Re: experimental film and genre films

From: gregg biermann (email suppressed)
Date: Wed Apr 26 2006 - 20:54:07 PDT

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the comments. I can understand how calling the experimental
film tradition a "genre" with all of the diverse practices that critics
have identified within it could be uncomfortable. Genre can be fairly
used though because as this thread revealed, institutions increasingly
seem to view these artworks this way. So you could take a college course
on westerns, film noir or experimental film. You could go to the
experimental section of certain film festivals and you could be fairly
sure of what style of film, mode of production, social milieu, etc. that
you could expect in these contexts. All genre categories are somewhat
baggy terms that can be expanded or contracted to fit the purposes of
the user. You could just as easily also call experimental film a
"movement", like French new wave, German expressionism or Italian
neo-realism. But that is not without problems as those movements have
very specific geographic and temporal restrictions that genre seems not
to always have. If experimental film is viewed in the much broader sense
that you have articulated -- as a practice that eschews narrative, the
basic rules of the continuity system, and avoids sound tracks centered
around sync-sound dialogue in favor of emphasizing various other
elements-- then your "mode of film practice" is perhaps best. But genre
is still useful to me in order to playfully provoke by indicating that
experimental film may have carved out an identity that is unnecessarily
self limiting both in terms of the aesthetic and practical opportunities
open to it. I believe there is evidence to support this. I think the
recent struggles of small gauge independent film distribution models in
the face of DVD are evidence of this. So is the dearth of critical
writing centered on recent works. If the experimental artists look to
the past not to mine medium/period specific strategies and techniques
but to simply find inspiration in the spirit of exploration and
experimentation that can be found there, then genre seems a less
appropriate label. I believe there is also some evidence to support this
view. Steve Anker and Phil Weisman's essay that appeared in the Black
Maria Film Festival catalogue this year said something along the lines
that significant experimental works have been created in each year
through the 1980's and to the present. And I agree -- there is plenty of
good work that identifies as experimental or avant-garde but I think
also that despite this our "mode of film practice" has not yet moved out
of the shadow of the 1960's and 1970's. I believe this is both possible
and desirable.


Jonathan Walley wrote:

> It's not as though all of the above hasn't been done already. I can
> think of films that are more than 30 years old that parody, refine,
> revise, etc. the modernist preoccupations of avant-garde film. Many
> films in the seventies (e.g. the so-called "New Talkies") threw a
> historical, and historical-materialist, light across contemporaneous
> avant-garde art and film practices. And as far as experimental
> filmmakers "doing this now," I think many of them are perfectly aware
> of the implications of what it means to be a self-identified
> "experimental/avant-garde" filmmaker. With this in mind, I'm not sure
> what you mean by "so weirdly and painfully separate from the rest of
> contemporary creative practice."
> I have problems with the characterization of avant-garde film as a
> genre, unless the term genre is being applied so expansively that it
> becomes useless. Generally, the films in a genre share formal and
> stylistic features - indeed, these features define the genre. This
> just isn't the case with avant-garde film. Even if we use the term
> "genre" really broadly (e.g. calling "Hollywood Cinema" a genre, as Ed
> Small does, for instance, in his book Direct Theory), those unifying
> characteristics aren't there (as they are in Hollywood films - all of
> which are narrative, feature protagonists whose goals drive the
> narrative, follow basic rules of the continuity system, possess sound
> tracks centered around sync-sound dialogue, etc. etc.).
> I prefer to think of avant-garde film, of whatever we'd like to call
> it, as an artistic tradition, or cinematic culture, or "mode of film
> practice." These entail not only works of art, but the social,
> institutional, economic, artistic, etc. practices of which those works
> are a part. These things provide some degree of unity that is not
> evident in the form and style of the films themselves, and are an
> important part of how "avant-garde filmmakers" self-identify.
> For what it's worth...
> Jonathan Walley
> Professor, Cinema Department
> Denison University
> Granville, Ohio
> email suppressed
> __________________________________________________________________
> For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.