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"Experimental" films

 
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matt header
Studio Exec


Joined: 26 Jun 2003
Posts: 623
Location: Milwaukee, WI

PostPosted: 01.27.2004 12:24 am    Post subject: "Experimental" films Reply with quote

Well, a new semester has started here at UWM (and everywhere else, of course), and so begins a new Experimental Film and Video Class for me. A similar class was my favorite of last semester, and the new class - Current Topics in Media / Experimental Film & Video II - seems equally awesome.

Both classes try to answer the elusive question, what defines an experimental film? Does a lack of narrative necessarily equal experimentation? Does the presence of one eliminate experimentation? Is it simply pushing the boundaries of the film techniques we already know and utilize? Or is it defining and inventing new techniques? What role does budget play (can we have an epic, big-budget experimental film)? What about the audience: is an experimental film that which the director makes for his own benefit/satisfaction, or should experimental film prioritize the public audience as much as a "routine" film?

Some are undoubtedly experimental films: one probably wouldn't deny that the films of Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, Matthew Barney, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Jordan Belson, Michael Snow, and Nathaniel Dorsky are experimental. The thing that all of these filmmakers have in common is simply curiosity: developing film in ways that aren't the norm, seeing how - visually and thematically - movies can be developed without simply an actor, a script, and a static one-shot camera. Brakhage used moth wings, Lye used chemicals, Vertov and Snow did things with the lens and the physical film stock that pushed their films into the realm of experimentation. I don't think budget has anything to do with it (the Cremaster series could be called an epic experimental film, and I wouldn't hesitate to call "2001: A Space Odyssey" experimental), and the intended audience doesn't define anything: sometimes you can't deny that the movie probably has more intrinsic value to the maker than to the befuddled audience, but movies like "Wavelength" and a lot of Norman McLaren's work are extremely entertaining to any audience.

So are experimental films simply defined by their stylistic curiosity? Whatchathink?

(And, since I'm a sucker for lists, here are my favorite movies I'd call experimental):

Bachelorette (dir. Michel Gondry)

Begone Dull Care (dir. Norman McLaren)

Code Unknown (dir. Michael Haneke)

Cremaster 3 (dir. Matthew Barney)

Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier)

Earthsong of a Cricket (dir. Stan Brakhage)

The Exquisite Hour (dir. Phillip Solomon)

Free Radicals (dir. Len Lye)

Glass (dir. Leighton Pierce)

Incense (dir. Shino Kano)

Japon (dir. Carlos Reygadas)

Le Million (dir. Rene Clair)

Man with a Movie Camera (dir. Dziga Vertov)

The Mermaid (dir. Georges Melies)

Napoleon (dir. Abel Gance)

Notes on the Circus (dir. Jonas Mekas)

Now (dir. Santiago Alvarez)

Soundtrack (dir. Barry Spinello)

The Space in Between (Airport Architecture) (dir. Glen Fogel)

Street of Crocodiles (dirs. Brothers Quay)

2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Vampyr (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Variations (dir. Nathaniel Dorsky)

Waking Life (dir. Richard Linklater)
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beltmann
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Joined: 26 Jun 2003
Posts: 2341
Location: West Bend, WI

PostPosted: 01.27.2004 2:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Matt, I think your distinctions are sound. I'm not sure I'm interested in a strict definition of "experimental cinema," but I've always used the term to describe films that I felt functioned as a test, a process by which something new is attempted or discovered. Such trials might include experiments with the raw materials of cinema--Brakhage, for example, made Moth Light with actual specimens from nature, and without a camera--but also experiments with unique narrative forms, and experiments with the building blocks of cinema: composition, camera movement, editing rhythms, juxtaposition, etc. Yet I wouldn't limit a definition to stylistic curiosity. Let's extend it to also include films that attempt to provoke new kinds of responses from viewers, whether emotional, psychological, or intellectual. Ultimately, experimental film tries to establish new kinds of relationships with viewers, and discover new contexts for cinema to exist within.

I've seen many of the films on your list, and I think it's telling that some of them I've never really considered "experimental": Code Unknown, Dancer in the Dark, Man With a Movie Camera, Napolean, 2001, Vampyr, Waking Life. Perhaps my familiarity makes them seem less "avant-garde," or perhaps their creativity merely expands established means, but I'm not sure those meet my definition above.

To add to your list:

Fall of the House of Usher (Watson, 1928)

Entr'acte (Clair, 1924)

"The Order" from Cremaster 3 (Barney, 2002)

Blood of a Poet (Cocteau, 1930)

Three American Beauties (Porter, 1906)

Reggio's Qatsi series

Opus I (Ruttmann, 1921)

La Jetee (Marker, 1962)

OffOn (Bartlett, 1968)

Poison (Haynes, 1991)

Rose Hobart (Cornell, 1936)

Composition 1 (Themis) (Grant, 1940)

The Lamp (Polanski, 1951)

Grudgingly, I admit Nijinsky is probably worth mentioning.

I've seen a lot of Brakhage; here are my favorites:

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes

Dog Star Man (all 5 parts)

Window Water Baby Moving

Eye Myth

What about city symphonies like Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (Ruttmann, 1927)?

Eric
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matt header
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PostPosted: 01.27.2004 7:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sadly, I've seen no City Symphony films. I've heard a ton of praise about them, and they are at the top of my must-see list.
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beltmann
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Location: West Bend, WI

PostPosted: 02.01.2004 3:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

What about Bill Morrison's Decasia? He strings together clips of decaying, archived "found" film, all set to a pounding, mechanical score by Michael Gordon. I was immediately reminded of Brakhage and drip painting--the slowed-down clips are twisted into moving, abstract images, blotted by emulsion failing; the distortion flickers in front of us in the shape of balloons, sponges, bubbles, etc. At first the goal seems to be finding beauty in these dying films--the state of decay as represented by cinema, which records humans in an attempt to defer their inevitable loss to time--but it ultimately becomes an elegy for how cinema dies right along with us. Plus, if you look carefully, it appears that the clips have been organized into thematic movements, to accompany the musical symphony. I liked it immensely, although I must confess that I'm not sure I gleaned much from the last 30 minutes that I didn't get from the first 30.

Eric
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matt header
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Location: Milwaukee, WI

PostPosted: 02.01.2004 5:55 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I also have not seen "Decasia," but I remember it played here at the UWM Union's experimental film series. Interestingly I talked to a few friends who saw it and absolutely hated it, but it definitely sounds interesting; I wish I could have taken a gander. (I, too, love Brakhage; if it's reminiscent of his work, I assume I would probably like it.)
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 02.01.2004 6:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's on DVD; I saw it via Netflix. I think the similarity to Brakhage's desire to teach us how to "see" in new ways is unmistakable.

Eric
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matt header
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PostPosted: 02.02.2004 8:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

We just watched "Window Water Baby Moving" by Brakhage this morning. Man - it's hard not to flinch when watching that. Never before, I think, has the camera gotten so uncomfortably close to something so private. Since that was Brakhage's intent, whew, job well done.
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beltmann
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Location: West Bend, WI

PostPosted: 02.02.2004 10:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The first time I saw it, months ago, I was watching with my wife. I flinched and squirmed considerably more than she did. (She's standing next to me now, and confirms she was rather unaffected by the blood, and liked the silence. It's her favorite Brakhage.) Since then I've watched it 2 more times, and I still squirm. You nailed Brakhage's goal perfectly, and I think it ranks as one of the most important pictures I've ever seen.

Have you read any of his books or essays? I'm slowly making my way through the compendium "Essential Brakhage," but I started last summer and pick it up only occasionally. Tough to find time, although I find his insights and perceptions addictive.

Eric
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matt header
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PostPosted: 02.02.2004 11:28 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Last semester one chapter from "Essential Brakhage" was required reading for a class I was in. I forget exactly the name of the chapter but it concerned the camera as an extension of Brakhage's own vision (which, I would assume, he talks about a lot). I greatly enjoyed the collection (he seems to take as much delight in playing with words as in images), but I haven't read any more; do you enjoy?
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beltmann
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Location: West Bend, WI

PostPosted: 02.06.2004 4:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I deeply enjoy his writings. I can't say I agree with every single sentiment, but I'm fascinated by everything, agree with much, and consider his work of extreme significance, especially in terms of using cinema to probe the way the human eye has been culturally trained to "see" or "not see" what is around us. I'd also highly recommend the work of Fred Camper, a Brakhage expert who occasionally writes for the Chicago Reader. (He's a fascinating art critic, too.) I was pleasantly surprised to see that Camper contributed the liner notes for the Criterion DVD "By Brakhage."

Have you noticed how allusive Brakhage is? Sometimes I wonder whether he'd be able to express his ideas at all, if he couldn't explain them in relationship to touchstones in literature, art, or philosophy. Of course, that's one of the things I really enjoy about his essays--he fully comprehends the interdisciplinary links between artistic media and human thought.

Eric
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matt header
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PostPosted: 02.06.2004 6:34 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I vaguely remember the numerous allusions Brakhage contained in his writings, and I remember being quite entertained by them (though half the time I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about). He's definitely an erudite individual, but I was most giddily entertained by his wordplay - he used a lot of puns, a lot of stream-of-consciousness style energy that somehow fits together into a coherent, profound whole.

One of my favorite Brakhage quotes, from the opening of Metaphors on Vision:

"Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before 'the beginning was the word.'"

Hee hee! What a card, that fellow.

By the by, have you seen his short list of favorite movies, as cited by a Sight & Sound poll in 1992? It's available here:

http://www.geocities.com/the7thart/directorlist.html

Pretty cool.
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