I find it telling that Big Joy, a fairly straightforward documentary about the poet and experimental filmmaker James Broughton, is currently playing at Facets Multimedia in a weeklong run while most genuine experimental films are lucky to play Chicago more than once. That’s not Big Joy‘s fault: the movie does a commendable job of explaining why Broughton’s art is important, elucidating his perennial themes and the cultural contexts in which he worked. At the same time, Big Joy isn’t remotely as interesting as the films it champions, which raises the question of why someone would pay tribute to such an unconventional filmmaker in such a conventional manner—or why Facets just didn’t screen Broughton movies for a week. The answer is, sadly, all too obvious. Experimental cinema remains ghettoized in U.S. movie culture (even the films of Andy Warhol, one of our country’s preeminent artists and most revolutionary filmmakers, are probably discussed more often than actually seen) and still requires the advocacy of information-driven movies like Big Joy to raise awareness of its existence.
If there were more advocates among U.S. distributors and programmers, then we likely wouldn’t need these movies at all. Alas, nonnarrative cinema almost never turns up in commercial venues—even chains like the Landmark Theatres, which claim to cater to fans of independent and art movies. (The recent wide release of Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors is an exception to the trend, despite the fact that Reggio’s work routinely co-opts and cheapens the work of far better nonnarrative filmmakers.) As such, most U.S. spectators remain prejudiced against experimental cinema, retaining (whether they realize it or not) a rigid view of film art that privileges the qualities that cinema has inherited from narrative forms over those inherited from painting, poetry, still photography, dance, and sculpture. The glory of cinema, of course, is that it draws on all of these forms, and one of the most valuable things about experimental cinema is how it reminds us of this.
But since nonnarrative films rarely, if ever, screen in the same venues as other movies, general audiences tend to assume they’re inaccessible to all but select crowds—that they’re overly cerebral and devoid of pleasure. Yet anyone who’s seen the work of Owen Land, Robert Nelson, and Joyce Wieland (to name the first three examples that come to mind) knows that there are plenty of jokes in avant-garde cinema. In fact the influence of slapstick comedy looms over Broughton’s early work, as you can see in this 1951 short Loony Tom:
Broughton also took inspiration from nursery rhymes and erotica, both of which have enjoyed widespread popularity for centuries. Like those forms, Broughton’s films are rather direct in their content—one never wonders what they’re “about.” Yet received wisdom would have us believe they’re somehow beyond the reach of most spectators because they sit outside the narrative tradition. This problem could be remedied quite easily, however, by bringing different filmic traditions into contact. Whatever happened to running short films before features? An experimental work might provide a welcome palate cleanser between the usual block of commercials and the main attraction, in addition to illuminating properties of the medium that rarely find full expression in either.
Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.