Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre
Edward S. Small
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"Art is thinking in images."—Victor Shklovsky
Undulating water patterns; designs etched directly into exposed film; computer- generated, pulsating, multihued light tapestries—the visual images that often constitute experimental film and video provide the basis for Edward S. Small’s argument for a new theory defining this often overlooked and misunderstood genre. In a radical revision of film theory incorporating a semiotic system, Small contends that experimental film/video constitutes a mode of theory that bypasses written or spoken words to directly connect Ferdinand de Saussure’s "signifier" and "signified," the image and the viewer. This new theory leads Small to develop a case for the establishment of experimental film/video as a major genre.
Small contends that the aesthetic of experimental film/video would best be understood as a coordinate major genre separate from genres such as fictive narrative and documentary. He employs eight experimental technical/structural characteristics to demonstrate this thesis: the autonomy of the artist or a-collaborative construction; economic independence; brevity; an affinity for animation and special effects that embraces video technology and computer graphics; use of the phenomenology of mental imagery, including dreams, reveries, and hallucinations; an avoidance of verbal language as either dialogue or narration; an exploration of nonnarrative structure; and a pronounced reflexivity—drawing the audience’s attention to the art of the film through images rather than through the mediation of words.
Along with a theoretical approach, Small provides an overview of the historical development of experimental film as a genre. He covers seven decades beginning in France and Germany in the 1920s with European avant-garde and underground films and ends with a discussion of experimental videos of the 1990s. He highlights certain films and provides a sampling of frames from them to demonstrate the heightened reflexivity when images rather than words are the transmitters: for example, Ralph Steiner’s 1929 H2O, a twelve-minute, wordless, realistic study of water patterns, and Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie, which unites his themes of war-weapons-death and sexuality not by narrative digesis but by intellectual montage juxtapositions. Small also examines experimental video productions such as Stephen Beck’s 1977 Video Weavings, which has a simple musical score and abstract images recalling American Indian rugs and tapestries.
Small adds classic and contemporary film theory discussions to this historical survey to further develop his direct-theory argument and his presentation of experimental film/video as a separate major genre. He stresses that the function of experimental film/video is "neither to entertain nor persuade but rather to examine the quite omnipresent yet little understood pictos [semiotic symbols] that mark and measure our postmodern milieu."
time of the signifier)." 2 While certain murals, triptychs, and tapestries doin the fashion of the multipaneled cartoon or comic bookrealize narrative characterization and temporality, most painting does not. (Neither, I should add, does it realize the type of exposition that informs the kind of prose that my reader now processes: Eisenstein's intellectual cinema goal.) By the beginning of the FAG, film narrative had already arrived at its contemporary status, being cinema's all but exclusive
that paradoxically play at the representation of stimulated optic-nerve patterns or entoptic "floaters," Prelude quietly mounts image upon image, blackness to pure color to distorted representations, without any dependence upon narrative's popular appeal. Further, within a major genre marked by acollaborative quintessential auteurism, Brakhage has become hallmark. All funding, conception, scripting (although Brakhage really does not use scripts in the usual sense of the term),
Page 63 show were rear-projected onto a screen on the studio floor, which was televised as a second video source. Both video sources were routed into one monitor. . . . A second TV camera televised the monitor, feeding the signal to a videotape recorder. This master tape was again processed through the switching/mixing system ... [while] a special camera was set up in front of a monitor that filmed at a video rate of 30 fps instead of the movie rate of 24 fps. 5 Thus Bartlett's
fixed-camera position.25 As we have seen, the rapid montage of Léger's Ballet Mécaniquewhile likely realized in a manner independent of a fixed camerareflexively mimicked animation's particular mode of movement. As early as 1929, Eisenstein seemed to sense this similarity between rapid montage and animation when his written theory discussed his concept of clatter montage. With its Breer-like "effect almost of double exposure achieved by ... [the brief] length of montage piecestwo frames each,"26
expect experimental film/video's at times hostile reception and audience perplexity. To a great extent, the real audiences for such works have been either fellow artists or a small body of specialized scholars. This same thesis is a complex one that will develop as we survey the historic evolution of this major genre. For the present chapter, it is essential only that we establish this body of production as a major genre, coordinate to actualities and fictive narratives and hosting its own