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Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film

Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film(2010)


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For decades, experimental filmmaking has been one of the most fruitful cinematic realms for artists to explore their visions freed from the confines of what we expect from the mainstream. Born out of the avant-garde movement in Europe in the 1920s, the nature of experimental films has evolved over the years, including major revitalizations every few years. Here we take a look at some pivotal titles, collected to offer a sampling of the breadth of the form over the past century.

We begin in the silent era in Germany with one of the earliest surviving experimental short films, "Diagonal Symphony" (1924), a study in transforming geometric designs by Viking Eggeling. The Swiss artist was prominent in Dadaist circles and created this film from a series of sketches he compiled on scrolls, which he termed "picture rolls." Tragically he passed away shortly after this short's first public screening in Berlin, but his striking film (the only one still existing of the pair he created in his lifetime) went on to influence a number of filmmakers, most notably Stan Brakhage. The early German avant-garde movement is also reflected in "Rhythmus 21" (1923), Hans Richter's vertiginous exploration of three-dimensional space within the film frame using animated geometric figures to question the viewer's concepts of perspective and depth. Also a Dadaist, Richter directed three other films with the "Rhythmus" designation ("23" and "25"), as well as another film shown here, "Ghosts Before Breakfast" (1928). A wildly comic creation, it's an exercise in outright surrealist comedy including some Magritte-style hats and other objects turning against their owners, turning the screen into an animated playground of delights.

Still the most famous woman in the world of experimental filmmaking is Ukrainian-born Maya Deren, who worked with then-husband Alexander Hammid on her most influential film, "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943). A symbolic study of a woman's psyche as experienced by a dreaming woman (played by Deren herself), the short has also been embraced as a significant influence on modern horror films, particularly with its bold symbolism involving a key turning into a blade. In particular, Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) can be seen as one of the many successors to this film and remains a central point for the study of female psychological representation in film. It's also purely enjoyable on a visual level, packed with haunting visuals in which the camera and the protagonist seem to actually be floating through the eerie space of the Los Angeles house in which it was filmed (with a 16mm Bolex camera Deren bought with the inheritance from her late father).

Experimental film remained an active force through a transitional period in the 1950s, with seeds planted for what was to come with films like "Science Friction" (1959). Director Stan Vanderbeek assembles a rapid-fire visual collage of photos and other print elements depicting political figures, celebrities, and other images of popular consumption, resulting in a kind of visual and aural tension reflected in the title itself. Vanderbeek became one of the earliest practitioners of computer animation thanks to his work at Bell Labs with Ken Knowlton, including the series of Poem Field shorts. In fact, we also sample the 1970s here with another of Vanderbeek's collaborations, "Symmetricks" (1972), which he made with Wade Shaw and Knowlton at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The film is exactly what the title implies, an electronic exploration of flashing geometric shapes pulsing, forming human profiles, and spinning in psychedelic patterns.

The 1960s turned out to be one of the most fruitful periods for experimental filmmaking, rebranded as "underground" cinema and represented here with four shorts ranging from the enigmatic "Orchard Street" to Ken Jacobs' "Little Stabs at Happiness" (both 1960). One of the most confrontational and extreme offerings of the decade, Jacobs' film unabashedly flings fetishistic imagery at the viewer (including wholly inappropriate use of a baby doll) and uses a deliberately abrasive soundtrack to push the medium of film as far as it could go at the time. The nameless man in the film is played by Jack Smith, who would go on to direct one of the most legendary of all underground films, "Flaming Creatures" (1963).

Another of the era's major names, Jonas Mekas, is represented here with two films starting with "Cassis" (1966), a time-lapse portrait of the titular French harbor and a precursor of sorts to the similar techniques seen in such films as "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982). In the same year's "Notes on the Circus," he breaks up time in a very different way with multiple shoots of a circus act transformed into a chaotic blur, pushing an experience already strenuous on the senses into overdrive through frenetic cutting and camerawork. A former Village Voice critic and founder of New York's Anthology Film Archives, Mekas is a pivotal figure in the history of American avant-garde cinema as he was responsible for arranging screenings of many major works, even facing multiple arrests on obscenity charges for some of them like Jean Genet's Un chant d'amour (1950). Had it not been for him, many of the striking works seen here and elsewhere in the rich history of experimental film could have possibly vanished into oblivion forever.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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