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VIDEO ESSAY: Where Experiment Meets the Mainstream

Video
by Nelson Carvajal
April 27, 2012 9:31 AM
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In an age of redundant remakes (Total Recall, Fright Night), attempted revamps (21 Jump Street, The Three Stooges) and even 3D re-launchings (Titanic 3D, Star Wars: Episode 1 - 3D) of past Hollywood fare, it’s easy to become disheartened at the current state of film and television. Then again, any sort of significant movement in cinema history stems from a desire to break free from the established filmmaking “norms” of that era (French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, etc.). Therefore, if today’s mainstream filmmaking temperament is rooted in simply remaking past scripts, movies and TV shows for new audiences—what is a strong way for select filmmakers to retaliate in an effort to create striking work? By absorbing the complex, original and impressionistic styles of post-1940s experimental cinema, the holy grail of non-traditional storytelling. And by surveying facets of some contemporary films, it becomes clear how influential experimental cinema is to today’s visual rhetoric.

One of the most important pieces of American experimental cinema, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, shows filmmakers turning the cinema of its time on its head. To read the script, Deren and Hammid’s film seems to be illustrating a woman’s feverish dream. Yet, at the time, audiences hadn’t witnessed a dream quite like this. Meshes took a conventional narrative, with characters, action, and music, and then restructured it into a circular story by repeating certain imagery, employing an offbeat editing rhythm, and using unusual camera angles to make everyday objects (a phonograph, a house key) seem ambiguously ominous. These stylistic traits are now readily evident in the works of such filmmakers as David Lynch (Inland Empire), Carolee Schneemann (Body Collage), Su Friedrich (Scar Tissue), and Barbara Hammer (Nitrate Kisses), among others. Further, the unforgettable visuals of Meshes—like a cloaked grim reaper with a mirror for a face—have bled into the pop culture via some music videos (e.g. Ambling Alp by Yeasayer).

There are even cases when Hollywood accidentally soars on the strength of some experimental films’ imagery—whether Hollywood realizes it or not. Case in point: Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi film 12 Monkeys is obviously inspired by (if not a remake of) Chris Marker’s La Jetée from 1962. La Jetée boldly told its story (of a man traveling through time in an attempt to save a post-apocalyptic Paris) simply by presenting a series of powerful still images and voiceover narration. But Gilliam’s film is not the only place a cinephile’s interest could be directed. For example, the image of the strained, blindfolded hero from La Jetée no doubt was in the mind of Steven Spielberg while making his Minority Report (2002). Who could forget the virtuoso sequence where Tom Cruise emerges blindfolded from an ice-cold tub to find a horde of crawling robotic spiders?  Cruise’s shocked face, frozen in time, mirrors the still image of the hero in La Jetée. In fact, imagery from Marker’s post-apocalyptic experimental masterpiece still shows up in other modern films (see the Jake Gyllenhaal character in Duncan Jones’ 2011 film Source Code) and music videos (e.g. Jump They Say by David Bowie) as well.

The most powerful impressions of experimental cinema in modern movies, though, are found in the works of filmmakers who are unabashedly rehashing the distinct styles of the avant-garde masters. For example, the abstract and vibrant visuals in Stan Brakhage’s film works (like The Dante Quartet, 1987) have left their mark on recent films by Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, 2002) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011). Love splits up the chapters of its narrative by spraying abstract pieces of art on the screen; Tree features a sequence that flies by city storefronts until they bleed into vibrant, overlapping colors.

We could also look at the audacious narrative risks in an experimental classic like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). The Red Shoes unexpectedly took its otherwise straightforward story about an ambitious ballerina and smothered it in psychedelic, voluminous colors and emulated elements of the surreal through bizarre imagery and costume design. The film was no doubt a psychological inspiration for Darren Aronofsky’s similarly ballet-themed Black Swan (2010). Swan even goes so far as to create similar fantastical characters (via hallucinations) and re-stage the earlier film’s distressed close-up shot on its heroine’s face during a climatic dance. In his Tetro (2009), Francis Ford Coppola takes it one step further by brilliantly restaging some Red Shoes-esque ballet dance sequences; Coppola even photographs them in the same 1:37:1 aspect ratio as Powell and Pressburger’s film.

In the end, perhaps the most profound (and possibly most important) sign of contemporary film’s wrestling with its experimental influence comes in 2001’s criminally underrated Vanilla Sky, by Cameron Crowe. Crowe’s film, like a plethora of other Hollywood films, is a remake of an already celebrated film (in this case, Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 drama Open Your Eyes). In both films, a man is coming to terms with the life he lived and the (possible) life in front of him. Yet, unlike so many Hollywood remakes, Crowe is able to surpass the source material. Crowe does this by allowing the stylistic impressions of titan experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to enter Vanilla Sky. Mekas, known for his prolific filmography composed of personal film diaries (e.g. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty [2000]), has developed a fragmentary visual style, created by quick edits and strategically inserted (handwritten) title cards. What separates Vanilla Sky from Open Your Eyes is the way Crowe capitalizes on Mekas’ visual strategy: Vanilla Sky unforgettably closes with a vomiting of personal archival footage in order to convey an internal reckoning of its hero.

What all of these examples show—other than how the unique styles of experimental cinema have become embedded in certain filmmakers’ techniques—is how vital it is to challenge the norms or ideas behind “traditional” moviemaking. If it weren’t for the risks of a select group of filmmakers, most directors would still be thumbing through Hollywood’s Rolodex of remake-ready titles.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.

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