of conventional narrative, they are certainly able to communicate complicated topics in ways that "normal" films still find impossible.

Often, the actual process of making the film becomes the message or meaning of the work. Simply deconstructing or re-editing an existing film made for a revolution in how we view and perceive the notion of cinema. Educational films or newsreels were cut-up and re-evaluated substantively and politically. The "found footage" process, used independently by Bruce Connor and George Landow in the early 1960s, remains a very prominent method for contemporary filmmakers as diverse as the high-art pieces of Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky to the low-art (if a distinction can be made) conspiracy films of Craig Baldwin (Spectres of the Spectrum, 1999).

Landow (later Owen Land) also figured prominently in the growing movement of "film as process" known as "Structural Film" or "Pure Film." The most infamous of these shorts, Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1965), was simply white leader and black leader alternating at irregular intervals to cause a hallucinatory affect of absolute light and darkness (and, in a few unfortunate cases, epileptic seizures). Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967), at the other end of the structural spectrum, seemingly consists of a slowly zooming shot from one end of a room to the other. The destination, a close-up of a small photo on the opposite wall, takes 45 minutes to complete. This film, justifiably championed as one of the great pieces of the avant-garde, continues to frustrate audiences with its glacial pace. During an early screening at the Museum of Modern Art, Wavelength (if legend is to be believed) nearly caused a riot among the impatient viewers.

Gradually, experimental techniques have spread throughout the film world. Experimental work is still flourishing in academic institutions, particularly where several filmmakers (namely Stan Brakhage, George Kuchar and James Benning) taught (or, in the case of the latter, continues to teach). The influence of experimental film can easily be identified today in the fast-paced kinetic editing of television commercials and numerous motion pictures. More importantly, experimental filmmakers continue to take advantage of every possible use of camera and projector, image and sound, to innovate in the under-appreciated art form.

The medium even achieved a level of relative respectability when Deren's Meshes of an Afternoon (1943) was accepted into the National Film Registry of Archived Films in 1990 (followed by the inclusion of both Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1964) and Bruce Baillie's Castro Street (1966) in 1992). The exposure of experimental film has increased as well, from a featured status at the Whitney's acclaimed American Century retrospective (featuring Sadie, daughter of the aforementioned James, Benning's critically acclaimed Flat is Beautiful, 1998) to the appearance of feature-length works infused with experimental traits by Gaspar Noe, Jan Svankmajer and others. In the wake of such interest, several venues have appeared to expose new audiences to challenging material, from the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at Collective Unconscious in New York to the Little Theatre in Seattle and countless venues in-between. The trend is certainly not limited to the west-side of the Atlantic, either. Microcinemas and athenaeums throughout the world are presenting programs of experimental work.

Suggestions for further exploration:

Although largely out-of-print, four essential texts provide a great deal of interest for anyone wanting to explore the experimental medium further: Sheldon Renan's An Introduction to the American Underground Film; The New American Cinema, edited by Gregory Battcock; Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema; and Amos Vogel's fantastic Film as a Subversive Art.

Fortunately, a fifth book - P. Adam Sitney's seminal Visionary Film, now in its third edition - is currently available at most worthwhile booksellers.

Among the many discussion groups on the topic, FRAMEWORKS is particularly recommended. You can subscribe to the list by sending a "subscribe frameworks" message to Listserv@Listserv.aol.com.

Please also refer to our modest but growing Experimental/Avant-Garde section.

Tom Hyland recently worked in Theatrical at Palm Pictures, an independent film distribution company. He currently runs an independent music booking and promotion company, Dot Dash.

Jonathan Marlow, a composer and filmmaker of moderate merit, occasionally writes on contemporary and historical film-related issues for a handful of publications.

Thoughts? Comments? Reactions? Suggestions? Discuss!

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