The term “avant-garde” sometimes feels like a cavernous catch-all, but when it comes to art and film, it’s most often used to describe groundbreaking work that defines and changes our view in new, unusual, or experimental ways. In the early 20th century, Modernist creatives felt drawn to cinema’s exciting technology, which provided a medium to explore untraditional artforms, animating their ideas in fascinating ways. As cinema evolved, its full potential became realized. Filmmakers proudly on the margins of commercialism overcame the hurdles of changing technology (including sound, which prevented many directors from creating experimental efforts due to high costs), bucked linear narratives, encouraged active interpetation of the works, and more.
In celebration of Criterion’s Blu-ray set compiling the movies of iconic American avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, we wanted to look back on a few essential titles that helped redefine cinema — and they’re all available to watch online right now. See our picks past the break, and feel free to drop your own links in the comments section.
Viking Eggeling, Diagonale Symphonie (1924)
Swedish artist and filmmaker Viking Eggeling hung out with people like Hans Richter, Jean Arp, and other Dada figures. The artist wanted to explore movement and started creating scroll drawings, eventually moving to film, eager to invent a new kind of cinema completely devoid of a naturalistic style. His first cinematic effort has since been lost, but Symphonie Diagonale became his avant-garde calling card. The short incorporates Eggeling’s paper cutouts and tinfoil figures, which were experiments to “discover the basic principles of the organization of time intervals in the film medium.”
Marcel Duchamp, Anemic Cinema (1926)
Man Ray and cinematographer Marc Allégret provided support for Marcel Duchamp’s (credited to his alter ego, Rrose Sélavy) animated rotorelief work — the first of which is known as Anemic Cinema. Shot in Man Ray’s studio, Duchamp blended various puns and phrases, toying with alliteration. The words were pasted, letter by letter, onto black discs and attached to a record player. The spinning, playful optical illusions set the framework for Duchamp’s innovative style.
Dziga Vertov, Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)
Pioneering Russian filmmaker of the kinok movement Dziga Vertov created one of the first Cinéma vérité-style films with Chelovek s kino-apparatom in 1929 — most popularly translated as Man with a Movie Camera. It’s a snapshot of modern, urban Soviet life with machines galore that uses a trademark self-aware style of avant-garde cinema (look for the cameraman in several shots). Vertov utilized a variety of techniques, including split screens, tracking shots, and more. Even though the kino filmmaker rejected staged shots, there are a few obvious setups in the film.
Maya Deren, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren co-directed Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) with her husband, Czech documentary filmmaker Alexander Hammid. They also star as the woman and man in the movie trapped in a dreamlike world. Influenced by early surrealist works such as Un Chien Andalou, Deren wanted to set the tone for a twisted psychological exploration, relating an interior emotional experience and the odd ways people translate real-life experiences. In short, filmmakers like David Lynch owe Deren’s movie a huge debt.
Kenneth Anger, Fireworks (1947)
Anger once said about Fireworks, “This flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.” He shot the film over the course of one weekend at his parent’s house while they were out of town. Existing somewhere between dream and reality, Anger stars as the young man who has an erotic and violent encounter with a group of sailors. Visual puns, haunting imagery, themes of alienation, and a never before seen frankness made Fireworks a landmark movie that was studied by Kinsey and survived an obscenity battle in court.
Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
Stan Brakhage’s experimental five-film series Dog Star Man superimposes different patterns and flashes of light and color that abstractly move across time, setting the scene for the rest of the series. The black leader inserts provide moments of pause and reflection, a chance to anticipate the next rhythmic shift. Brakhage’s signature scratches and celluloid markmaking can be observed here. Follow the YouTube links to watch the rest of Dog Star Man.
Hollis Frampton, Zorns Lemma (1970)
“The film is a kind of cryptic autobiography. In a way, I had the standard Midwestern, Protestant American education, in which one does learn by precept and rote, in the dark — although it was not perhaps puritanical, authority-ridden, death-saturated. Presumably many of my contemporaries had very much the same kind of experience. It was predominantly oriented to words, but words only in the most superficially denotative sense.”
Read the rest of this interesting interview with structuralist filmmaker Hollis Frampton over here. Iconic avant-garde director Jonas Mekas described Frampton’s Zorns Lemma as “an exercise in mathematical logic in cinema … about alphabet … about the unities of similarities … about sameness in a confusion … about logic in chance … about structure and logic … about rhythm.” Follow the YouTube links to watch the rest of Zorns Lemma. [Editor’s note: YouTube has removed the video. Watch it streaming, here.]
Ernie Gehr, Serene Velocity (1970)
From notable structuralist filmmaker Ernie Gehr:
“In representational films sometimes the image affirms its own presence as image, graphic entity, but most often it serves as vehicle to a photo-recorded event. Traditional and established avant-garde film teaches film to be an image, a representation. But film is a real thing and as a real thing it is not imitation. It does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind. It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.”
Gehr shot his 1970 short Serene Velocity in the basement hallway of a university, composing 23 minutes of various shots that toy with the viewer’s perspective and focus — often quite literally, thanks to the filmmaker’s extreme zooms and close-ups.
Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle (1973)
Situationist/Letterist International (separate from Isidore Isou’s avant-garde movement) filmmaker Guy Debord adapated his own book, La Société du Spectacle (Society of the Spectacle) into a 1973 film that took over a year to create. Combining newsreel footage, found footage, industrial movies, ads, and film clips (from greats such as The Battleship Potemkin), Debord constructed a critical statement about mass marketing and shifting identities in modern, capitalist society.
Su Friedrich, Gently Down the Stream (1981)
Pivotal queer cinema leader Su Friedrich looked to her own dream journals to create notable 1981 avant-garde short Gently Down the Stream. Eight years of dreams were condensed into 14 memories, using text etched directly into the celluloid. The dynamic and deeply personal visual poem found the artist working through feelings of guilt, repression centering on her Catholic childhood and lesbian identity, longing, and anxiety.
Sadie Benning, Jollies (1990)
As a teen, artist and former Le Tigre member Sadie Benning got a Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera for her birthday, which she used to make her earliest experimental film works. Benning continued using the kiddie camera throughout her career, sharing intimate tales that helped shape her lesbian sexual identity. The shorts often feel like diary entries — intercut with music clips and other imagery — brimming with anxious anticipation. The 1990 film Jollies follows suit. [Editor’s note: Vimeo has removed the video. Watch it streaming, here.]