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On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film
Film Culture, No. 14, 1957, pp. 12-15.
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Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
EXCERPTS FROM A SYMPOSIUM CONDUCTED OVER RADIO STATION WFUV-FM, NEW YORK.
GIDEON BACHMANN: As a proper introduction to our discussion, could you, Mr. Tyler, define the nature of the experimental film—how does it differ from the so-called commercial film?
PARKER TYLER: Personally, in examining the differences between experimental and commercial films, I would emphasize the originality of a great number of the avantgarde or, as they are often called, experimental filmmakers. In the Twenties, there came into being the art of "cineplastics," a term which is to be credited to the French art critic Elie Faure. The principles of cineplastics imply that the film, while it must inevitably depend upon other arts for some of its characteristics (painting because of the four-sided frame; theater because of the spoken word; the novel because of the narrative line), should at the same time concentrate on a sense of film as a particular and individual form. And this sense of the film as a particular and individual form and, above all as a medium which creates in terms of imagery—in other words, in basicaIly poetic terms—this has been kept alive, I think, entirely by the spirit of the avantgarde film.
GIDEON BACHMANN: You pointed out that cinema inevitably derives in part from other arts. I always felt very strongly that it is a medium of artistic expression very much in its own right; therefore, I wish you would elaborate a little more on that statement of yours.
PARKER TYLER: I believe that the arts are ultimately inseparable. At bottom, each one is an expression of the imagination. Take music, for example. We, sometimes in the modem manner, try to understand music as a pure form, as nothing but sound and as not expressive of human emotions, of human situations. On the other hand, from time immemorial, from the very beginning of history, music has expressed human emotions, human aspirations, human situations—in short: drama. I think that even the most abstract music expresses human emotions. Indeed, all art is an expression of human emotion, whether it is in the kinetic visual terms of stage and screen or in the kinetic auditory terms of music. But the peculiar faculty of film-as-movement is conditioned by the notion that movement is not infinite in space. It is limited in space, or it hasn't any meaning. If it doesn't have a beginning and an end, we cannot understand it. And this beginning and end, in a sense, are represented by the four-sided frame of the motion picture screen. In other words, the individual frame of the film expresses the same thing that a painting expresses by having four sides.
GIDEON BACHMANN: Then when you say that film has a point of departure in common with other arts, you are referring to that complex of human situations with which all arts deal—drama, as you termed it.
PARKER TYLER: That's true. That is one basic consideration. Then, too, there is the avantgarde film-maker's attention to the light-and-shade elements of composition and to the potentialities of various distortional techniques in producing emotional effects comparable to those found in abstract and expressionist paintings, respectively.
IAN HUGO: Since I was a graphic artist myself before I started film-making, my personal experience directly applies to what Mr. Tyler has said about the relationship between these arts. My interest was in line. I was an etcher and engraver, and my engravings were often described as musical in their movement. And certainly that was my own feeling about them. I was always trying to make the line move. My last engravings were pretty well trying to move right out of the frame. When I came to film-making, I found that this interest in line was still with me. The visual continuity of the film was the same line that I was using in engraving. The fulfillment of one and the same basic impulse has guided me in both arts.
EXPERIMENTAL FILM AS A CONTEMPORARY ART
AMOS VOGEL: An important point to be made in this connection is that, historically, the avantgarde movement in films was closely tied to the revolution that occurred in art in the early part of the century—what we have come to call modern or contemporary art. And now, as we all know, representational art is no longer dominant. In fact, it has been superseded. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that in the commercial cinema "realism" is still—we must use this term—triumphant. There is no room, or hardly any room, in the commercial cinema for the type of artistic expression whose ascent we have witnessed in modem literature, painting, music and poetry. And I think it is very significant that most of the films made by independent experimenters have moved precisely along the lines which modern art has followed. For example, there are esentially two main types of experimental films: abstract films, which treat the world of objects, and films of the dream world, which attempt to explore the subconscious. Here, too, we see the close tie-up with current developments in modern art, as we encounter surrealist, expressionist, poetic, symbolic films of various types. None of these films can be decribed as truly being in the "realist" tradition.
GIDEON BACHMANN: Has this correspondence with the evolution of modem art been true of the entire history of the experimental film?
AMOS VOGEL: Yes. One critic has remarked that commercial cinema today is more or less on the level of the nineteenth century painting; what the independent and avantgarde film-makers are attempting to do is to create the same type of art in cinema that exists in the other art media at the present moment. Many of them may be fumbling and many of them, certainly, are only beginning their work, but at least they are making the attempt.
EXPERIMENTS: FORM OR CONTENT?
GIDEON BACHMANN: It would be interesting to find out whether experimentation is continuing on all levels of film-making—sound, for instance, which since 1928 has become an important aspect of film production.
LEWIS JACOBS: I want to make a distinction here with regard to something that came up in Mr. Vogel's remarks and which might help answer this question. Many of the early experiments and many of today's experiments are primarily concemed with novel or unique content and visual devices. But these two concerns, important as they are, fool many people into praising such "experimental" films far beyond their due. It is important for the film experimenter to explore both content and form. Some of them have begun to conceive new content but, on the whole, they have failed to search for new forms of expression. Too few have felt challenged to strike out for formal marriages of content and structure, for personal, distinctive and imaginative constructions in which form and content reinforce each other.
In order for a film to have some value in terms of film, there must be some kind of personal formal organization. By that I mean a cinematic expression achieved through filmic means (imagery, movement, time, space, sound and color) and mode of composition (the organic relationships of these means). Today it is common for modern painters to distort content and concentrate on organic form. Despite this emphasis, experimental film-makers have been slow to grasp and deal with the formal aspects of movies. Too often they strive for striking surface effects, assuming that such effects give their works significance. An outstanding example can be seen in the kaleidoscopic and distorted-lens films of Weegee: startling imagery, but no structure.
We all remember the great emphasis the early Russian film-makers gave to formal problems; and how indebted they were to Griffith's instinctive formal discoveries. (And how exciting those films were.) But those who came later—the "cineastes" and the "documentarists"—fell in love with devices and so became mannered, or discovered nature in the raw (or in the slums) and became cultist.
Well, the coming of sound—to get back to Gideon's question—killed all concern for form. Dialogue took the art out of motion pictures. Today, however, dialogue is gradually being recognized as only one of the many aspects of sound, not necessarily the most important. More and more, attempts are being made to regulate and integrate it with the other plastic elements of formal expression.
PARKER TYLER: I am not sure that I agree with Mr. Jacobs. Maybe I am not sure that I understand him. It seems to me that in the experimental film-maker's shifting of concentration from the objective, everyday, naturalistic world to an inner world—one of dream and fantasy, primarily—there was not only a changed focus of content, but also a changed focus of form. Such classic experimental films as the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Cocteau's film Blood of a Poet and the Dali-Bunuel film Andalusian Dog realized very definitely and sharply that there were certain implications in the shift to this inner and subjective world—formal things which they carried through very thoroughly. For example, the aspect of the object in dreams and the way the object moves, the way the human being moves, the way we see objects—all these are different in a state of dream and in a state of intense subjectivity or hallucination. And therefore objects do appear—in these classic films, films which have been imitated and emulated since then—objects do appear in a very different way, in a different form. They look differently and they behave differently, especially when they are human beings. That is, the image as such, whether a human being or an object, is thoroughly transformed and seems to exist in a special world and to belong in that world. And along such channels of formal experimentation, I think, a great deal of headway has been made. If we drew up a list of films which explored various aspects of what I would call artistic transformation in correspondence with the ways objects have been transformed in cubist, expressionist, futurist, or surrealist art, the list would be a long one. We might even describe for each film and each film-maker on the list the particular ways (and their particular degrees of success) which have been explored in the very field that Mr. Jacobs feels has been neglected—that of formal or, I should say, artistic experimentation.
IAN HUGO: I feel that, as a film-maker, I can confirm more what Mr. Jacobs was saying than what Mr. Tyler said, though there is perhaps not such a big distance between them. Both as a graphic artist and as a film-maker I have often been asked the question "How do you get your ideas?" And I have also tried to ask myself that question. As near as I can come to it, my answer is that, in the graphic arts, in etching and engraving, it was through explorations of how steel could cut copper and how the acid would work on it. My explorations in film-making have been of a very similar kind. I have never written any script. My scripts are made with the camera itself and in accidental discoveries that set off my ideas and my inspiration. It seems to me rather fundamental that the work of art should grow out of the materials themselves. And I think that is what Mr. Jacobs meant when he said that there has been insufficient emphasis on form and too much on content.
CONTENT AND PLOT
AMOS VOGEL: Since experimental films are often accused of lacking content, we might profitably consider the use of this term "content." For example, in the commercial film—since it is strictly representational—"content" consists of a plot that usually proceeds in a straight line from A to B. We know what hapens at the beginning of the film and we know what happens during the film. Then we have the happy ending, and that's it. Now, an experimental film-maker is interested in the atmosphere, interested in the linear progression from A to B: he is much more interested in what happens between A and B. The experimental film-maker is interested in the atmosphere, he is interested in a state of mind or in an emotion, and anyone of these in itself constitutes the content of his film. In this sense, I think, it is important to stress the definitional differences involved here—any film dealing with the so-called inner world, with the world of the subconscious or dreams or fantasy, has "content" and yet does not require a plot in the way a representational or "realistic" film needs one.
LEWIS JACOBS: I think, if I may say so, that we are confusing content with plot. Content does not necessarily mean plot and it never means story. Content is simply the raw material of life or imagination and can be anything in the present or past. Content can deal with the inner world or outer world or both worlds, or even the science-fiction world of the comic strip artist. Regardless of what the content is, it is the film-maker's job—whether he is an experimental or a commercial film-maker—to make that content as cinematically effective and as deeply moving to the beholder as he possibly can. And the only way he can do both these things is through a command of his filmic means of expression and his mode of composition.
GIDEON BACHMANN: I feel that every artist—whether he is a painter, a sculptor, or a film-maker—should know what he is doing at all times, should be in full command of his technique. It is difficult to visualize an artist in the proces of creation who is only finding out what he's trying to say while he's saying it. Traditionally one is more inclined to think of the artist as a man with an idea seeking a way to express it, rather than as a man seeking an idea to express. But, of course, it is also generally accepted that the process of work in itself can provide formal stimuli. What it boils down to, then, is that an artist should at least have a clear idea of the essence of what he wants to express, in the Platonic sense. Then the formal realization on film (or on canvas) is "good" inasmuch as it expresses the "-ishness" of his idea, in the same manner that Plato discussed the "tablishness" of a table.
LEWIS JACOBS: There is a big difference between technique and form. There are many so-called masters of technique who know nothing at all about form. They are very good technicians. They know how to use the tools and instruments of cinema. They know how to take a close-up and how to dolly and pan and how to edit shots together for a "smooth continuity." But they have no concept of film form. Concerned as they are with the mechanics of film-making and interested solely in the novelty of the subject malter and its narrative, dramatic, or documentary aspects, they are for the most part unaware of (some even disdain) the dynamics and interrelationships of a film's formal possibilities. As I understand it, form is a different thing from simple technique. Hollywood, for instance, has masterful technicians, slick, glossy artisans of all kinds—but few real artists. For all artists, regardless of their medium, are concerned primarily with form. They set up relations and unities which they juggle and keep re-relating. Under such manipulation, content changes; forms emerge. Balancing one against the other, juggling relationships, always striving for a unity that is deeply expressive and deeply personal—these are the aims of the serious film-maker.
IAN HUGO: This process of filmic creation which you have just described reminds me of something. When Einstein was asked "How do you get your ideas?" he said, "I play with images." Well, an important part of the work of a creative film-maker consists of playing with his materials, with his camera, and, as I said, accidents come out of that playing. Sometimes these are magical accidents and if the film-maker is open, alert and sensitive enough, they may inspire him and germinate in him original forms and new ideas. But then comes the second step, which every artist must take: the integration of what he has found in that magical way through his material, through tinkering around with his tools. From that point on, if true form is to be achieved, in Mr. Jacobs' sense of "relationships in unity," the film-maker must integrate two things: his depth mind and his surface mind, his emotions and his reason.
PARKER TYLER: Without going deeper into a morass of technicalities, I think that we do have to draw the distinction, which Mr. Vogel pointed out, between the representational world of commercial film and the nonrepresentational world of avantgarde film. Regardless of how successful young film poets are—most of them are serious but, also, most of them have not made many successful films—they are all aware of the nature of the problem, and that is this: if film is to become an important art, it has to explore the world of the imagination and the ways in which imagination from time immemorial has operated upon the natural world in terms of visual understanding. Back in the paleolithic era, before civilization, the artists of Altamira drew animals, but these animals were not photographic or naturalistic in form. They drew the animals as they saw them. And the way they drew the animals was, in a sense, expressionistic or formalistic. At the same time, the content was very important because it was religious, it was ritualistic. These images are very beautiful and very interpretative of the human spirit through the animal form. They are highly formalistic. Now, it seems to me that this principle of form creating art—a process of taking a given material, a subject matter, educing an idea from it, and presenting this idea in a distinctive and stylized way—it seems to me that this is simply grasping the most fundamental principle of art. And, as I said at the beginning of this symposium, it is the experimental, avantgarde school which keeps alive an interest in this principle, as it relates to cinema, and draws inspiration from it.
WHAT DOES THE EXPERIMENTAL FILM GIVE TO ITS AUDIENCE?
GIDEON BACHMANN: The experimental film artist, in order to function, needs the support of an audience. There must be people who will pay to see his films; otherwise he cannot continue making them. From the point of view of the lay audience, certain basic questions arise, however. What can the experimental film give me? What can the experimental film do for me? In other words, what is there in experimental films which makes it worthwhile for audiences to go and see them? What is the justification for them?
AMOS VOGEL: The audiences that come to see these films are confronted with one severe handicap. These audiences—and film society audiences are hardly exceptions—in the past have only been exposed to the representational type of cinema exhibited at their commercial neighborhood movie houses. As a result, they are not quiet prepared to face and to appreciate experimental films. Hans Richter once put this very well when he said that the average spectator, going to a neighborhood movie house, expects to have fried chicken fly into his mouth without any work on his part. What he is saying, of course, is that when we are watching commercial cinema, we remain passive spectators. Everything is carefully spelled out and we are not called upon to experience what we experience when encountering a piece of serious music or a painting, especially a modern painting, which very definitely calls for an active spectator—a person willing to be involved, willing, you might say to work for his money. Now, as to the justification for these films: I venture to say that future sociologists will find more information about what it felt like to live in the middle of the twentieth century by looking at these so-called esoteric and "precious" experimental films than they would from looking at the prefabricated, cut-and-dried documentaries to which we are so often exposed. In experimental films, we have a clear picture of a society in transition, a society faced with crisis, war, alienation of the individual, problems of standardization and mechanization. In all these respects, the experimental films—whether the individual artists are aware of it or not—express the tensions and the discomfort felt by their makers in our present-day society. Experimental films have always had a definite and deep social significance: recall that the avantgarde movement started in Europe just after the First World War, at a time of social upheaval. I think that the world-view of the experimental film-maker is something to be kept in mind at all times when we view these films. The people who make them are profoundly discontented. They are not "adjusted" to present-day society and they express the tensions and problems of this society in no uncertain terms.
GIDEON BACHMANN: Basically, then, you have said that it is the social complexities operating upon or pressing upon the people who make these films, who find themselves profoundly unable to cope with the current human condition, that impart significance to the experimental film. Now, Mr. Hugo, since you apparently have a more individual approach to their creation, do you feel that experimental films need no wider, social significance?
IAN HUGO: I think they have a very wide social significance, and precisely because of the approach which many of us have to the art—the individual approach. I believe that through the individual approach yon will arrive at an integration with other human beings. Vittorio de Sica has said that the essence of today's drama is man's inability to communicate with his fellow man. I believe the reason for this failure of communication is that most attempts at communication have been made through the surface mind. We have come to distrust all surface communications because we have seen how deceptive they can be. Now, some modem writers, painters and many jazz musicians have succeeded in reestablishing communication in depth—under the surface and through the subconscious. When film-makers discover the true Ianguage of the film medium, as only a few have begun to do, and succeed in expressing themselves as film artists in that universal language, the film will become the most potent means of communication among human beings.
PARKER TYLER: I would like to add to the proposed raison d'etre of the experimental film by remarking—in regard to the question of the artist or, rather let's say, the individual not communicating with his fellow man or with society in general—that the avantgarde film-maker or the avantgarde artist in any medium displays a kind of individual courage in being able to go into himself, to go into the depths where (if we are to believe James Joyce) all society is again rejoined and becomes one, or, as Joyce calls it, "the night mind." There are many other names for it: Freud, for example, calls it the unconscious. The particular kind of courage displayed by the experimental film-maker, I think, makes him a very worthwhile object of support and, in view of his condition of simple mechanical need, perhaps all questions of form and content become rather academic. He has a fund of courage in him, based on—to put it very simply—imagination. And imagination, really human imagination, is what makes the world go round. It's what enables us to visualize the future. It's what enables us to visualize in ourselves our deepest human motives. And in his effort to create a world of vision which has character and which has drive, which has depth, the experimental film-maker is doing his best to—well, I will put it simply again—make the world go round.
WHERE CAN EXPERIMENTAL FILMS BE SEEN?
GIDEON BACHMANN: I think what all of you have been trying to say is that the experimental film—more than the Hollywood film, and in the manner of the modem painter or the modem sculptor—expresses the complexities of the human situation and makes it easier or, maybe, makes it possible for less universally conscious people in the audience to find some mirror of their own difficulties, of their own troubles, of their own existence. And, this, perhaps, most significantly defines the universal meaning of the experimental film. Now, Mr. Vogel, as one who has been closely associated with the distribution and exhibition of these films, could you tell us where experimental films can be seen?
AMOS VOGEL: By and large, these films can be seen only in the so-called non-theatrical outlets, primarily in film societies of which there are several hundred throughout the country. In addition, there are many art museums, civic groups, labor union , churches, etc. The films are distributed through several sources, Cinema 16 being one, which in the last five years has rented films of this type to more than 400 outlets. In these small but growing organizations, audiences—often for the first time—have an opportunity to become acquainted with experimental films.
GlDEON BACHMANN: Perhaps some of you would like to say a few words to end the discussion and to give a short review of your opinions on the entire movement?
AMOS VOGEL: I just want to come back to one point made before. What does the average moviegoer "get out" of seeing experimental films? Having seen practically all the experimental film made in America and abroad in the last six or seven years, I find it easy to categorize them in very definite ways for they deal with very specific themes, although they may treat these themes in an oblique and unorthodox fashion. For example, I could list at least ten to fifteen films that in various ways attempt to deal with the whole question of war and there are at least ten or twenty that deal with problems of emotional or sexual adjustment. When you begin to look at these films more specifically, you realize how they tie in with the human condition at every point and how they are not at all frivolous or esoteric. If we approach them as we approach all of art, literature, poetry or music, if we approach them with an open mind searching for an experience, then we can get a great deal out of them.
PARKER TYLER: Two things have been brought out by all the participants in this symposium—first, that the experimental film is a subject or, rather I should say, a kind of activity about which people can agree and disagree deeply, and this, it seems to me, proves the vitality of experimental films; and second, that in so far as modern problems are concerned, or what has been called the human condition, the experimental film is an inward-going kind of activity and it seems to me that, by this going inward, the outward human condition is profoundly illuminated.
THE PANELISTS: AMOS VOGEL, THE EXECUTIVE SECRETARY OF "CINEMA 16"; PARKER TYLER, AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS CRITICAL ESSAYS AND BOOKS, AMONG THEM "CHAPLIN: THE LAST OF THE CLOWNS" AND "THE HOLLYWOOD MYTH"; IAN HUGO, AN ENGRAVER AND THE MAKER OF SEVERAL EXPERIMENTAL FILMS, AMONG THEM AY-YE AND BELLS OF ATLANTIS; LEWIS JACOBS, FILM-MAKER AND AUTHOR OF "THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN FILM."
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