Summary Review--The Film Experience, Chapter 8, Experimental Film and New Media: Challenging Form
FILM IN FOCUS: Meshes of the Afternoon
Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren’s enormously influential experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) saturates everyday objects and settings with meanings that are obscure to the viewer. In the first moments of the film, the woman (Deren) enters a house and begins to explore.
After watching this clip fromMeshes of the Afternoon, consider the questions below.
1. How do techniques of editing and camera movement convey the subjective experience of the woman?
2. How does the sequence engage narrative expectations? Do those expectations then change?

Video essay: Avant-Garde Visions in Meshes of the Afternoon
            Narrator: Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid is arguably the most important American avant-garde film. It uses a dreamlike structure to explore themes of anxiety, identity, and desire. Avant-garde films are ideal for learning about film form as elements of mise-en-scéne, cinematography, editing, and sound are liberated from their conventional uses and thus become more visible. A title card at the beginning of the film states the place and time; Hollywood, 1943. Hollywood films were becoming darker at that time and the bungalow setting and high contrast lighting of Meshes give the feeling of a Hollywood film noir. But this film is a nightmare told from a woman’s point of view. She enters and explores a hillside bungalow before seemingly falling asleep and dreaming. At the end of the film a man enters the same home to find the woman’s body covered in seaweed and the shards of a mirror.
            Narrator: The film uses editing techniques, like matches on action at the door and point-of-view shots of the interior, to convey the subjectivity of the woman (who is played by Deren herself). While the cutting follows conventional continuity editing rules to an extent, there is something uncanny and dreamlike about the linkages. The symbolism in the film also contributes to its dreamlike quality. Meshes features several recurring objects, each acquiring its own meaning through repeated appearances and associations. For example, the flower symbolizes desire and beauty.
            A knife, used for cutting bread, also connotes menace. Mirrors in the film are used to refract identity and also to symbolize death. The work of associating objects in the film resembles what Freud referred to as the dream-work. Meshes displaces and condenses meaning as the objects are substituted for each other or converge in other objects like the mirrored glasses the woman wears as she strides towards her own image with the knife.
            Narrator: For our purposes, let’s focus on the motif of the key. What does the key mean in the film and how does it work as a key to unlocking the film’s meaning? After the woman finds the bungalow door locked, she extracts a key from her purse, only to drop it. We watch as it bounces down the steps just out of reach. When she retrieves the key and turns it in the lock several moments later, we feel a sense of foreboding.
            Narrator: She finds the house as if people have just left. A knife balanced and a loaf of bread also falls, echoing the key.
            Narrator: As the woman explores the space, she seems at times to be impeded by the architecture and at times to float above it. What kind of space has the key given her—and us—access to?
            Narrator: Soon the protagonist has her second encounter with the key. She opens her mouth and, seemingly unsurprised, extracts it from within. This image seems to suggest that there are no clear boundaries between the internal and the external. The key next appears in the middle of the table after a jump cut from the knife. Curiously there are now three Maya Derens seated at the table. The first Maya picks up the key, but it jumps back onto the table. The second does the same. Then the third, or the real Maya—we know this because of the use of point of view—takes the key and her hand turns black. In the next cut the key transforms back into the knife, causing the Mayas to react with shock.
            Narrator: The knife, the symbolically charged object, initiates the film’s last cycle of inside-outside oppositions. The knife is used to break a mirror shattering the images that seem to lock the woman in, but possibly destroying her singularity as well. We see waves washing over the shards of the mirror, bringing the outside in. If the key at the start of the film symbolizes granted passage between the outside and the inside, the final image of the outside debris invading the inside suggests that perhaps it is not necessary to have a key in order to pass from one space to another. Indeed, this final image reminds us of how easily the film’s editing can do just that. Of course there are many other dimensions to Meshes that can be explored. There are many other images that can act as a key to reading this film, but focusing on how editing relates one motif, the key, with other images to create possible meanings reveals some of the pleasure of interpreting experimental films.

Film in Focus: Ballet Mécanique

Ballet mécanique (1924) by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy experiments with everyday objects to celebrate modernity and movement.
After watching this clip from Ballet mécanique, consider the questions below.
1. What patterns do you see in the editing or composition of the film?
2. How do recognizable images–especially human ones—interact with mechanical and abstract ones?

See LaunchPad for video essay on formal play in Ballet Mécanique

VIEWING CUE: Gently Down the Stream

Su Friedrich’s films are both formally rigorous and intimate. In the fourteen-minute 16mm film Gently Down the Stream (1981), she uses fragmentary words and images to render dreams recorded in her journals.
After watching this clip from Gently Down the Stream, consider the questions below.
1. Describe each kind of image and sound used in the film and consider how they work together or in counterpoint. Are there any elements that bring to mind influences outside of film?
2. How do the themes of the film relate to the images and sounds?

FORM IN ACTION: Bridges-Go-Round

Shirley Clarke’s short experimental film Bridges-Go-Round (1958) allows monumental objects to take flight.
After watching this clip from Bridges-Go-Round, consider the questions below.
1. Follow a graphic pattern throughout the clip. How is dynamism created through juxtaposition of lines and shapes?
2. How is color used as part of the film’s transformative power?

Chapter Summary

Often called avant-garde (a military term meaning “advance guard”), experimental film, video, and new media are often non-narrative and non-realist, and emphasize human perception, intellectual puzzles, memories, and dreams. Experimental artists frequently work with a variety of formats and technologies, including film, video, and digital applications that can broadly be termed moving-image media.
Experimental films commonly reflect on the material specificity of the film medium and the conditions in which it is experienced by audiences—including such basic elements as film stock, sprocket holes, light, figure movement, editing patterns, and projection before an audience. Changes in technology bring changes in the form and object of these reflections.

A Short History of Experimental Film and Media Practices

The ideas and technology in experimental film stem from the rapid industrial and cultural changes associated with modernity. Modernist forms of art, from painting and music to design and architecture, reflected new human experiences of accelerated and disjunctive time, spatial juxtaposition, and fragmentation.
During the era of silent film a number of European avant-garde film movements, which had been influenced by experiments in other art forms such as painting and architecture, flourished. These included German expressionism, French impressionism, and Soviet constructivism. While many experimental filmmakers continued to produce silent films long after the introduction of synchronized sound in the late 1920s, some were immediately attracted to the formal possibilities of the soundtrack incorporating abstract music or sound effects into their films.
The countercultural impulses of many of the U.S.-based experimental filmmakers of the 1960s, such as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, and Jack Smith, were reflected in the preferred term underground film. The American experimental film community established its own alternative exhibition theaters and distribution cooperatives. The exchanges fostered among artists and audiences profoundly influenced later generations of filmmakers working with film as personal expression.
After 1968, experimental cinema began to take on political characteristics. During the postwar period in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, innovative new wave cinemas challenged and energized commercial cinemas with their visions and techniques. Such experimentation was spurred by student unrest, Third World independence and decolonialization movements, and opposition to the American war in Vietnam. A prominent example was the call of Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino for a Third Cinema for the Third World, a cinema that would reject both commercial and art cinema in order to engage directly with the people.
Affordable small-gauge film formats such as Super-8 and Super 16 have long been popular with experimental filmmakers. However, new technologies such as portable video cameras and digital cameras facilitated the development of new types of artistic experimentation such as interactive artworks. The integration of computers and digital video in the 1990s blurred the lines between video and filmmaking, and the development of the Internet revolutionized the potential for interactive art and created a new venue for distribution of experimental artworks.

Variations of Experimental Media

Many experimental works of art are formalist—that is, they are concerned with issues of form rather than issues of content. Formal exploration of the qualities of light, the poetry of motion, and the juxtaposition of sound and image, as well as phenomenological inquiry into our ways of seeing, motivate many different experimental practices. These films may be non-narrative, lacking well-defined plots or characters, or abstract, using color, line, and shape to create patterns and rhythms.
While mainstream narrative films have predictable patterns of conflict and resolution, and documentaries follow one of a number of expository practices, experimental works organize experiences either in ways that defy realism and rational logic or in patterns that follow strict formal principles. The three major patterns of organization used in experimental films are associative, structural, and participatory.
Associative organizations create psychological or formal resonances, giving such films a dreamlike quality that engages viewers’ emotions and curiosity. Two types of associate organization are metaphoric and symbolic. Metaphoric associations link together different objects, images, events, or individuals in order to generate a new perception, emotion, or idea. Less concrete than metaphoric associations, symbolic associations isolate discrete objects or singular images that can generate or be assigned abstract meanings.
Structural films reject the illusionism of narrative film and instead follow a particular logic or problem, such as challenging the audience’s perceptions with a focus on the material of the film or its formal principles.
Participatory films emphasize the centrality of the viewer and the time and place of exhibition to the cinematic phenomenon. Such films include installation and multimedia artworks. Artists now also work with online interactive environments as well as social media to create new user experiences. Fan art, video blogs, and the vast range of user-generated content on Web sites such as YouTube relate to these participatory traditions, even when their content is not consciously artistic.

Making Sense of Experimental Media

More so than other forms of cinema, experimental film and video often ask viewers to reflect actively on the experience of watching and listening to moving-image media, thereby challenging and expanding how viewers see, feel, and hear.
While all experimental works challenge audiences and are innovative in some way, there are two identifiable historical traditions – expressive and confrontational. In the expressive tradition, films are often poetic narratives emphasizing aesthetics and imagination. Expressive traditions emphasize personal expression and communication with an audience and are tied to longstanding notions of artistic originality, authenticity, and interiority. Experimental organizations are often informed by specific styles and perspectives, including surrealism, lyricism, and critical positions. More than any other kind of film, experimental films are driven by the efforts and points of view of individual filmmakers.
Surrealist styles use recognizable imagery in strange contexts – simultaneously defying the realist tendencies and narrative logic of mainstream film, and building on the medium’s basis in photographic reproduction and the idea of unfolding images in time. One example, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1928), begins with a shocking assault on a woman’s eye and then presents a stream of unexplained objects and actions in the manner of a dream state.
Lyrical styles express emotions, beliefs, and other personal positions in film, much like the voice of a lyric poet does in literature. Lyrical films may emphasize a personal voice or vision through the singularity of the imagery or through such techniques as voiceovers or handheld camera movements.
Confrontational traditions seek specifically to shock or disturb an audience, often with an underlying political or social purpose. Instead of primarily exploring personal expression, confrontational films actively situate themselves in the context of a wider social, political, or aesthetic critique.
In such works, experimental modes may overlap with documentary and narrative ones. Many critical techniques are associated with political or theoretical positions that take apart the assumed natural relationship between a word or image and the thing it represents. Critical filmmakers encourage audiences to take up similar critical positions by exposing them to formal experiments.