Thursday, February 4, 2010

DEFINING EXPERIMENTAL FILM

Websters New Universal Unabridged Dictionary:

experimental- a. [french experimental, from the latin word experimentum, an experiment
1.  of or based on experience rather than based on theory or authority.
2. based on, tested by, or having the nature of experimentation
3. for the sake of experiment; testing
4. tentative
5. of or used for experiments

experiment-   a trial test, from experiri to try, to test
1. a test or trial of something; specifically, (A) any action or process taken to discover something not yet known or to demonstrate something known; (B)   something tried to find out whether it will be effective;  as giving students complete freedom to to choose their courses is an educational experiment

film- n. [ME. fylme AS. filmen,  a film, membrane.]
1. a thin skin; a pellicle; a membrane;  a delicate coating or outer layer, partially obscuring what lies beneath; as, a film of gelatin; a film of lace.
2.  a sheet or roll of a flexible cellulose material covered with a substance sensitive to light and used in taking photographs.
3. a thin veil, haze, or blur as over the eyes.
4. a motion picture
5. a delicate thread, as of a cobweb


Together the words, experimental and film, seem to mean more than the definitions imply.    By following the history, one is introduced to experimental film at an almost identical point to that which film in its self as an art form is being introduced.  In a almost fanciful way one can say that any of the films being made up to and into the 1920's were experimental since making a film itself was a young and untapped art.  All of the pioneers were attempting to do something for which no template had been laid out.  Surely it must have fascinated artists such as Melies,  Rene Claire,  Louis Feuillade, Dmitri Kirsanov, and Man Ray simply to watch this machine feed tape through recording pictures.  These primitive beings, mostly standard artists had the power to capture life in any way they saw it and the possibilities were endless. Ferdinand Leger captured the machine and tied it into our human reality with Ballet Mechanique.   But at this point the experimental art of making any film can be further broken down into more aesthetic issues.  The experiment becomes:    How do i make something new and fresh even fresher?  Should I just show pretty pictures or try to shock the audience?   Should I try to tell a story?
    I will divide here into my own aesthetic categories of experimental film: films with out a narrative and films with narrative.  It is my opinion that both films without narrative and films with narrative must be looked at very differently.  Personally I have enjoyed the narrative films more.  Which is not to say that I have gotten nothing from those films with out this element of story line. Actually, almost all of the films have some form of a life running through them.  The city films show this in an interesting way.  In place of standard characters the films focus on the overall image of the city, be it though a few hours on a rainy day or through the entire day as in Berlin.  This tampering with scale does some interesting things to the mind.  These films teach you to focus on imagery and smaller things with in the whole of the film.  It becomes the subtleties that define the film.   The art resides in the dance of the hop scotch playing children in a Bronx Morning.  Its in the connection between lunch break and zoo animals in Berlin.  The tempo and musicality of the non-narrative films play an important role also.  The human body has a tie to this pulse present through all motion films.   The music of motion seems most accessible in animations.  Symphonie Diagonal by Viking Eggling even has a sonata form.  Composition in Blue by Oskar Fischinger is probably my favorite films to view though it is simple and easy to figure out the stop frame methods of creating it, it made me happy to watch it. It is fun even border line cheesy when placed with the music but hey, what can you say its an opinion.  Colour Box by Len Lye with the paintings on film is  beautiful and intriguing I enjoyed its musical quality and nature even more with out the Beatles than with the arbitrary soundtrack.  I am continually reinforcing my love for the way that almost any kind of music can be played to a film and will sync up in coincidental ways and shape the entire viewing experience of the film.
    Narrative forms hold a special place in experimental films for me, my limited knowledge of experimental film begins with David Lynch which has nothing and everything to do with my interest in the matter.  The final place I am going to go is where I was left off,  with the film The Blood of The Poet by Jean Cocteau.  This to me had that same great narrative quality as Lynch where the actual story line is experimental in its self with artistic photography cast aside. If one were to just read the screenplay the overall arch would lead you into an alternate reality where the goal is the journey which has an ambiguous place in time and space where anything is possible and all the things that living on earth teaches are rendered worthless.   In my past this type of film is what I would seek out as experimental film and to a great extent it is my preference.   Narratives for some of the experimental films I have watched have not all had this element.  Some of them are labeled as experimental on the basis of how they are filmed or edited.  You could look at the film Life of an American Firefighter by Edwin Porter and easily see something that by today's standards seems cooky and strange or at least out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.  The Idea of space and time is altered here but not in as abstract of a way withing the story.  Here we have an example of a very basic scenario, a totally realistic occurrence.  But the way that it is shot holds the integrity of the space with more value than the integrity of time continuity.  First it is filmed from inside showing one side of the drama as if it were a stage play, and then it starts back at the beginning and shows itself from another view point outside the house.  I was immediately taken by this. Les Vampire by Louis Feuillade though presented as such didn't seem to have any experimental element it them at all.  My ability to decipher films out of context with the other normal films of their time severely stunts my ability to label anything that is not extremely obvious as a an experimental film.  There is just nothing to compare it too.

so...
What separates experimental film from traditional film?   In modern times where Hollywood has developed a cookie cutter example of what will make a film "good" where "good" is infinitely interchangeable with the word "marketable"  it is easy to pick out something that is different.  Ironically there really isn't any thing new going on its just a recycling of discoveries previously made through out the course of the century.  Fortunately, these lost experiments and the rediscovery and reuse attempting to expose a modern audience to a narrative of filming trick that isn't always used fits the vague definitions of experiment laid out at the beginning of this essay.  Some films are easy to watch some were more difficult, some seemed to meander about aimlessly.  Keep in mind I am not trying to offend any film.   I am mearly trying to find a definition to the combined idea labled with the name Experimental Film.  Aesthetics should not determine the expiremental nature of a film, but rather the composition should define the label.  One should ask what is it about this film that is unique or experimental in nature.  What has the director/ artist done outside of standard practices.  So in conclusion My definition falls most closely with the first definition of experiment, any action or process taken to discover something not yet known or to demonstrate something known.  Experimentation is not being the first to do something but to do something to open the mind.  perhaps?

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