Experimental Film

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Experimental films are very different from feature-length Hollywood fiction films. In Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) completely avoids "normal" filmmaking (he doesn't even use a camera) by sprinkling seeds, grass, dead moths, and bee parts directly onto the film stock; the result is a three-minute rhythmic "dance" between nature and the projector mechanism.

There are many types of experimental film, but despite their diversity, it is possible to pin down tendencies that help make experimental film a discrete genre. Edward Small identifies eight traits of experimental films and in the process defines important differences between the avant-garde and Hollywood.

Most obviously, production is a collaborative enterprise, but most experimental filmmakers conceive, shoot, and edit their films alone or with a minimal crew. Often they even assume the responsibility for the distribution of the finished film. It follows that experimental films are made outside of industry economics, with the filmmakers themselves often paying for production (sometimes with money from small grants or the rentals on previous films). This low-budget approach buys independence: Maya Deren (1917-1961) bought an inexpensive 16mm Bolex camera with money she inherited after her father's death, and used this camera to make all of her films, forging a career completely apart from the Hollywood mode of production.

Unlike mainstream feature films, experimental works are usually short, often under thirty minutes in length. This is in part because of their small budgets, though most filmmakers make short films for aesthetic reasons too: to capture a fleeting moment, perhaps, or to create new visuals with the camera. Ten Second Film

(Bruce Conner, 1965) was originally shown at the 1965 New York Film Festival, and all ten seconds were reproduced in their entirety, as strips of film, on the festival's poster. Experimental filmmakers are usually the first to try out new ways of making movies, after which these technologies are adopted by Hollywood. Scott Bartlett's (1943-1990) films, such as OFFON (1967, with Tom DeWitt), were the first to mix computer and film imagery, and influenced Douglas Trumbull's (b. 1942) light show in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The reverse is also true: avant-garde filmmakers continue to use formats such as Pixelvision or 8mm long after the height of their popularity. Also like OFFON, experimental production often focuses on abstract imagery. The quintessential example is Stan Brakhage's notion of "closed-eye vision,'' the attempt to duplicate on film the shimmers of light we see on our eyelids when our eyes are closed.

As Brakhage's films suggest, most experimental films avoid verbal communication, giving primacy to the visual. Unlike "talkie" Hollywood movies, experimental films are typically silent, or use sound in nonnaturalistic ways. As well, experimental films typically ignore, subvert, or fragment the storytelling rules of Hollywood cinema. Some films—such as Harry Smith's (19231991) Early Abstractions (1939-1956)—abandon narrative altogether and focus instead on creating a colorful, ever-changing picture plane. When experimental films do settle down into a story, it's often one that shocks or disturbs conventional sensibilities. Sometimes their subject is themselves and the medium of cinema.

Many experimental films violate one or more of the above traits. Andy Warhol's (1928-1987) Empire (1964) is over eight hours long, and Peter Hutton's


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