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 VoidClick 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:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dgLEDdFddk

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.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLEE2UL_N7Q

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:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1y-OA6yf5s

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:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5pen3QMgzQ

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:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DZ1x-xBtUM


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: 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wx330bGmxIk

And David Lynch, who has always kept one foot firmly planted in experimental cinema, started by making experimental shorts:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpxXx5Qf4HA

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVIF3JS7i6A

Summing Up

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!

Link: Art Meets Science and Industry in this Week’s Shorts -- The Dissolve

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Your Comment



September 25, 2013 at 6:03AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

guto novo

Try this one, a 2013 release of the first of x5 experimental features, the new bread of experimental films... http://www.51paintings.com/#!trailers/cyqr

September 25, 2013 at 6:42AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

shaun wilson

Beautiful article about a side issue of cinema. I'm looking forward to read more like this one!

September 25, 2013 at 7:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


No mention of Stan Brakhage?? Criminal.

September 25, 2013 at 9:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


An article about experimental film without a mention of Stan Brakhage makes zero sense.

September 25, 2013 at 9:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great article on stuff most of us haven't seen. Maya Deren is also a crucial figure in avant garde cinema. I highly recommend "meshes of the afternoon," which is clearly an influence on Lynch's work. It forms some interested parallels with Mulholland Drive.

September 25, 2013 at 10:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


yeah, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, the almost immortal amoral satanist Kenneth Anger :D, plus some of the shorts by Peter Greenway and Derek Jarman ("Blue", even being a narrative feature film is totally experimental), and I'm only remembering a few of the masters in english language ... there is more than enough artists (not even talking about the master from eastern Europe and other prts of the globe!) for lots of new articles. :)

September 25, 2013 at 11:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

guto novo

Norman McLaren and Kenneth Anger are criminally underrated filmmakers. The editing and associations in the Magick Lantern Cycle films are as bold as anything Eisenstein ever did.

September 25, 2013 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


agree! :)

September 25, 2013 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

guto novo

Unexpected but very welcome article. Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) is easily one of my favourite films of all time. 36 minutes of formal perfection. I also second the commenter above who mentioned Maya Deren. She is tres cool. There are some loads of avant-garde filmmakers doing superb work today; Apichatpong Weerasethakul and James Benning are probably my favourites.

September 25, 2013 at 11:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Other names to add would be Saskatchewan's Richard Kerr, Gerald Saul and Jean Oser (who was a Dadaist filmmaker in Berlin before he moved to North America).

I was just thinking the other day that the kind of style and content that was once considered experimental film or obscure "video art" coming from parallel gallery "performance art" is now just considered silly stuff for YouTube.

September 25, 2013 at 11:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


A history of experimental cinema without Stan brakhage, maya Deren and Paul Sharits ithat includes George Lucas is a joke.

September 25, 2013 at 4:42PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Two of the best Experimental Filmmakers today:

Peter Tscherkassky


Michael Robinson


September 25, 2013 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks for this great post!

I love experimental films.

This year I met Joey Shanks and his wife at SXSW and think their work is excellent...


And Kathryn Brillhart who shot our night footage is also a very talented experimental filmmaker.


September 26, 2013 at 12:08AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


'Free Radicals' is the title of a beautiful documentary by young french director Pip Chodorov, that scratches the surface of the history of avant-garde cinema in Europe and the USA, from early post-war pioneers through to the founding of New York's Anthology Film Archives. In his film essay, Chodorov examines the lives and work of such experimental luminaries as Hans Richter, Michael Snow, Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage and the godfather of the New American Cinema, Jonas Mekas. An inspirational film to watch.

Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (Pip Chodorov, France, 2010, 82 min)




September 26, 2013 at 7:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


nice article, thanks.

September 26, 2013 at 8:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This essay neglects to mention Jordan Belson, and one of the most influential experimental filmmakers in Europe and the US, Oskar Fischinger

a few brief clips on vimeo:

September 26, 2013 at 3:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Haven't seen or heard these names since film school. Great refresher! Thanks for the article.

September 27, 2013 at 8:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Excellent catalyst for further research.

Would add Ken Jacobs, Warhol, and Vertov, and would second Michael Snow (esp. Wavelength).

September 27, 2013 at 4:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


December 4, 2016 at 3:42PM, Edited December 4, 3:42PM


This is such a joke. No mention of Stan Brakhage, anyone from Anthology Film Archives or any structuralist filmmaker. Try looking up Owen Land, Hollis Frampton, Kennth Anger, Ken Jacobs, Kurt Kren, Maya Deren, Paul Sharits, Bruce Conner, Jonas Mekas, Greg Markopoulos, Marie Menken, etc. The guy who made the titles for Enter The Void is pretty unimportant compared to all of the above mentioned.

October 21, 2017 at 7:41AM, Edited October 21, 7:41AM