Experimental Filmmaking

Also known as avant-garde (vanguard), experimental films are rare and totally unpopular. In fact, most people will go their entire lives without ever catching a glimpse of an experimental movie. Most will never sit through one.

As the word “experimental” suggests, this type of movie is trying something new, different… so different that, at first, it will cause confusion, if not annoyance on the viewer.

In simple terms, experimental films are incredibly easy to define but quite difficult to understand since most people have no preconception of what they are. Imagine a movie that is neither narrative nor documentary. What remains? Chaos, disorder, incoherence … An amalgam of ideas forced together by the filmmaker without any regards for characters, structure, or theme.

The vast majority of avant-garde films are not screened in theaters, aired on TV, or sold in discs – they are not mainstream and have little to no commercial life whatsoever.

So who makes them and why?

Although most filmmakers are in it for the money, trying their best to create something profitable, other directors just want to make movie for themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bunuel Un Chien andalou ant hand

Ants emerging from a man’s hand in
“Un Chien Andalou” (1929).

Like any other art form, cinema can also be a therapeutic activity. This is not to imply that those who make them are maniacs, not at all. However, some directors are not concerned about what people may think or commercial success – they make movies for themselves.

Occasionally, an experimental movie may become popular despite its peculiarities or even because of them. Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel achieved quite some renown with Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog). A surrealist, 16-minute movie from 1929, Un Chien Andalou is generally considered the most famous experimental movie. Here goes the first minute…

Un Chien Andalou opens with a title card that reads “Once upon a time,” followed by a tight shot of a razor being sharpened. After sharpening his razor, a man (played by Buñuel himself) walks to a balcony, from where he gazes at the moon, which is about to be obscured by a passing cloud. Then there’s a close-up of young woman, who sits calmly at the balcony. The man looks at the moon again, and, as he looks back at the woman, he slits her eye open. End scene. Another title card: “Eight years later.” Another man bicycles down a street while wearing a nun’s habit…

Again, experimental films are not tied to any story structure, character arc, or common sense. These brave filmmakers make movies for themselves.

Success Amid Chaos

The great thing about experimental films is that it allows filmmakers to try something new.

Have you heard of mockumentaries? Mockumentaries are part narrative filmmking, part documentary filmmaking — they tell fake stories while using the techniques found in documentaries. The result is a hybrid style that spawned a new genre altogether. Many movies such as This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show and many TV shows like The Office and Modern Family have found great acclaim in this style.

Though they are now part of a different genre, the early mock-documentaries were part of someone’s experimentation.


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