Re: experimental film and genre films

From: Jonathan Walley (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Apr 28 2006 - 05:21:58 PDT


Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my last post (which strikes me upon
re-reading as a little grumpy - it wasn't meant to be). A few things in
response to your response:

> 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.

This is all true enough, though I still don't think it necessarily
counts toward making experimental film a genre even if, colloquially,
people think of it that way in the contexts you mention. For instance,
a class in experimental film would be very different from a class on
the western for exactly the reasons I've described - I don't deny that
each label denotes a body of work, only that the "unifying factors" are
different for each. In terms of festivals, you bring up expectations
about "mode of production" and "social milieu," which - to me - speak
to precisely the broader context of a mode of film practice.

For a very interesting take on the "genre" controversy, see the
"Cineastes Manifesto:"

> 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.

Just to be clear: I wasn't saying that experimental film rejects
narrative, only that - unlike Hollywood films - not all experimental
films posses the same general form. The distinction I make between the
two is that one is ALWAYS narrative and one MIGHT be narrative but
might also take other forms (additionally, film style in Hollywood is
aimed primarily at conveying narrative information, with other possible
stylistic aims - expressivity, visual pleasure, "freshness," etc.,
taking a back seat. In experimental film, style is used with much more
heterogeneous aims in mind).

> 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.

Your point about "playfully provoking" with the term genre is well
taken - an interesting idea. And I realize that my calling experimental
film a mode of film practice rather than a genre might be a little
idealistic - in other words, in reality it is taught, studied, written
about, programmed, pigeon-holed, etc., as a genre. In other words, in
the institutional context, the argument goes, it has been reified (I
hate that word, but it seems apt here). This is exactly the point - one
of them, anyway - that the above-mentioned "Cineastes" are making. I
got the feeling in your initial email that were were laying this at the
feet of filmmakers, when I felt - as you imply in the above passage -
that it's a larger community problem. From my perspective in academia,
I agree that we're still stuck in the 60s and 70s. My own work is kinda
stuck there. I'm not sure if this is a matter of the continued
dominance of a modernist model of art abroad in avant-garde film (and
among the academics who teach/write about it). Obviously it's
complicated - I'd be interested in hearing other people's ideas about
the causes of this, before this email becomes too massive.

Best wishes,


Jonathan Walley
Professor, Cinema Department
Denison University
Granville, Ohio
email suppressed

> 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>.

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