Avant-garde Filmmaking or Experimental Film/Arthouse Cinema has it’s origins in the early 20th century European avant-garde literary, music and visual art movement’s, especially with the Dadaists in the 1920’s. An Experimental Film is sometimes characterized by an absence of linear narrative and often low budgeted, self financed and with small production value. The use of various Abstracting techniques to the film process and musical/sound score are often accompanied to the film’s overall quality. Most of the classic experimental films in the past (before video and internet) weren’t widely available to the general public, so were usually confined to rare prints and film schools. However, they were extremely influential to the course of the narrative driven feature film, and there effect is still seen in modern cinematography, editing and visual effects. The term “avant-garde” or “experimental film” can sometimes be a challenge to some, but it should be seen or viewed as a groundbreaking work of art that changes the perception and ways of looking at an object. The early pioneers in filmmaking were drawn by cinema’s exciting technology, which provided them with a new medium to explore different ways of creativity. And as cinema evolved, it’s full potential became realised. In this article we have presented you with 5 ground breaking artists and their work, that have all been a considerable influence on filmmaking techniques and practices over the years. Each short film is different in it’s approach to theme, subject matter and artistic vision.
Man Ray. Emak Bakia (1926)
Translated from Basque as Leave Me Alone. This 19 minute film by the American visual artist Man Ray was made in the early days of the Surrealist movement. It features many of Man Ray’s unique filming techniques, including his Rayographs, Double Exposures and blurred (soft) Focus and animated stop motion, which featured an array of images including mechanical motion, everyday objects and rotating artefacts. It was originally made as a silent film but later copies have subsequently been dubbed and reconstructed to include Man Ray’s personal record collection. On the films first showing it caused a riot in the audience after a spectator complaining of the film giving him a headache and hurting his eyes was told to “shut up” from another audience member.
Dziga Vertov. Man With A Movie Camera (1929).
This silent 68 minute experimental film by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov presents an urban existence of the citizens at work and at play from Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa, with an emphasis on their relationships towards the machinery of modern life. Vertov was an early pioneer in documentary style filmmaking during the late 20’s, and was the key figure in the movement known as the Kinoks, which translated means cinema-eyes (kino-oki), and tried to communicate film through real events without the need for character dialogue title cards (intertitles) and structure of a story or stage/theatre setting. The film is known for it’s large range of cinema techniques such as double exposures, fast/slow motion, freeze frames, close-ups, tracking shots, jump cuts, split screens, angled shots (Dutch angle’s) and stop motion animation.
Chris Marker. La Jetee (1962).
The Pier (la jetee) referring to an outdoor viewing pier at an airport, is a 28 minute film consisting almost entirely from a series of black and white photographs, with a lyrical voiceover and score by influential French filmmaker and polymath Chris Marker. It tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel, and is the tale of a prisoner/slave sent back in time and into the future by scientists trying to unravel the cause and devastation of the war. Because of the prisoners emotional attachment to a specific memory from the past, when he was a child at an airport viewing pier of a woman in the distance, the scientists decide to send him back to that specific time in history. The prisoner returns as an adult to this specific memory and forms a romantic relationship with the woman, but is troubled by a sense of isolation in time and becomes aware of a crime taking place at the same time.
La Jetee is a poetic film that combines science-fiction with psychological fable into a photo-montage that achieves the feeling of movement and time lapse from Marker’s editing skills. The only continuous component of the film is the sound and rhythm it manages to create in the form of a voice-over narration combined with a soundtrack and sound effects. The film calls into question the existential philosophy of Martin Hiedegger, when he called beings as “beings-towards-death”. In his book Being and Time (1927) for him existence is always bound with death to the point where towards death becomes the defining characteristic of being. Also worth mentioning is the post-structuralist philosophy of Roland Barthes and his examination of photography’s relationship to reality (as apposed to video). In his book Camera Lucida published in 1980 he explains that photographs of living beings are signifiers that depict happening’s which are always bound in the past and presents an image that suggests that the subject is already dead.
Stan Brakhage. Dog Star Man (1961-1964).
This four part series (comprised of a prelude and four parts) of short films by American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage is his most ambitious project of the 1960’s and marks his transition from a lyrical style that is centered on individual experience, into an epic style that focusses on broad metaphysical themes, that is also an exploration of the film maker’s own psyche which he creates as a myth of his own history, from his conception and past relationships to his present time of being. The film is presented in a cosmic context of earth, sun and moon (and as a cycle of winter, autumn/fall, spring and summer) which examines a man while carrying an axe up a wooded mountain accompanied by a dog. The film(s) incorporate many layers of superimposition with a dense and rapid editing pattern, from the human scale of images to microscopic shots that expresses the mythic conception of the struggle and fall of man.
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which must know each object encountered in life through a new adventure in perception. Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and gradations of colour. Imagine a world before the beginning was the word. (Stan Brakhage. Metaphors on Vision, 1963).
He sought to challenge the very act of seeing itself by restoring something that is primeval and beyond words. Working outside the mainstream, Brakhage was a visionary artist and extremely prolific having made more than 350 films throughout his career. Here we present the full 74 minute version of Dog Star Man which is meant to watched in it’s silent form or can also be accompanied by music.
Bill Viola. The Passing (1991).
From acclaimed American contemporary video installation artist Bill Viola, The Passing is a 54 minute visual commentary on the themes of Birth, Life and Death which inhabits a world between dreams and realty. With a grainy appearance and filled with images of water that contrasts with the stark/moody desert landscapes and nocturnal scenes that employ sophisticated night-sight and ultra-low-light imaging technology of the day. Viola’s video’s and art deal largely with the central themes of human consciousness and experience by trying to capture the essence of emotion through a transcendental spirituality, inspired by mystical traditions such as Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and Islamic Sufism. The Passing is a deeply personal work for Viola because he used himself, his first son playing on the beach and at a birthday party, the birth of his second son and his dying mother in the film.
In a fascinating 30 minute documentary called Cameras Are Soul Keepers, Viola discusses in-depth his development as a visual artist and his major breakthroughs in his video art. He explains how video changed his way of thinking of the medium as something that holds on to life.