Film as art practice

As Al Rees expresses in the preface to his book ‘A History of Experimental Film and Video’, it is widely accepted that mainstream cinema and what is known as experimental or ‘avant-garde’ cinema are two very different sectors of the same art form. Mainstream cinema tends to abide by cinematic conventions, whereas avant-garde cinema tends to break them. Everyday audience members are typically accustomed to these conventions- having Hollywood as the centre of any film-goers attention has meant that experimental film has been deemed too unconventional, and therefore widely misunderstood and underappreciated. However, Al Rees conveys to us that experimental film is just as important as mainstream cinema; it is important to appreciate the unconventional with the conventional and “it is sometimes important to make stupid art.”

His ideas around the use of experimental film are still prevalent in the modern-day; avant-garde cinema calls into question many socioeconomic and political issues and presents it to its audiences in new ways. For example, in Chantal Akerman’s 1968 film ‘Saute Ma Ville’, she covers the idea of suicide, as the protagonist proceeds to execute gassing herself. Experimental film also allows its spectators to question the film’s purpose as an art form, with Rees describing this as “avant-garde film crosses over into debates on post-modern art and cinema.” This calls into question the argument between cinema as art or entertainment. In a few cases, there are arguably a few films that cross over these two ideas, depending on the spectatorship and their individual previous experiences, meaning they will react to films in different ways.          

One example in which art is prioritised over entertainment within the scope of experimental film is Vera Chytilová’s 1966 film ‘Daisies’, in which two young women embark on a destructive path to rebel against their materialistic society and communist government. Many stills that are taken from ‘Daisies’ could be argued to be of more artistic than entertainment value- notably when the two girls ‘cut’ each other up within the bedroom of their shared flat. Chytilová is masterful in her creation of these scenes, almost mimicking a collage art style. This only further’s Rees’ notion that experimental films are not tied to any specific rules but are instead “a distinct form of cultural practice, with its own autonomy in relation to mainstream cinema.”

Al Rees argues that cinema is its own art form. Experimental film is still part of the art of cinema, however, like art, film has its own movements. While conventional art has movements such as surrealism and expressionism, the film has experimentalism and new wave cinema. Al Rees’ argument about cinema as art is still relevant to today’s films, even twenty-two years on. We still see in modern-day cinema the difference in film movements; mainstream cinema has branched out to blockbuster franchises such as ‘Marvel’ and ‘Star Wars’ which follow conventional filmmaking techniques such as match cuts and tracking shots. Avant-garde film has made its way slowly into mainstream cinema- David Lynch has become widely known by film fanatics for being “the first popular surrealist.” (Kael).

This also calls in to question the actual definition of art, and thus if cinema falls under the wider definition. The dictionary definition of art is “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Cinema is made by a team of people who individually use their creative skill and imagination, also in a visual form and is widely appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. However, it could be argued that experimental film does not fall under this definition. It could be argued that avant-garde film does not evoke emotions from their spectators, as their motifs and general visual experience does not emotionally capture their audience members enough in order to evoke any emotion. In contrast, it can be argued that avant-garde films can be appreciated for their beauty. Abstractly, experimental films can still hold a house style conveyed via their directors’ auteurship. Therefore, audience members may appreciate it as a piece of art for its placement within a director’s work, or just for its general aesthetics and filmmaking techniques.

It can also be said that the viewing experience of a film is very dependent on the relationship between the viewer and the film. As film critic Mark Kermode says: “great films give back to you whatever it is you bring to them.” and that really rings true within avant-garde cinema. So much of experimental film is built upon by the perspective of the spectator; whether they come to the viewing experience having a prejudice against or a bias to experimental film can greatly affect their overall takeaway from the film. Similarly, a spectator will view content within a film differently depending on the material and themes presented to them, and thus their relationships to this. It is always important to remember that experimental film as a genre has more scope for interpretation and spectatorship than the typical blockbuster mainstream cinema.

Experimental film is largely based on the information you bring in viewing the film, rather than the information the film feeds you. Popular cinema is based upon feeding its audience information so they can fully understand and appreciate the narrative of the film. In contrast, experimental film works on hinting at information and, to a great extent, how you interpret the film rather than how the director presents it to you. There can be great beauty found in the unknown and the misunderstood themes, narratives (or lack of) and motifs that experimental film can bring about.

In conclusion, Al Rees has a lot to say about the beauty of experimental film in the wider scope of cinema and how it fits into the culture of art and to debates into post-modern art and cinema. However, there is also a lot to be said about how spectatorship can really have an effect on what those audience members take away from the film after they leave a cinema. This is a discussion that I personally believe is far from over.


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