Experimental Cinema

One of the classics of experimental cinema, Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon”

The label “experimental cinema” probably insures complete indifference for 99 per cent of the film/video viewing public. For anyone not versed in its values, the term connotes self-indulgent, often indecipherable work made by people who could not make it in the “real” world of Hollywood. (The protean ironies of that fallacy are worthy of a book.) This stereotypically Bohemian image probably derives from the postures of the “New American Cinema” of the ’50s and ’60s, and while inaccurate, the association persists.

This misconception pigeon holes all alternatives to the cinematic mainstream as a particular kind of experiment. In fact, film experimentation embraces everything from Hollywood technicians trying out new gear to, yes, the wildest indulgences of the avant-garde. The key is that much film and video experimentation is equated with technical, largely visual, experimentation.

If exploring varying literary approaches is shunned by a Hollywood that equates cinema with the three-act, linear story, the no less prescriptive conventions of the “experimental world” treat any story-telling with suspicion and hostility. There is thus a ticket of entry no less real for being unspoken. That is one reason the association between “experimental cinema” and incoherence persists. People on the inside defend the half-formed and incomprehensible with badly digested “theory” both to explain the unintelligible, and to pretend to a literary sophistication equal to their technique. That their verbiage often could be recognized as meaningless drivel by litterateurs is all the more reason to exclude them.

Experimental cinema is thus caught in the perpetual antagonism between visual and verbal culture. The gulf can be breached. The postwar European art film, for example, included both visual and literary experimentation. The profundity and persistence of the struggle should nonetheless never be underestimated because too many people of all stripes have a stake in the conflict. You have to want to build a bridge before you can cross it.

The lack of literary sensibility in experimental film resulting from this antagonism leads to another problem noted by auteurist critic Andrew Sarris. He pointed out that without the unifying thread of a story, it was difficult to evaluate “experimental cinema” because of the lack of a shared notion of purpose. Just what are the experiments meant to achieve beyond doing things differently from Hollywood?

The difficulty in answering that question suggests why so many experiments are little more than technical flourishes to be appropriated by the mainstream. Without a clear artistic goal, potential commercial application of an experiment becomes the measure of success. Artist X scores by being the first to use technique Y, which is then endlessly imitated. Artists who explore expressive potential for its own sake have to accept that their work may never be seen, much less accepted or valued as an alternative to commercial exploitation. Thus the tragedy of “experimental cinema” is that the people most equipped to enrich expressive possibilities are shut out for valuing their art over their wallet.