Avant-Garde in the context of experimental film

Discuss the term ‘Avant-Garde’ in the context of experimental film and video, with particular reference to key written texts.

Contrary to mainstream cinema, avant-garde film has been a fluid, extensive and irreverent aspect of filmmaking. In this essay I will discuss the term ‘Avant-Garde’ in the context of experimental film whilst making historical references. I will look into exploring the dynamics following the culmination of the First World War avant-grade period in conjunction with its 1940s American successors; how the two generations with different self-perceptions, material conditions and how their recognisable whilst influencing our contemporary society. Predominantly in relation to literature, art and the experimental films that contain myriad ideologies, I will discuss why particular avant-garde artists turn to film in the 1920s. Looking at two indefinite factors within avant-garde film; the identification with modernism and the connotations of cultural, historical and political confrontation in conjunction with conventional views and idea, will assist my argument of how avant-garde film conventionally differentiates from mainstream cinema but is still influential.

Rees (2011) defines avant-garde film “mode of filmmaking that rigorously re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working.” Avant-garde in the context of experimental film is different to the more mainstream traditions of narrative and documentary. Unlike these aspects of filmmaking, experimental film can take place in a variety of forms; from abstract that uses a visual language of shape, form and colour to more personal films that focuses on self-reflectivity in the artist’s life and experiences. Avant-garde cinema isn’t constrained to follow any typical structure or style compared to the traditional contemporary film. Films such as Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) are in fact longer than the usual mainstream film. I believe that avant-garde cinema is a sense of expression in moving image. These filmmakers constitute the staples of the history of experimental film and incorporate the exploration of diverse methods to portray their emotions or life experiences.  It’s a type of filmmaking that differs from the contemporary cinema and rejects the conventions of mainstream movies. However, in this essay I will argue that it is still influential and still recognised in today’s society.

Experimental film is unique in how the audience views the film, asking ourselves questions in trying to understand the filmmaker’s concept and what are they trying to illustrate. As noted by Kydd (2011) “When we go to see experimental film we have our expectations challenged we watch films that make us think and ask questions about (among other things) the nature of the film medium itself, the role of film within society and culture and the status of film as art.” Once the audience actively views a diverse range of experimental films, they will see the experimentations that are created in the use of visual style, sound and personal expression. This can lead to a likely source of inspiration towards mainstream cinema and will be discussed further in this essay. Influential avant-garde films began towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Cinema was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century and began with the invention of the Cinématographe. This led to the first Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison short films in 1893. During this period, various global upheaval such as science and industrial development took place and changed the way that the world and society were perceived. The technology advancements made changes in the arts that reflected a different worldview which hadn’t been seen before. This is the birth of modernism which incorporated different perceptions of art and later led to numerous art movements. Modernism is an expansive term that includes various cultures, forms, movements, styles and historical periods.  These themes help contribute towards the technology developments including the mechanized violence of World War I. Kydd (2011) talks about how “in contemporary society we almost take for granted how fast technology changes, with one format for watching or making videos quickly replacing another” which demonstrates how fast technology has advanced in the last two centuries. These developments in the late nineteenth century are seen all around the world today such as cinema, sound recording, radio waves, powered flight, the machine gun and motorised vehicles. These technology advancements are also a primary factor of the avant-garde movement and World War I.

Modern art evolved in reaction to the horrors of World War I; the industrialized and mechanized technology developments contributed towards this historical period. Various avant-garde artists experienced the war first hand and when it ended, art movements formed such as Dadaism and Surrealism in a reaction to the trauma. Surrealism was heavily influenced by the intellectual pioneer, Sigmund Freud. Freud (1924) believes that “Surrealism is not a style, it is a cry of a mind turning back on itself” the idea of our brain in its own unconscious control. This is influential to artists in the exploration of ideas and images emerging from their dreams, who try to focus on the embodiment of unconsciousness. Renowned surrealist films such as Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930) in collaboration with Salvador Dali, not only demonstrates the surrealism logic and imagery but it contributes towards the cinematic convention. Surrealism accessed a different form of cinema in a different dimension and that is seen in contemporary films today such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Inception (2010). Contemporary filmmakers such as Tim Burton is notorious for creating surreal environments in his film. As noted by Burton (2006) “it came subconsciously and was linked to a character who wants to touch but can’t, who was both creative and destructive” highlighting the creation of Edward Scissorhands and his dreamlike world, something both unique and surreal. This avant-garde movement is still recognised and influential towards mainstream cinema. They incorporate surrealist elements that engages the concept of the subconscious and distinguishing between dreams and reality. Palmer (2010) argues that “the moving images of cinema allowed a spatiotemporal access to the dream state that another medium simply couldn’t” providing evidence that surrealism has influenced films in mainstream cinema today.

“The invention of film camera is a defining moment in the history of visual culture.” Harper and Stone (2006). As noted by Benoit- Lévy (1907) “We say this is the century of steam, the century of electricity, much as we say the stone age, the iron age, the bronze age, but we will soon by saying it is the age of the cinema” describing the birth of the cinematic era as significant as these historical developments. I believe that artists turned to film in the 1920s because of the new ways of expression, using the conventions that were associated with mainstream cinema but experimenting with radical, new techniques. Various influential theories emerging regarding ‘the role of perception and time in art’ inspired artists to turn to film, to try and “put paintings in motion” Turvey (2013). Kydd (2011) discusses how “these artists frame of reference is primarily the art world and their work is influenced by other art practices and often screened in that context: in art galleries, art-house cinemas, film festivals, among groups of enthusiasts.” Avant-garde artists wanted to move onto a new art medium, inspired by others creations and recognised the mass appeal in cinema. O’Pray (1996) stated “in the early years of the century, cinema became rapidly a medium embedded in popular culture with a mass world-wide audience.” The development in new technology has continued to transform cinema.

The exploration of interactivity in Grahame Weinbren’s Sonata (1993) proves how experimental films in art installations can have an impact on the audience. As noted by Le Grice (2002) “the active interplay between artist, work and user, shifting the work closer to the user’s life experience, does seem consistent of expanded cinema.” Experimental differentiates from mainstream cinema not only from the narrative conventions, but where video art is introduced. The use of performance art and installations lets the filmmaker use expression and interaction in their work. O’Pray (2003) highlights the historical period “the 1920s avant-gardes are also characterised by the cross-fertilisation of art forms – ballet, painting, poetry, music, sculpture, fashion, literature.” All these art sources are influential to avant-garde for example, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet Mécanique (1924).

Cubism is one of the earliest movements and most influential of modern art, which is commonly associated with two painters, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubism uses geometric shapes and disjointed representation in the use of abstraction, conversely French painter Fernand Léger experimented with his own unique idea. He experienced the horror of the First World War in the trenches, witnessing the use of body and machine in the destruction of the world, reflected his experience and was shown in his art work. Léger explained his machine technology distinctive idea in a letter written in 1922: “I like the forms necessitated by modern industry and I use theme; a smelting furnace will have thousands of coloured reflections both more subtle and more solid that a supposedly classical subject. I consider that a machine gun or the breech of a 75 is more worth painting than four apples on a table or a Saint Cloud landscape (Léger cited in Stern, 2004). One of his most recognisable works is his collaborative work with Dudley Murphy Ballet Mécanique (1924), which consists of the exploration of art of the machine age. This film was made in the impending outburst of the cinematic development in the early 1920s when artists began to be interested in the potential of film, for the visual expression aspect. Léger’s experimentation with film demonstrates the cross-fertilisation taking place between the different works of art in the 1920s. Léger was one of the various artists who had an interest in film as the new art medium and used it as an exploration of boundaries. The development of non-linear narrative and artists using visual expression has established the single new unifying form. This is best seen in the work of Maya Deren.

Avant-garde in film before the Second World War was international but originated from European capitals such as Berlin, Paris and Munich. Abstract and surrealist cinema then spread to Japan, Britain and the USA. European artists escaped the Nazi occupied cities and immigrated to America. Several independent filmmakers produced personal and uncompromising films that would define a new generation. As noted by Le Grice (2002) “within experimental cinema, the development of a form of non-linear ‘provisionality’ which took on the issue of subjective content is best seen in the work of Maya Deren. Her Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) has many of the normal components of a narrative work – there are distant characters in a staged enactment, which is filmed through conventional camera set-ups employing long, medium, close-ups and point-of-view shots.” The film is formed of an unconventional structure which doesn’t depend on the traditional storyline. It uses numerous visual techniques such as slow motion, camera movements and jump cuts to represent the personal experience of a surreal state. It focuses on a “sexual meditation on the role of women in the domestic sphere of 1940s America” Dixon and Foster (2002). Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is one of the most recognisable American avant-garde films from the 1940s and has influenced the likes of David Lynch’s, Inland Empire (2006). Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) uses flashing sequences similar to Maya Deren’s film, an experiment in the form of visual imagery and the use of repetition shows how her work was influential in not only other avant-garde artists, but contemporary mainstream filmmakers.

“The avant-garde rejects and critiques both mainstream entertainment cinema and the audience responses which flow from it. It has sought ‘ways of seeing’ outside the conventions of cinemas dominant tradition in the drama film and its industrial mode of production” Berger (1998). Experimental film has had the ability to capture motion and transport the audience into a dreamlike state. From A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliès to Interstellar (2014) by Christopher Nolan, films have taken the audience and transported them to a different universe, leading to numerous genres, avant-garde filmmaking being one of those. Experimental film challenges the conventional structure, explores new mediums, camera compositions whilst bringing the traditional avant-garde techniques into this form of art. O’Pray (2003) provides sufficient evidence to the argument in how “film avant-gardes that emerged in the 1920s remain a potent influence to this day. They form part of probably the most creative period of twentieth-century avant-garde activity across the arts and are the indisputable models of avant-gardism. Indeed, the culture of the entire period was avant-garde.”

Avant-garde in the context of experiment films are greatly influential to contemporary cinema, as discussed throughout the essay. Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) takes the audience into a dream within a dream. The narrative is centred on the ability to explore someone’s subconscious mind and is inspired from a various experimental artists such as M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. The film using techniques that transports the viewer into a different universe which uses visually similar methods of repetition, dream like sequences and going against the traditional narrative structure. One of the most influential and radical films ever made from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963). The film focuses on the combination of science-fiction and psychological parable that’s portrayed through the use of a black and white photo-montage. Marker explores the paradoxes of time and memory, looping the audience back and forth which is exploited in the form of photographic imagery. Additionally, it’s been a huge inspiration in science-fiction filmmaking, directly influencing prominent directors such as James Cameron and Terry Gilliam and films such as The Terminator (1984) and Total Recall (1990). Gilliam created an adaptation and expansion for La Jetée (1963) titled Twelve Monkeys (1995) which focuses on the same themes as Chris Marker’s film. It explores the infinite loop of storytelling in a non-linear structure within a future dystopian universe.

To conclude, avant-garde in the context of experimental film differentiates from conventional mainstream films in various ways such as the form, style, themes and structure. However, as argued throughout the essay, it is apparent that avant-garde films has been highly influential to contemporary films and is evident in films discussed during this essay. This essay has identified experimental films that follows a non-conventional narrative whilst making theoretical references to European avant-garde filmmaking; how it’s been influential to the world and modern-day films. Research from academic resources provides substantial information and evidence to support the main argument for this essay. Using historical, cultural and political references has conversed the introduction to various movements, whilst discussing the key figures and films within avant-garde. This essay has discussed avant-garde in the context of experimental film; providing essential answers with valid filmic examples, then supported by theoretical quotes from filmmakers, authors and philosophers to provide evidence in how avant-garde films are diverse and influential to contemporary films.


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