I suppose the artistic medium of film has been experimented with ever since the early pioneers. For the first 20 years of the 20th century at least, most films were seen to be an experiment. But once the studios of Hollywood established formulas and ensured that films were presented to the public on a manageable, coherent and steadily profitable level, it seemed that experimentation became less important. But this is not true in all circumstances. Outside of the prescribed norms of Hollywood in the early days (and European studio equivalents), there were many artists pushing the boundaries of filmmaking outwards rather than inwards, and money didn’t always have to be a factor.
Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) came out in 1929, just on the cusp of sound innovation in the film world. Directed by Spaniards Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, this silent French masterpiece was a shock to the system. Here was a surrealist art installation designed to dumbfound its audience and it just so happened to be presented on film. Having befriended in the 1920s, both Buñuel and Dalí, a film director and an artist respectively, wanted to recreate images conjured from their collective dreams. But unlike say Georges Méliès, whose earlier moving images were all based in the fantastical, these trailblazers were more interested in true human mind experiences i.e. images that come from suppressed human emotions. The way in which these images were portrayed in Un Chien Andalou was most radical. Their relation to one another would never be explained by a coherent narrative. The infamous opening scene where a man watches the moon become eclipsed by clouds, and then slices a woman’s eyeball with a razor was a direct reference to a dream Buñuel once had. By communicating this through film, he was offering others a chance to interpret. To this day, theories continue to arise on the ‘eyeball-splitting’ meaning. Indeed, the whole of the film is like this. Just like any art piece, each motif or image is very much open to interpretation – the ants on a bloodied hand, an androgynous young woman standing in the middle of a street contemplating as she holds a severed hand, or a man dragging a piano and two dead donkeys across a floor. The imagery is indeed shocking and unexpected, but what has marked it out in film history is its radical form. It is presented in a series of barely related vignettes only maintaining continuity through actors and settings, and it leaves it up to the viewer to form their own narrative (this style apparently was hugely influential in the way modern music videos were constructed).
No doubt inspired by this landmark of silent cinema, the Ukrainian-born American Maya Deren embarked upon her own journey in film throughout the 1940s and 1950s, becoming one of the most important entrepreneurs of the avant-garde in the US. Sort of an unsung heroine, she curated some amazing imagery and her influence can be still be seen in films to this day. After some initial photography work in Los Angeles, she collaborated with her then-husband Alexander Hammid to make her first short film, Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943. It was made with a budget of $250, and on a camera bought with inheritance money from her deceased father. The most remarkable thing is that it was the first US film to really present in the avant-garde style. In short, the film explored the inner functions of the human mind, and in elaboration, the film established a range of never-before-used filming techniques to the wider world. It follows a woman (played by Deren) as she walks into her house, falls asleep and has a dream about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face (played by Hammid). The narrative goes around in circles and we are never sure what is meant to be reality and what is meant to be the woman’s dreams. Meshes of the Afternoon is a solidified classic that experimented with the way scenes were cut, blended together and slowed down. Deren focused on bringing the audience into a surrealist spiral of thoughts and ideas, and this was done with no special effects, just innovative camera angles and cunning edits. Although the film is difficult to follow due to stalling, repetition and absurdity, its tone is fresh and expressionistic. What we are witnessing is someone revelling in film experimentation.
Kenneth Anger continued a thread of experimentation in American cinema from the late 1940s into the counterculture years. Being an openly homosexual man in the US before homosexual acts became legal there, Anger was certainly ahead of his time. As a filmmaker, he invoked a untested ‘underground’ approach to his work – a sort of grimy, backyard style that also pushed the envelope in terms of content. His first film Fireworks, made in 1947, was one of the first US films to explicitly explore themes around homosexuality and sado-masochism. By 1965, having established himself as an enfant terrible, he made one of the most notorious experimental short films of the era: Scorpio Rising. This was a film based on the underground biker subculture, and it offered a soundtrack of popular 1960s rock n’ roll songs. It has a loose narrative that follows a biker called Scorpio as he and his gang desecrate a church. Underneath the surface, there are a number of themes being amplified – Christianity (images of Jesus and crosses are abound), homosexuality and homo-eroticism (blink-and-you’ll-miss male nudity), and even Nazism (Scorpio wears Nazi insignia). Anger also appears to instigate a different perspective on the renegade male icons of the 1950s (e.g. Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Brando in The Wild One), one that is sinister and harder to digest. Anger was intent on provoking a reaction and he got it – California banned the film for obscenity. Scorpio Rising moved the goalposts in the film world because of its subtle but provocative commentary and its largely unspeakable themes. It was, and still is, weird, hard to follow and cheap-looking. But it was ground-breaking on all fronts, and it brought various underground subcultures into the light.
Film experimentation was to the fore on the European continent in the 1960s too. Directors of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) were dealing with many elements introduced by the likes of Buñuel, Deren and Anger. Jean-Luc Godard tore up the form-book in 1960 with his handheld-filmed, era-defining À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). Its triumph with audiences and critics paved the way for more experimental films of its ilk in the years ahead. In 1962, photographer and documentarian Chris Marker hopped on the Wave and offered a new approach to the ‘feature film’ format with his hugely influential project La Jetée – a 28 minute film made up entirely of photo stills and telling a science fiction story about nuclear war and time travel. The story is complex enough to make you marvel at theories around time travel and coherent enough to actually make sense. It develops through a voice-over narration and a photo-montage, and Marker manages the tone by presenting images in various rhythms for appropriate effect. This effect is guided by an incredible script by Marker, and images are carefully set-up and decorated with quirky characters to maximise this. La Jetée was the first film to wholly embrace the power of the still image for a story. A story that would be remade by Terry Gilliam in 1995 into an excellent Hollywood movie called 12 Monkeys .
In the 1970s, David Lynch came to the table. This endearing madman was equipped with all the ammunition for film experimentation that had been blueprinted by the likes of Deren and Anger before him. He was already an accomplished artist when he embarked upon making motion pictures, and he made several short films based on his earlier artwork. In 1977, after several years of production, he finally brought his first feature film to fruition: Eraserhead – one of the seminal ‘midnight movies’ of the late 1970s. The film is certainly not for the uninitiated to the Lynchian universe – the original Twin Peaks series is probably a better place to start. It is probably one of the first true ‘headfuck’ films to make it into the mainstream. Of course, in essence, it is an experimental film, and a very unique, surrealist experience at that. Filmed in black and white, Eraserhead tells the story of a quiet young man (played by Jack Nance) who lives in an odd industrial wasteland with his girlfriend who proceeds to give birth to a deformed ‘baby’ whom she leaves in his care. Apparently the idea was conceived by Lynch with the god-fearing attitudes of Philadelphian neighbourhoods from the time on his mind. As socially observant as this may sound, Eraserhead is so much more. It established a unique approach to filmmaking that Lynch would continue into the present day. This approach included spiralling/circular narratives, grotesque motifs of evil, homely and sometimes overly twee American characters, and of course abrupt experimentation with lightning and sounds (all still very evident in his latest project Twin Peaks: The Return from last year). Sound in particular play a major role in Eraserhead – steaming, pumping industrial noises overbear while people are sitting around in their homes. They purposefully disrupt the scene and make the viewer uneasy. Lynch has always been interested in the links between dreams and reality in his work, and here he uses that idea in a raw form by enforcing upon us strange low-key music to be representative of dreams or strange occurrences.
As the Lynchian universe continued to expand and perplex audiences throughout the 1980s and 1990s, new forms of experimentation arose. In particular, the Dogme 95 manifesto was a filmmaking movement that begun in the mid-1990s by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. This movement established rules for filmmakers that focused on traditional values of story, acting and theme, and excluded the use of elaborate special effects or technology. It was an attempt to take back artistic power for the director, as opposed to leaving it in the hands of the studio. It wasn’t a dictatorial as such, but more a cheeky (and welcomed) attempt at suggesting a new way of film experimentation. Von Trier, I am sure many people know, has been the provocateur-in-chief in film for many years now (Gaspar Noe is weighing in heavily in recent years though). Some like him, some detest him. I personally do not wax lyrical about his films but I do admire his attempt at disrupting the status quo. Of course on paper, Dogme 95 just looked like an attempt to replicate the French Nouvelle Vague for a new generation, but I guess it dealt with more modern nuances and captured a general mood of jadedness around Hollywood-inspired blockbuster releases, particularly in Europe. It prompted the release of some interesting films, such as Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen (The Celebration), which tells the story of a family gathering for a father’s 60th birthday. It is a dark comedy that juggles subjects such as death, class and familial tension. What is notable here is the raw approach to acting, the lack of any music, and the handycam-style of filming. This is most impressive because despite the expectation of boredom, the story is developed quite effectively and entertainingly – the amateurish approach is never overbearing, and actually adds to its quirkiness. Nothing is ever obvious in Festen. We are never led down paths. It is like a documentary and we are given autonomy in making up our own minds.
Experimental films have been few and far between in recent times (certainly in or around the edges of the mainstream anyway) – although it can be argued that when Christopher Nolan or Denis Villeneuve make a new film, they will likely bring some never-before-utilised technique to the filmmaking art. An exception could be made for Shane Carruth’s films however. This guy’s only two films so far – Primer (2004) and Upstream Colour (2013) – have managed to offer something completely fresh and intelligent to the sci-fi genre. The difference between Carruth’s films and say Nolan’s or Villeneuve’s are that they are not big, expensive studio blockbusters. They are essentially university science projects made on small budgets and with a primary focus on story and subtext. Both of these films appear to be unprecedented in scope, and are liberal-minded, bizarre and evocative in equal measure. In stylistic terms Carruth certainly takes a leaf out of the Lynchian handbook, but his work is still mindful of the importance of originality. Primer concerns the modern-day discovery of time travel and is noted for its low budget and its deeply complex, experimental plot structure. Carruth deliberately did not simplify the science for his audience, instead using actual physics and chemistry to explain a concept of time travel. In Upstream Colour, the subject matter stays embedded in science, and we are asked to follow characters whose behaviours are affected by a complex parasite that has a three-stage life cycle passing from humans to pigs to orchids. Sounds like a horror film, but it is not presented that way. It is highly abstract, endlessly intriguing and has mesmerising imagery. The characters’ dialogue are deliberately hushed, as they sort of inhabit a background to the subtle but profound events occurring. And as subtle as it appears to be, the overall thrust of the film consumes and overwhelms the viewer. The feel is very Malick-esque in that it is terribly beautiful and somehow devastating at the same time. Carruth presents an experimentation in film that is as impressive as the earlier surrealists.