Many of the seminal texts of US experimental film history, such as P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film , begin with a discussion of the production of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). More recent scholarly work, however, has unearthed a vibrant post–World
War I avant-garde American film movement with roots in European art and culture. American artists such as Man Ray (1890–1976) and Dudley Murphy (1897–1968) lived in France and took inspiration from dadaism and surrealism in the 1920s; Ray made his first film, Le Retour à la raison ( Return to Reason , 1923), for a famous dada soirée, and Murphy collaborated with Fernand́ger (1881–1955) on the surrealist Ballet mécanique (Mechanical ballet, 1924). Technological innovation, Le specifically Kodak's 1924 introduction of 16mm film and the user-friendly Cine-Kodak 16mm camera, helped to jump-start the 1920s avant-garde ( Lovers of Cinema , p. 18).
The creators in this first wave of experimental filmmaking came from different careers and interests. Elia Kazan (1909–2003), Orson Welles (1915–1985), and Gregg Toland (1904–1948) dabbled in the avant-garde, but achieved true success in mainstream film. Douglass Crockwell was a magazine illustrator of the Norman Rockwell school, but his Glens Falls Sequence (1934–1946) is an abstract dance of mutating shapes. Several film teachers and scholars (Theodore Huff, Lewis Jacobs, Jay Leyda) made avant-garde films too. Yet, despite these different backgrounds and motivations, most experimental film practitioners thought of themselves as amateurs rather than professional filmmakers, but the term "amateur" was praise rather than a pejorative, implying a commitment to art over commerce. The types of films by these "amateur" avant-gardists fall into distinct genres. Many made offbeat stories inspired by literary sources and cutting-edge art movements. James Sibley Watson, Jr. (1894–1982) and Melville Webber (1871–1947) invoke such sources as Edgar Allan Poe, German expressionism, and Old Testament narratives in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933). Other films told stories that parodied film genres, such as Theodore Huff's first movie, Hearts of the West (1931), which features an all-children cast in a spoof of silent westerns. Filmmaker and artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) made collage films that turned Hollywood narratives into studies in surrealism. In Rose Hobart (1936), Cornell took footage from a Universal B movie that featured the contract player Rose Hobart, scored all of Hobart's actions to an old samba record, and projected the reedited footage through red-tinted lenses.
Other filmmakers abandoned narrative. Paul Strand (1890–1976) and Charles Sheeler's (1883–1965) Manhatta (1921), the first avant-garde film produced in the United States, was the first "city symphony" film, a genre of associative documentaries that celebrate urban life and the machines of modernity. Other American examples of the genre include A Bronx Morning (Jay Leyda, 1931) and The Pursuit of Happiness (Rudy Burkhardt, 1940), but the most famous city symphony of all, The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), was made in Soviet Russia. Another common type of nonnarrative documentary was the dance film; Hands (Stella Simon, 1926) and Introspection (Sara Arledge, 1941–1946) use innovative form to capture bodies reacting to music, and are clear inspirations for Maya Deren's work. Rhythms are at the center of both dance films and abstract films, those works that focus on unfamiliar objects and patterns. H2O (1929) by Ralph Steiner catalogs how water reflects light in raindrops and rivers; the films of Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967), Mary Ann Bute, and Dwinell Grant are paintings in motion, dances of colors and shapes instead of the human body.
There were four venues for the exhibition of early experimental film. In the United States, for example, the "little cinemas," the art theaters that emerged during the 1920s and 1930s to program repertory classics and European fare, sometimes showed experimental shorts before their features. The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1928) was paired with a German/Indian coproduction, Light of Asia (1926), at the Philadelphia Motion Picture Guild, and Roman Freulich's Prisoners (1934) was followed by Sweden, Land of the Vikings (1934) at the Little Theatre in Baltimore ( Lovers of Cinema , p. 24). On occasion, avant-garde shorts were even on the same program as Hollywood features. Art galleries were another venue for experimental films, as were the screenings of the Workers Film and Photo League, a branch of the Communist Party that regularly exhibited nonmainstream films of all types. The most important exhibition space for the avant-garde during this period was provided by the Amateur Cinema League (ACL), founded in New York City in 1926. The ACL nationally distributed key avant-garde films, organized "ten best" contests for amateur filmmakers, and published extravagant praise for experimental work in the ACL magazine, Amateur Movie Makers . As Patricia Zimmerman points out, the activities of the ACL were just a small part of the amateur film phenomenon: "The New York Times speculated that that there were over one hundred thousand home moviemakers in 1937 and five hundred services for rental of films for home viewing" (Zimmerman in Horak, p. 143). No wonder experimental filmmakers from this period embraced the "amateur" label so readily. However, most of these activities vanished as the Depression ground on. Though several important experimental filmmakers—Arledge, Burkhardt, Cornell—began to make work in the second half of the 1930s, it would be another ten years before a new avant-garde generation would build systems of production, distribution, and exhibition that rivaled those of the amateur film movement.