While some experimental films have been distributed through mainstream channels or even made within commercial studios, the vast majority have been produced on very low budgets with a minimal crew or a single person and are either self-financed or supported through small grants.
Experimental filmmakers generally begin as amateurs, and some used experimental films as a springboard into commercial film making or transitioned into academic positions. The aim of experimental filmmaking is usually to render the personal vision of an artist, or to promote interest in new technology rather than to entertain or to generate revenue, as is the case with commercial films.
The term describes a range of filmmaking styles that are generally quite different from, and often opposed to, the practices of mainstream commercial and documentary filmmaking. Avant-garde is also used, for the films shot in the twenties in the field of history’s avant-gardes currents in France, Germany or Russia, to describe this work, and “underground” was used in the sixties, though it has also had other connotations. Today the term “experimental cinema” prevails, because it’s possible to make experimental films without the presence of any avant-garde movement in the cultural field.
While “experimental” covers a wide range of practice, an experimental film is often characterized by the absence of linear narrative, the use of various abstracting techniques—out-of-focus, painting or scratching on film, rapid editing—the use of asynchronous (non-diegetic) sound or even the absence of any sound track. The goal is often to place the viewer in a more active and more thoughtful relationship to the film. At least through the 1960s, and to some extent after, many experimental films took an oppositional stance toward mainstream culture.
Most such films are made on very low budgets, self-financed or financed through small grants, with a minimal crew or, often a crew of only one person, the filmmaker. Some critics have argued that much experimental film is no longer in fact “experimental” but has in fact become a mainstream film genre. Many of its more typical features—such as a non-narrative, impressionistic, or poetic approaches to the film’s construction—define what is generally understood to be “experimental”.
The European avant-garde
Two conditions made Europe in the 1920s ready for the emergence of experimental film. First, the cinema matured as a medium, and highbrow resistance to the mass entertainment began to wane. Second, avant-garde movements in the visual arts flourished. The Dadaists and Surrealists in particular took to cinema. René Clair‘s Entr’acte (1924) featuring Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, and with music by Erik Satie, took madcap comedy into nonsequitur.
Artists Hans Richter, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac, and Viking Eggeling all contributed Dadaist/Surrealist shorts. Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, and Man Ray created the film Ballet Mécanique (1924), sometimes described as Dadaist, Cubist, or Futurist. Duchamp created the abstract film Anémic Cinéma (1926).
Alberto Cavalcanti directed Rien que les heures (1926), Walter Ruttmann directed Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), and Dziga Vertov filmed Man With a Movie Camera (1929), experimental “city symphonies” of Paris, Berlin, and Kiev, respectively.
The most famous experimental film is generally considered to be Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí‘s Un chien andalou (1929). Hans Richter’s animated shorts, Oskar Fischinger‘s abstract films, and Len Lye‘s GPO films would be excellent examples of more abstract European avant-garde films.
Working in France, another group of filmmakers also financed films through patronage and distributed them through cine-clubs, yet they were narrative films not tied to an avant-garde school. Film scholar David Bordwell has dubbed these French Impressionists, and included Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier, and Dimitri Kirsanoff. These films combine narrative experimentation, rhythmic editing and camerawork, and an emphasis on character subjectivity.
In 1952, the Lettrists avant-garde movement in France, caused riots at the Cannes Film Festival, when Isidore Isou‘s Traité de bave et d’éternité (also known as Venom and Eternity) was screened. After their criticism of Charlie Chaplin at the 1952 press conference in Paris for Chaplin’s Limelight, there was a split within the movement. The Ultra-Lettrists continued to cause disruptions when they announced the death of cinema and showed their new hypergraphical techniques. The most notorious film of which is Guy Debord‘s(Hurlements en Faveur de Sade) from 1952.
The Soviet filmmakers, too, found a counterpart to modernist painting and photography in their theories of montage. The films of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Vsevolod Pudovkin were instrumental in providing an alternate model from that offered by classical Hollywood. While not experimental films per se, they contributed to the film language of the avant-garde.
Prewar and postwar American avant-garde: the birth of experimental cinema
The U.S. had some avant-garde films before World War II, such as Manhatta (1921) by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, and The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928) by Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey. However, much pre-war experimental film culture consisted of artists working, often in isolation, on film projects. Painter Emlen Etting (1905–1993) directed dance films in the early 1930s that are considered experimental. Commercial artist (Saturday Evening Post) and illustrator Douglass Crockwell (1904–1968) made animations with blobs of paint pressed between sheets of glass in his studio at Glens Falls, New York.