Experimental film is a tough racket, both for the maker and the viewer. Film festival showings that no one attends, work archived deep in the bowels of a university somewhere, video copies of ten-minute pieces sold only with institutional rights at five hundred dollars a pop–for those with an interest, it can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to tracks down extant works by even the most famous of non-narrative directors. Even today, in an era where the Internet makes seemingly everything accessible, finding where to start and what’s available can be tricky. Not only that, but the subject matter and the way it’s expressed can be incredibly daunting, and being rudderless in the open seas of abstract filmmaking is an awful easy way to drown (or, worse yet, lose appreciation for the form).
Luckily, there are heroes left in this world, and some of them have YouTube accounts where they upload copies of experimental short films, some high quality and crystal clear and others sourced from what appear to be old VHS and Betamax tapes, likely borrowed from libraries and colleges. They provide an easy way to enter into this world without tracking down a film festival (that is of course only playing on a day you have work) or paying hundreds of dollars for DVDs that you might not even dig (or, just as likely, will be coded for a different region). Even better for those with lots of pressure on their time, some of the absolute best experimental films on YouTube clock in under fifteen minutes long. Here’s a guided tour of ten of them:
Meat Love by Jan Svankmajer
To start things off, let’s go with a film that’s not only under two minutes, but funny to boot (an unfortunately rare trait in the film avant-garde). A clear predecessor to the genial work of PES (whose own Submarine Sandwich nearly made it on this list), it tells the story of the courtship, consummation, and death of a relationship, except the participants happen to be two slabs of animated meat. By showing human intimacy as the knocking together of bright red steaks, we get both a funny visual pun and a surprisingly incisive boiling down of what it might mean to dance, kiss, have sex, and die. Beyond that, it reminds us of the fact that we are all, at the end of the day, made of meat, but says that maybe that’s no reason to despair.
Beatles Electroniques by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut
To say Nam June Paik is the most important video artist of all time would almost be underselling the fact that video art as we know it today (and all the music videos and music video directors influenced by him, many of who ended up directing major Hollywood features) would have never arrived in its current form without him. Experiencing his work can be difficult, however, as much of it was performance and sculpture based as well as video-based, and pure “films” as they were rarely ended up being his focus. Beatles Electroniques is one of his more easily available non-sculptural pieces, and it is at once playful and haunting, a fascinating show of his then relatively recent adoption of video synthesis and the ways in which pop music and pop icons can be contorted and changed by an audience.
Why I Never Became A Dancer by Tracey Emin
Also known as Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer (after googling, I’m still not sure which is the “correct” title), in this short film Tracey Emin of Young British Artists fame (a group that also includes the notorious Damien Hirst) discusses some of her experiences growing up, particularly as they relate to sexuality and the ways that has shaped her life, even to this day. Vulnerable and open to the viewer like the best of her controversial work, it speaks freely on what it’s like to be a sexually adventurous young woman, complicating an often simplified narrative. She sees her part in a system both as victim and victimizer, and treads those fine and uncomfortable lines that always exist in a sexist society with confidence and honesty. As we see footage of her dancing at the end to an ebullient disco song, it can’t help but be weighed down with the meaning behind that dancing and what it might’ve wanted to escape from–in a way, it’s the perfect distillation of why disco (and house music after that, and club culture as a whole) matters in a way that goes beyond a superficial reading.
Lemon by Hollis Frampton
To lighten things back up a bit, here’s a lemon. That’s it, just a lemon. Light moves over it, and the lemon stays the same, but it also changes because the light changes. But it’s always a lemon. But is it ever really a “lemon?” Remember that sense of humor I said was missing from too many experimental directors? Thankfully, Hollis Frampton has it in spades, and Lemon is his examination of perspective–whenever the light moves, this single thing looks different. It changes, it evolves, it becomes new things, even though its constituent parts remain stubbornly the same. The light is like your memory, and as it forgets, the lemon in your past changes, and the lemon in your present starts to look more (or less) appetizing. It’s heady concepts, but it’s also a lemon, and who’s going to take issue with nature’s most wonderful yellow fruit? Banana fans can go suck an egg.
The Separation by Robert Morgan
(Trigger warning for self-harm)
Perhaps the most straight-forward of the films on this list, mostly because there’s an actual narrative to be had: two conjoined twins get surgery to separate themselves, but afterwards they only end up lonely and disconnected, which leads them to take extreme measures to return things to the way they were. But although the story might be easy to parse, the emotions it evokes are far stickier, enhanced by Robert Morgan’s masterful animation, his sickly sculptures taking on a haunting beauty and his character’s distorted, ugly faces more emotive than most real world actors. The brothers get what they think they want–to be apart, to be “normal”–but they end up all the worse off, soon refusing to let their wounds heal, unable to move on in any productive way. According to the world at large, they’re “fixed”, but how much consolation is that lie? It’s a terrible, deeply affecting loneliness that Morgan gets at, and although all his work is worth seeking out, The Seperation remains, to my eyes, his most moving.
Mothlight by Stan Brakhage
Of all the non-narrative and experimental filmmakers, few hold the artistic renown of Stan Brakhage, a man who is, and I hope this doesn’t sound like hyperbole, perhaps the greatest image-maker in the history of cinema. Much of his legend rests on his painted films, films wherein he directly applied paint to physical film strips, creating moving Pollock pieces that dazzle even more than that legend in their energy, their pure emotion, the way the represent without ever signifying. Mothlight is similar, but instead of using paint, Brakhage directly applied pieces of grass, leaves, and dead moths to the film strip, and created an absolute classic of film without using a camera. In barely over a minute, Brakhage creates a spiritual ecstasy of a film, one that stays grounded to the earth while soaring through the very essence of life and death, taking in the absolute magnificent beauty of the world around us, even in its decay, even in its end. If you only watch one film on this list, please make it Mothlight.
Light Is Waiting by Michael Robinson
In honor of Fuller House (a show that is so surreally stuck in the sitcom tropes of the early 90’s that it borders on experimental art piece itself), it’s a good time to revisit Light Is Waiting, Michael Robinson’s video art piece that takes the Beach Boys episode of Full House and turns it into a hypnotic, ritualistic, waking nightmare. Scenes are reflected back across themselves and layered on top of each other to distort the adventures of the Tanner family (adventures best described as offensively inoffensive) into a grotesque memory, a nightmare you had after you fell asleep watching Nick at Nite. It’s a righteous ghost inquiring exactly why we let this happen in the first place, and a brain-burning head trip to boot.
Unofficial Reality by Vince Collins
Taking the quick-edit, irreverent, absurdist streak of YouTube Poop (an art unto itself, but that’s for another day) and applying it to poorly rendered CGI animation detailing all of America’s modern failings, Vince Collins has seamlessly moved from that guy who did the cartoon where Alice from Alice in Wonderland morphs into a series of vaginas and penises (1982’s Malice in Wonderland) to one of the most artful purveyors of kitsch imagery on the market today. Unofficial Reality traffics in imagery so cheesy that it turns into a show of its own intentions, much like vaporwave exposed the hidden beauty of AM radio tunes (and the culture and vibes that went with it). Easy to dismiss but difficult to forget, Collins’ best work worms its way into your brain, asking you to revisit it and unpack its dense gag-filled riffs until they show themselves as the strangely incisive things they are. Yeah, it certainly doesn’t look or sound like art, but put on your Warhol-approved pop-art glasses (though please, ignore Warhol himself) and something really astonishing shines through.
Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, etc. by Owen Land
Here we have perhaps the most unapproachable film on this list, a six minute structuralist film that displays nothing more than an off-center loop of test footage played over and over and over again. It’s bland, ugly, and a bit boring–and that’s the point. What we focus on are those specks of dust, those scratches, and as we search for anything in the image that changes we realize something deeply important about film as an art form: it’s just a thing. The images contained in the thing might feel spiritual, magical, amazing, but at the end of it all it’s just a film strip (or, more likely these days, a set of zeroes and ones), and what we are watching is an illusion. It breaks down the rarefied air of film, and it tells you that you and it both exist in this real world, this real space, a space where art isn’t some abstracted idea that other people create. It can be in your hands, in your eyes, in your mind, and all that’s needed to create it is a degree of effort, some farming to make the seeds sprout. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel like you get the gist of it in the first 30 seconds, but then somehow you find yourself watching it again next week, and the week after, coming back to remind yourself of where you live, of how you live, of the fact that you live in the same world as art. It’s not so special after all, which is to say that its power is something you too can hold, not distant from yourself, a part of you.
Lights by Marie Menken
To end our little curated journey, I want to show something joyful, something beautiful, something that moves past your mind and directly into your heart. In Lights, Marie Menken shows us the brake lights and christmas baubles and illuminated buildings of New York at holiday times, painting in her little camera with the shining, beautiful beams that stand strong against the dark around them, making luminous halos and swirling, dancing streams of energy with simple shakes of her film. She streaks light across the camera’s view and peels back a city’s bursting heart, a season’s wintery warmth, a light at the end of a tunnel in a world that can feel suffused with dread and death. The frame looks like Brakhage painted it, but in all the movement instead of anxiety or fear what we feel is calm, is love. It jitters and sputters with life so inexhaustible the film struggles to contain it, and it seems to burst all around you, free and weightless, if only for a few moments. Lights is a pinnacle of American film, a visceral, jovial, and affecting dive into a world of pure image.
And with that, the tour ends, but before you go I do want to provide three tips for watching avant-garde films, ways to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment (consider this my corrective to every English teacher you had that ruined reading poetry for you):
- One, don’t feel like you have to “get” it. Oftentimes, as much as a theoretical underpinning, experimental film thrives on a gut reaction, a sensation that you get from seeing certain images. As much as it is an intellectual exercise, to me movies like this are a way of getting deeper into my own emotions, finding out exactly how I feel about a color or a movement or a shape, reducing the distance between my conscious and unconscious being.
- Two, put yourself in a good atmosphere to watch these films. Most of them require patience, attentiveness, and an open mind, so don’t watch them with distractions everywhere on a day you’re in a bad mood. There’s no rush to it, so find a time where you feel receptive towards them, and if you find yourself enjoying some of these films, you’ll also find yourself learning how to create that receptive environment. But trust me, there’s few things more futile than trying to engage with the avant-garde when you’re frustrated, annoyed, and tired.
- And three, if you don’t like a film you’re watching, you don’t have to finish it. Pause it, come back to it later, bookmark it, wait until you’re in a different mood, or, hey, just turn it off for good. There can be some value in forcing yourself to sit through a movie you’re not enjoying, but only once you’re deep enough into the groove it came from that it won’t turn you off entirely. If you don’t like something, you’re not obligated to watch it–this isn’t film school, and this isn’t an assignment.
Film is an art so young that we can’t even imagine the possibilities it still holds, the ways it might totally change as it matures, grows, and evolves. Experimental film at its best helps us to envision greater futures, more expansive viewings, ways of making us feel that we didn’t previously know. The world of the moving image is unspeakably vast, and I hope that in a tiny way these films help you map out new artistic territories in your mind.