Re: [Frameworks] Experimental Documentary

From: Fred Camper (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Jul 19 2010 - 14:37:29 PDT

To Jonathan Walley, thanks to a fine, smart, and very clear post. I
believe Kubelka did say something like what I quoted, but can't be
sure. And your objections to calling "experimental film" a "genre"
seem reasonable. I was using the word very very loosely; it does have
more specific meanings within film (and literary) studies. I think we
just have to be clear about what we mean by "genre," and how we are
using the word. It seems right, too, to include things such as
exhibition practices within "experimental" film.

Andy Ditzler is right, too, that labels are often helpful in
promotion. Indeed, when, in the fall of 1965, at age 17, I began
showing films by Anger, Brakhage, Baillie, and others, at MIT, under
the rubric of the MIT Film Society, I decided, on our posters, to call
them "Experimental Films," knowing full well everything that was wrong
with that term. But we needed a phrase that would connote, especially
in an era in which media was far more homogenous than it is today,
that these films were going to be *really* different. And it worked; I
know of people who knowing nothing of cinema except "conventional"
films but, seeing that tag line on our posters, figured these would be
films that (for example) might have something to do with the
contemporary art they loved, came to our shows, and had their lives

I'm less certain of the usefulness of this phrase today, but if an
exhibitor finds it helpful, by all means, use it. Certainly it could
help prepare viewers.

Jennifer Saparzadeh asks
"But what if someone makes something like that not knowing about the
history? What if they discover film and use it in such ways without
ever knowing that anybody else did that until later?"

First, I must always remind myself that there are no rules about what
makes great art, or how to make it. So anything is possible.

But Sam Wells wrote in reply:

"One problem is that they might be imitating the watered down history,
the 'Honda Commercial' history...."

And in my experience, this is most often the problem. Most young
people today have absorbed a vast trove of moving images, including
commercials and music videos that ripped off many avant-garde film
traditions with none of the meaning those works had.

In my experience, young film and videomakers who haven't seen very
much of cinema's past often wind up making works that seem like pale,
watered down imitations of filmmakers whose work they have not seen,
or don't know well. While there surely are filmmakers who have studied
Brakhage endlessly yet do make not very interesting derivative works,
just as often, filmmakers who know someone like Brakhage well don't
feel the need to imitate him, but, understanding his achievement, make
works that take his achievements in another direction, or that don't
even use much of his cinematic "language," or that actually argue with
the ethos behind his work.

I've heard more than one great artist say something like, "I had to
make these works, because I didn't know of anything like them. If
someone else had done something like this, I wouldn't have felt the

Jennifer also asks,

"And is there no such thing as experimenting with the film format in
new ways? I mean, it is not like all of the capabilities of film have
been broken through.."

Of course it's fine to try. Go for it. But how can you know if you're
using film in new ways without having a deep knowledge of what has
been done in the past?

Perhaps the greatest of all physicists, and certainly one of the most
original, was Isaac Newton. Of the scientists who came before him and
of their relationship to his own achievement, he wrote: "If I have
seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Fred Camper

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