Christopher Higgs at HTMLGIANT recently posted this question: “If you were teaching a class on American experimental fiction, what texts would you choose, and why?” He went on to list a set of possible books for an “Introduction to American Experimental Fiction” course:
Ishmael Reed – Mumbo Jumbo
William S. Burroughs – The Soft Machine
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
Carole Maso – Aureole
Jean Toomer – Cane
David Markson – This Is Not A Novel
Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons
Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire and String
This post won’t be about adding or subtracting books from his list (although I’d suggest Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress over This Is Not a Novel, and Carole Maso’s The Art Lover or AVA over Aureole.) Rather, I want to talk about experimental fiction as a genre.
Because Chris’s question reminds me of a debate that comes up frequently in US experimental film circles…
Experimental film, like most recognizable (and recognized) genres, has its own canon of seminal texts. Thanks to scholars like P. Adams Sitney, we have today a fairly agreed-upon list of essential experimental US films, as well as a critical narrative that organizes and explains it.
Part 1: 1920s through the 1950s: A handful of early American experimental filmmakers made work largely influenced by European filmmakers like the Expressionists, Dadaists, and Surrealists:
1939–1956: Harry Smith’s Early Abstractions series
1943/1959: Maya Deren: Meshes of the Afternoon
1949/1970: Kenneth Anger: Puce Moment
Part 2: Starting in the 1960s, the widespread availability of cheaper film equipment led to a “second wave” of American experimental cinema:
1958: Bruce Conner: A Movie
1962–64: Stan Brakhage: Dog Star Man
1963: Andy Warhol: Kiss
1964: Jonas Mekas: The Brig
Part 3: Later that decade, the Structuralist, FLUXUS, and Flicker movements turned their artistic gaze inward, to formally explore the film medium itself:
1966: Yoko Ono: No. 4
1967: Michael Snow: Wavelength
(Note that for some of these directors, you can choose more than one film that’s representative—Schneemann’s Fuses instead of Meat Joy, for instance—so long as you include something.)
…Experimental film has continued since 1970, of course (although you wouldn’t always know that from some film classes or textbooks). And more recent scholarship, as well as DVD sets like Anthology Film Archive’s Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941, and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives, have helped flesh out the original canon, adding previously overlooked artists like Lois Weber:
…and Mary Ellen Bute:
…not to mention changing how we view formerly “non-experimental” artists like Robert Flaherty:
…and Bubsy Berkeley:
…But the above list still constitutes the core of the US experimental film canon.
So what does this have to do with experimental fiction? Well, that oft-recurring question in experimental film circles is: When we say “experimental film,” what are we referring to? The established canon, or the tendency to experiment in cinema?
Experimentation as Historical Genre
On the one hand, we have a list of seminal works, which are taught in film schools, and which therefore teach film students what a “proper” US experimental film is. The canonical works define the style and range of such cinema: It is non-narrative (favoring surreal logic or structural organizing principles), abstract, often incorporates found footage, and also frequently involves directly treating the film itself (scratching it, painting it, growing mold on it, and so on). It often demonstrates some aspect of the film apparatus or filmmaking process, sometimes by taking a self-reflexive approach (foregrounding the use of the camera) or a conceptual approach (projecting through alternate substances, or projecting plain black leader, or projecting nothing but the projector light itself).
It comes as no surprise that the film students of today frequently make work that employs those techniques. The question then becomes: Are they making experimental films? Or are they making Experimental Films? And if it’s the latter, are they still making experimental films?
Meanwhile, another danger with recognized and known experimental films—with any experimental art—is that over time they can lose their rougher, more innovative edges. (I’m thinking directly of Adorno’s thinking here; see his Aesthetic Theory.) Beethoven was, in his time, avant-garde; today his music is used mainly to sell cars. And, as we have learned from examples like Porter and Flaherty, when experimental techniques are absorbed into the mainstream, viewers no longer perceive them as experimental (see also D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, cinéma vérité, …).
Due to several factors (including Hollywood’s long-held monopoly over distribution and exhibition, as well as the experimental film community’s historic animosity toward video), few of the above-mentioned filmmakers have to worry about their work ever becoming the cinematic equivalent of muzak. (Obscurity is a mixed blessing.) That said, even if the Culture Industry fails to repackage an artist’s work, it can still co-opt that artist’s techniques. Thus, as every film experimental student knows, the music video for Alanis Morissette’s Ironic (1995) stole from Maya Deren:
…as did the video for Milla Jovovich’s Gentleman Who Fell (1994):
(…although Dorsky himself has claimed that the shot is hardly original. And Dorsky is of course a more recent filmmaker, but I think my point still stands.)
Well, let’s not get bogged down in the argument that experimental art is the Prime Mover, or a world apart from Hollywood; we all know that experimental artists get as good as they give. The point I want to make here is that one doesn’t necessarily need to see Deren, or Brakhage, or Dorsky, or any of them, to be inspired by their work, or by their ideas. Their innovations—some of them, at least—have entered the larger culture. They have had influences.
No experimental work is ever wholly experimental, but I think we can see that Cornell’s Rose Hobart was pretty innovative for its time (even though Salvador Dalí accused Cornell of stealing the film from his subconscious). But today, chopping up found footage to make a new work is pretty old hat. An experimental filmmaker can’t coast along on just that—although many try to; attend any experimental film festival to see for yourself. Such artists are Experimental Filmmakers, and not experimental filmmakers: they work according to the proper conventions of an established tradition—the Experimental Film genre.
Have you ever had a friend who’s written a metatextual story in order to point out that narration is a convention? Or worse yet, to prove how artificial narration is? I’ll confess to having been such a friend myself; my only excuse is that at the time I didn’t know that Barth, Barthelme, Coover, and scores before even them had done precisely that, and much more besides. (No one needs to make art that points out or proves how art is artifice—that was understood by even the cave-folk who painted Lescaux. Rather, what’s worthwhile even to this day is exploring the nature—and the beauty—of that artifice.)
In 2010 Lescaux yet dazzles, even as it disintegrates, but it and many other once-experimental artworks, while still beautiful, have grown familiar, and as such no longer challenge our expectations of what art can do. When we see them we think, “But of course art can be like that!” They have inspired legions of imitators and successors. They have become the foundations of traditions, of genres and of subgenres.
A fox’s trick, once observed by the farmer, will not get him out of the trap a second time. (The fantastic Mr. Fox learned this all too well.)
And so the fox has many tricks.
Shklovsky wrote in Theory of Prose, “The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew” (17). Art has no telos, no location it’s trying to get to. An artist finishes her sculpture, or painting, or novel, or film, and then lets it out into the world (or tries to). Once released, if released, that object begins to live many lives.
What did Leonardo have in mind when he finished La Gioconda? (If you don’t know, then don’t worry—Dan Brown has figured it out.) Leonardo’s opinion, if he even had one, would be of great historical interest, but it wouldn’t change the fact that La Gioconda is, in my opinion, an image most often encountered on a t-shirt. Or in need of a mustache.
Meanwhile, many less familiar artworks look strange to us now, by virtue of their having passed, for a time, out of popular favor. Artists well understand this, which is why they are ever looking backward, searching for once-popular ideas and forms that they can try making new. (We too often forget that “Renaissance” means rebirth.)
The critic should understand this as well, and not only because artistic progress is never strictly linear. Criticism is a story, a narrative, and in order for it to interest us then it too must not grow over-familiar. Each new generation of critics, and of audiences, demands at least a few new twists and wrinkles. Thus the recent Spectator list of the 50 most essential films elevated to #1…The Night of the Hunter.
That was a good twist: surprising yet plausible. As Roger Ebert responded:
Their selection passes my most important test: It is interesting. It contains ten titles that aren’t included in my ever-growing Great Movies Collection, and I am now inspired to consider them. In fact, my recent inclusion of Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” which would have become a Great Movie anyway, was given a nudge when my Spectator arrived in the mail.
I suspect that Rio Bravo made the Spectator‘s list because Quentin Tarantino has been one of its most vocal boosters—and so that film is now important for us in a way that it wasn’t fifteen years ago:
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with some of my film-watching friends (the ones whom I only ever see at the movie theater), and our talk eventually turned (as so many film conversations do) to the question of what Hawks picture is the greatest. I nominated Bringing Up Baby; others proposed Scarface, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Sleep, and, yes, Rio Bravo. (These are the conventional choices.)
But then one of our number insisted that it was Monkey Business. “Monkey Business!” the rest of us exclaimed. “Monkey Business!?”
He was certain that it was Monkey Business. “Or Ball of Fire,” he eventually conceded.
Experimentation as Innovative Principle
Meanwhile, today’s filmmakers continue to innovate, to experiment. I predict that right now, an enterprising young film student at the Pratt (class of 2013) is thinking to herself: “Stan Brakhage started scratching and painting on films before my parents were born; I’d rather not do that, it’s so boring! I like much better Roundhay Garden Scene, which is so much stranger—it’s so short, and so low-res. How can you even watch a thing like that? It challenges so many assumptions we have about cinema. And so I think I’ll try making something that’s more like that—I’ll use my iPhone’s camera to make a series of two-second movies…!” (At which point the student’s Experimental Film purist teacher might well gasp: “VIDEO?!”)
Such a student will be making an experimental film, not an Experimental Film. And that film may look little like the films made by Brakhage or Deren or Cornell—just as their films bore little resemblance to what had come before them. That is experimental art’s purpose, and power.
So if I were teaching a class on American experimental fiction, which books would I choose? Well, that would depend on whether I wanted to teach a class on Experimental Fiction, or experimental fiction—experimentation in fiction. The former affords far fewer choices than the latter.