Experimental Film


In the immediate postwar period, the most important exhibition space for experimental films were the ciné clubs, organizations of film fans who would rent and discuss offbeat films. The first flowering of ciné clubs occurred in France in the 1920s, as venues for the impressionist work of such avant-gardists as Germaine Dulac (1882–1942) and Jean Epstein (1897–1953). Luis Buñuel made Un Chien Andalou (1929) in collaboration with the painter Salvador Dali. Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Jon Jost, and Jean Cocteau are among the many other avant-garde filmmakers to work in Europe.

In the United States, the first such club, Art in Cinema, whose screenings were helmed by Frank Stauffacher at the San Francisco Museum of Art, was established in 1947. Stauffacher helped Amos and Marcia Vogel start a club, Cinema 16, in New York City, and for sixteen years (1947–1963) the Vogels sponsored programs that included experimental shorts such as Kenneth

Gay iconography in Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947).
Anger's (b. 1927) Fireworks (1947) and Bruce Conner's A Movie (1957) with documentaries, educational shorts, art films, and special events featuring speakers such as playwright Arthur Miller and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1950 the Vogels also began to distribute experimental films around the country (primarily to colleges and other ciné clubs) through Cinema 16. Although financial troubles forced the Vogels to shut down Cinema 16 in 1963, its effect was lasting and profound.

Other exhibition spaces besides ciné clubs included college classes, art galleries and museums, and bars. Occasionally, an entrepreneurial filmmaker might even screen in a mainstream theater. Between 1946 and 1949, for instance, Maya Deren rented the two-hundred-seat Provincetown Playhouse eight times for programs of her films. As opportunities for the exhibition of avant-garde films grew, trends began to form. Following Deren's example, several filmmakers in the immediate postwar period made surrealist, dream-inflected narratives. Sidney Peterson (1905–2000) and James Broughton (1913–1999) collaborated on The Potted Psalm (1946), a loose-limbed tale featuring gravestones, mannequins, and other irrational symbols. Peterson's subsequent films, such as The Cage (1947) and The Lead Shoes (1948), combine disturbing images with recursive narratives and compulsive repetition. Broughton made his first film, Mother's Day , in 1948, and across four decades of filmmaking his works shifted in emphasis from offbeat, erotic comedy to an unabashed celebration of gay sexuality. Willard Maas (1911–1971) was another practitioner of the postwar experimental narrative; his Geography of the Body (1946) turns close-ups of human anatomy into a travelogue of a surreal continent. For his first film, Stan Brakhage made Interim (1952), a romantic Derenesque narrative, but afterwards he quickly took off in new directions.

Animation was also a vibrant part of the postwar avant-garde. The most prolific avant-garde animator was Robert Breer (b. 1926), who between 1952 and 1970 produced at least one film a year. James (1921–1982) and John Whitney (1917–1995) pioneered computer-generated films, and their success gave them the opportunity to make cartoons for the mainstream UPA studio and to produce animated effects for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Australian artist Len Lye (1901–1980) painted directly on the surface of the film strip in such films as A Colour Box (1935) and Free Radicals (1958). And Jordan Belson's (b. 1926) San Francisco light shows evolved into symmetrically patterned, Buddhist-influenced films such as Mandala (1953) and Allures (1961).

Several postwar filmmakers explored film form in ways different from animation. Bruce Conner began his career in the arts as a sculptor, but became famous as the conceptualizer-editor of a series of "found footage" films that edited previously shot footage into new and bizarre combinations. In A Movie , Conner subverts our cause-effect expectations (and makes us laugh) by juxtaposing, for example, a shot of a German soldier staring into a periscope with a picture of a girl wearing a bikini and staring into the camera. Other Conner films subject newly shot footage to unorthodox cutting: in Vivian (1963), Conner filmed his friend Vivian Kurz in various environments—in an art gallery, in her bedroom—and then edited the rolls into a kinetic flow of images that comments on the nature of photographic representation. Vivian has a pop music soundtrack—as do other Conner films, such as Cosmic Ray (1961) and Mongoloid (1978)—and Conner's synchronization of editing and musical rhythm is the origin of the music video.

Marie Menken (1909–1970) used time-lapse photography as the formal center of many of her films. A team player in the New York Underground—she worked on films by Warhol, Deren, and her husband, Willard Maas—Menken also crafted miniature movies that condense time. Moonplay (1962) is a collection of full moons photographed over the course of several years, while Menken herself described Go! Go! Go! (1962–1964) as "a time-lapse record of a day in the life of a city."

b. Andrew Warhola, Forest City, Pennsylvania, 6 August 1928, d. 22 February 1987

Probably the best-known American artist of the twentieth century, Andy Warhol studied commercial art at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1949 he moved to New York City and carved out a career as an advertising artist. In the early 1960s Warhol became a pioneer of pop art by creating paintings that showcased the most ubiquitous icons of American popular culture: Campbell's Soup cans, Brillo boxes, celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. With his paintings and silkscreens in high demand, Warhol established the Factory, a workshop and hangout where he supervised "art workers" in the making of Warhol "originals." The subjects of his art were the mass media and mass production, and the art was created on the Factory's improvisational assembly line.

A neglected aspect of Warhol's 1960s artistic production was his work in experimental film. Just as his graphic art used simplicity to challenge notions of "art," Warhol's avant-garde films embraced the realist aesthetic strategies of the putative fathers of cinema, Louis and Auguste Lumière. Warhol returned to cinema's zero point by setting up a 16mm camera and encouraging the artsy types who inhabited the Factory to perform for the lens. Sometimes Warhol commissioned writers (most notably off-off-Broadway playwright Ronald Tavel) to provide screenplays, but usually the Factory crew filmed with just a central conceit—open to extended improvisation—as a rough guide. In Kiss (1963), Warhol showcased various couples (hetero- and homosexual) kissing, each for the three-minute length of the camera magazine; Sleep (1963) uses a few camera angles to photograph poet John Giorno's body as he slumbers. Warhol's films had a profound effect on avant-garde film practice of the 1960s, especially the decade's structural filmmakers.

Warhol's movies of the mid-1960s built on the simple structures of his earlier work. Inner and Outer Space (1965) juxtaposes ghostly video images of Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick with film footage of her commenting on her own video reflection, while Chelsea Girls (1966), which played commercially in New York City, uses two screens to depict the inhabitants of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Warhol's epic was perhaps **** ( Four Stars , 1966–1967), a twenty-five-hour explosion of superimpositions (two projectors fired footage simultaneously on the same screen) that was shown only once and then disassembled.

After Warhol was shot and almost killed by Valerie Solanas in June 1968, he stopped making films. Instead, he farmed out the Factory's filmmaking activities to his protégé, Paul Morrissey, who went on to direct several Warhol-influenced but more mainstream features, including Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Heat (1972), Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), and Blood for Dracula (1974).


Kiss (1963), Sleep (1963), Empire (1964), Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), My Hustler (1965), Chelsea Girls (1966), The Nude Restaurant (1967), Blue Movie (1969)


Gidal, Peter. Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings . New York: Dutton, 1971.

Koch, Stephen. Stargazer: Andy Warhol's World and His Films . 2nd ed. New York: M. Boyars, 1985.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Andy Warhol . New York: Penguin, 2001.

O'Pray, Michael, ed. Andy Warhol: Film Factory . London: British Film Institute, 1989.

Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Craig Fischer

Radical content as well as form was common in the postwar avant-garde, particularly films that addressed homosexual desire. Probably the most famous "queer" experimental filmmaker of this period is Kenneth Anger, who made the trailblazing Fireworks at the age of seventeen. Fireworks is a mélange of same-sex flirtation, sadomasochism, and sailors; the film's finale features a sailor lighting a Roman candle (firework) in his crotch. ( Fireworks was shown several times at Cinema 16, often as part of a "Forbidden Films" program, and Amos

Andy Warhol.

Vogel also distributed Anger's work.) Anger's epic Scorpio Rising (1963) connects gay desire and satanism—for Anger (as for Jean Genet), being gay means repudiating traditional norms and embracing the subversive and decadent—and the film juxtaposes a chronicle of California biker culture with a pop-rock soundtrack in ways that, like Conner's works, anticipate music videos. Anger's films treat homosexuality as inherently transgressive; in contrast, many of Gregory Markopoulos's (1928–1992) works place same-sex desire in a classical context. The Iliac Passion (1967), for example, features several members of the 1960s New York gay demimonde—Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Taylor Mead—cast as mythic characters such as Poseidon and Orpheus. Markopoulos also pioneered a single-frame, scattershot approach to editing that made his films tightly wound, dense fabrics of allusions, classical and otherwise.

As Markopoulos explored the deep connections between sexuality and myth, Jack Smith turned popular culture into his own queer playground. Soon after meeting experimental filmmakers Ken Jacobs (b. 1933) and Bob Fleischner in a film class at the City College of New York in 1956, Smith collaborated with Jacobs on a series of films—including Star Spangled to Death (1958/2004) and Little Stabs at Happiness (1959)—that ditch plot and instead allow Smith to improvise personas for the camera. Both the charm and narcissism of this approach finds its perfect expression in Jacobs, Fleischner, and Smith's Blonde Cobra (1963), where Smith delivers a monologue to his image in a mirror. After a falling out with Jacobs, Smith directed several films himself, the most notorious being Flaming Creatures (1963), a mad chronicle of a pansexual orgy, complete with simulated rape and faux -earthquake, that was declared obscene in New York Criminal Court. Even while Smith worked on such films as the unfinished Normal Love (begun 1964) and No President (1968), he increasingly shifted his energies to performance art, letting his love of Z-grade Hollywood stars (especially the beloved Maria Montez) and radical politics run rampant in theater pieces, slide shows, and "expanded cinema" experiences such as I Was a Male Yvonne de Carlo for the Lucky Landlord Underground (1982).

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