Experimental Film

THE 1960s

The 1960s deserves its own subsection primarily because of Andy Warhol, who began making 16mm long-take, quotidian extravaganzas in 1963, and whose popularity throughout the decade brought visibility to experimental films as a whole. In addition, the rise of a leftist counter-culture during the decade and the increased distribution of nonmainstream movies led to an exponential increase in the number of artists who made avant-garde films during this time. Among the most important filmmakers of the era were Bruce Baillie (b. 1931), Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers (George, b. 1942, and Mike, b. 1942), Robert Nelson, Stan Vanderbeek (1927–1984), Michael Snow (b. 1929), and Joyce Wieland (1931–1998). However, much of the credit for the explosion of creativity in the 1960s in the United States belongs to Jonas Mekas (b. 1922).

Born in Lithuania, Mekas published several books of poetry and literary sketches—and spent time in forced-labor and displaced-persons camps during World War II—before he and his brother Adolfas emigrated to the United States in 1949. He quickly became a fixture at Cinema 16, where he shot footage that would later appear in his diary film Lost Lost Lost (1975). In January 1955 he began Film Culture , "America's Independent Motion Picture Magazine," whose early topics included classical Hollywood filmmaking (the journal published Andrew Sarris's first articles on auteurism), the international art cinema, and Mekas's own criticism. Within a few years, Film Culture 's focus zeroed in on the avant-garde and Mekas became experimental film's hardest working promoter.

Viva and Taylor Mead in Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1969).

In the 1960s his weekly "Movie Journal" column in the Village Voice publicized experimental filmmakers and the events where their films could be seen, and Mekas himself was one of these filmmakers: his feature Guns of the Trees (codirected by Adolfas) was released in 1961, his film document of the play The Brig in 1964, and his first ambitious diaristic film, Walden , in 1969. In 1964 he organized the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, a venue for US avant-garde film that provocatively overlapped with vanguard artists in other fields as well. With Shirley Clarke (1919–1997) and Lionel Rogosin (1924–2000), Mekas started the FilmMakers' Distribution Center, a distribution exchange that he hoped would supply an ever-expanding circuit of theaters with experimental work. Although both the Cinematheque and Distribution Center failed, Mekas established Anthology Film Archives in 1970, a museum/theater/preservation complex devoted to experimental films. Although various controversies have erupted throughout its history—most notably, perhaps, around its attempt to establish a list of canonical "essential" films that would be in permanent repertory—Anthology endures to this day, a tribute to Mekas's commitment to the avant-garde.

Perhaps Mekas's most unusual contribution to experimental film exhibition was the midnight movie. Mekas's midnight screenings at Manhattan's Charles Theatre between 1961 and 1963 followed an open-mic structure: audience members either paid admission or brought a reel of film to show, and Mekas supplemented these submissions with works by Markopoulos, Menken, Jacobs, and others. Later in the decade, entrepreneur Mike Getz resurrected the midnight movie model when he used family connections to begin Underground Cinema 12. Getz's uncle, Louis Sher, was the owner of a chain of Midwest art cinemas, and Getz persuaded Sher to exhibit midnight programs of avant-garde shorts at many of these theaters. Underground Cinema 12 brought experimental film out of its centers in New York City and San Francisco and gave it exposure elsewhere in the country. In 1967, for instance, in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, viewers had the opportunity to see Conner's A Movie , Vanderbeek's Breathdeath (1964), Peyote Queen (Storm De Hirsch, 1965), and Sins of the Fleshapoids (Mike Kuchar, 1965) at Sher's local art theater. Mekas's Charles screenings and Getz's Underground Cinema 12 were important precursors to the 1970s midnight movie experience as it coalesced around cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977).

Mekas's nurturing of the avant-garde led to an explosion of experimental auteurs. In such works as Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–1964) and Quick Billy (1967–1970), Bruce Baillie welds his love for the West with a poetic, Brakhage-inspired spontaneity. In his best-known film, Castro Street (1966), Baillie, who also cofounded in 1961 Canyon Cinema, an exhibition program that evolved into the biggest distributor of experimental films in the United States, uses multiple superimpositions to celebrate his beloved San Francisco neighborhood; All My Life (1966) consists of a single three-minute shot (a track along a picket fence that ends with a pan up to the sky) that captures the ravishing light in a California backyard. After collaborating with Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs made a number of avant-garde films, including Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969). Subsequently, Jacobs began researching optical effects and illusions, which resulted in his "Nervous System" performances, improvisations where Jacobs "plays" two projectors in ways that display how various properties of the film medium (flicker, lenses, projection) can mold and alter images. The Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, grew up in the Bronx, and as teenagers used an 8mm camera to shoot their own tawdry versions of Hollywood melodramas. They then showed tiny epics such as I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960) and Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (1961) at open screenings for amateur filmmakers, where they garnered attention from the avant-garde. Later films jumped up to 16mm, but their movies remained campy, unprofessional, rude, and thoroughly hypnotic, implicit subversions of Hollywood standards of "quality." After the mid-1960s the brothers worked separately, and Mike has made few films since. George has remained astonishingly prolific, producing films and videotapes at the rate of at least two a year.

The profane jokester of the 1960s avant-garde explosion, Robert Nelson first courted controversy with Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), his second film, a chaotic mix of gags and images involving melons accompanied in part by a racist Stephen Foster soundtrack. Nelson's tour de force, Bleu Shut (1970), functions as both a ruthless parody of structural film and a perfect example of Nelson's tendency to pack his films with crazed digressions and absurd asides. Best known as a performance artist, Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939) made several influential autobiographical avant-garde movies, including Fuses (1967), a portrait of Schneemann's sex life with composer James Tenney, for which Brakhage inspired Schneemann to paint and scratch directly on the footage to capture the joy and energy of lovemaking. While studying filmmaking at New York University, Warren Sonbert (1947–1995) shot a number of short diary films—including Where Did Our Love Go? (1966), Hall of Mirrors (1966), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1967)—that combine pop music soundtracks with candid footage of such 1960s Manhattan scenemakers as René Ricard and Gerald Malanga. With The Carriage Trade (1971), Sonbert shifted into a more rigorous type of filmmaking based on silence, extremely brief shots, and graphic contrasts. Sonbert's later films, such as Divided Loyalties (1978) and Honor and Obey (1988), use this rigorous form to create portraits of a world full of alienation and sorrow. Sonbert died of AIDS in 1995. Stan Vanderbeek pioneered the use of computer imagery, collage animation, and compilation filmmaking. Terry Gilliam's cutout animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus was inspired by Vanderbeek's Science Friction (1959), and many of Vanderbeek's earliest films were political satires in collage form. In the late 1960s Vanderbeek collaborated with Kenneth Knowlton of Bell Telephone Laboratories to make some of the first computer-generated films, and built an avant-garde movie theater, the Movie Drome of Stony Point, New York, that was equipped to properly present his own multiprojector works.

In Canada, painter Joyce Wieland (1931–1998) also made films with a dry wit that anticipates many structural films. Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968) juxtaposes footage of mice with a narrated soundtrack that defines the rodents as heroes of a narrative about political oppression and liberation. After making two avant-garde films— La Raison avant la passion ( Reason Over Passion , 1968–1969) and Pierre Vallières (1972)—devoted to Canadian issues, Wieland reached out to a larger audience with her narrative feminist feature The Far Shore (1976).

During this period, many challenging experimental films were made outside the United States. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Norman McLaren (1914–1987) produced playful animated and live-action shorts for Canada's National Film Board. French philosopher Guy Debord made several films—including Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps ( On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Period in Time , 1959) and Critique de la séparation ( Critique of Separation , 1961)—designed to vex conventional audience expectation and dissect mass media manipulation. In Japan, Takahito Iimura (b. 1937) began a series of scandalous shorts with Ai ( Love , 1962).

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