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Why do we need experimental film?

With reference to illustrated examples and critical writing, discuss the importance of experimental filmmaking as a form of art practice. What insights does it bring and what does this require of audiences?

It is undeniable that experimental film, and its similar sister movements, are part of the building blocks of the conventional fictional cinema we all know and love; experimental film movements such as the cinèma pur movement and the surrealist movement, that came as a reaction of the exponential growth of narrative cinema in the early 20th century, show us the importance of having conflicting cinematic styles. In a way, fictional and experimental film have a sort of transactional relationship- narrative film is needed to create stereotypes in cinema that experimental film can subvert, but avant-garde cinema is needed to challenge fictional filmmakers so that they are not repetitive in their craft. Experimental film rejects the techniques so commonly found in conventional cinema, aiming to provoke a reaction and evoke certain thoughts, moods, or emotions. In this way, avant-garde cinema can be seen as more of an experience, rather than a form of entertainment, inviting interpretation rather than mindless passivism. Many early experimental filmmakers of the 20th century had a purist view towards how experimental film should be made, valuing the return to film in its most elemental form, of light and motion. Avant-garde cinema can be widely misunderstood and branded to be too far-fetched to be meaningful; this leads to it being massively underappreciated as an art style. This also calls into question what experimental film can do for the wider world of film, and how the two film worlds interact. In this essay, I will explore the many reasons why experimental film is an essential part of any filmmakers viewing repertoire.

It is worth exploring how, historically, experimental film and fictional film interact with each other and how they have influenced each other. 20th-century movement ‘Cinèma Pur’ (also known as the ‘Dada movement’) was a retaliation to the expansion of popularised cinema; as (Turvey, 2011) states: “Dada was also constructive, that it aimed not merely to destroy, but to create something new.”  Instead of being just destructive of mainstream cinema, experimental film had always set out to expand on the world of cinema as a whole. It aimed to provide a new perspective into film, unconventionally telling stories, and evoking a unique response through audience spectatorship. (Fiorelli, 2016) asserts: “Movies communicate, in a roughly Gricean way, and that they do so partly through showing—with their perceptual content helping imply certain fictional truths.” Films interact through showing their perspective on issues and addressing these issues either through narrative or experimental structures. However, the counterargument to this is that mainstream and avant-garde cinema do not in fact interact. While experimental film does open itself up for interpretation, this does not always mean that these films intend to symbolise anything, never mind have anything impactful to say on pressing issues. (Rees, 1999) claims that: “it is sometimes important to make stupid art”, suggesting that not all filmmakers intend for their work to have a meaning in the first place. Experimental filmmaker (Buñuel, 1929) stated about his own work: “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”  He went on to add that “Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything.” It is evident that, even the makers of impactful experimental film state that not every piece has to have an intended meaning or purpose. Nonetheless, this does not mean films are not up for interpretation from their respective audience members. This is further evidenced by film theorist Stuart Hall in his Reception Theory, where he suggests that this invitation into interpretation would lead to different readings of media, depending on the spectators’ social context. (Hall, 1973). With experimental film not always intending to be meaningful, it is easy to question how this sporadic art form could ever interact or relate to the formulated style of popularised mainstream cinema. Nevertheless, both styles are important in the world of filmmaking.

Following this, I am going to look into why experimental film is an essential building block for any form of mainstream cinema. The earliest form of films could be deemed to be experimental; sound on film was not created until 1927, and films made beforehand were mainly made without a clear narrative structure (see ‘La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon’, (1895) The Lumière Brothers; ‘Fred Ott’s Sneeze’, (1894) William Kennedy Dickson; ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’, (1888).)

Figure 1 “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon”, (Lumière Brothers, 1895)

Narrative structure, as we know it today, was not yet established in a way that would create entertaining films.  Films were experimental for exactly that reason- filmmakers were still actually experimenting with how to make films. (Morrow, 2013) puts it perfectly: “Without an established cinematic grammar, most early films were just one shot […] with no narrative.” Without set narrative arcs- such as The Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 1949)- filmmakers were free to create as they wished. This was new technology that was still not fully understood and, therefore, would not have been influenced by the modern constraints of editing, lighting, narrative structure, and archetypes (Jung, 1969). These film conventions would eventually define mainstream cinema and be the exact points in which later experimental film would aim to subvert. So why is experimental film still relevant in modern-day filmmaking? The simple answer to that is the need for a continuation of experimentation. Film, in the grand scheme of things, is still an extremely new art form; as the world of cinema expands, it is more important than ever to stay inquisitive and experiment with the many ways in which films can be made. Subsequently, it is important to delve into the audience experience, and the myriad of techniques that can be used to evoke mood, thoughts, and feelings in the way that experimental film does.

Obviously, experimental film is a wide art form and is arguably one of the freest forms of art expression within film. From the early 19th century experimental filmmakers who were just understanding the world of cinema, to more modern names like David Lynch, it is indisputable that avant-garde cinema is a rare form of art that does not need to be understood, it merely is what it is. It is for this reason that this style of cinema is so inclusive in the way that it allows artists to freely express themselves the way that they wish to. The cinèma pur movement, which I also touched upon earlier, values a more purist take on experimental film, valuing light and motion. This perfectionist view tends to lend itself back to the earliest stages of experimental filmmaking, where light and motion were the only available options. It is worth filmmakers keeping these two film fundamentals at the heart of any piece of film work; as (Poland, 2015) expresses so perfectly: “From the early days of cinema, lighting has been a fundamental element in creating the final picture. Just as in real life, light is everything for the moving image. Light is all the human eye sees.” Filmmakers must value the early focus of experimental film- light and moving image- before anything else, as it holds an essential place in the viewing experience of audience members, never mind the actual cinematic aesthetic of the piece.

Audience, and subsequently spectatorship, is an essential part of any viewing experience of a film. Films are specifically crafted to the way they will make the spectator think, feel, and experience the piece as a whole. In mainstream cinema, this can be observed via Blumler and Katz’s ‘Uses and Gratification Theory’, in which “emotional involvement correlates with other modes of reception, especially with diegetic involvement (getting absorbed in the fictional world), socio-involvement (identifying with characters), and ego-involvement (relating the film to one’s own life)” (Bartsch, 2010). Audience members tend to need to be emotionally invested to fully experience film as a whole. So, why is it that so many people are drawn to watching avant-garde cinema? Though weird and wacky, experimental film does have some sort of gratification to its audience members too. Its niche styling and unconventional techniques can sometimes be refreshing to audiences, who are so commonly accustomed to the repetitive nature of mainstream film conventions. Others might say that experimental film can be used as a more spiritual experience, notably The Holy Mountain (Jodorowsky, 1973) is an experimental cult classic, with (Lazic, 2020) describing it as helping audiences to “rethink their relationship with themselves and, as a result, the world.” With the odd lure that experimental film has attached to it, viewers can be brought on an emotional and spiritual experience that has a similar feeling to psychedelics. Both psychedelics and avant-garde cinema can bring people to a greater connection with themselves and the world around them, which might add to the glorified cult that follows these unconventional pieces of art.

Figure 2 “The Holy Mountain”, (Jodorowsky, 1973)

Another experimental film known for its interesting interaction with its audience is Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). This film by Maya Deren is almost hypnotic in its editing, immersing the audience into the chaos- almost in the same way as The Holy Mountain. (Real, 2015) describes this audience experience by stating: “Subjectivity and memory are joined together to entice the audience into a trance, thus conveying the unique and idiosyncratic quality that the film emanates. More importantly, their combination results in an immersive reality.” Rather than taking audience members on a spiritual journey, Deren plays on editing techniques to create a hypnotic interaction with the film, only further drawing audiences into her themes of self acceptance, anxiety, and desire. Compare this to meanstream cinema, where spectatorship is mostly passive. Audience members are carried through narrative with continuity editing, CGI and gripping storylines. This is why experimental film is not widely viewed in the same way as mainstream cinema; fictional film promotes passivism and feeds you all you need to know- experimental film aims to do the exact opposite. We watch experimental films to have these immersive experiences into the self that popularised films can merely dream to reach.

Figure 3 “Meshes of the Afternoon”, (Deren, 1943)

In closing, experimental film is a vast and ever-growing style of cinema- one which we do not fully understand yet. Its uses vary between spectators: from spiritual journeys to a form of film expression, to just something different to watch. Experimental film fills in the creative gaps that mainstream cinema cannot reach. It is, in fact, as important now as it was in the creation of cinema; it allows all filmmakers to keep an open mind to their craft, and to test new techniques without preconception or prejudice. Though widely misunderstood and underappreciated, I believe this style of cinema is one of the purist and most beautiful form of moving art know to us in present day. It permits a level of freedom that other film styles do not. It is this freedom, for me, which is its wonderful selling point to this niche and widely accepting art form. Avant-garde cinema is an immersion into the craft of cinema and any form of exploration into experimental film should be valued within any filmmakers watchlist.


Bartsch, A. (2010). The Use of Media Entertainment and Emotional Gratification.

Buñuel, L. (1929). an interview into the writing of Un Chien Andalou.

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Fiorelli, L. (2016). What Movies Show: Realism, Perception and Truth in Film.

Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and Decoding Television Discourse.

Jung, C. (1969). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious.

Lazic, M. (2020). The Holy Mountain review – a spiritual journey to make you love the world.

Morrow, J. (2013). A (Very Brief) History of Experimental Cinema.

Poland, J. L. (2015). Lights, Camera, Emotion!: an Examination on Film Lighting and Its Impact on Audiences’ Emotional Response.

Real, M. M. (2015). Meshes of the Afternoon: An Investigation Into Subjectivity and Memory.

Rees, A. (1999). A History of Experimental Film and Video.

Turvey, M. (2011). The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde of the 20th Century.


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