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EXPRMNTL 3: 1963 Recap

Poster for the EXPRMNTL film competition held in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium in 1963

1963 was a pivotal year in the history of avant-garde film in the United States. In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney calls it “the high point of the mythopoeic development within the American avant-garde.” He explains:

[Stan] Brakhage had finished and was exhibiting the first two sections of Dog Star Man by then; Jack Smith was still exhibiting the year-old Flaming Creatures; [Kenneth Anger‘s] Scorpio Rising appeared almost simultaneously with [Gregory Markopoulos‘s] Twice a Man. The shift from an interest in dreams and the erotic quest for the self to mythopoeia, and a wider interest in the collective unconscious occurred in the films of a number of major and independent artists.

(An inclusive list of American avant-garde films made/released in 1963 can be found here.)

On Christmas Day of 1963 began the weeklong third edition of EXPRMNTL, a competition of worldwide avant-garde films held in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium. The two previous EXPRMNTL competitions took place in 1949 and 1958. EXPRMNTL 3 would become most famous for a riotous partial screening of Jack Smith‘s Flaming Creatures, an incident that has been well-documented and discussed in the fifty-plus years since. However, other details of the competition have been slight and scattered in books and newspaper, magazine and Internet articles. This article is an attempt to pull this disparate data about EXPRMNTL 3 into one place.

A limited search of contemporaneous news articles uncovered two brief reports published on January 2, 1964. The first was in the New York Times with the headline of “German Experimental Film Wins at Festival in Belgium.” The film referred to in that headline was Die Parallelstrasse by Ferdinand Khittl, a West German filmmaker. Khittl won the first place prize of $5,000. The article also notes that two American filmmakers also won awards. Stan Vanderbeek‘s Breathdeath and Gregory Markopoulos‘s Twice a Man both tied for second place, and won $2,000 each. (In Visionary Film, Sitney mentions that Markopolous won, but not that he tied with Vanderbeek.)

The Times article further explains that Jonas Mekas had been chosen as one of the competition’s nine jurors, but that he had quit in protest when EXPRMNTL 3 refused to screen Flaming Creatures. The jury claimed to be supportive of the film, but ultimately decided that the film would be “impossible to show under Belgian laws.”

The other brief article was in the Los Angeles Times, which makes all the same points of the New York Times article, with the exception of calling Vanderbeek’s film Bres Foress. (It’s unclear why.) The L.A. Times also makes the point that Flaming Creatures was rejected by the competition on the “grounds of pornography.”

The most detailed contemporaneous account of the Flaming Creatures fiasco has to be in the January 16, 1964 edition of Mekas’s “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice. Mekas’s column was more in the realm of review and editorial writing than news reporting, but since he was an integral part of the controversy, he reported the facts strictly as he saw them. He makes that point explicitly: “It did different things to each of us.” Those “things” were:

…we smuggled Flaming Creatures into the projection room in the can of Dog Star Man; about our screenings in the hotel cellar amidst dusty old furniture, cobwebs, old newspapers; about how, on New Year’s night, we stormed the Crystal Room and took over the projector, how the lights were cut off, and how I ran to the switchboard room, trying to push off the house detective, holding the door, trying to force the fingers of the bully who was holding the switch.

“People, do you want to see the film?” Barbara Rubin shouted from the projector platform, fighting like a brave general.

“Yes!” answered the people.

It is too confusing what went on after that. Much pushing and shouting as the switch changed hands between me and the cop. It was about this time that the Minister of Justice arrived. The riot was getting more and more out of hand. The Minister made an attempt to explain the Belgian law. But when we asked if there was such a law forbidding the showing of films, he said there was no such law. “Then fuck you!” shouted Barbara to the Minster of Justice of Belgium. We made another attempt to project Flaming Creatures right on his face, but the light was cut off again. Later I was told that the Minister of Justice in his speech gave his word that the Belgian laws on this matter will be changed. The morning papers picked up the promise.

Mekas later mentions that Paul Adams Sitney was also involved in this incident, then goes on to discuss other aspects of the competition. Before getting to that, it’s worth noting that Mekas does not refer to the competition by the name EXPRMNTL, but calls it the “Third International Experimental Film Exposition.” It’s unknown if using the term “Exposition” instead of “Competition” is a slight or mistake by Mekas.

In his Jan. 16, 1964 column, Mekas is generally dismissive of the European avant-garde and claims that the only interesting work that was screened was by Americans. He calls Die Parallelstrasse a “boring, heavy, pretentious German movie” and says that the one exception of European excellence is Peter Kubelka’s Schwechater. (Kubelka would later help Mekas found and launch the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.)

Other notes that Mekas makes are: Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief and Robert Breer‘s Blazes had been passed over by the selection jury. Scorpio Rising not winning a prize was a disappointment, as it was one of the most well-liked films of the competition, in addition to Twice a Man and Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving. Filmmaker Agnes Varda attended one of the illicit screenings of Flaming Creatures in a hotel bedroom. And Mekas gives the last names of three of the jury members: Klein, Mazetti and Vesely.

In 2011, for an article titled “The Dialectic of Obscenity” published in the Hamline Law Review, Brian L. Frye does refer to two other contemporaneous reports of EXPRMNTL 3. One is an article in the January 15, 1964 edition of Variety titled “Belgians Balk N.Y. ‘Creatures'”; and the other is in the Spring 1964 edition of Sight & Sound titled “Fog at Knokke.” The Underground Film Journal has not read either of these articles, but highly recommends Frye’s.

Beyond the Flaming Creatures riot, as of this writing, the Underground Film Journal could only find these mentions of EXPRMNTL 3 in printed matter:

In The Exploding Eye, Wheeler W. Dixon writes:

Scarface and Aprhodite (1963) [by Vernon Zimmerman] is a 15-minute film record of a Happening staged by artist Claes Oldenburg, and won a Special Jury Commendation at the Third International Experimental Film Festival (1963-64) in Knokke-Le-Zoute, Belgium.

In Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, Scott MacKenzie notes that several Japanese filmmakers and one American issued the “Film Andepandan [Independents] Manifesto” after several Japanese films were accepted by EXPRMNTL. The manifesto called for “cinema independent of capital and industrial filmmaking.” MacKenzie also writes that An Eater, co-directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi and Kazutomo Fujino, won an award at the competition. Signatories to the manifesto are: Takahiko Iimura, Koichiro Ishizaki, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Jyushin Sato, and Donald Richie. (Also, it should be noted that MacKenzie mistakenly writes that EXPRMNTL occurred in December 1964, not 1963.)

Online, Xavier Garcia Bardon’s EXPRMNTL: An Expanded Festival is mostly a discussion of the competition’s fourth edition in 1967, but includes some good background on the event’s origins.

Lastly, there is a documentary called EXPRMNTL directed by Brecht Debackere, that seems to have made the film festival rounds, but is yet to be released either on DVD or streaming. Watch the trailer embedded below:

List of filmmakers and films we know screened at EXPRMNTL:


Scorpio Rising

Stan Brakhage
Dog Star Man (parts 1 and 2)
Window Water Baby Moving

Ferdinand Khittl
Die Parallelstrasse

Peter Kubelka
Schwechater


Twice a Man

Nobuhiko Obayashi and Kazutomo Fujino
An Eater


Breathdeath

Vernon Zimmerman
Scarface and Aphrodite


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