Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?

“Evolution of Dance” by Judson Laipply (2006) (still).

In my last post on this topic, I argued that cinema can be redefined as “the cinematic arts,” which would include not only movies and short films, but also music videos, commercials, TV programs, experimental film and video, installation art, video games, Flash animations, animated gifs, and even “nonelectrical” forms of moving images, such as flipbooks and camera obscuras. This redefinition raises a few questions:

  1. Why should we do this? What would this expansive reconsideration get us?
  2. Can it be done? Can the same critical apparatus that we use to describe and analyze feature films be successfully applied to, say, animated gifs? Or camera obscuras?
  3. What would the be the common currency of cinema?

After the jump, I’ll try answering each of these questions.

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How Many Cinemas Are There?

“The Serpentine Dance,” the Lumière Brothers (c. 1899) (still).

[Update 30 Jan 11: I’ve since written a follow-up to this post: “Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?”]

“The movies” used to mean one thing—or we acted like they did. “I’m going to the movies.” “I saw a great movie the other night.” “You really ought to watch this movie.” But even though we often talk about “the movies,” or “films,” or “cinema,” or “the cinema” as a single, homogeneous thing, there is not just one thing, and never has been—a fact that grows increasingly apparent every year.

When most people say “the movies,” they mean “feature-length films.” These have existed since the early 1910s, and can be considered cinema’s most successful form—they’re the stereotype of motion pictures. They run somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, perhaps a bit longer, and they debut (most of the time) in movie theaters. Then they become available on DVD; later they broadcast on TV, with commercial interruptions. That said, even this familiar model is changing; the length of time between theatrical run and DVD release has been shrinking, and we can see how DVDs themselves are doomed, the way that CDs have long been doomed: you don’t need little plastic discs when you can stream a feature directly to your computer or your TV, via Netflix or Hulu.

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What Is Experimental Art?

Edgar Degas, "Les Danseuses Bleues" (1890)

One typically hears unusual art called three different things, often interchangeably:

  • Innovative
  • Avant-Garde
  • Experimental

But what do these three words mean? Do they mean the same thing? I don’t think so, and in this post I’ll point out some basic differences between them. I’ll also define what I think experimental art essentially is, and how such art operates.

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Innovation in Art

So glossy!

What is innovation in art? This is something I’ve circled in my other posts, for example:

Now I’ll try addressing it a little more head-on.

All art contains both innovation (unfamiliarity) and convention (familiarity). Some artworks are so familiar as to preexist themselves. I didn’t like Andrzej Wajda’s recent film Katyn (2007), thinking it nothing more than a string of war movie clichés (this time in Polish). Its being unoriginal and predictable annoyed me; I might have walked out (or fallen asleep) had I not gone to see it with a couple of friends (who for the record both really liked it). And I felt as though its unoriginality trivialized its very serious subject matter, the Katyn Massacre.

On the other hand, some artworks are so radically different from what we know and expect that we can’t make any sense of them, let alone recognize them as artworks:

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Notes on Twee, part 2: The Crash Test Dummies (Those Avant-Garde Harbingers of Mainstream Superheroes, School Plays, and the Willful Embrace of Nostalgia)

Was this the Twee avant-garde?

In my last post in this series, I embedded and linked to every single music video I know that uses the concept of the video as a school musical. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any; I’m sure there are more.) Such videos became especially pronounced in the 2000s, especially between 2005 and 2007. (Perhaps since then the success of Disney’s High School Musical (2006) has killed the concept?)

The earliest example that I could find was the video for the Crash Test Dummies’ 1994 hit single “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” from their 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet. Embedding has been disabled for this video, but I’d encourage you to go watch it. (I’ll go watch it, too, and relive the glory days of my high school senior year).

What strikes me most about this video now, aided by hindsight, is how avant-garde it is. By this I don’t mean that it’s experimental; rather, my point is that this video anticipates a good deal of the next 15–20 years of US culture. (And I don’t think the Crash Test Dummies were unique in this, but they make for a convenient example. Also, I think it’s amusing to point out how so many aesthetic elements supposedly novel today were in fact already with us two decades ago.)

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Experimental Fiction as Genre and as Principle

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…

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Brevity, Part 6: Roundhay Garden Scene, ctd.(well, it’s short)

Roundhay Garden Scene is hardly the only short film that transcends its brief running time. Here are seven other shorts whose impacts are much larger, and last much longer, than their respective running times might indicate.

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