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An Introduction to Avant-Garde Filmmaking

A lecture-screening by Fred Camper, April 3, 2002, at Western Connecticut State University

While there have long been independent filmmakers who worked outside of the mainstream and made "aesthetic" films out of personal passion and without any expectation of financial reward, something that can be called a "movement" only started to emerge in North American in 1940s with filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson, Gregory Markopoulos, and Kenneth Anger. By the 1950s, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Baillie began making films, and by the 1960s, there was a veritable explosion of interest, and the terms "avant-garde," "experimental," and "underground" became synonymous with a cinema made by artist loners, on minuscule low budgets, usually holding their cameras themselves. The results typically violated the conventions of commercial filmmaking. Most of these films' narratives are sparse and obscure or non-existent; "acting", if present at all, is typically provided by the filmmaker and friends. Thus an artisanal cinema, the diametrical opposite Hollywood's assembly-line approach, came into being. Screenings occurred in film societies, or small commercial theaters rented for a single evening. A few filmmakers (Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos, and especially Andy Warhol) did get a few films into commercial theaters briefly, but for the most part these were films made without the expectation of financial rewards.

It is often argued that avant-garde filmmaking is important because its innovations have made their way into mainstream media. Certainly commercial movies have borrowed "effects" from the avant-garde (most famously Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; ad agencies used to rent experimental films looking for new techniques to use in TV commercials; music videos have been engaging in a massive rip-off from such films for a few decades now). This is, however, not the best possible justification for this kind of filmmaking.

Avant-garde or experimental cinema at its best offers a very different kind of viewing experience than commercial films. These are films more akin to abstract painting, or poetry, or classical music, which do their work through form, light, color, and rhythm, usually in conjunction with associations or meanings suggested by the imagery. One often finds an oppositional attitude toward mainstream culture, and an attempt to forge an alternative. But the viewer is never spoon-fed; different reactions are encouraged from different viewers. These films are best seen more than once and at this the event, I'll screen at least two of the films twice.

Several types of films are included. Californian Bruce Conner and Canadian Arthur Lipsett made montage films in part from "found" footage and sound. Stan Brakhage makes both photographed films (The Riddle of Lumen, for example, is a kind of inventory of different kinds of light), and films painted directly on the strip, one of which is included here. Robert Breer makes subtle and complex animations that avoid the "cuteness" of commercial efforts in the field. All such films offer a genuinely different vision, providing the viewer with alternative ways of seeing the world.

Works screened, in the order in which they will be shown:
A Movie, by Bruce Conner (1958, 16mm, sound, 12 minutes)
Very Nice, Very Nice, by Arthur Lipsett (1961, 16mm, sound, 7 minutes)
Mothlight, by Stan Brakhage (1963, 16mm, silent, 4 minutes)
The Riddle of Lumen, by Stan Brakhage (1972, 16mm, silent, 17 minutes)
Creation, by Stan Brakhage (1979, 16mm, silent, 17 minutes)
The Lion and the Zebra Make God's Raw Jewels, by Stan Brakhage (1999, 16mm, silent, 6 minutes)
A Man and His Dog Out for Air, by Robert Breer, (1957, 16mm, sound, 3 minutes)
Fuji, by Robert Breer, (1974, 16mm, sound 9 minutes)

This program was held on Wednesday, April 3, 2002, at 5:30 PM, at Western Connecticut State University Student Center Theatre, 181 White Street, Danbury, CT. It was open to the public, and admission was free. Contact Hugh McCarney, the WCSU professor who invited me, for further information, or, contact me.

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