Experimental films are very different from feature-length Hollywood fiction films. In Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) completely avoids "normal" filmmaking (he doesn't even use a camera) by sprinkling seeds, grass, dead moths, and bee parts directly onto the film stock; the result is a three-minute rhythmic "dance" between nature and the projector mechanism.
There are many types of experimental film, but despite their diversity, it is possible to pin down tendencies that help make experimental film a discrete genre. Edward Small identifies eight traits of experimental films and in the process defines important differences between the avant-garde and Hollywood.
Most obviously, production is a collaborative enterprise, but most experimental filmmakers conceive, shoot, and edit their films alone or with a minimal crew. Often they even assume the responsibility for the distribution of the finished film. It follows that experimental films are made outside of industry economics, with the filmmakers themselves often paying for production (sometimes with money from small grants or the rentals on previous films). This low-budget approach buys independence: Maya Deren (1917–1961) bought an inexpensive 16mm Bolex camera with money she inherited after her father's death, and used this camera to make all of her films, forging a career completely apart from the Hollywood mode of production.
Unlike mainstream feature films, experimental works are usually short, often under thirty minutes in length. This is in part because of their small budgets, though most filmmakers make short films for aesthetic reasons too: to capture a fleeting moment, perhaps, or to create new visuals with the camera. Ten Second Film (Bruce Conner, 1965) was originally shown at the 1965 New York Film Festival, and all ten seconds were reproduced in their entirety, as strips of film, on the festival's poster. Experimental filmmakers are usually the first to try out new ways of making movies, after which these technologies are adopted by Hollywood. Scott Bartlett's (1943–1990) films, such as OFFON (1967, with Tom DeWitt), were the first to mix computer and film imagery, and influenced Douglas Trumbull's (b. 1942) light show in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The reverse is also true: avant-garde filmmakers continue to use formats such as Pixelvision or 8mm long after the height of their popularity. Also like OFFON , experimental production often focuses on abstract imagery. The quintessential example is Stan Brakhage's notion of "closed-eye vision," the attempt to duplicate on film the shimmers of light we see on our eyelids when our eyes are closed.
As Brakhage's films suggest, most experimental films avoid verbal communication, giving primacy to the visual. Unlike "talkie" Hollywood movies, experimental films are typically silent, or use sound in nonnaturalistic ways. As well, experimental films typically ignore, subvert, or fragment the storytelling rules of Hollywood cinema. Some films—such as Harry Smith's (1923–1991) Early Abstractions (1939–1956)—abandon narrative altogether and focus instead on creating a colorful, ever-changing picture plane. When experimental films do settle down into a story, it's often one that shocks or disturbs conventional sensibilities. Sometimes their subject is themselves and the medium of cinema.
Many experimental films violate one or more of the above traits. Andy Warhol's (1928–1987) Empire (1964) is over eight hours long, and Peter Hutton's movies photograph nature in objective terms, avoiding the avant-garde tendency toward subjective psychology. The traits, though, provide a rough guide to the ways that experimental films differ from feature-length narratives, and provide an entrance into the history of the avant-garde.
One of the most important women in American experimental cinema, Maya Deren emigrated with her parents in 1922 to the United States, where Eleanora developed a keen interest in the arts that launched her into a varied early career, including a stint touring with Katherine Dunham's dance company. In 1941, while with the company in Los Angeles, she met and married filmmaker Alexander Hammid. In 1943 Deren adopted the first name Maya (Hindu for "illusion") and made Meshes of the Afternoon , a psychodrama rife with symbolic, fascinating repetition that rejuvenated the American avant-garde.
Deren's love of dance manifests itself in the films following Meshes . At Land (1944) is a dream of female empowerment that foregrounds Deren's own graceful movements, while A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) is a portrait of dancer Talley Beatty as he moves from repose to a vigorous, ballet-like jump. Meshes , At Land , and A Study are unified by Deren's signature editing strategy: flowing motions that bridge abrupt cuts between different locales. In A Study , for instance, Beatty's single leap travels through a room, an art museum, against a backdrop of sky, and then ends in the woods, as he falls into a crouch and stops moving.
The combination of real-life incident and artistic manipulation is, for Deren, the essence of cinema. In her essay "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality" she argues that photography and cinema is the art of the "controlled accident," the "delicate balance" between spontaneity and deliberate design in art. Deren further extends the notion of the controlled accident to include those formal properties—slow-motion, negative images, disjunctive editing—that shape and alter the images of real life provided by the film camera.
Deren's other films are the Meshes -like Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the dance film Meditation on Violence (1948), and The Very Eye of Night (1958). In 1946 Deren divorced Alexander Hammid. In the late 1940s she became passionately interested in Haitian religion and dance, and traveled three times to Haiti to do research that resulted in the book Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953) and hours of footage of Haitian rituals (some of which was edited into the video release Divine Horsemen ). Deren became a legend in New York City's Greenwich Village, both for her practice of voodoo and for the assistance she provided to younger experimental filmmakers. The Creative Film Foundation (CFF) was founded by Deren to provide financial help to struggling filmmakers; Stan Brakhage, Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer, Shirley Clarke, and Carmen D'Avino received CFF grants.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Meditation on Violence (1948)
Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works , vol. 1, part 1: Signatures (1917–42) . New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984.
Clark, VeVe, Millicent Hodson, and Catrina Neiman. The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works , vol. 1, part 2: Chambers (1942–47) . New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.
Deren, Maya. "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality." Film Theory and Criticism , edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 187–198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.