A (Very Brief) History of Experimental Cinema
The world of experimental or avant-garde (vanguard) cinema has a history just as rich as narrative film (it could be said that the two run on parallel tracks). While usually associated with European filmmakers, America has its own rich tradition of avant-garde and experimental filmmakers. Very loosely defined as any film that doesn't use narrative cinematic technique to achieve its goals, the avant-garde is worthy of study for any filmmaker or student of film. The Dissolve recently featured two experimental avant-garde shorts -- one by the filmmaker who made the amazing credits for Enter The Void. Click below to learn more about the history of the wonderfully strange world of avant-garde and experimental cinema, and watch some of its classics.
The credit sequence for Gaspar Noé's 2009, mind-bending epic Enter The Void was singled out by Quentin Tarantino as, "Hands down best credit scene of the year -- Maybe best credit scene of the decade. One of the greatest in cinema history." Q.T. is arguably given to hyperbole, but it's almost impossible to watch these credits and not be affected. If nothing else, they demonstrate how a credit sequence can stand alone as art (just like the classic works of Saul Bass). NOTE: These are a slightly truncated version of the credits, the full version is not available for embedding, but you can watch them here:
The man behind these credits is German experimental filmmaker Thorsten Fleisch, whose work explores the medium of film in beautifully non-traditional, non-narrative ways. His 2007 short film Energie! is no exception:
Fleisch transformed his fascination with tesla coils into -- animated artwork, exposing photographic paper to high voltage and then arranging these “electrophotographies” into a kind of flipbook. A tinkerer by nature, Fleisch uses "Energie!” to show how awe-inspiring raw electricity can be, and how impressive the manipulation of those forces can be. It’s an experiment about experimenting.
That may sound abstract, but just watch and see for yourself:
Of his working methods, Fleisch says, "I normally don’t know where it will lead me in the end. I just try to find what I think looks interesting and beautiful." The film won multiple awards at film festivals and is a wonderful example of film as art for art's sake. Fleisch created the work by exposing photo paper to electricity and then making a sort of flip book. The film is almost a science experiment, but it's also art, and is a way for him to explore electricity in a tangible, visual way. The film finds beauty in something ordinarily hidden.
A Little Context:
Today it seems easy to look back and see how film's development into a narrative art was a foregone conclusion, but when motion picture technology was invented in the late 19th century, there was (just like with the internet twenty years ago) a sense of limitless possibilities. Without an established cinematic grammar, most early films were just one shot, like those of the The Lumières brothers, whose "actualities" were recordings of real events, with no narrative:
There is an urban legend that when audiences first saw Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, many fled the theatre, thinking the train was coming right at them. Whether true or not, it's a certainty that early motion picture audiences were disoriented by the new images they saw (remember, photography was still in its comparative infancy at this time, so moving pictures must have been almost too much for the Victorian mind to process.)
The film grammar we know today was developed and codified in the 20th century by directors like D.W. Griffith in the U.S. and Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union (along with countless others); Eisenstein's development of montage theory established new uses for editing (Soviet films from the 1920s have thousands of cuts, while American films of the same period have hundreds). Montage theory was Marxist and ideological, but its implications were far-reaching and his editing techniques were quickly absorbed into the language of film. Eisenstein established the idea that two juxtaposed shots create a new meaning. If a person is looking at something offscreen, and then we cut to something, an assumption is made that the person was looking at that object.
The Kuleshov Effect, named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, demonstrated that an audience would create a meaning based solely on editing. Audiences were shown a film consisting of a shot of an expressionless man (Ivan Mosjoukine, a popular Soviet actor) intercut with different images. Though his face was completely neutral, it was interpreted by audiences to be reacting to the different images he was "looking" at:
Enter The Avant-Garde
With this grammar of narrative film established (shot, reverse shot, P.O.V., etc.), self-consciously avant-garde cinema came out of a ravaged post-WWI Europe in the 1920s to turn it on its head; visual artists and writers set out to ridicule conventional notions of plot, character, and setting, which they saw as bourgeois and limiting (narrative film purports to be a rendering of life in time, and these artists wanted to point out how artificial this imitation was, as well as challenge the idea that there was one way to make films, and tweak the nose of the middle-class values of most narrative films).
The Cinéma Pur (Pure Cinema) movement aimed for films focused entirely on movement, rhythm, and composition, with no focus on narrative. Influential filmmakers included visual artists Marcel Duchamp and photographer Man Ray, whose 1926 film Emak-Bakia (Leave Me Alone) is a superb example:
An American example of Cinéma Pur can be found in the other short from The Dissolve, Mechanical Principles (1930), by the photographer Ralph Steiner. The film is a "study of machines in motion, cut to the rhythm of the machines themselves." Steiner made many industrial films, but for this piece he cut out the final product and instead concentrated on the images of the machines themselves; removed from context, they take on their own beauty:
Other avant-garde filmmakers were inspired by Freudian notions of the unconscious. One of the most famous, Un Chien Andalou (1929), was made by Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, and is an example of the Surrealist school. Inspired by dreams the two had, the film is a 'surreal' mix of images, purposely designed so that, according to Buñuel, "No idea or image [might] lend itself to a rational explanation...Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything." It is a pure feast for the eyes, and arguably one of the most influential films ever made:
In 1961, French filmmaker Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad commented on much experimental film that had come before, using editing to create uncertainty about causal relations between events as well as the continuity of time and space. It was unique among experimental films for being a cultural event, an avant-garde film that was seen by a large audience. Even today, the film is still controversial and viewers continue to puzzle over Resnais' maze:
The avant-garde affected many of the so-called "film school generation" directors who were trained at Universities in the 1960s. As a student at USC, George Lucas saw, and was influenced by, many classic experimental films, and was particularly enthralled by Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett's 1964 short 21-87:
His work at USC reflects his fascination with experimental cinema, as can be seen in this 1966 student short, Freiheit:
And David Lynch, who has always kept one foot firmly planted in experimental cinema, started by making experimental shorts:
Most of the classic avant-garde films were not widely seen (remember, until recently there was no YouTube, or even home video, and anyone wanting to see these pieces had to seek out rare prints, or attend film schools that kept copies for study). Nevertheless, they were tremendously influential on narrative film and their stamp can be seen in modern cinematography, editing, visual effects, and aesthetics. Music videos contain some of the prime examples of avant-garde and experimental film techniques, and whether they are aware of it or not, all filmmakers are using ideas and techniques that come from the avant-garde.
I've tried to cover a few of the touchstones of the movement, as well as provide a little context, but there were many, many schools and countless practitioners of avant-garde and experimental cinema (far too many to name here), and any filmmaker would be well-served by a thorough study of the subject -- just as much they would by studying classic Hollywood films. Many of the classics of the genre are available online, as well as scholarly essays and analysis far more erudite than I've provided.
What do you think? Are you a fan of experimental/avant-garde filmmaking? Who are some of your favorite filmmakers, and what are your favorite movies that were left off this list? What lessons do you think an indie filmmaker in 2013 could learn from a 1920s' French surrealist? Let us know in the comments!