Underground Film Journal

Underground Film Timeline: Index

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.

A woman in a bad costume spreads her wings in a scene from Louis Feuillade's film Vampires.

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.

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A man with the number 9413 written on his forehead yells into a telephone in Robert Florey/s film The Life and Death of 9413 — A Hollywood Extra

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.

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Silhouette of a hand giving the thumbs up from the animated film Swinging the Lambeth Walk by Len Lye

1930 — 1939

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.

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Maya Deren stares out the window in her iconic film Meshes of the Afternoon

1940 — 1949

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.

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Blue-tinted image of a suspension bridge

1950 — 1959

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.

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Jack Smith burns a baby doll with a cigarette

1960 — 1969

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.

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Divine in outrageous makeup

1970 — 1979

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.

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Heavy metal fan sings a song in a parking lot

1980 — 1989

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.

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Andy Warhol holds up an Oscar statuette

1990 — 1999

The New York Underground Film Festival and Chicago Underground Film Festival are both born, creating a strong ecosystem in which outlandish avant-garde films can be regularly screened.

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Woman with bizarre white makeup and bandages wrapped around her head

2000 — 2005

As of now, not a lot has been written about the underground film movement of the early 2000s despite a proliferation of underground film festivals sprouting up all over the world.

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More Underground Resources: Index