From one of cinema’s earliest experimental films, Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), winner in 1947 of  Cannes’ Grand Prix Internationale for 16mm experimental film, on to the films of Cocteau, Godard, Tati, Fellini, Lynch, Cronenberg and others, the notion of the film experiment inspires admiration, distaste, love and hatred in film audiences. Commercial movies (frantic pacing, hackneyed surprise, worn-out tropes, special effects barages), with their hero and quest driven narratives, seem diametrically opposed to the whimsical, subjective, interior, asymmetric, disjointed, dream-state inspired plotless, timeless, amoral, and often carelessly created worlds of the film experiment. Yet most if not all conventional cinema depends entirely on the concept and nature of experimental film. It’s axiomatic: without the experiment there is no convention. Experiment lies at the heart of cinema not only because early cine-cameramen experimented with moving images and celluloid film created art (even if art wasn’t the intention); experiment is the fundamental ancestor of all cinema.

A film that succeeds at the box office will often be remembered for a sequence that cites, borrows from film experimentation.

Commercial filmmakers often reconfigure ideas and approaches from earlier films, all art in fact, but they owe their largest debt to the spirit of film experiment in all its disguises.

Cannes encourages filmmakers to exhibit their experimental works in Un Certain Regard. 2012’s lineup includes sons of the famous in twenty chosen films. The route of an art film to the festival’s screens is not simple, with the spirit of today’s Deren or Buñuel struggling to shine in the annual failed attempts of filmmakers with ‘unexhibitable’ projects we never see, but without which we would know little of the true scope of cinematic experimentation.

8 thoughts on “Cannes and Experimental Film

  1. great insight! i’m curious to know more about what you think of the creation of the ‘un certain regard’ category at Cannes – whilst it does allow for greater visibility of experimental/avant-garde film, does it not take away from the standalone glory of this type of cinema by relegating it to an ‘outsider’ position?

  2. Not sure if the experimental scene has been anything but the outsider in film. Interesting that you separate ‘standalone glory’ from ‘outsider status’. To me they merge but your hint that experimental is corralled into a second best arena because experimental is somehow detrimental to the main show is well taken. Experimental film doesn’t compete for the Palm D’Or – yet some experimentalists have won it. Experimental at times is synonymous with paddling around in the shallows, while the real show (35mm, big name actors, screenplays that are at least in part logical, producers that are rich), lives on. This doesn’t happen with painting. Experiment has led the way. If there were a Palm D’Or for the plastic arts a urinal (‘Fountain’ by R.Mutt) could have won it in 1917.

  3. I completely agree with what you’re saying. What I meant by my comment (and my personal opinion) is that as you quite rightly say, experimental film has always been “paddling around in the shadows.” I think its subjugation is unjustified – experimental film seems to represent more fully the true potential and magic of cinema.
    Like you say, it’s all about the rich. Cinema has become the synonym of Hollywood, glamour and money.

  4. Definitely like your take on how the experimental and outre of yesterday gets infiltrated into the mainstream – handheld shaky cam, found footage, ultra-violence, meta-storylines, etc., all becoming part of the broad pop cultural landscape and assimilated into the commercial marketplace. This translates across all cultural lines – music, art, technology, etc. as the outsiders and untouchables of yesteryear are today’s TV spokesmen and tastemakers (think Dennis Hopper, John Waters). Its sad to lose our personal heroes to the mainstreaming machinery of mass popular culture but it happens to the best and and so I guess we just have to keep turning over rocks looking for the next undiscovered, iconoclastic shit kicker willing to take on the status quo, until the status quo takes on them.

  5. The inclusion/exclusion zone lines blur in a post-postmodern world. We need the iconoclasts badly, in any time. Now so much of the new iconoclasm is only strategised out-of-the-loop splash only in order to engineer a fast-track ‘uploading’, acceptance, assimilation, incorporation, into the monetised culture system. Heaven forbid these manufactured iconoclasts might be left to spiral in silent orbits of anonymity. They’ll avoid that like death, trade their mothers, ‘street-cred’ in a flash, rushing arms akimbo at the flame of celebrity. The paranoia among fame-seekers that the big invite into the big club of conspicuous wealth and privilege (the cosy security of celebrity) will not arrive has never been as sharp as it is now. Yet for brief moments in history, think the ‘beats’ (there have been many others), the real ground-shakers, the true risk-takers, manage to do something that is life and culture affecting, their minds drafting the future with vision and artistic courage.

  6. We now live in an American Idol world where celebrity is for sale for the price of exposure. Yet given the peculiarly, Dick Clark (RIP) “Bandstand” nature of this new back to the future game show mentality, this new wave of instant celebrity, money can buy you love ethos actually had its roots in the most demonized, status quo frightening, outsider cultural phenomenon since Elvis first swiveled his hips. While grunge artists like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vetter in sort of a last gasp stab at rock and roll integrity were wearing their pain and suffering anti-sellout cards conspicuously, and in Cobain’s case tragically, on their sleeves, rap and hip-hop artists, in between singing about shooting cops and banging hos, were celebrating the idea of selling out. Bling was the new integrity and cashing in the new street cred. As hip-hop infiltrated white suburbs and the mainstream started to get onboard, musical and cultural authenticity started to morph further into quantifiable, monetizable ways. Disney started a whole new brand of instant pop stars, sinking us even further backwards looking towards the 50s and homogenized, manufactured icons like Frankie and Annette. Today, it’s not just enough that we are mass producing stars for a ready and willing audience, established talent is eschewing the former “hip and cool” arena of late night television (SNL, Letterman, etc.) for flamboyant, over-the-top primetime appearances on everything from “AI” and “Dancing with the Stars” to the CW’s latest teen soap offering. This may be just the natural evolution of things, but I think it is more of, as Devo once predicted, a de-evolution, as we move get closer and closer to Lawrence Welk and a perpetual variety show world.

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