Re: [Frameworks] Experimental Documentary

From: Jonathan Walley (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Jul 19 2010 - 08:15:35 PDT

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


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
> _______________________________________________
> FrameWorks mailing list
> email suppressed

FrameWorks mailing list
email suppressed