Experimental filmmaking has a lineage that goes back to the starting point of the medium. Those first Georges Melies shorts, devoid of story but rich in cinematic fantasy, could be said, in a stretch, to be the first experimental movies. In fact, non-narrative moviemaking has been around long enough and produced enough variety that the terminology itself has expanded to define the different sub-genres within the catch-all phrase "experimental filmmaking" or "abstract filmmaking." Maya Deren made Avant-Garde films (a generic catch-all term in and of itself) , Michael Snow made Structural films and Luis Bunuel worked in Surrealist Cinema.
The Avant-Garde and Surrealist movements in Experimental filmmaking took hold until Michael Snow's Wavelength brought the structuralist movement into the forefront. With new artists jumping into the fray regularly, the structuralist film has expanded greatly in the forty years since Michael Snow made Wavelength. Structuralist film is defined by P. Adams Sitney as employing fixed camera positions (the camera can zoom but it remains in place), strobe effects, rephotography (showing photographs of the same subject at different times or intervals within the film) and looping, wherein the same scenes or shots are repeated many times throughout.
This is all well and good but if I may, some abrupt questions: Can any of this be enlightening or entertaining? Is it worthwhile to make a film that has no story, at least no discernibly narratively composed story of characters and dialogue? Do people watch Wavelength for fun? Why am I going on about this anyway?
I don't have concrete answers to all of those questions but I do know why I'm going on about it. I'm going on about it because last weekend the Cinema Styles staff (myself, my wife and our youngest) took in The Cinema Effect, currently on exhibit at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and coming to an end this Sunday (and through sheer coincidence so did Nathaniel of The Film Experience - here's his take)
The exhibition has the works of 19 experimental filmmakers in a multi-staged exhibit that one must weave through, picking and choosing what to sit and watch (unless one has hours and hours to spare). As the New York Times review says, "Fatigue may set in by the second half of the show, which is unfortunate, because this section features several installations of dizzying structural complexity. Among them are Isaac Julien’s sweeping multi-screen projection 'Fantome Creole' ..." I couldn't agree more.
As I walked through the exhibit watching snippets of this film here and shots from that film there it was Isaac Julien's Fantome Creole that stopped me dead in my tracks. Projected on four screens and filmed in the arid region of Burkina Faso and the arctic region of Iceland the film follows two people (Vanessa Myrie and Stephen Galloway) as they wander through these landscapes, never interacting with one another or anyone around them. In between we see townspeople, beaches, waterfalls, hallways and ruins. Occasionally everything stops and faces of the "characters" in the movie appear, staring at us for several seconds. The effect is unnerving.
For the most part, the camera is fixed, shots are re-used and images from different vantage points and times are employed. I didn't notice much of a strobe effect (although at the end there is "light show" effect, so to speak) but all in all it's a fine example of a Structural Experimental film. And despite the rather dry description given in the above paragraph, it's captivating. Why? I really couldn't tell you. What's the film about? I don't care. You read that correctly, I don't care.
Here's a short description of the film on Isaac Julien's website. If you're anything like me that description will send you running and screaming for the exit. Go ahead, click on it and read it. It's a doozy (implied interiority!??!?). Here's the thing, I despise anti-intellectualism and am constantly dismayed at what I view as the dumbing down of our culture by elevating the pedestrian to the desirable social status and diminishing the culturally urbane to the status of social pariah. But I'm just as annoyed with pseudo-intellectualism and that description smacks of it. I don't know if Julien approves the copy for the website or if someone does it for him but my suggestion is scrap the flowery descriptions and the purple prose and let the film speak for itself.
And Fantome Creole does speak for itself, boldly. It proves once again that the right images and juxtapositions orchestrated by the right director can be entrancing. I have my own meaning that I drew from those images and different viewers will perceive different meanings than I did. But despite a lack of standard narrative I never had a feeling I was watching randomly placed images on a screen. I felt, and knew, I was watching a story. I wasn't sure what the story was at first, but I knew upon further viewing and later reflection that the cracks would be filled in. To me that's the sign of a filmmaker in control of his art and I look forward to more work from Julien in the future. I'm glad I got to see Fantome Creole and if it's ever on exhibit at an art museum near you I highly recommend going to see it.
So why does Experimental Film get such a bad rap? Most would point to its excesses (Empire, Sleep) but every genre has excesses. Every genre has greatness and mediocrity and garbage. Experimental is no different. And yet, I avoid it myself. Fantome Creole is a film with which, had I only read the description on the website, I would have said, "Thanks but no thanks," and I would've missed something special. Having now seen it and enjoyed it I may still have the same reaction to future experimental films. Why? I have my own personal answer to that.
For me personally, and despite my build-up about avoiding them, I believe experimental forms of filmmaking within the mainstream have become ubiquitous. They're no longer viewed as something special or unique. Whereas several decades ago one would have to turn to an experimental film to see wild fantastical images juxtaposed sinisterly with the mundane now every other CGI summer movie does just that (Speed Racer, The Incredibles). Or how about going to experimental film because it was the only place for quiet rumination and insight into the human psyche that standard narrative films couldn't provide? That too happens in the mainstream now, perhaps not as financially successful as the summer fare, but it does occur (Cache, Mulholland Drive). And so purely experimental filmmaking seems superfluous, or worse, antiquated. And somewhat elitist. I found myself thinking throughout The Cinema Effect exhibit, "I've seen this idea done better on YouTube." Yes, YouTube. But the folks uploading their home made experimental films on YouTube don't have the grants or financial backers to get their movies made on 16 or 35 mm film and shown at an international exhibit.
Experimental film feels unnecessary now but it's not. It's all around us. We're not avoiding it, we're consuming it every day on television, the internet and the cinema. To make a point of going to see something that has been so thoroughly integrated into everything else as a stand alone event feels redundant now to many people. It's true, I would've missed something special by not seeing Fantome Creole but I've also seen some amazing work on the internet and a part of me feels that the internet work deserves my attention more because it's done by filmmakers and artists just trying to get noticed. In fact, I find myself retreating more and more from big screen cinema and exploring the rarities and lost classics that DVD and the internet offer.
In the end, experimental film is alive and well. It has successfully assimilated the mainstream into its way of thinking, a clever trick that. It's imagery, at one time disturbing and mysterious, has now been made acceptable in the Hollywood Realm of Glamour. And while it may seem superfluous in this sensory overloaded age of integrated imagery I am still thankful for the filmmakers like Isaac Julien. If nothing else, Fantome Creole reminds me that the best filmmakers still only need images to tell their stories.