These essays are included in the catalogue for Jeune, dure et pure !  Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France, sous la direction de Nicole Brenez et Christian Lebrat, Paris-Milan, Cinémathèque française/Mazzotta, 2000.

Were the white fabric of the screen to reflect the light it should, the Universe would catch fire.
– Luis Buñuel.

An experimental film considers cinema not in terms of its uses or customs, but rather its powers; and it is just as determined to remind us of these powers, to display and renew them, as to contradict or efface them or render them limitless.

The Equipment

This sort of undertaking was first applied to cinema’s specific technical machinery, whose concrete complexity welcomes exploration, shifting and displacement of all kinds. In this way, pioneers such as Émile Reynaud, Étienne-Jules Marey, George Demenÿ, Lucien Bull, Louis and Auguste Lumière, George Méliès, Raoul Grimoin-Sanson and Emile Cohl started off film history as experimental film. They explored different ways of linking the diverse physical equipment; one of their solutions would eventually be endorsed as “normal” (camera / projector / screen / screening room) the others to be considered “expanded” cinema. Yet it is this “normal” solution which should by all rights and purposes be dubbed “restricted cinema,” precisely because experimental film reminds us of so many other possibilities (Marey’s installations at the Physiological station or Raoul Grimoin-Sanson’s ten-projector Cinéorama make up two major models).

The great variety inherent in the system by which a film image appears accounts for cinema’s greatest fragility (it is constantly being threatened by simpler devices with more economical equipment: yesterday it was television, today digital media) yet also its greatest fortune: a good part of experimental cinema consists of:

– displacing the equipment, modifying the system;

– doing away with it (cameraless filmmaking, for example, using only a filmstrip or a projector as a starting point; or even Isidore Isou and the lettristes’ supertemporal and infinitesimal cinema, which radically removed the entire physical installation, putting forth other creative modes);

– or, conversely, enlarging it (multi-screen projections of all kinds); narrowing it down (by concentrating on only one dimension or only one site of invention, such as Giovanni Martedi, who uses different machines or different logics of projection);

– intersecting it (with the performing arts, painting or video, as in happenings, performances or installations, but many other forms of hybrid activity are possible, such as Philippe Jacq’s cinema which consists of transporting frame blowups on his bicycle-sculpture).

Experimental cinema constantly reminds us that one can always lay things out, set things up or do things differently, often in a more humane or more exciting way — by bringing the real bodies of its protagonists (filmmaker, actor, viewer) back into play — and therefore, sometimes, in a less reassuring way than the calm ritual imposed by the industrial establishment.

The Psychological Machine

But equipment is not the only issue: cinema is first and foremost an extraordinary psychological device. Yet in the same way, experimental film again torments the conventional uses of the image, by inventing or reconsidering its applications, its role, its plastic nature, its speculative force, whether in its relationship to reality and the history of mankind, or as a laboratory of visual forms, or in relation to its own history.

“Up the road, near a bay wood, I surrounded it with its piled veils and almost felt the presence of its immense body.” (Rimbaud). Why make images? Why not be satisfied with embracing reality? Experimental films have often formulated and more often answered this fundamental question in art. Cinema is not necessarily an echo chamber (Jean-Luc Godard’s “damsel of recording”). It can be an act; it can become a weapon; it can even get lost in combat. Consider René Vautier’s sublime works: designed like missiles to destroy the enemy (capitalist exploitation, to be brief, especially in its colonial forms), they burst into flames, they get blown to bits in mid-air (shots from Vautier’s films constantly reappear throughout militant cinema); or else, having accomplished their mission and self-destructed, the work merges into its own concrete historical effects. It would be useful to study the history of forms that brought about militant practices in cinema, whether they came from direct intervention (René Vautier, Chris Marker, the constellation of collectives that blossomed at the end of the ’60s, Bruno Muel, Dominique Dubosc…) or from a more classic activity such as pamphlet writing, a struggle against a state of affairs, beliefs or even the image itself (certain cool-headed films superimpose these three targets, including masterpieces by Maurice Lemaître, Marcel Hanoun, the Dziga Vertov group, Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy, Dominique Avron and Jean-Bernard Brunet). Making images nobody wants to see, offering images for things that don’t have any, going even farther than transgression or subversion, experimental cinema confronts the unacceptable, be it political, existential, ideological or sexual. Even these purely nominal distinctions would be obliterated, first by underground cinema, for one (Etienne O’Leary, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, Philipe Bordier, Pierre Clémenti…), and later by individual personalities like Lionel Soukaz.

Exploring the World Visually

Experimental films thus embrace the practical uses of the image, as polemical instrument or militant action, but also as a visual exploration of the world. Certainly, the images which most strongly shape our imagination are scientific films. Apparently lacking any aesthetic intentions, these films continue to renew our iconographic repertory, our plastic resources and the descriptive forms themselves, sometimes violently, and sometimes with a seemingly limitless permanence. Marey’s and Bull’s images irrigated the entire 20th century and still spur the imagination of today’s filmmakers (Johanna Vaude, Othello Vilgard). Jean Painlevé’s ties to the avant-garde are well-known, but true scientific cinema lives on: the staggering beauty pervading the contemporary work of Professors Yves Berthier or Alexis Martinet, to name only two — the revolutionary experience of time, the constant inversion of the conventional relationships between abstract and figurative — should compel us to bring these essential images out of their laboratories.

Experimental Terrains

Experimental cinema embraces all the formal strengths and capabilities of the moving image: its infinite varieties of speeds and lengths, its plastic, narrative and descriptive forms, its multiple intersections of image/sound relationships, studies on the body’s expressiveness (there have been many great experimental actors: George Méliès, Catherine Hessling, Antonin Artaud; and today Cécile Bortoletti and Sothean Nhieim; not to mention Dr. Comandon’s spyrochetes, so esteemed by Émile Vuillermoz, nor Painlevé’s microbes, celebrated by André Bazin). Each cinematographic articulation becomes a subject of intense investigation, opening up vast territories of emblematic excavation: the passing of film through a projector (in their very diversity, consider the fundamental explorations of Patrice Kirchhofer, Rose Lowder, Claudine Eizykman and Guy Fihman, Jean-Michel Bouhours, Ahmet Kut, Yann Beauvais, Cécile Fontaine, Frédérique Devaux and Michel Amarger, David Matarasso); color; sound; aspect ratio; the relationship of figurative to abstract (passim, we are treading on well-known experimental turf); pure descriptive forms (Gérard Courant, Nicolas Rey, Sothean Nhieim); the relationship between description and narration, often under the auspices of myth (Raymonde Carasco, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Téo Hernandez, Michel Nedjar, Jean-Claude Rousseau, Ange Leccia, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster); the relationship between narration and plasticity (from Jean Epstein to Philippe Grandrieux); narrative forms (the whole scope of personal, autobiographical cinema, Joseph Morder and Pip Chodorov, for example, but also those films which hark back to specific poetic models: the song, the eclogue, the epic poem, or even the flash, fragment, serial writing, etc. A spontaneous synthesis can be found in Pierre Clémenti’s work, as well as in the distinguished achievements of Philippe Garrel, Yvan Lagrange, Jackie Raynal, Patrick Deval, or today’s Étant Donnés group).

It should be noted, however, that throughout its history, avant-garde cinema has not only been accessible and expansive, but also fraught with violent exclusion, challenging certain parameters or practices according to formal imperatives of the times: debased narratives for the avant-garde of the ’20s, or political rifts in the mid-’70s. (Looking back, we always realize that the more intense the polemic was, the greater the formal proximity turned out to be, yet in the heat of battle, exclusion prevails, and later we remember only that the experimental is not narrative, or not figurative, or not political).

The History and Criticism of Images

Finally, experimental cinema maintains a very singular connection with its history and with the history of images. As an overall critical investigation, it quickly began writing its own autobiography: for example, the lectures organized by Jean Tedesco at the Vieux-Colombier (Marcel L’Herbier on “Cinématographe and Time” still survives), the basis for Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98); or the precise, technical films by pioneer Raoul Grimoin-Sanson on the early days of cinema, which would lead, inter alia, to the way in which David Wharry to some extent “legendizes” today the history of avant-garde cinéma. Some of the most remarkable critical undertakings of the 20th century were developed in the field of experimental cinéma: the International Situationists, including Guy Debord’s melancholy masterpieces; and the Dziga Vertov Group (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin); two possible cinematographic offshoots of the Frankfurt School. The use of found footage and recycling generated admirable critical discourse in images, as works by Cecile Fontaine, Miles McKane or Yves-Marie Mahé attest to. But one can also take the image in a broader sense, and study it no longer as separation (Guy Debord), as screen (Dziga Vertov Group) or as cliché (the main relationship between recycling and its own material), but as prototype, a module of our imagination, a power informing our perception of the world: here Maria Klonaris & Katerina Thomadaki’s large figurative frescos draw their energy and their critical necessity.

In this way, moreover, this history does not simply appear as a series of pure initiatives, of inventions following the modern ideals of the new. Experimental cinema is as much a laboratory as a museum, as it keeps in mind cinema as a whole, what it once was and what it could have been. It also keeps alive certain aesthetic projects, certain ideals, certain artistic approaches which have run their course in other fields: for example, ideals of classic beauty and perfection must be maintained when formal indifference prevails, as in the case of Maria Klonaris & Katerina Thomadaki or Patrick Bokanowski; a mad desire for popular fiction is needed where highbrow images abound (as for F.J. Ossang); technology that renders any image possible calls for extreme simplicity, as for Martine Garnier.

Cinema can be many things: inventing a contraption which owes absolutely nothing to the industry (Eric Lombard’s Pyrocinematographic Lantern), showing films only in one’s room (Maria Koleva, André Almuro), or not showing them at all (Guy Debord, Sylvina Boissonnas or certain works by Philippe Garrel), endeavoring to radically confuse cinema and life, until the latter becomes nothing but complete creation (the great lettriste undertaking), turning cinema back into a craft (Patrice Kirchhofer and the more recent independent laboratory movement), furthering what is already the longest avant-garde movement in history (The International Front of Supercapitalist Youth ©, keeping alight Lemaître’s flame), filming as a way of life (Hélèna Villovitch and Jan Peters), filming as a way of taking action (Generation Chaos, Les Périphériques Vous Parlent or Les Philosophes Guerriers du Monde), or even not filming anything at all, yet maintaining that this is still cinema (Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître, by supreme decree) — in short, considering the inextinguishable innovation and creativity which imbues the field of experimental cinema, both in form and artistic gesture, this creativity being the result of a spirit of freedom which exerts itself, sometimes simultaneously, on all dimensions of the cinematographic experience (technical, psychological, political and of course economic, since the experimental shies inevitably away from commerce), it would seem that, deep down, cinema has little or nothing to do with its powerful but very local predominant function.

Translated by Pip Chodorov

About The Author

Christian Lebrat is a filmmaker, writer, and director of the publishing house Paris Expérimental.

Nicole Brenez teaches film studies at Paris 3 University and curates the experimental and avant-garde programs at the Cinémathèque Française. Author of several books, with Philippe Grandrieux she produced the collection It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, devoted to revolutionary fimmakers.