(This list began as an e-mail to a good friend of mine, but I figured it would be appropriate for discussion here on this site. There is quite a lot else to say about this topic, and the films mentioned, so I more than encourage furthering discussion. In the meantime, here’s a basic overview of an impossibly dense movement known as the avant-garde. I’m sure to be ashamed of a myriad of exclusions. Enjoy.)
So I believe that any avant-garde retrospective should clearly begin with one film; not the first, nor the most exploratory, but most certainly the most beloved and well-known, Un Chien Andalou. So even if you’ve seen it before, once or twelve times, it’s never a bad idea to watch it again, and again, and again. Jesus, I’ve probably seen this film 10 times at least by now. It’s just unfailingly good.
(Also on Netflix Instant)
Now that the big boy’s out of the way, let’s fuck some shit up…
Without a doubt in my mind, the greatest experimental filmmaker who ever lived, and quite honestly, one of the greatest of any disposition, would be Stan Brakhage. You should really make the investment at some point for the Brakhage Criterion sets, they are beyond essential. So much so that I just purchased the big Vols. 1 and 2 Blu-ray set they released a couple of months back, and sweet jesus are they stunning. Who knew hand-scratched and painted 8mm would look so vivid and remarkable. Which brings me back to the point. Brakhage is best known for a technique he pioneered in, oh, the late 50’s-early 60’s, which involved him taking raw 8mm stock and pasting objects to it, making animations through scratches or carvings, and most successfully, and a career-defining stroke, making moving paintings frame-by-frame on the film stock. His films offer no easy explanations, and are as pure and visceral as cinema gets, whether it be from his minute-long Mothlight, to the ultimate in ambition with the 75 minute Dog Star Man. (Personal note: My friend Andrew and I used to stage impromptu live scores to a worn-down VHS copy of Dog Star Man that I rented from the community college media library. It’s clearly the greatest live-music backdrop in the history of cinema. And yeah, no music, no sound. 75 minutes of dead silence.)
Brakhage began his career making fairly humble experimental films, often with his wife, peaking with the remarkable and, well, incredibly graphic Window Water Baby Moving, in which he makes a beautiful abstract film around his wife giving birth. Good luck!
Later on, his career became pretty exclusively dedicated to the painting films, which are just hypnotic spectacles, often burying images so deeply embedded within the frames that it practically becomes a sort of Rorschach test of cinema. Black Ice is a particular favorite, a devastating film that has a sense of movement like nothing I’ve ever seen before. If Hitchcock’s Vertigo weren’t so perfect in every way, I would have fantasized about a collaboration with Brakhage. Brakhage had a sense of movement and falling that would go well beyond any realms of mere illusion. Nevermind, I’ll fantasize anyway.
Jumping around a bit, let’s go back to the surrealists and the dadaists, shall we? The great contribution of this movement in cinema, was not only to shake up the mores and conventions of decency, but more successfully a playground for experimentation in movement. One gets the sense of sheer giddiness of invention that was still present in cinema as an art form. This kind of unabashed, childlike experimentation only comes at a special moment when the institution and rules have not yet sealed shut, allowing for an audience still thrilled by the mere spectacle itself and a group of filmmakers willing to move a camera in a way that had not been accomplished. This is my way of building something up that may not inspire much on actual viewing in this day and age; we are so pre-wired to accept this kind of movement that its experimentation does not seem to lead to much besides simple shapes and patterns oscillating on the screen. Not to mention the fact that it’s being viewed on a computer monitor as we speak. Nevertheless, while more refined efforts in experimentation of movement still impress greatly, such as Murnau’s Sunrise, one has to at least slightly admire the playfulness that these films by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp have to offer. They don’t detract from the artists’ true masterstrokes, in photography and painting, respectively, but they point to a movement of pure abandon and (re)invention.
Then there was the mother of the avant-garde, the greatest female poet of the movement, one who devoted her career to an undying appreciation of the body and movement, to dance and to the surreal; Maya Deren. Meshes of the Afternoon, unequivocally her masterpiece, and one of the finest films of any distinction ever made, is a culmination of these obsessions of hers. It takes not only the fine explorations of the movement of the body that embody both ballet and modern dance, but also takes a cue from Un Chien Andalou, in its deeply psychological examination; the self and the mirror of one’s self, carnal desires, and above all else, the ruminations on memory and perception. It’s also delightfully cinematic, an ever-roaming camera just soaking up the architecture, of both the setting and of the person, each little moment being lingered upon, be it the shuffling of feet gracefully up a stairwell, to a cascading water outside a window. The repetition explored in this film has been vastly influential on many a film, as has the eternally
imitated “mirror face” figure. Beyond essential.
Deren’s exploration of movement extended into studies of dance itself, in a uniquely cinematic way. Here’s A Study in Choreography for the Camera.
No discussion of the avant-garde can be complete without Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker important not only for his own, singular works, but perhaps more significantly for his position as a prominent cultivator and ambassador for the avant-garde. Mekas formed the Filmmaker’s Cinematique, AKA the Anthology Film Archives, one of the most important exhibitors of the avant-garde, even to this very day. It’s due to Mekas that many of these films have remained in-print and even restored over the years, notably in a recent DVD retrospective, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde 1894-1941. His archival work has a great deal to do with this very article, not to mention the widespread availability in which these avant-garde films can be seen, but he was an estimable filmmaker in his own right, a very personal and revealing artist, one who often used his films as personal diaries. One of his more personal and accomplished films, Walden – Diaries, Notes and Sketches, unfortunately cannot be displayed in its entirety here, but comes off as a whiplash of a film, a poem to the burgeoning avant-garde scenein New York, with all of the key players, and of course, all of the abstraction one would come to expect from the godfather of the movement.
As of late, Mekas has become an even more peculiar figure in the avant-garde, an increasingly exploratory filmmaker who proposed in 2007 a series of 365 films to be released on iTunes, a film a day for a year, and boy oh boy, there’s some wonderfully eccentric doozies in there, including a little piece exploring the Britney Spears head-shaving phenomenon. A restless spirit indeed.
And who could forget Paris Hilton…
Speaking of restless spirits, seems like as good a time as any to detail very briefly the most fascinating of subjects, Chris Marker. La Jetee, which I have touched upon on this very site, is my personal favorite of the form, and at the very least one of the defining moments of the avant-garde, both in its perpetual influence and its impact on a larger exposure on the world’s scale of cinema, much to the dismay of many in the movement I’m sure. However, this does not insinuate a mainstreaming of the form seen in his works, but rather an influence drawn from Marker’s films into the hands of many an artist, which along with the fellow filmmakers of the New Wave, allowed for avant-garde tendencies to pervade the popular culture for a brief moment in film history, for better or worse. Marker, though, seemed to see this in his work, and being the transient artist he is, has followed an incredibly diverse career over a myriad of media, from film to video to CD-ROM to, incredibly, Second Life. Like Mekas, Marker seems to embody the avant-garde in his very persona, playing off popular media through the generations, always finding inspiration in the world around them, upholding no greater tradition and feigning no rules.
You can get an idea about his Second Life in this film. It’s as peculiar as you would imagine.
This list could indeed inevitably go on for pages and pages, so I am now going to briefly touch upon a series of other films vastly important to the contribution of avant-garde cinema.
Hollis Frampton’s (Nostalgia) is a personal favorite of mine, personal filmmaking at its rawest and most poetic, and one that has bored film students for generations now.
Necrology by Standish Lawder. Best viewed in its intended silence, but this clip infused with Grizzly Bear is longest I could find. This is the kind of film that just washes over you, hypnotic in its voyeurism.
One of the finest examples of the avant-garde still alive and well today, in the works of filmmaker Bill Morrison. I’ve touched upon Light is Calling in the past, but certainly the most grand and affecting of his films is the hypnotic Decasia, a feature-length piece of anthropological filmmaking, as well as the history of cinema itself, and the way the medium was inherently temporary by design. It’s a stunning work, an intense rumination on how film shapes our collective perceptions, and the way the medium was inherently temporary by design.
The avant-garde has certainly over the decades taken a turn towards animation, almost fulfilling the series of experiments conducted by Duchamp in the earlier years, as the exploration of movement is limitless in the form of animation. On this site, I have detailed a great many of the great experimenters of animation, some fully upholding the “tradition” of the avant-garde (that is, to accept no tradition at all). In fact, to even touch upon this influence on the world of animation would be to get in way over my head, as the two seem so inextricably tied to one another by now. However, it is a fascinating path to follow, on the public willingness to accept avant-animation as a popular medium (witness the explorations of the form inherent in Fantasia, or more currently, the rise of Adult Swim and Don Hertzfeldt), but also the near-complete rejection of experimental film in the live-action realm. Sure, filmmakers like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and even someone like Ken Russell have successfully popularized avant-garde influences, they are just that, influences. Certainly the Adult Swim example confirms this tendency of the avant-garde to be accepted in short doses, while a long-form influence seems doomed to alienate its audience. Perhaps it’s the years of parody that have significantly altered the perception of what avant-garde cinema is intended to explore, surely the true curse attached to anything gracing the mainstream for a time.
Then again, avant-garde cinema also seems to be defined by a certain impenetrable learning curve, a challenge to sit through the most experimental of forms and demanding complete attention in doing so. It will always thrive in the showcases of film festivals, rewarding the most adventurous of viewers, and guaranteed to infuriate in the process. This, after all, is the promise of the avant-garde; to ruffle feathers, to shake the conventions to their core. And, of course, to consistently blur the line… After all is said and done with this article, I haven’t done any better job of defining what the avant-garde is, nor have I intended to do such an incomprehensible thing. The thing that links these films together is simply a feeling of not being able to define what you’ve just seen, whether you enjoyed the experience or not. There is no proper genre distinction here, only a cinema of feeling and pure impulse.