Known to some as “avant-garde” and to others as “underground”, there is a distinct genre of film known as “experimental” that exists solely to further and explore the process of filmmaking. Usually made by artists who operate outside of the commercial mainstream, experimental films are usually made cheaply with very low budgets. They frequently contain non-linear approaches to storylines, radical filmmaking techniques, and a blatant disregard for the cinematic status quo. The world of experimental film is so vast and unique that it can be next to impossible to pin down which films qualify as part of the genre. After all, if a mainstream Hollywood film utilizes new or bizarre camera techniques, does that make it experimental? Does a film have to be made on a nearly non-existent budget for it to qualify as experimental? Does a film need to be made by an underground artist for it to count? These are all questions that dominate those who try to define just what encapsulates experimental film. However, there are certain films that have been widely embraced as pinnacles of the genre. Below, I have gathered ten such films and have arranged them in chronological order of their release dates.
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10. Un Chien Andalou
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Widely considered to be the most famous experimental film of all time, Un Chien Andalou was the result of a meeting of two of the greatest minds of the 20th century: surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. The film has no real plot, relying instead on bizarre imagery drawn from dream logic and Freudian free association techniques. Made infamous for its opening scene that depicts a woman having her eye sliced open with a razor, it would go on to gain great notoriety among art circles. Once again, I must repeat that any attempt to try to glean any kind of meaning or interpretation of the film is pointless. Buñuel himself once stated that during the writing process for the film, they made sure that “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.”
9. L’Age d’Or
Directed by Luis Buñuel
The second film on this list is another collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Unlike Un Chien Andalou, this film attempts to have some semblance of a cohesive narrative. It is composed of several seemingly unrelated vignettes that range from a nature documentary on scorpions, a young couple trying in vain to find a place to have sex, and a partial reenactment of the events in Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Also, unlike Un Chien Andalou, this film was subjected to great protests and anger from the general public. It particularly enraged the Catholic Church for several potentially blasphemous images, including a young woman fellating the toe of a religious statue and a scene that implies a Christ-like figure taking part in orgies. Nonetheless, it has since gained a reputation as one of the most important experimental films ever made.
8. Rose Hobart
Directed by Joseph Cornell
One of the earliest (and most famous) American experimental films, Rose Hobart helped lay the groundwork for experimental filmmaking. The film is essentially a copy of the feature length East of Borneo that has been cut up and re-edited. Ironically, it didn’t even start as an experimental film. Instead, it was created after director Joseph Cornell decided to re-edit his own 16mm copy of the film so that it wouldn’t be boring during repeated viewings. The film was essentially stripped down and rearranged into a kind of Frankenstein monster that greatly emphasized shots showing the star Rose Hobart. When it was later screened for audiences, it was projected through a piece of blue glass and played at the projection speed of silent films. It apparently amazed Salvador Dalí so much that during one of its screenings, he knocked the projector over and cried, “He stole it from my dreams!”
7. Meshes of the Afternoon
Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Inspired by the aforementioned Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, Maya Deren and her husband Alexander Hammid created one of the most enigmatic short films ever made. For over 60 years critics have tried to dissect and analyze this captivating film. Is it a psychological horror film? Maybe. It deals with a woman slowly losing her mind and her grasp on reality. Is it a commentary on film noir? Maybe. It certainly looks and feels at times like a film noir, what with its jagged imagery and gloomy atmosphere. Is it designed solely to challenge pre-existing concepts of cinematic form? Maybe. The entire narrative is circular in nature, utilizes repeated images, and seems to disregard modern sound editing (the original cut was completely silent but later given a soundtrack made of classical Japanese music). Whatever Meshes of the Afternoon may be, there is no denying that it has held sway over the creative community for years. Even more mainstream filmmakers, David Lynch in particular, sing its praises and model their work after it.
Directed by Kenneth Anger
Made when he was only twenty years old, legendary experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger directed Fireworks, a challenging and gritty exploration of homosexuality and sado-masochism. Made while his parents were away from home on a long weekend, Anger scraped this film together over the course of only a few days. The plot, if one can call it one, deals with a shirtless young man being assaulted (maybe even raped) by a gang of sailors at a bar. This is all interspersed with surreal imagery, including flaming Christmas trees, burning photographs, and of course, fireworks. While it wasn’t Anger’s first film, it is the earliest of his work that still survives. In addition to being one of the first films by an infamous filmmaker, it also was a legal milestone. Anger was arrested on obscenity charges after releasing the film and lawsuits were brought up against film managers who screened it. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court where the film was declared as art, scoring a major victory for underground filmmakers.
5. A Movie
Directed by Bruce Conner
Bruce Conner’s A Movie was a milestone film that helped pioneer the use of found footage in the cinema. Whereas other filmmakers would go out and shoot original footage for their films, Conner made A Movie completely out of found (stock) footage. Utilizing snippets of footage from sources as diverse as B-movies, newsreels, and soft-core pornography, Conner created a kind of narrative. The film is particularly full of violent imagery. Examples include crashing cars and war footage. But Conner also injected numerous sexual metaphors into the film. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, shots of scuba divers are used to imitate sperm approaching an egg. In fact, an argument could be made that the entire film is a metaphor for sex. Whatever it is, it inspired countless filmmakers to use found footage in their work. With A Movie, Bruce Conner literally founded a new school of experimental film.
4. Dog Star Man
Directed by Stan Brakhage
Stan Brakhage is easily considered one of the most prolific and influential American experimental filmmakers who ever lived. Known for his largely non-narrative and expressionistic films, Brakhage helped redefine the boundaries of what experimental filmmakers could achieve. One of his most popular works was his Dog Star Man cycle, a series of five films made between 1962 and 1964. The second film in the cycle, Dog Star Man Part I, helped establish his name in the experimental cinema community. The film examines a bearded man carrying an axe walking up a wooded mountain along with a dog. Interspersed with the man’s struggles, we see shots of water, trees, fires, and blood. It is all accompanied by a silent soundtrack that emphasizes the bizarre images on the screen. Visual poetry of the highest caliber, Dog Star Man will leave you hypnotized.
3. Flaming Creatures
Directed by Jack Smith
You wouldn’t think that a 43-minute experimental film would cause much fuss in mainstream society. However, Jack Smith proved the world wrong when he released his Flaming Creatures in 1963. Described by Smith to be, “a comedy set in a haunted music studio,” Flaming Creatures was comprised of a series of disconnected tableaux that depicted a frenzy of countercultural mayhem. It contained multitudes of “social degenerates,” including transvestites, hermaphrodites, and rapists. Filmed on outdated black-and-white film stock, Flaming Creatures channeled pure energy as its occupants went on a rampage of chases, dances, and orgies. Set to the sound of such eclectic musicians as Deanna Durbin and the Everly Brothers, Smith made sure that his film would be the likes of which nobody had ever seen or heard before. Is it any surprise that it caused riots throughout the 60s and 70s? The film itself was seized by the police at its premiere and declared obscene by a New York Criminal Court.
2. Scorpio Rising
Directed by Kenneth Anger
While the East coast rioted over Flaming Creatures, the West coast reeled against the impact of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. While the film may not have any definite kind of plot, the film does center on a biker named Scorpio (played by Bruce Byron). We watch as he fixes his bike, tries on different clothes, and gets into fights. The entire film is filled with camp sensibilities that focus on things like leather-clad bikers, the occult, pictures of Jesus, and the persona of James Dean. Like much of his other work, Scorpio Rising was filled with homosexual imagery, but the film is most famous for its soundtrack. While the film has no dialogue to speak of, it is accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack of popular music from the 1950s and 1960s. Much like his earlier film Fireworks, the filmmaker was charged on complaints of indecency and went before the Supreme Court as a result of this film. Once again, the Court decided in his favor. The film would go on to become a major influence on the directors Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
Directed by Michael Snow
Wavelength is one of the most infamous and, at the same time, widely respected experimental films ever made. Considered a masterpiece of underground and structural film, Wavelength consists of a single long shot of a room. We watch as people come in and leave in four separate scenes as the camera slowly zooms in on the room. All the while, we hear sirens and loud beeps that increase and decrease in frequency throughout the entire film until they amplify into a deafening shriek. The film has been practically worshipped by underground filmmakers. It was included in the 2001 Village Voice critics’ list of the 100 Best Film of the 20th Century and the Toronto International Film Festival’s list of the greatest Canadian films of all time.