Experimental Film

Created on : October 18, 2023 09:24 | Last updated on : January 17, 2024 13:22


Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms or alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working


Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a filmmaking form that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores alternative narratives to tell the story. It has been observed that most of the experimental films, particularly early ones, relate to arts in other disciplines like painting, dance, literature, and poetry, or arise from research and development of new technical resources.

While some experimental films have been distributed through mainstream channels or even made within commercial studios, the vast majority have been produced on very low budgets with a minimal crew or a single person and are either self-financed or supported through small grants.

Experimental filmmakers generally begin as amateurs, and some use experimental films as a springboard into commercial filmmaking or transition into academic positions. The aim of experimental filmmaking may be to render the personal vision of an artist or to promote interest in new technology rather than to entertain or generate revenue, as is the case with commercial films.

Definition of Experimental Film

The term experimental film describes a range of filmmaking forms that frequently differ from, and are often opposed to, the practices of traditional mainstream and documentary filmmaking. Avant-garde is also used, for films of the sort shot in the twenties in France, Germany, or Russia, to describe this work, and "underground film" was used in the sixties, though it has also had other connotations. Today the term "experimental cinema" prevails, because it's possible to make experimental films without the presence of any avant-garde movement in the cultural field.

While "experimental" covers a wide range of practice, an experimental film is often characterized by the absence of linear narrative, the use of various abstracting techniques—out-of-focus, painting or scratching on film, rapid editing—the use of asynchronous (non-diegetic) sound or even the absence of any soundtrack. The goal is often to place the viewer in a more active and more thoughtful relationship with the film. At least through the 1960s, and to some extent after, many experimental films took an oppositional stance toward mainstream culture.

History of Experimental Film

In the 1920s, two conditions made Europe ready for the emergence of experimental film. First, the cinema matured as a medium and highbrow resistance to mass entertainment began to wane. Second, avant-garde movements in the visual arts flourished. The Dadaists and Surrealists in particular took to cinema. René Clair's Entr'acte (1924) featuring Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, and with music by Erik Satie, took madcap comedy into nonsequitur.

Artists Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac, and Viking Eggeling all contributed to Dadaist/Surrealist shorts. Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, and Man Ray created the film Ballet Mécanique (1924), which has been described as Dadaist, Cubist, or Futurist. Duchamp created the abstract film Anémic Cinéma (1926).

Alberto Cavalcanti directed Rien que les heures (1926), Walter Ruttmann directed Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), and Dziga Vertov filmed Man With a Movie Camera (1929), experimental "city symphonies" of Paris, Berlin, and Kiev, respectively.

One famous experimental film is Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929). Hans Richter's animated shorts, Oskar Fischinger's abstract films, and Len Lye's GPO films are examples of more abstract European avant-garde films.

 Experimental Films from France:

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, Marcel L'Herbier, and Dimitri Kirsanoff. These films combine narrative experimentation, rhythmic editing and camerawork, and an emphasis on character subjectivity.

In 1952, the Lettrists avant-garde movement in France, caused riots at the Cannes Film Festival, when Isidore Isou's Traité de bave et d'éternité (also known as Venom and Eternity) was screened. After their criticism of Charlie Chaplin at the 1952 press conference in Paris for Chaplin's Limelight, there was a split within the movement. The Ultra-Lettrists continued to cause disruptions when they announced the death of films and showed their new typographical techniques; the most notorious example is Guy Debord's Howlings in favor of de Sade (Hurlements en Faveur de Sade) from 1952.

Experimental Films from Russia:

10:05, Directed by Dziga Vertov, the first newsreel in the Kino-Pravda series shows the techniques developed in Soviet montage theory.

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


Experimental Films from Italy:

Italy had a historically difficult relationship with its avant-garde scene, although, the birth of cinema coincided with the emerging of Italian Futurism. Potentially the new medium of cinema was a perfect match for the concerns of futurism, renowned for promoting new aesthetics, motion, and modes of perception. Especially, given the futurist fascination with the sensation of speed and the dynamism of modern life. However, what is left of futurist cinema is mostly on paper, many films are very lost, and others never got made. Amongst those literatures, it is worth noting The Futurist Cinema (Marinetti et al., 1916), Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature (1912), The Variety Theatre (1913), The Futurist Synthetic Theatre (1915), and The New Religion – Morality of Speed (1916). Perhaps, the futurists were amongst the first avant-garde filmmakers group devoted to the potential of the image, praising motion and aiming towards an anti-narrative aesthetic.

As exemplified in the quote, the image is the real subject, not the story or the acting, an approach and attitude that remain true for the whole history of experimental filmmaking.

The most popular Experimental Films of all times

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929). In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, the great Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel wrote, “I’ve tried my whole life to simply accept the images that present themselves to me without trying to analyze them.” This is precisely how one should approach the bizarre and irrational images of Un Chien Andalou: an eyeball being sliced open by a razor, ants swarming out of a hole in a man’s hand, two corpses buried in sand on a beach. Buñuel and Dalí pair these bewildering images with a soundtrack that includes a couple of sensual tangos, as well as the magisterial “Liebestod” (or “love death”) from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. Un Chien Andalou is disturbing, disorienting, and startlingly original. Those who see it never forget it.

Walter Ruttmann, Wochenende (Weekend 1930):

To create this odd intermedia experiment, the German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann wandered through the streets of Berlin and recorded his surroundings with a camera without ever removing the lens cap. In other words, Wochenende features a complex sound collage of voices, marching bands, and sirens, but it is completely devoid of images. Instead, spectators are free to imagine whatever content they like on the blank cinema screen before them. In the words of the Dada artist Hans Richter, Wochenende is “a symphony of sound, speech fragments, and silence woven into a poem.”

Joseph Cornell: Jack’s Dream (1938):

American artist Joseph Cornell was a pioneer of found footage filmmaking (that is, creating films by reworking content from preexisting films), and Jack’s Dream is one of his most compelling cinematic remixes. As one listens to the gorgeous strains of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, one sees several disconnected images: a puppet show, seahorses, and a sinking ship. Like many actual dreams, Jack’s Dream is ephemeral and enigmatic.

Stan Brakhage: Window Water Baby Moving (1959):

The filmmaker Marjorie Keller once mused, “I don’t know that there could be an avant-garde filmmaker in America that is not in some way indebted to Stan Brakhage, has not studied his films, has not thought about them and taken them seriously.” While Brakhage made over 350 films, one of his most memorable and influential is Window Water Baby Moving, a work that documents the birth of Stan and Jane Brakhage’s first child, Myrrena. Brakhage uses rapid nonlinear filmediting, out-of-focus shots, reverse motion, and jump cuts to capture just how frenetic and disorienting childbirth can be.

1 Reviews

Please log in to write a review!