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Avant-garde film

Related: abstract film - experimental film - German Expressionism - avant-garde - Surrealism in cinema

Films: Ballet Mécanique (1924) - Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Practitioners: Luis Buñuel - Maya Deren - Viking Eggeling - Oskar Fischinger - Hans Richter - Walter Ruttmann - Dziga Vertov

Anémic cinéma (1926)

Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s (2005) - Various [Amazon.com]

The European avant-garde and experimental film

Un Chien Andalou (1928) - Luis Buñuel [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Two conditions made Europe in the 1920s ready for the emergence of experimental film. First, the cinema matured as a medium, and highbrow resistance to the mass entertainment began to wane. Second, avant-garde movements in the visual arts flourished. The Dadaists and Surrealists in particular took to cinema. René Clair's Entr'acte took madcap comedy into nonsequitur, and artists Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Germaine Dulac and Viking Eggeling all contributed Surrealist shorts. The most famous experimental film is generally considered to be Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou.

Working in France, another group of filmmakers also financed films through patronage and distributed them through cine-clubs, yet they were narrative films not tied to an avant-garde school. Film scholar David Bordwell has dubbed these French Impressionists, and included Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, and Dimitri Kirsanov. These films combines narrative experimentation, rhytmic editing and camerawork, and an emphasis on character subjectivity.

The Soviet filmmakers, too, found a counterpart to modernist painting and photography in their theories of montage. The films of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin were instrumental in providing an alternate model from that offered by classical Hollywood. While not experimental films per se, they contributed to the film language of the avant-garde.

The U.S. had some avant-garde filmmakers before World War II, but as a whole pre-war experimental film culture failed to gain a critical mass. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_film#The_European_Avant-Garde [Aug 2005]

Reception in the USA

We don't want false, polished, slick films-- we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don't want rosy films-- we want them the color of blood.--Jonas Mekas, 1961

The history of film reveals that its avant-garde begins in Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1940s it arrives in America, mostly in the suitcases of artists escaping the World War Two fiasco across the ocean. By the 1950s the American avant-garde film field is emerging and by the 1960s it has coalesced into something called the New American Cinema. By 1974 the American avant-garde film is sufficiently ripe so that it's first history can be written.

Much of the credit for the promotion of the work of the American avant-garde filmmakers must go to Jonas Mekas who stands as its chief chronicler and journalist.

In 1955 Mekas founded Film Culture magazine which became the primary publicity organ for the American avant-garde film movement. By 1958 his "Movie Journal" column was a regular feature in the Village Voice weekly newspaper. In 1960 he created the Independent Film Award to recognize outstanding accomplishment in the independent film arena. In 1962 he organized the Film-Makers Cooperative which provided an alternative method of film distribution. Mekas regularly set up screenings of experimental films through the Film-Makers Showcase programs which later became the Film-Makers Cinematheque. In 1970 he was directly involved in the creation of the Anthology Film Archives which supported the preservation and frequent screening of selected "Essential" examples of film art. Mekas was a tireless polemicist and promoter of the New American Cinema as he called it.

Credit must also be given to P. Adams Sitney who established himself as the senior theoretician and historian of the American avant-garde movement. His essays found in Film Culture and in introductions to several books about the movement including The Essential Cinema and The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism provided the uninitiated with profoundly detailed maps allowing the new art to be understood and better appreciated. In 1974 Sitney published Visionary Film a detailed history of the American avant-garde enterprise which remains the chief text of the phenomenon covering the period from the 1940s up through the 1970s. (A second edition of the book was published with some revisions in 1978.) Sitney is also the author of "Autobiography in Avant-Garde Film" which is one of the most intriguing and inspiring essays on the subject of the relationship between the artist and his art. That relationship remains a significant and recurring theme in many of the personal films representative of the avant-garde. --http://www.cosmicbaseball.com/99bpr.html#ag


In 1968, thanks to the foresight of Jerome Hill, a film-maker and a visionary philanthropist, there arose an occasion to create in New York a film museum dedicated exclusively to film as an art. Lengthy discussions took place to determine the purposes and functions of the new museum. It was decided that one of its main functions would be to serve as a continuous critical tool in the investigation of the essential works created in cinema. Therefore it was decided to create what became known as the Essential Cinema Repertory collection.

A special Film Selection Committee was created to begin to compile such a repertory. The understanding was that the Committee would constitute a permanent part of Anthology Film Archives and it would continue into the future reviewing old and new cinema works, in all their different manifestations, and keep adding and expanding the Essential Cinema Repertory collection.

With the enthusiastic support of Jerome Hill, the Committee, consisting of P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, James Broughton, Ken Kelman and myself and for a brief period Stan Brakhage began its work. During the following few years it held numerous and lengthy selection sessions, compiling the first Essential Cinema Repertory collection consisting of about 330 titles. -- Jonas Mekas via http://www.unlv.edu/programs/filmarchive/catalog_archive100/1968_anthology.html [Aug 2004]

Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (1992) - William C. Wees

    Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (1992) - William C. Wees [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Product Description:
    To view a film is to see another's seeing mediated by the technology and techniques of the camera. By manipulating the cinematic apparatus in unorthodox ways, avant-garde filmmakers challenge the standardized versions of seeing perpetuated by the dominant film industry and generate ways of seeing that are truer to actual human vision. Beginning with the proposition that the images of cinema and vision derive from the same basic elementslight, movement, and timeWees argues that cinematic apparatus and human visual apparatus have significant properties in common. For that reason they can be brought into a dynamic, creative relationship which the author calls the dialectic of eye and camera. The consequences of this relationship are what Wees explores. Although previous studies have recognized the visual bias of avant-garde film, this is the first to place the visual aesthetics of avant-garde film in a long- standing, multidisciplinary discourse on vision, visuality, and art.

    see also: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft438nb2fr/ [Oct 2004]

Avant-Garde Film (2003) - Michael O'Pray

    Avant-Garde Film (2003) - Michael O'Pray [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    This title examines the variety of concerns and practices in the long history of avant-garde film. It covers the development of experimental film-making since the modernist explosion in 1920s Europe through to the Soviet film experiments, American underground and French new wave.

    Product Description:
    Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions examines the variety of concerns and practices that have comprised the long history of avant-garde film at a level appropriate for undergraduate study. It covers the developments of experimental film-making since the modernist explosion in the 1920s in Europe through to the Soviet film experiments, the American Underground cinema and the French New Wave, structuralism and contemporary gallery work of the young British artists. Through in-depth case-studies, the book introduces students not only to the history of the avant-garde but also to varied analytical approaches to the films themselves - ranging from abstraction (Richter, Ruttmann) to surreal visions (Bunuel, Wyn Evans), underground subversion (Jack Smith, Warhol) to experimental narrative (Deren and Antonioni).

    In each chapter, O'Pray supports his generalizations and brings some specific details to his overviews by focusing on a few representative films and filmmakers. For 'The 1920s: the European Avant-Gardes' O'Pray singles out Hans Richter's _Rhythmus 21_, Walter Ruttmann's _Lichtspiel Opus 1_, Man Ray's _Retour a la raison_, and Bunuel and Dali's _Un Chien Andalou_ for special consideration. For 'The 1920s: Soviet Experiments' he selects Eisenstein's _October_ and Vertov's _Man with a Movie Camera_; for 'The 1920s and 1930s: British Avant-Garde Film', Len Lye's _Trade Tatoo_ and John Grierson's _Granton Trawler_ (one of the few surprises among O'Pray's choices of exemplary works); for 'The 1940s: American Mythology', Maya Deren's _A Study in Choreography for Camera_ and Kenneth Anger's _Eaux d'Artifice_; for 'The 1950s: The Aesthetics of the Frame', Stan Brakhage's _Anticipation of the Night_ and Robert Breer's _A Man and his Dog Out for Air_; for 'The 1960s: The New Wave', Godard's _Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle_, Huillet and Straub's _Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach_, and Antonioni's _L'Eclisse_ (another surprising choice, but then purists would probably object to including any New Wave directors in a book on avant-garde film); for 'The 1960s: Sex, Drugs and Structure' (a desperately inclusive title), Andy Warhol's _Sleep_, Jack Smith's _Flaming Creatures_, and Michael Snow's _Wavelength_; for 'The 1960s and 1970s: Form Degree Zero', Peter Gidal's _Action at a Distance_, Malcolm LeGrice's _Berlin Horse_, and Kurt Kren's _15/67 TV_; for 'The 1980s: The Ghost in the Machine', Win Evans's _Epiphany_, Patrick Keiller's _The End_, and Jane Parker's _The Pool_. In his final chapter, 'The 1990s: The Young British Artists', O'Pray discusses three film/video artists, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing, and Douglas Gordon, but only Taylor-Wood's _Method in Madness_ receives more than a couple of sentences of commentary. --William C. Wees, http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n32wees [Oct 2004]

Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s (2005) - Various

Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s (2005) - Various [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

In the latter half of the 20th century, Raymond Rohauer was one of the nation's foremost proponents of experimental cinema. Programming diverse films at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, and making the films in his personal archive available for commercial distribution, he helped preserve and promote avant-garde cinema. This two-DVD collection assembles some of the most influential and eclectic short films in the Rohauer Collection, including works by Man Ray, Hans Richter, Marcel Duchamp, Watson & Webber, Fernand Leger, Joris Ivens, Dimitri Kirsanoff, Jean Epstein, and Orson Welles.

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