Why It's Called 'Experimental' Film

story © Michael Betancourt, June 5, 2011 all rights reserved.


The origins of the idea that films made by artists are "experimental" can be traced to a magazine from the 1930s, and an exhibition in the 1940s.

The film magazine Experimental Film, published in Philadelphia by filmmaker Lewis Jacobs and David Platt, is the first source for the idea that artist's films were "experimental." In the first issue, published in February 1930, it proclaimed itself:

Experimental Cinema, published by the Cinema Crafters of America, is the only magazine in the United States devoted to the principles of the art of the motion picture. It believes there is a profound need at this time for a central organ to consolidate and orient those individuals scattered throughout America, Europe and U.S.S.R. that are working to liberate the cinema from its stereotypes symbolism.

The American connection between the idea of an “experimental cinema” and the avant-garde lies with this publication. At the same time, it draws together a variety of distinctly American ideas about individual, artisanal production—the “Cinema Crafters” presents a motion picture analog to the various “crafters” guilds organized twenty years earlier through the American Arts and Crafts movement. This connection between popular art making (the craft guilds) and the European avant-garde is less surprising than it might seem: Gustav Stickley’s magazine The Craftsman included articles about a wide range of subjects—including essays by members of the avant-garde such as Walter Arensberg who would become the preeminent collector of Marcel Duchamp, and Constantin Brancusi—and not just the endless decorating tips, plans for building houses or furniture, and the variety of do-it-yourself ideas now associated with the magazine.

The primary focus of Experimental Cinema, however, was the promotion of montage and Soviet theories about cinema as a tool for social change. The first issue’s feature article was a discussion of montage theories summarized by Seymour Stern, the Hollywood editor, called “Principles of the New World-Cinema.” This article was primarily concerned with presenting and explaining Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theories. Subsequent issues would include further discussion of montage, and print some of the first translations of Russian montage theory to English.

The Art in Cinema symposium and screening series organized at the San Francisco Museum of Art in October 1946 by Frank Stauffacher was conceived as a survey of the “fifty year history” of cinema. Perhaps even more than the various screenings done by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this exhibition linked these films explicitly to the term "experimental." The symposium catalog is a valuable document of the transition from disparate artists to historically significant art. The project was possible because of the collaborative efforts of the artists shown, the ability to borrow films from the Museum of Modern Art in New York that had been collecting and preserving film since its founding in 1935 as the “Film Library.” Stauffacher’s history is concerned with the “experimental film”—a loose collection of works that range from the psychodramas of Maya Deren, to the anarrative work of Hans Richter (who abandoned abstraction after making Rhythmus 25).

Within the ten programs of “experimental film” are only a few abstract works, and the organization of the shows is based around thematic and national origins rather than an aesthetic or art historical foundation. Surrealist, Dada/Constructivist and abstract films are screened with documentaries and short, commercial narratives in no particular sequence. Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale was included in “Program One: Precursors,” and the “Fourth Program: Non-Objective Form Synchronized with Music” is principally a retrospective of Oskar Fischinger’s films; Mary Ellen Bute’s Rhythm in Light (1936) comes at its end. The early films of John and James Whitney were included in the “Sixth Program: Contemporary Experimental Films in America,” coming in between psychodramas by Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, A Ritual in Transfigured Time, and Choreography for Camera), and The Potted Psalm by Sidney Peterson and James Broughton. Despite its limitations as a coherent history of the “experimental film,” Art in Cinema established the filmmakers shown in this series as the first set of canonical artists in the post-war American avant-garde film, initiating a process of historical consolidation and selection that continued into the 1970s.

Staffaucher collected a range of important documents about the aesthetics of film and published brief artist’s statements from Man Ray and Oskar Fischinger. Hans Richter contributed a short history of avant-garde film in Europe before World War II. In constructing this book, there was a clear attempt to put the films shown into a historical context and to interpret their significance and relationships to one another. It is these factors, perhaps as important as the retrospective of Oskar Fischinger’s films, that contribute to the consolidation of abstract film into a specific genre with the “experimental film” as it developed during the 1950s. Several abstract filmmakers would attend these shows and begin making their own works following their encounter: Harry Smith and Jordan Belson began making their abstraction films after attending this key exhibition in San Francisco.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  June 5, 2011  all rights reserved.

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