Though there’s never even been a good name for it, American “experimental” or “avant-garde” filmmaking has been one of the most vital and transformative movements in the history of the medium. Since its inception in the 1930s, makers of TV commercials, music videos, and Hollywood features have been influenced by or even borrowed directly from experimental work. But more important, it has redefined the possibilities of the medium and the whole relationship between viewer and screen. Confronted with complex and paradoxical formal structures that call attention to themselves, the viewer becomes a more active participant in a journey with many possible destinations.
This is a movement with multiple threads. In the early, first-person films of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Gregory J. Markopoulos, and Stan Brakhage, the artist/protagonist attempts to navigate a psychological labyrinth, seeking to uncover hidden realms of the mind and, perhaps, become whole again. Death and rebirth are frequent themes. By the mid-1960s a less immediately personal mode evolved, sometimes misnamed “structural film,” in which predetermined formal mechanisms came into use—the extended zoom of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, for example—with the intended goal varying from artist to artist. By the 1970s feminism, politics, and the rise of video, with its very different formal possibilities, enriched the mix.
The movement’s founders, from Deren and Anger to, a bit later, Brakhage, seemed to be making films as a way of saving themselves—using cinema to decide whether, and on what terms, they could go on living. Grants for such work were virtually unknown, and impassioned filmmakers scraped together funds however they could. In 1966, colleges began hiring avant-garde filmmakers to teach, and that trend grew; today, many films and videos by younger makers in festivals are in fact student productions. Predictably, many of these lack the urgency of earlier work, and some are just academic copies of past masterpieces. At the same time, making films is now much easier, which has encouraged an explosion of variety and, along with plenty of mediocrity, excellent work from diverse voices.
Since the mid-1980s the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival has brought some of the best new American work in this realm to Chicago. Ably curated for most of the last decade by Patrick Friel, it also includes some films from abroad, showing different traditions and styles from other nations. This year’s selection is especially rich, ranging from work by early masters—Ernie Gehr, active for more than 40 years, and Ken Jacobs, active for more than 50—to excellent work by nearly unknown artists still in their 20s.
The videos by Gehr and Jacobs are both very strong, exploring similar terrain and, like many experimental films, offering the viewer alternative ways of seeing. For New York Lantern (Tue 6/16, 8 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center), Gehr rephotographs century-old magic lantern slides of New York, sequencing them in a way that opens up space. Often he’ll cut from figures gazing offscreen to emptier and more expansive locales, and there’s a stretching effect that suggests the world is too vast to be contained in a single rectangular image. Because the photos are very old, this evocative work also gives a sense of stretching back in time. In The Scenic Route (Thu 6/18, 7 PM, Nightingale), Jacobs uses selected frames from an old MGM romance, The Barbarian (1933), punctuating them with the flicker of a black screen and moving in on the image, or slightly sideways. These small changes open up vast depths and create the illusion of constant motion in every part of the frame. Jacobs has called his related live performances “Nervous System” pieces, and indeed the viewer’s whole sensorium is activated here: every segment of seemingly inanimate landscape seems to crawl with some strange form of life.
Gehr, Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, and Warren Sonbert represent the last wave of what might be called “totalizing” filmmakers: artists who believed their cinematic vision could transform seeing, thinking, and perhaps even society. Gehr and Jacobs still offer ways of seeing that have a kind of completeness, and Lewis Klahr, who emerged in the late 70s, follows in their tradition in some ways. Working with cutouts from pop culture artifacts, Klahr animates everything from human figures to fragile labels to create alternate worlds; his films are imbued with a kind of nostalgia for an imagined perfect past. In his video False Aging (Tue 6/16, 8 PM, Film Center), the bright colors and gentle movements of his cutouts combine with their content to evoke emotions and memories, but failure is also a theme: the obscure narrative never quite completes itself. This isn’t a bad thing, but it reflects a different view of the artist’s role, offering not a statement about how to see but a series of suggestions. Klahr’s imagery is wonderfully sensual, constructed with an eye to rich color contrasts and, as in some of his other recent work, using out-of-focus effects to tenderly expressive ends.
The work in this year’s festival that most reminds me of Klahr’s is From Ruins to Rexistance (Fri 6/19, 9 PM, Chicago Filmmakers), by the Brazilian artist Carlos Adriano. Collaging together two unfinished films from the early 60s, Adriano tiles multiple images within a frame, intercuts rapidly, and juxtaposes positive and negative exposures, creating a dense weave of suggestive figures and landscapes that denies any feeling of resolution. The meaning here is that existence has no simple meaning.
Other excellent work reflects the artists’ very particular interests. Julie Murray’s Ysbryd (Sat 6/20, 7:30 PM, Filmmakers) offers extreme close-ups of garden slugs mating at night; their very shapes seem sexual. A creepy physicality is also evident in the work of animator Jim Trainor, whose The Presentation Theme (Sat 6/20, 9:15 PM, Filmmakers) was inspired by a human-sacrifice narrative found on Moche pottery. His bumpy line drawings have a warm, almost intimate sensuousness that becomes disturbing as the narrative emerges. And Yoel Meranda indulges a fascination with color in his extraordinary abstraction Océanéant (Fri 6/19, 9 PM, Filmmakers): fields of translucent reds gather upon themselves until they seem to congeal into something with mass, weight, and texture.
At least three films in the festival—three of the least successful ones—are partial remakes of avant-garde classics. Carina Johnson’s Paris Times Three (Sat 6/20, 9:15 PM, Filmmakers) replaces Marilyn Monroe in Bruce Conner’s Marilyn Times Five with Paris Hilton. There’s more nudity, and Johnson gets some of the physical sensuousness of Conner’s black-and-white imagery. But her work isn’t different enough from Conner’s, and he made the point better.
Having long groused about the dearth of great new experimentalists to emerge since 1966, I’ve come to understand that many young filmmakers no longer aspire to greatness in the old sense—creating synoptic masterpieces like Brakhage’s The Art of Vision (1965) or Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966). For some, this may result from the antipatriarchal, anticolonial, antihegemonic rhetoric common in the film theory of the 1970s. Simply put, many newer artists consider it hubristic to assume we can understand the world.
Instead, they satisfy themselves seeking narrower but more concrete truths. In Carolyn Faber’s delicate Postcard #3: Niagara Rises (Sat 6/20, 7:30 PM, Filmmakers), the rising mists of Niagara Falls delicately contradict the dominant motion of the falls themselves. Michael Sirianni finds beauty by excerpting portions of the sky from a VHS copy of How the West Was Won (1962) in his video The Sky Taped Together (Sat 6/20, 7:30 PM, Filmmakers), the blue tones of the sky rendered oddly fascinating by low-resolution video effects and video noise. Dominique Furgé’s Spirit (Thu 6/18, 9 PM, Nightingale) liberates both abstract shapes—which were meant to represent universal truths in much art of the early 20th century—and audio from Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast; his sparse fragments from Welles don’t sync up obviously with the image, and in this postmodern void, meaning seems to wander about freely. In Sequences + Interruptions (Sat 6/20, 7:30 PM, Filmmakers), Nicky Hamlyn animates abstract drawings in a way that abjures meaning and stresses sudden, delicate shifts of gray tones. And in Tape Film (Fri 6/19, 7 PM, Filmmakers), Chris Kennedy is seen decorating Plexiglas with horizontal strips of tape (a visual pun on film strips) in a slyly humorous metaphor for the artist’s reduced role: no longer seeking to save the world or understand the cosmos, he creates the most modest of constructions whose meaning is the denial of those earlier ambitions.