Niche it!
BobbyGs Info

Barnes & Noble

Experimental film


Experimental film

Back | Home | Up | Next

An experimental film is a film organized neither as narrative fiction nor as non-fiction. As such, film scholars consider the experimental or avant-garde film to be one of the major modes of filmmaking, along with the narrative film, the documentary film and arguably animation.

As the term suggests, the experimental film is often but not necessarily made to test an audience's reaction to certain performances or types of presentation not normally found in mainstream cinema. Such films are usually avant-garde and may shock or surprise their viewers, intentionally or otherwise. Of all of cinema, experimental film tends to have the closest relationship to the other visual arts and their avant-gardes.



The European avant-garde

Two conditions made Europe in the 1920s ready for the emergence of experimental film. First, the cinema matured as a medium, and highbrow resistance to the mass entertainment began to wane. Second, avant-garde movements in the visual arts fluorished. The Dadaists and Surrealists in particular took to cinema. René Clair's Entr'acte took madcap comedy into nonsequitur, and artists Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac and Viking Eggeling all contributed Dadaist/Surrealist shorts. The most famous experimental film is generally considered to be Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un chien andalou. Hans Richter's animated shorts and Len Lye's G.P.O films would be excellent examples of European avant-garde films which are more abstract and less focused on formal analysis.

Working in France, another group of filmmakers also financed films through patronage and distributed them through cine-clubs, yet they were narrative films not tied to an avant-garde school. Film scholar David Bordwell has dubbed these French Impressionists, and included Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, and Dimitri Kirsanov. These films combines narrative experimentation, rhythmic editing and camerawork, and an emphasis on character subjectivity.

In 1950, the Lettrists avante-garde movement in France, caused riots at at the Cannes Film Festival, when Isidore Isou's "Treatise on Slime and Eternity" was screened. After their criticism of Charlie Chaplin there was a split within the movement, the Ultra-Lettrists continued to cause disruptions when they announced the death of cinema and showed their new hypergraphical techniques. The most notorious film of which is Guy Debord's "Bombs in Favor of DeSade" from 1952.

The Soviet filmmakers, too, found a counterpart to modernist painting and photography in their theories of montage. The films of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin were instrumental in providing an alternate model from that offered by classical Hollywood. While not experimental films per se, they contributed to the film language of the avant-garde.

The postwar American avant-garde

The U.S. had some avant-garde filmmakers before World War II, but as a whole pre-war experimental film culture failed to gain a critical mass.

Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren is considered to be the first important American experimental film. It provided a model for self-financed 16mm production and distribution, one that was soon picked up by Cinema 16 and other film societies. Just as importantly, it established an aesthetic model of what experimental cinema could do. Meshes had a dream-like feel that harkened to Jean Cocteau and the Surrealists, but equally seemed personal, new and American. Early works by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Gregory Markopoulos, Willard Maas, Marie Menken, Curtis Harrington and Sidney Peterson followed in a similar vein. Significantly, many of these filmmakers were the first students from the pioneering university film programs established in Los Angeles and New York.

They set up "alternative film programs" at Black Mountain College (now defunct) and the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly California College of Fine Arts), most notably. Arthur Penn taught at Black Mountain College, which points out some of the popular misconceptions in both the art world and Hollywood that the avant-garde and the commercial never meet. George Kuchar, long time resident professor at SFAI and Warhol factory alum, has also been prospected many times to direct features for the mainstream film industry.

Warhol's factory pushed hard towards a conceptual type of film. Although centered primarily in New York until 1965, the avant-garde film world began to move westward afterwards.

The New American Cinema and Structural-Materialism

The film society and self-financing model continued over the next couple of decades, but by the early 1960s, a different energy began being felt among the American avant-garde filmmakers. Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man exemplified a shift from personal confessional to abstraction. Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising was an inverted musical of sorts and a camp commentary on Hollywood mythology. Jack Smith and Andy Warhol pushed further toward camp minimalism.

Some avant-garde filmmakers pushed further away from narrative. Whereas the New American Cinema was marked by an oblique take on narrative, one based on abstraction, camp and minimalism, Structural-Materialist filmmakers like Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow created a highly formalist cinema that foregrounded the medium itself: the frame, projection, and most importantly time itself. By breaking film down into bare components, they sought to create an anti-illusionist cinema. Even more than previous movements, this avant-garde was international in scope.

The 1970's and time arts in the conceptual art landscape

Conceptual art in the 1970's pushed even further. Robert Smithson, a California-based artist, made several films about his earthworks and attached projects. Yoko Ono made conceptual films, the most notorious of which is Rape, which finds a woman and invades her life with cameras following her back to her apartment as she flees from the invasion.

Feminist avant-garde and other political offshoots

Laura Mulvey's writing and filmmaking launched a flourishing of feminist filmmaking based on the idea that conventional Hollywood narrative reinforced gender norms and a patriarchal gaze. Their response was to resist narrative in a way to show its fissures and inconsistencies. Chantal Akerman and Sally Potter are just two of the leading feminist filmmakers working in this mode in the 1970s. Video art emerged as a medium in this period, and feminists like Martha Rosler and Cecelia Condit took full advantage of it. In the 1980s feminist, gay and other political experimental work continued, with filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, Tracy Moffatt, Sadie Benning, and Isaac Julien among others finding experimental format condusive to their questions about identity politics.

Prominent experimental films and filmmakers

Also under dispute. Factual evidence not provided. Matter reported to arbitration.


This section is under serious dispute due to one particular stylistic offshoot of avante-garde film's belief in its "chosen" status - see dispute columns for evidence. Distribution remains unproven and art historical sitings have not been provided. Furthermore, deletion of several key reviews (one overwhelmingly negative) and statements by museum directors, which were factual, art historical, and most importantly accurate have been deleted by previous posters who, again, desire to skew the importance of their particluar style. This matter has been reported to arbitration.


Following the model of Cinema 16, experimental films have been exhibited mainly outside of commercial theaters in small film societies, microcinemas, museums, art galleries and film festivals. Some of the more popular film festivals which prominently feature experimental works are the Ann Arbor Film Festival, held every year in Ann Arbor in the U.S. state of Michigan, the New York Underground Film Festival, The Chicago Underground Film Festival, the LA Freewaves Experimental Media Arts Festival, the New York Film Festival's "Views from the Avant-Garde" sidebar, MIX NYC, the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, and the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Influences on commercial media

Though experimental film is known to a relatively small number of practitioners, academics and connoisseurs, it has influenced and continues to influence cinematography, visual effects and editing.

The genre of music video can be seen as a commercialization of many techniques of experimental film. Title design and television advertising have also been influenced by experimental film.

Many experimental filmmakers have also made feature films, and vice versa. Notable examples include Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Jean Cocteau, Isaac Julien, Sally Potter, Gus Van Sant and Luis Buñuel, although the degree to which their feature filmmaking takes on mainstream commercial esthetics differs widely.

See also

Key Critical Texts

  • A. L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video (BFI, 1999).
  • Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond (MIT, 1977).
  • Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 1992 and 1998).
  • Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • James Peterson, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-Garde Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994).
  • P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-78 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).
  • Michael O’Pray, Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions (London: Wallflower Press, 2003).
  • David Curtis (ed.), A Directory of British Film and Video Artists (Arts Council, 1999).
  • David Curtis, Experimental Cinema - A Fifty Year Evolution. (London. Studio Vista. 1971)
  • Winston Wheeler Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Experimental Cinema - The Film Reader, (London. Routledge. 2002)
  • Stan Brakhage. Film at Wit's End - Essays on American Independent Filmmakers. (Edinburgh, Polygon. 1989)
  • Stan Brakhage. Essential Brakhage - Selected Writings on Filmmaking. (New York, McPherson. 2001)
  • Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History. (New York: Grove Press, 1969)

External links

Home | Up | Animation | Biographical film | Documentary film | Experimental film | Musical film | Narrative film | Short film

Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.