THE EXPERIMENTAL FILM CLUB @ NENAGH FILM WEEK 2010:
W H A T I S E X P E R I M E N T A L C I N E M A ?
Experimental cinema has always been a notoriously difficult thing to define. Even the American scholar P. Adams Sitney admitted that all the names for this kind of cinema are “inaccurate and limiting.” Sitney suggested, however that “film poem” was in fact one of the more useful ones, because of the analogy it suggested between cinema and literature:
The relationship of [experimental cinema] to the commercial narrative cinema is in many ways like that of poetry to fiction in our times. The filmmakers in question, like poets, produce their work without financial reward, often making great personal sacrifices to do so. The films themselves will always have a more limited audience than commercial features because they are so much more demanding.
Like poetry, there is very little one can say about experimental cinema that will apply to all experimental films. This is because experimental cinema is not a genre—a type of cinema defined by a number of recurring familiar elements, such as narrative archetypes, visual techniques or iconography. Rather, experimental cinema is, as the blogger Tom Tsutpen put it, more of “a cultural attitude than a particular work or body of work or mode of expression”.
What is that cultural attitude? According to the French critic Nicole Brenez, “An experimental film considers cinema not in terms of its uses or customs, but rather its powers.” It is “determined to remind us of these powers, to display and renew them”. In order to explore these powers fully, it is necessary first of all to take nothing for granted. When hearing the word film, most people have certain basic assumptions about what that word indicates: something that will have a story, for example; something that will have actors (or at least people) in it and that will legibly represent a series of events, whether they be realistic or fantastical. Actually, the word film simply means moving images, and all of the aforementioned are simply conventions that we have come to expect from films because they are so prevalent. Of course there is nothing wrong with these conventions—as Sitney said, “poetry is not by essence better than prose”—but the point is simply that cinema is also capable of doing lots of other things too.
Brenez argues that experimental cinema, because it takes nothing for granted, is able to embrace “all the formal strengths and capabilities of the moving image”. It can explore and reinvent the possibilities of the medium from every angle: finding new ways of using the technology, new ways of representing the world and our internal experiences, and even new ways of exhibiting films. Because of this openness, experimental cinema has historically been the source for many formal and technical innovations that have since become commonplace in the mainstream. But the importance of this arena of filmmaking is not simply as a testing ground. With the new forms created by experimental cinema come new possibilities for the viewer: emotional, intellectual, spiritual experiences that could not have been found any other way. Since the range of experiences offered in experimental cinema covers a much wider and more diverse spectrum than the rest of cinema put together, Brenez suggested that it
should be thought of not as a marginal, minor and different cinema, which it is only from an economic and social point-of-view: from a formal viewpoint experimental cinema is the whole of cinema—it explores all its potentialities.
T H E P R O G R A M M E
ALLEGRETTO (1936, Oskar Fischinger, 5mins)
Experimental cinema is perhaps most popularly associated with the use of abstract imagery, an example of a tendency that developed in parallel, and often in direct relationship, with similar developments in the fine art world. Along with Hans Richter and Man Ray, Fischinger was one of the most important early practitioners of this abstract cinema. He called his work “non-objective films”, and saw abstraction as a way of getting at more essential and powerful truths; a kind of “visual music”. He began working in his native Germany in the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s emigrated to the US, where he worked for Paramount Pictures, and later MGM and Disney (he contributed a sequence to Fantasia). Allegretto was commissioned by Paramount as an interlude for a feature musical comedy, but the film was taken out of his hands and altered without his permission. A few years later, he was able to buy his film back from Paramount and complete it to his satisfaction.
For more info: www.centerforvisualmusic.org/Fischinger
VALSE TRISTE (Bruce Conner, 1977, 5mins)
Found footage films (films made using images from other films) have been one of the richest and most varied strains of experimental cinema. Though the concept may not seem as radical in the age of Youtube video “mash-ups”, at its best, it is still a great example of the power of montage to subvert, or even completely reinvent, the meaning of images. Bruce Conner is one of the most acclaimed masters of this technique. Beginning as a sculptor working mainly with found objects, Conner switched to film in the 1950s and continued until his death last year. Although best remembered for his sharp collages of pop culture imagery, Valse Triste is one of his most lyrical and personal works: a recreation of his Kansas childhood using nothing but borrowed imagery from the same period.
NOTES ON THE CIRCUS (Jonas Mekas, 1966, 12mins - 16mm projection)
Jonas Mekas emigrated to the US from his native Lithuania in the early 1950s and, after involving himself in the New York film scene, quickly became one of the most important critics, champions and distributors of experimental cinema in the US. Although his other achievements sometimes obscured it, he was also making films himself throughout this time. Working in the form of what has become known as the “diary film”, Mekas has been recording his own life—friends, family, trips, events—for the past fifty years. While his films are in one sense all “home movies”, they are filmed in an eccentric and erratic style that puts equal emphasis on the subjective pleasures and beauties of filming in and of itself. In reference to Notes on the Circus in particular, Mekas has said, “It has to register the reality to which I react and also it has to register my state of feeling (and all the memories) as I react.”
For more info: www.jonasmekas.com
ALONE. LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY (Martin Arnold, 1998, 15mins)
If Bruce Conner’s found footage films are alternately witty and lyrical, Arnold’s take a much more aggressive stance against their chosen material. Working almost exclusively with scenes from classic Hollywood cinema (in this case, the “Andy Hardy” movies made with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the ‘30s and ‘40s), Arnold focuses intently on visualising hidden layers of violence and repression beneath ostensibly
prosaic encounters. His methods involve not just re-editing footage but looping and replaying the footage in ways reminiscent of sampling in electronic music. He has said of his own work: “The cinema of Hollywood is a cinema of exclusion, reduction and denial, a cinema of repression. There is always something behind that which is being represented, which was not represented. And it is exactly that that is most interesting to consider.”
For more info: www.r12.at/arnold
MIA ZIA (1989, Nino Pezzella, 2mins - 16mm projection)
One of the most important, recurring concerns in experimental cinema is the nature of the film medium itself. The filmic process of projecting 24 still frames a second offers many different formal possibilities that most films reject in favour of the linear representation of events. Films exploring this (often called “flicker films”) are often so integrated with the film medium that they completely lose their power when screened on video or DVD. Mia Zia, by Italian filmmaker Nino Pezzella, exploits the ways in which rapid-fire combination of two images can create a third image in the viewer’s perception. The film suggests links between its imagery of the ocean, a woman cleaning fish and an Easter procession that are both playful and evocative.
SCHWECHATER (1958, Peter Kubelka, 1min - 16mm projection)
Although his entire output runs to little over half an hour in length, Peter Kubelka place in the history of experimental cinema is formidable, not only for his work but for his outspoken position as a theorist of experimental cinema. He is also a key proponent of the flicker film. Schwechater was commissioned (but never used) as an advertisement by an Austrian beer company of the same name. Kubelka allowed the company to choose the images he would use, according to P. Adams Sitney, “in order prove to them and to himself that cinema is not a matter of imagery but of frame-to-frame articulation.” Because of this belief, Kubelka composed his films literally frame by frame, often arranging images according to a careful structural logic. However, as Sitney writes, “The films move so fast and are so complex that the viewer perceives their order without being aware of the laws behind them.”
BLACK GATE COLOGNE (1969, Aldo Tambellini and Otto Piene, 14mins)
Italian-American Aldo Tambellini was one of the pioneers of the use of video in experimental cinema in 1960s New York. His work is mostly abstract, and always concerned with the theme of “black” and all its philosophical, cosmological and political implications—but his techniques for exploring this have varied greatly, and always exploited the properties and potentialities of each different medium--from painting and scratching directly on film to restructuring the inside of a TV set so that it was only capable of generating abstract imagery. He also managed a theatre in downtown New York where live performance events involving film were often held. Black Gate Cologne, a collaboration with German artist Otto Piene, was created live for German television—and manages to integrate all the elements of Tambellini’s practice into an intense, hypnotic whole. Filmed and edited live in a TV studio, where performers are placed amidst a panoply of projected film, video and slide imagery as well as a dozen TV monitors. According to Tambellini, he wanted “to experience television as a medium itself and to bring a direct relationship between audience and the characteristic elements of TV in a total involvement of the senses.”
BLACK ICE (1994, Stan Brakhage, 2mins - 16mm projection)
Stan Brakhage is perhaps the most well regarded, if not the most important, artist in the history of experimental cinema. Although he explored different techniques in the earlier stages of his career, he would eventually focus and becomes famous for his use of painting and scratching on film. Much of Brakhage’s work was completed without any kind of camera, by working directly on the film strip with different combinations of paints, emulsions, and scratching tools (including, for his final work, his own fingernails.) These films are all abstract and, like Fischinger, Brakhage saw these “non-objective films” as a means of expressing subjective truths. In Brakhage’s case, he was particularly concerned with what he called “the adventure of perception”; the kinds of abstractions everyone experiences with their own eyes but that only film is capable of communicating. Black Ice is a perfect example of this: the film was inspired by Brakhage’s experience of losing consciousness after slipping on ice. As Alex Cobb has written, “the premium is placed not upon representation, but upon the extraction and expression of the essence of these emotional experiences.”
For more info: www.fredcamper.com/Film/BrakhageL.html
The Experimental Film Club is dedicated to creating forums for the exploration of diverse and often neglected film works. It is perceived that there are a large number of people interested and engaged in aspects of experimental filmmaking in Ireland but no meeting points to build on this shared interest and knowledge. The club has been organising monthly screenings in the Ha'penny Bridge Inn in Dublin since March 2008. For more information, please visit experimentalfilmclub.blogspot.com.