Re: [Frameworks] Experimental Documentary

From: Anna Biller (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Jul 19 2010 - 08:44:13 PDT

Sorry I hadn't read the earlier posts, where genre was already

On Jul 19, 2010, at 8:37 AM, Anna Biller wrote:

> Yes. And there is even the sense that "experimental" has come to be
> regarded as a specific kind of discipline, a genre even, like a
> horror film or a western. Studio filmmakers who experiment could be
> said rather to make "art films" or to be "auteurs." I understood
> experimental film as a genre first when a film critic spoke of a
> certain film as "experimental maybe, but not traditional
> experimental." Of course that sounds like an oxymoron, unless you
> consider experimental not to be a descriptive term but a historical
> one. But people should not get too hung up on definitions.
> On Jul 19, 2010, at 8:15 AM, Jonathan Walley wrote:
>> The validity, usefulness, and/or accuracy of the term "experimental
>> film" is a perennial discussion/debate on Frameworks.
>> [Interestingly, I've never seen a similar discussion of the term
>> "avant-garde film" on this list in the 12 years I've been on it -
>> the debate always centers on the term "experimental." Anyway...] I
>> remember one iteration of this debate in which the film scholar Tag
>> Gallagher accused some Frameworkers of a sort of "racism" (his word
>> choice) because they did not consider ground-breaking films by the
>> likes of Ford, Welles, or Rossellini to be deserving of the
>> "experimental" moniker. That was unfair to those directors and made
>> Frameworks exclusionary (as if studio-based narrative filmmakers
>> like Ford and Welles were the victims of experimental film's
>> hegemonic grip on world cinema).
>> I think Gallagher was making a common mistake - that "experimental"
>> means that only filmmakers like Brakhage, Sharits, Deren, etc.,
>> were experimenting with their medium and that more mainstream,
>> industrial filmmakers weren't, and, moreover, that "experimental"
>> was an evaluative term meaning "groundbreaking," "novel," etc., the
>> use of which was being unfairly reserved for certain kinds of
>> filmmakers despite the fact that all artmaking is, in a sense,
>> "experimental."
>> Of course all filmmakers "experiment," if we use that term in the
>> broad, non-scientific sense of trying out new things without a
>> fully defined sense of what the outcome will be, and doing that to
>> achieve new and different results (e.g. to learn something new,
>> create new experiences, etc.). But I don't believe that's the way
>> we use the term when we refer to the thing called "Experimental
>> film." As Fred points out, it is a term that denotes a relatively
>> specific artistic tradition into which an artist enters (knowingly
>> or not). Thus, we can say that Brakhage was an experimental
>> filmmaker because we worked within - indeed was instrumental in the
>> creation of - this tradition, not because he was "experimenting" in
>> that broad sense mentioned above (i.e. tinkering - making
>> tentative, only temporarily novel films). By the way, this idea of
>> experimental filmmaker as tinkerer, hobbyist, "gentleman filmmaker"
>> - in other words, not a REAL filmmaker but someone who's merely
>> experimenting - is the dark side of the term experimental. Fred
>> references it, I think, in this quote:
>>> "The films you have just seen are not "experimental." I made some
>>> experiments in the process of working on them, and I left those
>>> experiments back in the editing room. What you have seen are
>>> finished
>>> films."
>> Is this Kubelka? I seem to recall a very similar passage attributed
>> to him. In any case, we needn't assume that the "experimental" in
>> "experimental film" is evaluative, either in positive terms
>> (experimental filmmakers are the only ones breaking new ground in
>> the art of film) or negative ones (experimental filmmakers are just
>> fooling around with their medium, in the hopes of eventually
>> producing something real). Experimental film is an artistic
>> tradition, and the films are neither good nor bad simply by dint of
>> their inclusion within that tradition.
>> But unlike Fred, I wouldn't equate a tradition with a genre. I
>> don't think "genre" is an appropriate term for experimental film. A
>> genre is recognizable by more or less consistent characteristics of
>> form and style, and I don't believe that experimental film can be
>> unified by such characteristics. Maybe we can talk about genres
>> WITHIN experimental film (the flicker film, the deconstructed
>> narrative, the abstract film, film installation, paracinema, and on
>> and on...), but experimental film as a whole is defined by more
>> than just what we see or hear in the films themselves, and that's
>> why I prefer the term "tradition." [Actually, I prefer the term
>> "mode of film practice:" without any pretense of modesty (to borrow
>> Ken Paul Rosenthal's terrific phrase), I direct any interested
>> parties to my essay "Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde" in
>> Tanya Leighton's collection "Art and the Moving Image: A Critical
>> Reader" (2008) (
>> )]
>> Without trotting out the entire argument, I just mean that
>> experimental film names a way of working, circulating, showing, and
>> talking about films and filmmaking, not simply a collection of
>> surface features such as scratching, fragmentary narratives, and
>> flicker. It's as much an ethic as a specific set of filmmaking
>> techniques. And this is why it's sometimes worth worrying over
>> terms and definitions, and about what the term "experimental film"
>> "really" means. Jennifer Saparzadeh seems to be worried about the
>> potential "pigeon-holing" effect of so much concern over names and
>> definitions, and this is a valid concern. On the other hand,
>> however, artists self-identify with artistic traditions all the
>> time; consciously and purposely affiliating with such traditions
>> can be a source of empowerment, resources, values, and new ideas,
>> not just a way of conveniently labeling oneself (e.g. "I'm in the
>> Experimental section of Film Festival X"). In other words, there
>> are deep and meaningful values in traditions, and the act of
>> affiliating yourself with these values can be important and
>> powerful. Saying, "I'm a flicker filmmaker" or a "scratcher of
>> film" only tells us what your films look like. Self-identifying
>> with a tradition is much more significant and telling. And such
>> self-identification requires at least a general sense of the nature
>> and meaning of the particular tradition(s) in which you see yourself.
>> Best,
>> Jonathan
>> Jonathan Walley
>> Asst. Professor of Cinema
>> Denison University
>> email suppressed
>> On Jul 19, 2010, at 12:20 AM, Fred Camper wrote:
>>> "The films you have just seen are not "experimental." I made some
>>> experiments in the process of working on them, and I left those
>>> experiments back in the editing room. What you have seen are
>>> finished
>>> films."
>>> I don't know if I ever heard a filmmaker say that exactly, but I
>>> think
>>> it was the sentiments of many filmmakers starting in the 1960s.
>>> As I argued in an article in the 20th anniversary issue of
>>> "Millennium
>>> Film Journal," published in 1987, the phrase "experimental film" no
>>> longer connotes, in its most common usage, a film that is new,
>>> different, pushes the boundaries, etc. "Experimental film" is now,
>>> instead, a genre. Scratching on film, painting on film, lack of an
>>> obvious linear narrative, and a number of other features (though not
>>> necessarily all of them) make a film "experimental."
>>> This in itself is neither a good nor bad thing, in my view, as
>>> long as
>>> the filmmaker who is scratching on film understands she or he is
>>> working in a tradition, and is aware of the past, and believes she
>>> is
>>> adding something.
>>> Fred Camper
>>> Chicago
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