In the ever-churning cycle of relatively similar films and remakes, here's an eclectic mix of some of the best from experimental cinema
Pop along to your nearest multiplex and the films you'll find there really aren't so very different from each other. Sure, there'll be unconnected in style—some will be rom-coms, some will have superheroes—but you'll know where you are with all of them, since there will be a story and characters to follow. And that's what we expect from movies, isn't it? Plots and people and thrills and spills.
But there is another kind of movie, one that doesn't go in for the crowd-pleasing business of telling a story. They are abstract, avant-garde and just plain experimental, pulling the elastic of the medium to full stretch.
What follows is a brief introduction to some of the most notable experimental movies, and the folks who made them. While they might not always be the sort of thing you'll want to put on after a hard day of work, it's worth trying to tune in to their wavelength: there's some good stuff out there and it shouldn't just be left to the beardie-weirdies to enjoy.
Un Chien Andalou
We might assume that the silent era was a distinctly conservative time—it was a long time ago, after all, and we all remember what our grandparents were like when they were confronted with anything new. However, this was not actually so—the 1920s were the era of surrealism and modernism and all that jazz, and the spirit of experimentalism most assuredly crept into film.
In 1929, fashionable Paris was rocked by a film made by two young men from Spain. One was called Luis Buñuel and the other Salvador Dali; their film—Un Chien Andalou—lasted only 20 minutes but that was quite long enough to put the wind up people: it begins, for example, with an eyeball being eviscerated.
Both Dali and Buñuel went on to bigger and (arguably) better things but time has not softened their debut; it remains startling and is still (probably) the most famous avant-garde film there is.
The Seashell and the Clergyman
Buñuel and Dali were actually Johnnie-come-latelies to surrealist films. They were well established even before they started slicing up eyeballs, and Germaine Dulac was one of the leading practitioners, aiming to do to film what fellow Parisians like James Joyce and Pablo Picasso were doing in their own respective fields of endeavour.
The Seashell and the Clergyman from 1928 is her best-known work, a hallucinatory—and, it must be said, somewhat saucy—story about a man of the cloth and his assorted daydreams. Not everyone accepted it as art: the British censor of the day banned it, declaring “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”.
Len Lye, Norman McLAren, Oskar Fischinger
One of the great difficulties of writing about experimental film is that it's actually dashed hard to describe what the work is about. There's no plot to summarise and often there's not much in the way of incident either.
The problem becomes especially acute in the case of Messrs. Lye, Mclaren and Fischinger. Their individual works are very different but each could—just about—be described as “animators”, even though the films they make were a very long way indeed from the cartoons we might know and love.
Sometimes they worked in more conventional forms: Lye (a Kiwi) and Mclaren (from Canada) made public information films in Britain before the war, while the German Fischinger assisted Fritz Lang with the special effects for his pioneering Sci-Fi epic Frau im Mond.
Meshes of the Afternoon
If experimental film has a limited commercial appeal—and concomitantly lower budgets—it is at least more egalitarian than traditional big-money moviemaking. Maya Deran would have been lucky to get through the door at a Hollywood studio at the time she was active, let alone get to direct an actual movie, her being a woman and all. Working independently, though, she created some of the most enduring American avant-garde films ever.
Drawing on the likes of Jean Cocteau and our old friends Buñuel and Dali, not to mention their influences, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Deren created films that were ethereal and strange, most notably Meshes of the Afternoon, a dream about mirrors and death. It makes you wonder how much better American film would have been if she had been properly supported by Hollywood.
The Magick Lantern Cycle
Kenneth Anger was a Hollywood brat, born Kenneth Anglemyer and a child star (or so he claims). His own films, though, would take a more esoteric turn, informed by the avant-garde, a passionate interest in the occult and by his own sexuality (his celebrated film Scorpio Rising is an early celebration of leather-clad bikers).
Anger is the closest experimental film has to an actual “celebrity”. For a start, he was fabulously well-connected, a familiar of both The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger appears in Invocation for My Demon Brother) and Led Zeppelin (although he put a hex on guitarist Jimmy Page when the latter took too long writing the score for Lucifer Rising). Later on, he published the infamous Hollywood Babylon, a compilation of all the most salacious (and usually inaccurate) Hollywood gossip he'd picked up over the years.
But it's the films that deserve the attention; his major work—collectively known as “The Magick Lantern Cycle”—is one of the best entry-points to experimental cinema, a gateway drug for a whole new style of movies.
Film can be an expensive business, what with all the technicians and equipment needed, not to mention the actors. Stan Brakhage found a way to do it a lot more cheaply: not only did he get rid of the actors and the crew, he even did away with cameras.
Now, Brakhage did sometimes made more orthodox films (although “orthodox” is decidedly relative here; he once made a film called The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eye which is all about an autopsy). But he's most famous for those films which he created without the aid of machinery, either by painting directly onto the film or by collage: Mothlight is made up of grass, flower petals and moth wings taped to the negative. It's not an option available for most filmmakers and Brakhage's beautiful, brilliant abstractions are some of the high-points of experimental cinema.
Fantasia & Bambi
This is stretching things just a little bit. After all, Walt Disney was amongst Hollywood's most beloved (and successful) creatives, one who made his fortune by pleasing the crowds. But there was another side to Disney too, one who wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, and who—just occasionally—deserves to be.
Most obviously, there's Fantasia, a massive flop in its day but was later re-discovered by the beatniks and long-hairs and championed as a work of proto-psychedelia. And what about Bambi? Famed as the epitome of Disney sentiment, it climaxes with a fight that's depicted as a collage of colour and shapes that suggests Uncle Walt had been taking lessons from Len Lye.
Let's not take this too far—Disney's “experimental” side is always at the mercy of his commercial instincts. Still, he does illustrate how “abstract” and “experimental” can be a matter of context. Don't forget that Alfred Hitchcock invited Salvador Dali to design the dream sequence in Spellbound, a film seen by millions for whom “surrealism” meant nothing. Note too the light show that tops off 2001: A Space Odyssey, something that could just as easily be beamed onto a gallery wall as featured in what was, at the time, a blockbuster movie.