To the movie lover, no genre is more daunting than experimental and avant-garde. Some folks are averse to silents and musicals, but they do indeed have a discernable style and rhythm, a taste to acquire. When you settle in for an experimental film, however, it’s neigh-impossible to predict what you’re in for. And often, you’re not even sure just what you’ve seen by the end. But there must be a reason I keep going back for more. Here’s a look at some of my personal favorite gateway shorts into this bizarre, addictive area of cinema.
The films of Kenneth Anger were something of a starting point for me. I bought the Complete Magick Lantern Cycle DVD when I was around 16. Viewing this collection was akin to stumbling on buried treasure. Anger’s earliest surviving work is the 14-minute Fireworks. It depicts a “dreamer,” played by Anger himself, wandering into a room, admiring a strapping Navy sailor and, after being discovered by others in the room, getting beaten and sliced open (filmed in almost uncomfortable clarity) with a broken bottle. It ends with Anger asleep, another man beside him with film scratches (think Stan Brakhage’s titles) buzzing around his head. It was all a dream…
At first, I didn’t quite understand what to take from a film like this. It’s clear that Anger, only 19 when the film was shot, has eyes and ears for striking images and campy soundtrack choices, but only upon a recent viewing did the pain of the film really hit me. Now it plays out to me as a cry of Anger’s frustration at his inability to embrace and express his homosexuality, at a time when it was still very much a crime to be gay in the United States.
Anger’s best would come in 1963 with Scorpio Rising. The film is like an extended music video, following bikers as they tinker with their motorcycles, suit up in their leather jackets, read newspaper comics, party and dance in drag, and eventually ride and crash to their deaths. It’s an underground smorgasbord, an exuberant, eye-opening celebration of subculture.
And it’s all about the songs here. While Anger’s music choices are on-the-nose as usual (A new gang member being “initiated” by way of spicy mustard being rubbed onto a particularly sensitive part of his body as “Torture” echoes in the background), they almost always take your breath away (Little Peggy March singing “Wind-Up Doll” as the film cuts between a child with a motorcyclist figure and a biker toiling away on his ride; both just kids playing with their toys). Even in light of the legendary soundtracks like those of Pulp Fiction, Easy Rider, and Goodfellas that came after it, the stream of rock ‘n’ roll and pop songs that carry Scorpio Rising along still manages to feel revolutionary. It’s not just about quality here (Ray Charles, Martha and the Vandellas, Elvis Presley), but the uncanny way that the songs commingle with one another. Gene McDaniels, Little Peggy March, and The Surfaris are just fine by themselves, but the way the foreboding “Point of No Return” and “I Will Follow Him” lead into the chaotic crash and burn of “Wipeout” is the work of a masterful aural storyteller.
Bruce Conner’s short montage films can be seen as precursors to the modern music video. To compare his most famous work, A Movie (1958), to the “YouTube Poop” is probably an insult to Conner, but is honestly not far from the truth. The film is a playful, irreverent mashup of seemingly unrelated pieces of stock footage, all set to Respighi’s bombastic “Pines of Rome.” Cosmic Ray (1962) is a splash of breasts, beads, and street lights, managing to make Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” even sexier than it already was. Breakaway (1966), scored by a song of the same name, is my personal favorite of Conner’s work. It’s a breathless strobe light of a film, incessantly blinking and jerking the camera around to the beat of a young Toni Basil as she dances to one of her own songs. Report (1967) manages to be a harrowing account of the JFK assassination without even featuring the infamous Zapruder film.
“Experimental” is much too broad a term, as the films of Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger differ greatly from the work of, say, Hollis Frampton or Michael Snow, the two principal figures of structural film. Frampton’s films are simple and repetitive, sometimes maddeningly so. They often require patience, and what you ultimately take from them kind of depends on what you bring. (nostalgia), the first movie in Frampton’s seven-film Hapax Legomena cycle, is perhaps his most famous work, consisting of several shots of photographs burning to ashes on a hot plate, narrated by Snow (acting as Hollis Frampton), who explains each new photograph as it’s presented… sort of. Here’s the catch: When photo 1 appears, Snow describes photo 2. When photo 2 appears, Snow describes photo 3, and so on. It’s a deceptively simple trick that engages the audience in what would otherwise be a boring slideshow. For my money, the film runs a little too long (by the third or fourth photo, you get the gist of the thing), but it’s a good starting point for newcomers to Frampton’s work.
As aforementioned, what you bring to these kinds of films (first and foremost, a lot of imagination) will go a long way in helping you enjoy them. This is best exemplified by the next Hapax Legomena entry, Poetic Justice, at once Frampton’s most extravagant and minimal work. Few films are likely to challenge your idea of what a movie can be the way that this one does. It’s essentially a filmed script. A potted cactus, cup of coffee, and a title card written on printer paper are seen at the beginning. “#1. Title – First Tableau,” the paper reads. In the next shot, another piece of paper appears, describing the first, well, shot of the imaginary film. This continues on for 240 pages. It’s a direct attempt at engaging the audience in the creative process of conceiving and making a movie. For my money, Frampton’s greatest film would come with the third Hapax Legomena installment: Critical Mass, starring Frank Albetta and Barbara DeBenedetto. It observes a long, repetitive argument between the couple as Barbara lays into Frank about his mysterious two-day absence. What would otherwise be a dusty old audition tape becomes hypnotic as the conversation is cut and repeated by way of continuous, stuttering edits. “Oh, oh so it’s a big, oh so it’s a big secret, -cret you don’t wanna tell me, wanna tell me,” Barbara pushes out early in the film. It’s jarring at first, but you become intensely wrapped up in this relationship, and instantly keyed into what Frampton is doing. I’ve never seen a film that conveys the frustration and futility of a fight quite like this.
Look, most of these films are not edge-of-your-seat viewing, and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. Most of these artists were going for the exact opposite of traditional narrative filmmaking. So put your mind in a weird place. Watch these films late at night with all the lights turned off. The sound of crickets outside is a big plus. You’re bound to be shocked, bored, maddened, intrigued, and astonished, sometimes all within the span of one movie. Whatever your reaction, you’re unlikely to forget what you see.