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Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 1, 2008

Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader

Experimental Cinema is one in a series of books on different film subjects. I’m not familiar with the series, but inside this entry it says they also have books on genres like musical and horror and industry-side subjects like marketing and exhibition. The books are meant for students in film studies courses. So, yes that means that Experimental Cinema is one of those academic style of books that I generally can’t stand.

The book is a “reader,” so it’s a compendium of articles from many different sources as compiled by editors Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. The good thing with “readers” is that when you come to an article you can’t stand, you can at least skip it and go to the next one without getting lost in the narrative. There were a few chapters here I gave up on, but there were some articles that were just great. So, for them, this was a decent read.

The book covers a lot of familiar territory I’ve read in other film books, but Dixon and Foster have pulled out articles that give these topics a unique spin. For example, I particularly enjoyed Juan A. Suarez’s “Pop, Queer, or Fascist? The Ambiguity of Mass Culture in Kenneth Anger‘s Scorpio Rising” from his book Bike Boys. Suarez skips over Anger’s magickal underpinnings of his film and just concentrates on the evolution of gays and biker culture in the ’50s that lead up to Anger’s most well-known film. It’s a really thorough, engaging piece and I’ll have to check out Suarez’s full book sometime.

Other standout stuff:

1) Jonas Mekas‘ “Notes on the New American Cinema” doesn’t really cover any new territory that I hadn’t read in any of his other writings, but this is a terrific read, too, as his pieces from the ’60s always are.

2) “The Perfect Queer Appositeness of Jack Smith” by Jerry Tartaglia focuses less on Flaming Creatures specifically and covers Smith’s other films, most of which were only screened during Smith’s live performance pieces. Tartaglia, though, has been working at restoring Smith’s lost films and hopefully that nasty legal stuff can get cleared up soon so these can be put into circulation.

3) Suranjan Ganguly’s interview with Stan Brakhage on the occasion of the filmmaker’s 60th birthday is the first interview with Brakhage that I could follow clearly. Other interviews I’ve read, which are interesting for different reasons, have Brakhage talking about the metaphysics behind his films. This one, conducted after Brakhage’s divorce and second marriage, has him in a very reflective mood on the physical reality of his life, which was a really different perspective than from what I’ve heard from him before.

4) Reva Wolf’s “The Flower Thief: The ‘Film Poem,’ Warhol’s Early Films, and the Beat Writers,” really connects the pop artist’s films as being very influenced by the Beat Writers, which I hadn’t really heard before.

There’s also a nice piece on structural film by P. Adams Sitney that’s a good complement to his exhaustive book Visionary Film. Plus, there’s good interviews with Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton and Warren Sonbert.

Another thing that Dixon and Foster try to do in the book is to give a lot of space to female avant garde filmmakers. Most other books seem to cover Maya Deren extensively, but then that’s about it. Well, except for maybe a little Shirley Clarke thrown in, too.

In Experimental Cinema, there’s some great interviews with Carolee Schneeman and Barbara Hammer, as wells as a surprising little two article section on Yoko Ono. Surprising to me because while I knew Yoko had made some films, I didn’t really know what they were all about. These were two interesting pieces, a reverential examination of her work by Daryl Chin and diary descriptions by Yoko herself on her films.

As I said, there were some real clunkers in the book and the introduction really irritated me with a lot of talk about how superior experimental film is to Hollywood movies. I mean, I love experimental, avant garde and underground film or whatever you want to call it, but I find it all just different from Hollywood narratives, not necessarily “better.” That kind of talk just gets under my skin.

Some of the other articles I didn’t like for various reasons — e.g. didn’t think it fit the theme of the book properly, felt lost since it was only an excerpt from another work, not as exhaustive as other articles are — and I’ll just leave it at that. Overall, well worth a read, even if every word didn’t get devoured.

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