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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 61

[61st of 100]. The avant-garde or experimental film, very much like performance art in the fine arts, is the trickiest thing to appreciate in the realm of cinematic arts. This is largely because they are nebulous in form and technique when compared to the two other traditions of film, namely narrative cinema and documentary cinema. As cinema that's completely sprung from flux, it can be compelling and profound, or it can be eye-rolling and silly -- and the thing is, you often can't define the difference. The easiest way would be to ascertain the extent or the newness of its experimentations on the medium beyond the aesthetics of the narrative or the documentary, as a pure film that tries to do with film what only film can do. Some of the avant-gardists, for example, have taken to painting or drawing or scratching or making physical impressions on the film material itself; some try out new camera angles or new editing techniques or new types of content. Relentlessly on the front rank of development, a lot of them defy our requirement for the "logical," which compounds the confusion. So I often make judgment calls by deferring to the most unreliable of standards: the gut feel -- because sometimes you just can tell if what you're watching is bullshit or the real deal. But I think one's "gut feel" can be sharpened by years of watching the tradition of the avant-garde, and developing an intuition for the truly experimental and innovative, separate from mere film school freshman posturing. And yet, if one looks at the history of film, the avant garde is arguably the oldest of the traditions. All those efforts at arriving at the motion picture as we know it now -- from Eadweard Muybridge's running horses to Thomas Alva Edison's Kinetoscope studio snippets, from Auguste and Louis Lumière's actualities to Georges Méliès's illusions, from Edwin S. Porter's continuity editing to D.W. Griffith's parallel editing and development of the various kinds of shots -- were experiments that brought incremental development to the medium. That history also tells us why the avant garde is a tradition in flux: what is experimental can easily become the norm, mainstreamed so to speak, and it can be hard to distinguish the audacity of the original in the light of its copycats. [The filmmakers behind The Matrix, for example, invented the "bullet time" effect, which they had to abandon in the sequels because of the plethora of films that came after which aped or parodied the technique.] Still, some experimental films have withstood the changing responses to the medium, retaining much of their strangeness, from René Clair's Entr'acte (1924) to Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926), from Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929) to Melville Webber and James Sibley Watson's Lot in Sodom (1933) -- a lot of them conceived with a fine taste for the surreal. Some of my favourites include Maya Deren's A Study In Choreography for Camera (1945), Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947), Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958), Chris Marker's La Jetée (1963), Arthur Lipsett's 21-87 (1964), Owen Land's Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, etc. (1965), Marie Menken's Lights (1966), Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut's Beatles Electroniques (1966), Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967), Cesar Hernando's Botika Bituka (1985), Hollis Frampton's Lemon (1969), Jan Svankmajer's Dimensions of Dialogue (1983) and Meat Love (1989), Fruto Corre's Laho (1988), Juan Pula's Trip (1993), Avic Ilagan's Ang Babae Kapag Nag-iisa sa Maynila (1995), Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space (1999), and Michael Robinson's Light Is Waiting (2007). The ones people talk about more are Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1963) -- which is a half-hour close-up of a man's face as he is pleasured by fellatio, and Empire (1964) -- which is an experiment in endurance, an 8-hour shot of the Empire State Building static in the slowly changing skies over New York. There are also Stan Brakhage's Mothlight (1963) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), where he eschews actual filmming and opts instead to make impressions on the physical film using moth wings and leaves and flowers, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that mesmerizes. But the one experimental film I return to with the most frequency is Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied's ode to dreams and doubles, where the mundane objects of life create an atmosphere of pure dread, immersing us in a story that recalls gothic horror meeting film noir. The less said about the particulars of the short film, the better -- but it pays to note that Deren makes films as practical realizations of her philosophical essays on cinema, which calls for inventive editing and a creative manipulation of time and space. Laura Ivins, in her superb video essay on the philosophical bent of Deren's filmmaking, identifies three tenets with which Deren operates, and which this 1943 film perfectly encapsulates: [1] amateurism, which, as a practice of invention, industriousness, and a love of craft, allows the filmmaker freedom to pursue the artistic possibilities of cinema because they are not bound to profit; [2] an interest in the human body, which recognizes that "movement" and "time" are the very specificities of film that make it different from other art forms, hence Deren's camera focusing intimately on the body in time, usually in a dance; and [3] the manipulation of reality, recognizing that cinema "has a unique ability to construct new realities -- not abstraction but just the every day world as ingredient for manipulation," but "not advocating for realism" either, only an interest in how objects of our everyday reality -- a loaf of bread, a key, a record player -- can be manipulated to "create a reality that could only exist onscreen." All these can be frustrating ciphers to the ordinary moviegoer, but the beauty of avant garde films is that, like poetry, you don't have to force yourself to "get it" all at once. This is where gut reaction is helpful, trusting our eyes and our brains to soak in the sensation that comes from seeing certain images come together, plumbing our own emotional responses to the color or movement or cut we are beholding. In the long run, however, it's also proper to know that many of our avant garde filmmakers make films with theoretical underpinnings, like Deren, with their works as fruits of an intellectual exercise. To quote Deren: "The techniques which I have described would have been of no interest at all, if they were not conceived for the purpose of conveying meaning." Meaning is important in the avant garde. Deren considered the mind "the most powerful tool at a filmmaker's disposal," Ivins reports, "encouraging other amateur filmmakers to plan their films thoughtfully and creatively, and to always keep in mind the things that makes cinema a unique form of art." What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich