Experimental Film


In the late 1960s experimental film headed in a new aesthetic direction. In an article published in Film Culture in 1969, critic P. Adams Sitney defined the structuralist film as a "tight nexus of content, a shape designed to explore the facets of the material" ( Film Culture Reader , p. 327), which becomes clear when these films are compared with previous avant-garde traditions. In the films of lyricists such as Brakhage and Baillie, rhythm is dependent on what is being photographed, or on the associations possible through manipulations of form. In Window Water Baby Moving (1962), for example, Brakhage's quick cuts fragment time and connect his wife Jane's pregnant stomach to the birth of their daughter. In contrast, structuralist films don't have "rhythms" as much as they do systems that, in Sitney's words, render content "minimal and subsidiary to the outline" ( Film Culture Reader , p. 327). Watching a structuralist film, then, is a little like watching a chain of dominoes: after the first domino tumbles, our attention is on how the overall organization plays out rather than on the individual dominoes. Sitney considers such Andy Warhol Factory films as Sleep (1963) and Eat (1963) to be important precursors of structural film, particularly because of their reliance on improvisatory performance and fixed camera positions. Later in the decade, other avant-garde filmmakers turned to structural film. Michael Snow's influential Wavelength (1967) is organized around a forty-five-minute zoom that moves from a wide shot of a New York loft to a close-up of a picture of ocean waves on the loft's farthest wall. Snow continued to explore reframing with Back and Forth (1969), a shot of a classroom photographed by a camera that pans with ever-increasing speed, and La Région centrale (The Central Region, 1971), a portrait of a northern Quebec landscape photographed by a machine that runs through a series of automated circular pans.

Critic David James has isolated the origin of structural film in the "radical film reductions" of the 1960s Fluxus art movement: works such as Nam June Paik's (1932–2006) Zen for Film (1964)—a projection of nothing but a bright, empty surface, occasionally punctuated by scratches and dirt—points to a cinema preoccupied with its own formal properties. Fluxus films, and the structuralist movies they spawned, explore the material nature of film as a medium and the various phases of the production process. For example, Peter Kubelka's (b. 1934) Arnulf Rainer (1958–1960) and Tony Conrad's The Flicker (1966) consist solely of alternating black-and-white frames of various lengths to explore the optical effects of flicker. Paul Sharits's (1943–1993) Ray Gun Virus (1966) and S:TREAM:S: S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1968–1971) add color, emulsion scratches, and even portraits of faces to rapid-fire flicker. The distortion of space through changes in lens focal length is the subject of Ernie Gehr's (b. 1943) Serene Velocity (1970), which juxtaposes long shots of an empty corridor with shots of the same hallway while the camera zooms in. Larry Gottheim's Barn Rushes (1971) explores the nature of filmic representation and duplication by photographing a landscape under different light conditions and with different film stocks. J. J. Murphy's Print Generation (1973–1974) subjects a one-minute piece of film to fifty duplications, and the process renders the footage abstract and unintelligible. (Murphy also distorts sound, and one twist of Print Generation is that as the image distorts, the sound becomes clearer, and vice versa.) In Britain, Malcolm le Grice and Peter Gidal, and in Germany Wilhelm and Birgit Hein, also worked in this mode.

The graininess and dirtiness of the film image is considered in Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (Owen Land, 1966), which offers a starring role to one of cinema's most ignored performers: the "Chinagirl" that lab workers would use to check the quality of a print. Ken Jacobs's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (1969) analyzes a 1905 short of the same name by speeding up and rewinding the original footage, and by zooming in on portions of the mise-en-scène to such a magnified degree that details become grainy abstractions and blobs of light. The nature of projection itself is the subject of Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973), which requires an audience to stand in a gallery space and watch a projector throw a light beam that gradually (over a half-hour) changes shape into a cone.

The most important structuralist filmmaker is Hollis Frampton (1936–1984), who began his career with a series of films that explore minimalist elements. Manual of Arms (1966) organizes portraits of New York artists into a rigid grid structure, and Lemon (1969) subjects the fruit to a series of ever-shifting lighting designs. Frampton's vision expanded and deepened with Zorns Lemma (1970), which was strongly influenced by the animal locomotion studies of proto-filmmaker Eadweard Muybridge. The seven-film series Hapax Legomena (1971–1972) is Frampton's Ulysses , a compendium of formal innovations that, at its most accomplished—as in part 1, Nostalgia (1971)—is both intellectually and emotionally moving. Frampton died in 1984 at age forty-eight, having spent the last decade of his life on the unfinished epic Magellan (1972–1980), fragments of which (particularly Gloria! [1979]) function as stand-alone films.

Structuralist film was influential enough to spread to many different countries. Filmmakers such as Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal congregated at the London Film Makers' Cooperative to screen their structuralist works and debate the future of the avant-garde, while in France, Rose Lowder began a series of 16mm loops that explored frame-by-frame transitions and their effects on audiences.

b. Kansas City, Missouri, 14 January 1933, d. 9 March 2003

The most prolific and influential experimental filmmaker in US film history, Stan Brakhage also wrote insightfully about his own films and the work of other filmmakers. The most oft-quoted passage in experimental film criticism is the opening of Brakhage's text Metaphors on Vision (1963): "Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception." This passage explicates the major aesthetic strain in Brakhage's films: abstraction. From the beginning of his career, Brakhage combined the photographic image with marks and paint applied directly onto the filmstrip, and many of his films of the 1980s and 1990s are completely abstract, partly for financial reasons and partly because he believed in the liberating power of nonlinear, nonnarrative aesthetic experiences. Some of Brakhage's abstract "adventures in perception" are Eye Myth (1967), The Text of Light (1974), The Dante Quartet (1987), and Black Ice (1994).

Brakhage briefly attended Dartmouth College on a scholarship, but he found academia so uncongenial that he had a nervous breakdown, left school, and spent four years traveling and living in San Francisco and New York. During this period Brakhage made his earliest films, including psychodramas such as Interim (1952) and Desistfilm (1954).

While making Anticipation of the Night (1958), which he intended to end with footage of his suicide, he fell in love with and married Jane Collom. Stan and Jane remained married for twenty-nine years, and a major subgenre of Brakhage's work chronicles the rise and fall of this marriage, from domestic quarrels ( Wedlock House: An Intercourse , 1959) and the birth of children ( Window Water Baby Moving , 1959) to Brakhage's increasing estrangement from Jane and his teenage children ( Tortured Dust , 1984). Many critics consider Brakhage's singular achievement to be Dog Star Man (1962–1964), a four-part epic that uses multiple superimpositions to connect the activities of his family (then living a back-tothe-land existence in rural Colorado) to myth and the rhythms of nature.

In 1996 Brakhage was diagnosed with cancer, which might have been caused by the dyes he had used to paint on film. His last works include the live-action self-portrait Stan's Window (2003), and Chinese Series (2003), a film Brakhage made on his deathbed by using his fingernail to etch dancing white marks into black film emulsion.


The Wonder Ring (1955), Reflections on Black (1955), Anticipation of the Night (1958), Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Mothlight (1963), Dog Star Man (1962–1964), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), The Text of Light (1974), Murder Psalm (1980), The Loom (1986), Commingled Containers (1996)


Brakhage, Stan. Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Film-Making . New York: McPherson, 2001

James, David E., ed. Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1942–2000 . 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

"Stan Brakhage: Correspondences." Chicago Review 47/48, nos. 4/1 (Winter 2001–Spring 2002): 11–30.

Craig Fischer

Yet the structural film movement was essentially over by the mid-1970s. Structuralist films were triumphs of formal design, but a new generation of leftist experimental artists criticized the apolitical nature of films such as Wavelength and Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son , and began to make movies with ideological content that tackled social issues such as feminism and colonialism. Yet, reverberations of structuralist film continue into later avant-garde film. Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) follows a Zorns Lemma –like alphabetical structure, while Teatro Amazonas (Sharon Lockhart, 1999) is a witty commentary on cultural colonialism and a stylish update of Standish Lawder's structuralist Necrology (1971), a one-shot film of people on an escalator projected backwards.

Stan Brakhage.

But structuralist filmmakers realized that cinema's formal properties could do more than just tell stories, and made artworks that revealed to us that sometimes a zoom can be more than just a zoom, that it can embody nothing less than a way of seeing.

Another important wave in 1970s experimental film, roughly concurrent with structuralist film, was the rise of the "new talkies," feature-length works influenced by critical theory and the politicized art films of Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Jean-Marie Straub (b. 1933), and Daniele Huillet (b. 1936). Although most experimental films are short, the feature-length experimental film has a long pedigree. During the 1950s and 1960s, as Deren and Brakhage were making their influential short films, other avant-gardists dabbled in longer, more narrative forms. Ron Rice's (1935–1964) Beat-saturated The Flower Thief (1960) and The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963) are feature-length showcases for actor Taylor Mead's inspired improvisations, while Warhol's 1960s films were often longer than most Hollywood films. Some, such as Chelsea Girls (1966), ran in first-run mainstream movie theaters.

The feature-length new talkies that emerged in the 1970s were a more specific type of avant-garde genre. The new talkies are typified by an engagement with critical theory and a return to storytelling, albeit to deconstruct storytelling as a signifying practice. (Many new talkies are simultaneously narratives and essays on narrative.) These traits are clear in the quintessential new talkie, Laura Mulvey (b. 1941) and Peter Wollen's (b. 1938) Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), which tells the story of Louise, a woman who talks with coworkers about childcare and decides to move from a house to an apartment. Sphinx 's form owes much to Godard, but its narrative is something new: an attempt to capture the life of a woman without recourse to genre, "erotica," or the male gaze.

Other key new talkie auteurs are Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) and Trinh T. Minh-ha (b. 1953). Rainer began her career in dance, bringing aesthetic and political radicalism to the performances she orchestrated as part of the Judson Dance Theater. Her movies such as Film About a Woman Who … (1974) and Privilege (1990) form a kind of spiritual autobiography, tackling various subjects as Rainer herself goes through a lifetime of experiences and observations. Shot through all these films is Rainer's belief in everyday life as a site of political struggle, showing how the personal is always political. Trinh T. Minh-ha's own multicultural background—she has lived in France, the United States, and West Africa—informs Reassemblage (1982), Naked Spaces—Living Is Round (1985), and Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989). These films renounce traditional narrative and documentary forms, and search for avant-garde ways of representing people of different societies (including Senegal, Mauritania, Burkino Faso, and Vietnam) to First World audiences. But Minh-ha's recent career reveals the difficulty of sustaining new talkie practices in today's film culture. In his seminal essay "The Two Avant-Gardes," Peter Wollen argues that the politicized Godardian art film and the formalist experimental film were the twin poles of 1960s cinematic radicalism, and that the new talkies can be understood as an attempt to bring these poles together ( Readings and Writings , pp. 92–104). Yet, since the 1960s, art cinema has shifted decisively away from radical politics, while experimental cinema has exploded into a multiplicity of approaches, some formal in emphasis and some not.

One mutation in experimental film occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a group of New York artists made films that emulated the do-it-yourself aesthetics and catchy nihilism of early punk rock. Made in 8mm on miniscule budgets, these films rejected both Hollywood norms and the pretensions of the more formalist tendency in experimental film. Although this movement went by various names ("new cinema," "no wave cinema"), "cinema of transgression" is the most common because of its defining use in Nick Zedd's infamous "The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto" (1985), which begins with a denunciation of the "laziness known as structuralism" and the work of "profoundly undeserving non-talents like Brakhage, Snow, Frampton, Gehr, Breer, etc." and a celebration of films that directly attack "every value system known to man" (p. 40). Like most manifestoes, Zedd's "Transgression" slays the father and claims a complete break with an outmoded past. But many of the cinema of transgression films were, in essence, exhibitions of scandalous behavior, and are logical descendants of an experimental film tradition that includes Kurt Kren's (1929–1998) material action shorts of the 1960s and Vito Acconci's (b. 1940) early 1970s 8mm performance documentaries (which record Acconci plastering up his anus and crushing cockroaches on his body). One significant difference between these precursors and the cinema of transgression is venue: Kren's and Acconci's works were screened in film societies and art galleries, while the transgression films were shown mostly in New York City punk bars.

Although Zedd's manifesto was clearly an act of publicity-seeking hyperbole, the cinema of transgression delivered, throughout the 1980s, a robust wave of avant-garde filmmakers and films. In several works made between 1978 and 1981 ( Guérillère Talks [1978], Beauty Becomes the Beast [1979], and Liberty's Booty [1980]), Vivienne Dick combined documentary interviews, melodramatic narratives, and a jittery camera style perfectly suited to low-fi 8mm. Beth and Scott B.'s Black Box (1978) is a stroboscopic aural assault that treats its spectators like tortured prisoners. Other important transgressors include Richard Kern, Alyce Wittenstein, Cassandra Stark, Eric Mitchell, Kembra Pfahler, James Nares, and Zedd himself, whose affinity for over-the-top parody is present in his films from Geek Maggot Bingo (1983), a send-up of cheesy B-movie horror, to the video spoof The Lord of the Cockrings (2002). Several factors, including the steady gentrification of New York City's Lower East Side and the spread of AIDS, ended the cinema of transgression. Yet the films of many contemporary avant-gardists, including Peggy Ahwesh, Jon Moritsugu, Luther Price, and Martha Colburn, bear the influence of the transgression example.

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