What is "Alternative Cinema"?
Definitions and distinctions.
"...the so-called mundane, which people use as a word of contempt
when they really mean 'earth.' What they don't see is the potential for glory,
for envisionment that's inherent in even doing the dishes, in the soap suds...
All they have to do is close their eyes and look." -- Stan Brakhage,
Sight and Sound (1993)
What is "alternative," "avant garde," or "experimental"
film and video? Good question; it's one makers and audiences have been
groping with for years. No one definition seems to please everybody.
There are, however, some common characteristics. The works are often short,
non-narrative and structurally idiosyncratic, though the makers often use narrative
elements and conventional structures in unconventional ways.
The media described in the Flicker pages has a variety of names: experimental,
fine art, avant garde, personal, independent, and others. Though each term
is inadequate to define any one particular film, video or maker, and the definitions
often overlap, it is useful to discuss and distinguish their meanings. You will
find some attempts to define these terms below.
The films and videos listed here are not, however, short subjects intended
to accompany a feature film; nor do the makers consider them "stepping
stones" on a career track to Hollywood feature production. They are complete
works of art in and of themselves.
You may also come across some of these terms:
- Alternative: films and videos that provide an alternative
to commercial media or to conventional topics and forms, dealing with subjects,
points-of-view and formal elements not found in the mainstream. Some makers
object to this term as it implies that the work exists only in relation to
mainstream media, rather than as a unique art form of its own.
- Experimental: the maker experiments with the medium, the
production process, or the structure of the work, without necessarily knowing
what the outcome will be. For example, the artist might try processing the film
using the wrong chemistry, shooting the film through a rainy windshield, editing
the story in a way that subverts the narrative, etc.
- Fine Art: media work that deals with many of the same concerns as fine
art painting, sculpture, music and literature, exploiting the aspects that are
unique to the film or video medium.
- Personal: the work reflects or contains elements of the maker's
personal life, or reflects a highly subjective view of the world or the
- Avant Garde: In French, literally means "advance guard," a military
term for troops that led the attack across the battlefield; used to describe
artwork that somehow breaks new ground and charts new territory.
- Independent: Work that is made outside of the Hollywood system. Though
most experimental film and video falls into this category, it generally refers
to non-Hollywood feature and documentary films.
- Underground: Also work that is made outside any commercial system;
usually connotes something subversive, or something that would make mainstream
audiences uncomfortable. This term came about in the 1960s, where many film
venues showed clandestine works that were at odds with censorship or other
- Structuralism: The elements of the work's production or structure
become the subject, partly as a way to demystify the cinematic process. For
example, a particular camera action might be repeated and studied. There was a
movement of structural cinema in the 1970s.
- Visionary: a term coined by P. Adam Sitney to describe work that
allows us to see beyond the traditional boundaries of the physical, cultural
and/or spiritual world.
- Expanded: A term coined by Gene Youngblood in his book Expanded
Cinema to mean work that transgresses the normal boundaries of the
"I think the avant-garde is 'alive' as long as it looks beyond itself
(its history, what it has become) for inspiration. There
are as many directions as there are people willing to look. It's a praxis
of leaving oneself open to outside influences (other techniques, other cinemas,
other arts and media, other cultures) rather than one that stands on principles,
insists on oppositions or follows fashion (movements)." -- Konrad