Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Do You See What I See: Experiments in Avant-Garde Cinema @ CSUF

For their first essays, my English classes at Cal State Fullerton are writing about local culture.  One of the best ways to keep up with and discover local culture is to pick up local publications like student and community newspapers.  Yesterday, while reading The Daily Titan (the student newspaper at CSUF) I found an article about an exhibit at the Cal State Library called Do You See What I See: Experiments in Avant-Garde Cinema.  I shared the article with my classes, and then we took a mini-field trip over to the library to check out the exhibit.  Like good field researchers, we all had our notebooks and pens in hand, jotting down observations and insights from what we saw.


The exhibit features lots of information, photos, and film clips about the history of 20th century European and American experimental cinema.  There are also four short films made by film students at  CSUF, each of which was inspired by a famous experimental filmmaker.  The exhibit is fascinating to me, because at the gallery I own, Hibbleton Gallery, we have been screening experimental/art films every week for the past six months.  Some of the people featured in the exhibit are people I've recently learned about.  I wandered around the exhibit, taking notes.  Here's what I learned.

European Experiments of the 1920s

The exhibit begins with text, photos, and film clips from European experimental filmmakers of the 1920s.  Following the devastation of World War I, many artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers in Europe sought to create new forms to comment on their current realities.  French filmmakers like Abel Gance and Jean Renoir made "impressionist" films which created a new film vocabulary to challenge the aesthetics of Hollywood, which was coming to dominate world cinema.  Many experimental directors throughout the 20th century challenged the "dictatorship" of Hollywood.  Dada filmmakers like Man Ray rejected reason and logic, and combined images of modern society in new ways to provoke conversation.  In the Soviet Union, directors like Dziga Vertov used collage and images of ordinary life to present a contrast to the escapism of Hollywood. Vertov's classic film "Man With a Movie Camera" tried to show the world as it is, not as fantasy.  Surrealist artists like Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali also rejected reason and logic, and tapped into dream-like psychological realities.  Bunuel and Dali's film "Un Chien Andalou" is perhaps the most famous example of surrealist film.

Original poster for "Man With a Movie Camera"

American Avant-Garde Film

The Americans were a little late to the game when it comes to avant-garde cinema.  Beginning mainly in the 1940s, following World War II, some American directors started to create new film languages.  One early pioneer of this was Maya Deren, who was a choreographer, dancer, and filmmaker.  With films like "Ritual in Transfigured Time" and "Meshes of the Afternoon" Deren used film as a meditation on time and human bodies.  Jonas Mekas was a Lithuanian director who escaped a forced labor camp and moved to New York, where he quickly became part of a filmmaking circle known as Cinema 16, which included Maya Deren and other important directors of the time.  Mekas was inspired by transcendentalist writers like Henry David Thoreau, and he made "film journals" which documented everyday life poetically.  Another member of Cinema 16 was Marie Menken, whose films like "Go Go Go" and "Glimpse of Garden" commented on modern life and the natural world.  Stan Brakhage was another important pioneer, whose lyrical filmmaking style involved painting directly onto film, gluing moth wings on film, and other unorthodox styles and techniques.  Finally, Kenneth Anger made some groundbreaking psychedelic, iconoclastic, and homoerotic films like "Scorpio Rising" which is about male biker subculture.


The Student Films

After this brief education on experimental cinema, the exhibit presents four short films by student directors.  The first, "Cacophony Rd." by Alex Varela is inspired by Marie Menken's "Go Go Go" and includes an overhead shot of a freeway, with fragments of music that is playing inside the cars.  As more cars pass, the song fragments blend into a cacophony of sound that is both disorienting and beautiful.  "The Small Sleep" by Wesley Nguyen is inspired by Stan Brakhage.  It is a lyrical meditation on the funeral of the director's great uncle, and includes very close-up shots of Vietnamese funeral ceremonies, with a bit of poetic narration and Buddhist chanting.  Brandon Kyle Goco's "For Maya" is inspired by Maya Deren.  It is shot in black and white, and follows a young man's relationship with a teddy bear, time, and his own insular vision of the world.  Finally, Heaven Ramirez's "Jesus Christ Girl!  What Are People Going to Think?" is inspired by the "journal films" of Jonas Mekas.  This was perhaps my favorite of the bunch.  It is divided into two sections: "Expectations" and "Reality."  The first part, "Expectations" shows the expectations placed on a young woman to wear makeup, look thin, and dress like a "lady."  The second part shows that same young woman's real life, which involves pizza, music, and playfulness.  Ramirez's film has strong feminist themes.


The exhibit is located in the Salz-Pollack Atrium Gallery at CSUF's main library.  It is free and runs through March 31st.  Visit the library page for more details and hours.

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