Also known as “experimental” and “underground” cinema, films of the avant-garde
- tend to have broken, disjointed, or non-existent narratives
- often focus on some technical aspect of film
- usually “approach the medium as an aesthetic, philosophical, and/or political means of expression” (Film: A Critical Introduction, 291)
- are generally antagonistic to conventional, Hollywood-style film-making
According to your textbook authors, there are five major kinds of avant-garde film:
- Surrealist. Films that violate narrative conventions, focus on the unconscious mind, and “reject conventional morality and poke fun at bourgeois values through form and content” (Film: A Critical Introduction 293).
- Abstract. Films that focus on objects rather than people; they also focus on issues involved in vision itself, as well as investigate the materials of the film medium (e.g. Stan Brakhage).
- City Symphony. Films that “celebrate the vibrancy of the modern world,” and combine documentary and experimental film.
- Structuralist. Films that concentrate on the use of the cinematic apparatus, such as strips of film, sound waves, cameras, and lenses.
- Compilation. Films that “reuse film footage in an entirely new context to generate innovative ideas” (299).
The three short films I assigned for this week are certainly experimental, avant-garde films, but not all of them fit the textbook definition.
An Andalusian Dog
An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), written and directed by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, and first released in 1927, is the best-known example of Surrealist film.
Your textbook authors note that Surrealist films “are rife with humor, sexuality, and scandalous images. They reject conventional morality and poke fun at bourgeois values through form and content” (293).
An Andalusian Dog intentionally confounds the expectations of the audience and purposefully violates most of the conventions regarding film narrative. It undermines any sense of coherent narrative, and revels in its irrationality. In this sense, it is just like a dream.
Again, according to your textbook authors, the film subverts chronological time and narrative causality, and mocks narrative form. “The sequence of events is not coherent; viewers cannot make sense of the film using cause-and-effect logic,” and “unnamed characters have few goals or conflicts (although motifs include gender fluidity and sexual aggression” (293). Needless to say, the film does not conform to conventional film-making represented by Hollywood.
According to Martha Nochimson, in An Andalusian Dog Dali and Buñuel mock “the assumption that there is any absolute reality. Creating a film that has no traditional narrative syntax, that is, rules by which the parts were joined to form a story, Dalí and Buñuel set out to prove that all individuals and cultures are doing no more than connecting the dots according to their own limited perspectives when they talk about the real” (281).
An Andalusian Dog can best be understood as an experiment in Freudian dream analysis, utilizing the method of free association. Just as dreams are deeply subjective, amorphous, and have their own logic, An Andalusian Dog works at the level of the subconscious mind, which includes the “sub-rational.” Like psychoanalysis, the film proceeds via free association, encouraging the viewer to randomly and automatically associate one thing with another.
Though the film defies explanation, and the film-makers repeatedly refused to explicate the symbols of the film, one way to read An Andalusian Dog is as a journey through the stages of psycho-sexual development according to Freud. (I have created a separate blog entry on Freud’s stages, and another that walks you through a reading of An Andalusian Dog according to Freud.)
There are many visual associations of a sexual nature in An Andalusian Dog (armpit hair representing pubic hair, the wounded hand representing the vagina, the close association of female breasts and buttocks). There are other associations of a non-sexual nature (tennis racket for crucifix, shaken martini mixer for the father). Some of these images are taken right out of the Freudian playbook, others (such as ants crawling out of stigmata holes) are personal obsessions of Dalí or Buñuel, which first appeared in dreams.
Finally, in the film we see, in many different guises, the close association of sex with death, or eros (sexual desire) and thanatos (the death wish), which was one of Freud’s later psychological theories. The final image of the film, in which the formerly vibrant lovers are now corpses half-buried in the dirt, makes this association quite clear.
Meshes of the Afternoon
Meshes of the Afternoon was made, in the United States, in 1943. It was written, directed, and acted by Maya Deren and her husband at the time, Alexander Hammid.
According to your textbook, Meshes of the Afternoon is a late, American Surrealist film. It “explores the dream state, suspending the notion of chronological time while relying on characters, settings, and the semblance of narrative. Deren and her husband use domestic interiors as the nightmarish location for the dreamer’s vivid and self-destructive imagination” (Film: A Critical Introduction, 293). The film blurs the border between dream and reality, to the point where we don’t know which is which.
Deren said of the Meshes of the Afternoon: “This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” (Commentary from Maya Deren from the DVD release, Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58).
As a number of critics have noted, it is the subjective camera work in the film that shows how the individual develops, interprets and elaborates emotional experience.
Meshes of the Afternoon is often characterized as a feminist film. According to Theresa Geller,
Deren worked tirelessly . . . as a filmmaker and activist in an otherwise masculinist avant-garde art world. The critiques she wages against the dominant representations women were met with vehement resistance by a rabidly patriarchal, and frequently misogynistic, avant-garde film culture that did not hesitate to conflate Deren herself with her films in their attacks” (140).
As a feminist film, Meshes of the Afternoon shows the psychological oppression of women, which – in the case of the unnamed woman character – leads to suicide. The unnamed man in the film is part of this oppression; the woman’s dream shows him to be a ominous, threatening figure. In its feminism, the film is similar to Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, written and directed by Todd Haynes while he was in graduate school, is a short biopic about the pop chanteuse of the 1970s who died of anorexia nervosa in 1983.
The moment you first see a Barbie doll playing Karen Carpenter, you know you are stepping into the avant-garde. Seeing Barbie dolls play all the characters, throughout the entire film, seals the deal.
Haynes’s use of Barbie dolls has two main functions in the film. First, it is a subtle critique of the way girls and women are encouraged to aspire to – or are indoctrinated in – an unrealistic and dysfunctional physical ideal, for the purpose of looking more attractive to men. This is one way that women suffer as a result of the Male Gaze.
Secondly, Haynes uses the Barbie dolls to prevent the viewer’s identification with the characters in the film. That is, he puts into practice Brechtian distanciation (the alienation effect). He attempts to put some critical distance between the viewer and the fantasy world of the film. However, as I mentioned in class, it doesn’t always work that way. I still managed to identify with the characters and become immersed in the world of the film. The melodrama of the plot and the music (and my own 1970s nostalgia) had a big part to play in this.
Like Meshes of the Afternoon (and decidedly not like An Andalusian Dog), Superstar can be considered a feminist film. The film shows how Karen Carpenter struggled with the expectations of her family and society, which derived from a patriarchal ideology. The film also deals with the Male Gaze, as mentioned above.
Related to this is Haynes’s critique of consumerism. The film suggests that consumerism was complicit in the death of Karen Carpenter, in that it was the consumption of Ex-Lax and Ipicac that led to her anorexia. Ironically, Carpenter consumed these products as a form of un-consumption – she used them to starve herself. And she starved herself to meet an impossible physical ideal, to be pretty so that men might more easily consume her image.
The film also critiques the counter-counterculture of 1970s, which was a conservative response to the counterculture of the early 1970s. That is, Carpenter became the poster child of wholesome living, and the antithesis of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. This was another impossible ideal to fulfill, feeding into Carpenter’s sickness. It was exacerbated by the pressures of celebrity, of being a role model before you’re mature enough to handle it. This inevitably leads to cognitive dissonance, a conflict between who you are and who your are supposed to be (or forced by others to be).
The film is Surrealist in some places (the spanking hand). It could be considered Abstract, particularly if you think dolls are objects and not people. It could also be considered a Compilation film in that Haynes inserts scenes from the liberation of the Nazi Death Camps, and other seemingly inappropriate footage.
It might seem that Haynes was going way over the top with such footage, in effect comparing anorexia nervosa to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, but on a formal level it is justified – it is one way to offset the melodramatic story-line, and confound the nearly-automatic emotional response provoked by the music.
University of Maryland
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Maya Deren, “Commentary to Meshes of the Afternoon,” Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58 (DVD).
Theresa L. Geller, “The Personal Cinema of Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon and its Critical Reception in the History of the Avant-garde,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 29.1 (Winter 2006): 140-158.
Martha Nochimson, World on Film (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).