by Tom Hyland & Jonathan Marlow
with critical contributions from Fred Camper and Kerry Laitala
Like many of the predominant art movements in the Twentieth Century, American Experimental Film, one could argue, saw its birth in New York City. Conversely, one could easily claim that the movement began on the opposite coast (in San Francisco, for instance, where truly significant developments were made, or in the shadow of Hollywood, where several filmmakers got their start. Regardless, though heavily influenced by the German Expressionists (F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene), the Soviet Constructivists (Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin) and the early French Trick-Filmmakers (Georges Melies, Emile Cohl, Ferdinand Zecca), experimental work in the 1950s and 1960s grew out of a desire to expand beyond the rules of conventional narrative and invent a new language for film. Indifferent to the labels of "avant-garde," "underground" or "non-narrative" film, the "experimental" genre (as a unifying term), has two qualities that distinguish itself from other forms of filmmaking: a desire to deconstruct, or entirely ignore, the Hollywood aesthetic and a complete exploitation of the range of tools available to filmmakers. Fundamentally, experimental films provide a new way of seeing the world that is free from the traditional sense of "storytelling" and, instead, communicate in a purely visual manner. Much like today, the foundation for the medium found its roots in relatively inexpensive materials. In the early 1960s, price reductions in film stock and equipment aided the movement. Presently, the relative ease and availability of digital video and the appropriation of culturally obsolete equipment (such as Super-8 and PixelVision) has regenerated interest in the form.
The spiritual center of the emerging community of closely-knit artists in New York was a Lithuanian immigrant who survived concentration camp imprisonment in war-torn Europe and eventually relocated to New York in 1950. Jonas Mekas, one of the founders of Anthology Film Archives and the first major film critic for the Village Voice, was an incredibly outspoken champion of the New Cinema, as it was then known. With a habit of producing extremely grand statements that sound more like political rally pronouncements, Mekas would speak of film as if it were the perfect medium. In the pages of Film Culture (a magazine Mekas founded in 1955, devoted to independent film), he would promote the trailblazers of the underground cinema movement. Maya Deren (At Land, 1944), Stan Brakhage (Mothlight, 1963) and others received an unprecedented level of attention due to Mekas's efforts.
As a filmmaker, Mekas developed a form of "diary film" immediately recognizable from its gritty technique. His documents of friends such as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Peter Kubelka, Nam June Paik and John Cage act as a "who's who" of the New York Avant-Garde. He described his startling and somewhat chaotic style as an attempt to record how we see images in our dreams; in essence, he tried to put our subconscious on the screen.
A fantastic venue for esoteric work which opened in the 1970s and is still operational today, Anthology Film Archives was only one of many venues that featured experimental films in New York. There were numerous screenings all over Manhattan in lofts, churches and concert halls. The film community would mix and mingle interchangeably with the emerging avant-garde in music, art and performance. Many such artists used film as simply another medium, just as if they were painting a canvas or performing a composition. Indeed, many early experimental filmmakers came from an extensive background in the visual arts: Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger and Andy Warhol. Even the short films of Charles and Ray Eames bear the stamp of experimental practices.
Without distribution, these films would never be seen by anyone. Recognizing this problem, Amos Vogel founded the influential Cinema 16 in 1947. Until it closed in 1963 due to rising expenses, Cinema 16 was the primary source in the country for innovative work. Continuing the noble effort, The Filmmaker's Cooperative was formed in 1962 (in part because of Cinema 16's reluctance to promote controversial works). Other distributors followed soon after, most notably San Francisco-based Canyon Cinema Co-Op in 1967.
Another key figure in the burgeoning NYC film community was Jack Smith. Long before the trash cinema of Harmony Korine or Richard Kern (and even predating John Waters's earliest efforts), Smith's 1963 film Flaming Creatures created a stir for its highly charged, hedonistic orgy portrayed on screen. The composition of bodies intertwined is highly reminiscent of collage work and remains one of the greatest achievements in underground cinema. Until his death in 1989, Smith was an extremely important figure in the flourishing performance art community in the East Village and Lower East Side.
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