This is a timeline of significant events, films and filmmakers in underground film history.
All information included in the timeline is being pulled from books written about underground film, print newspaper articles, and articles written on the Underground Film Journal. A list of book sources is included on each page.
The Underground Film Timeline is still very much a work in progress. If a filmmaker, film, or event is not listed within a given decade, that is not an editorial comment on non-significance. It just means that topic has not been covered elsewhere for us to archive, nor have we covered it ourselves due to time limitations.
A list of DVDs where you can watch films listed in the timeline appears on this page.
1900 — 1919
At the birth of cinema, there was a considerable amount of experimentation with film techniques and primitive special effects, particularly in France. These were known as trick films, and a fascination with them would inspire avant-garde filmmakers in the decades to come, as would other more technically-advanced dramas.
1920 — 1929
Painters, whose interests in motion lead them into cinematography, launch the avant-garde film movement in Europe. Filmmakers with similar artistic sensibilities form film clubs and publish magazines promoting their work and advancing film theory. A small amount of filmmakers in the U.S. also begin creating avant-garde cinematic works.
As avant-garde cinema begins to fizzle out as a movement in Europe, experimental film screening series start their ascension in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art begins distributing films, while Cinema 16 and Art in Cinema begin their runs on opposite ends of the country.
Experimental filmmaking continues in the U.S. by filmmakers scattered around the country. However, in 1943, Maya Deren directs her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon, and immediately builds a strong reputation by making several more films, organizing screenings for herself and relentlessly promoting her ideas on film theory.
Experimental filmmaking starts picking up steam in the U.S. as some of the major filmmakers in the coming underground film movement create their first works. Also, in NYC, Jonas Mekas, his brother Adolfas, and other collaborators publish the first issue of Film Culture magazine, which will become a landmark publication for the American underground.
Underground film is officially born! Jonas Mekas helps create the New American Cinema Group as an effort to grant cohesion to the diverse group making experimental films in the U.S., but an article by Stan Vanderbeek in Film Quarterly helps usher in the phrase “underground film”, a term that would stick throughout the decade.
The underground film movement essentially splits into two factions. One moves into academia; while the other creates feature-length cult films sometimes called “midnight movies” for the time they were usually screened. At the end of the decade, a punk-inspired “no wave” film culture starts brewing.
Underground film comes roaring back when Nick Zedd begins publishing his Underground Film Bulletin; and Tessa-Hughes Freeland and Ela Troyano found the New York Film Festival Downtown. Meanwhile, traditional experimental filmmaking continues in academic and art communities.
More Underground Resources: Index