Did you know that Ann Arbor is home to longest-running experimental film festival in North America?
Since 1963 the Ann Arbor Film Festival has been hosting screenings with artists ranging from Yoko Ono and the Velvet Underground to more recent presentations of work by Akosua Adoma Owusu. This summer Art House Convergence is celebrating this history with an educational session dedicated to curating experimental films at our Regional Seminar.
So what is experimental film?
Like the designation “art film,” experimental film, and the oft-used associated designations of avant-garde and underground are regularly debated and contested, and have been parsed out in a variety of texts. Produced without traditional commercial imperatives and regularly rejecting standard narrative causality, experimental films are often micro-budget, small gauge, abstract, and irreverent. They might reference Hollywood, recycling its refuse into punk, queer, and subversive critique, but they definitely aren’t of Hollywood, and though money changes hands they definitely operate using a financial system distinct from the mainstream.
Read more in Allegories of Cinema (David James, 1989), An Introduction to American Underground Film (Sheldon Renan, 1967), Politics of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema 1941 – 1971 (Lauren Rabinowitz, 2003), Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1945 – 1980 (P. Adams Sitney, 1974).
Ready to watch some films?
Check out our list of some of the United States’ longest-running exhibitors of experimental film, then stop in for a screening.
Why were all of these organizations founded in the 1970s?
Like art houses during the mid-2000s, during the late 1960s experimental film exhibitors were contending with significant market disruption. Throughout the 1960s, while the Production Code exerted its last waning influence on commercial Hollywood cinema and the Supreme Court tentatively thawed government regulation of obscenity, exhibitors of experimental film often operated as (precariously) commercial enterprises — attracting viewers with the promise of transgressive, and titillating content, as well as politically radical art. However, in the 1970s in the face of the New Hollywood Cinema and the commercialization of pornography, the dominant model shifted. Exhibitors embraced and expressed their steadfast commitment to film as art and arts education, establishing themselves as media arts nonprofits, and seeking support from the (relatively) new NEA and other government initiatives like CETA.
Grounded in a commitment to cultural enrichment, and democratic arts access, these exhibitors forged a lasting model that thrives today. Pay them a visit for some truly eye-opening experiences.
Anthology Film Archives, New York, NY, since 1970
Founded by filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, and Jonas Mekas, a figure known for his role in founding a variety of influential institutions of the New York avant-garde including the Filmmaker’s Cooperative and Film Culture magazine, along with patron Jerome Hill, and scholar P. Adams Sitney, whose widely-read Visionary Film is celebrated and critiqued for forging the most widely-read history of of avant-garde cinema. The organization launched with a manifesto and promised to exhibit “film as art,” asking “What are the essentials of the film experience? Which films embody the heights of the art of cinema?”
Confident in their capacities as arbiters of quality, Anthology’s founding curatorial board created a list of essential films they promised to screen many times, believing that the very best films warranted multiple viewings. Their list included some of the most frequently watched avant-garde films to date including Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, as well as narrative features likes Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, and underground works including Robert Nelson’s parody Bleu Shut, which features a timer in the corner as a nod to anxiety about avant-garde film’s protracted run-times.
Essential films were to play in the “invisible cinema.” Described as “a machine for film viewing,” the invisible cinema was the antithesis of contemporary multiplex loungers and cinema-beds. In an era before rampant in-theater texting, filmmaker Peter Kubelka designed the cinema so that guests would sit on firm, hard-backed chairs flanked by partitions so that they would look at the screen and not each other.
Today Anthology is home to a tremendous archive including the world’s largest paper collection related to independent and experimental cinema and screens more than 900 programs annually, featuring films a global array of innovative retrospectives. 2019 programs included “Punk Lust: Raw Provocations,” “Prison Images: Incarceration and the Cinema,” and a tribute to founder Jonas Mekas, who passed away in 2018.
Los Angeles Filmforum, Los Angeles, CA, Since 1975
Founded by Terry Cannon in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena (home to the annual Rose Bowl) at a time when the former-turn of the century retreat for millionaires attracted artists with low rents and commercial vacancies. Pasadena Filmforum was a decidedly funky west-coast outpost for alternative film viewing where guests often sat on couches for relaxed, salon-style conversations.
Cannon was a recent graduate from San Francisco State University and had encountered experimental film programming in the Bay Area. Still in his early 20s, he received a seed money grant from the aptly-titled Pasadena Community Spirit Organization and set to work hosting visiting filmmakers and celebrating work by locally-based, unknown outsider artists like Sara Kathryn Arledge, whose 1958 film What is a Man, remains a sharp, hilarious critique of masculinity. Early series included “Women in Film,” “In Person: Shirley Clarke,” and “West Coast Funk.” In 1982 the organization launched “Show for the Eyes,” the first international mail art project.
Today Los Angeles Filmforum has been host to a variety of significant retrospectives and research projects on the history of experimental film including Scratching the Belly of the Beast: Cutting-Edge Media in Los Angeles, 1922 – 94, Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945 – 1980, and Ism, Ism Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America. The organization operates as a mobile cinema, working with the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and MOCA to host programs including “Representations of Leaving: Queer Death and heavens,” “Small, real: Observation and the Mundane,” and programs of films by Kevin Jerome Everson and Martha Colburn.
Facets, Chicago, IL, since 1975
They were committed to the work, withstanding Chicago-winters with little heat, renovation, and micro-budget to forge an innovative program featuring an international array of films (a scope reflective of Stehlik’s own background as a Czech cinephile). The couple’s commitment to the art of film was clear and celebrated locals including film critic Roger Ebert, and national figures like Brian O’Doherty of the National Endowment of the Arts once said “It is Milos and the few people in this country like him who are continuing to nourish the art film.”
In the 1980s, as the marketplace evolved, Facets adapted, forging a name for itself as a leading distributor and force in the home video market and bringing works by filmmakers including James Broughton and Barbara Hammer to a broader audience.
Today Facets streams films from its website, operates a cinematheque year-round, boasts an enormous DVD library, is home to a youth education program, and presents the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Recent screenings include Black Mother and you can still catch the films of James Broughton, as well as an array of international avant-garde films on FacetsEdge
San Francisco Cinematheque, San Francisco, CA, since 1961
An offshoot of Canyon Cinema, a cooperative launched by filmmakers including Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand, as well Ernest Callenbach of Film Quarterly. Guided by an anarchic, alternative ethos, the organization began as backyard screenings. A 1963 newsletter observed “Our theater began in the backyard of a beautiful lady in Canyon, California, summer, 1961. If there are new films there must be theaters, this was the reason for beginning.” By 1962 screenings were nomadic, occurring in homes, backyards, and even an anarchist restaurant.
Notable about the programming, was that Strand and Baillie acknowledged that some films would be bad. They wanted to explore new approaches to filmmaking, and recognized that required taking risks as artists and exhibitors. Recollections of their program at this time frame it as witchy and wonderful, fliers featured hand drawn flourishes, Chick would attend to the box office in a cloak with candles. It felt like a community and was genuinely funky, forging an ethos that have been credited as inspiring contemporary micro-cinemas. In 1966 the filmmakers formed a distribution cooperative for “willing devotees of the magic lantern muse,” and invited all film artists to participate.
In 1976, with hopes of achieving non-profit status the Canyon Cinema’s distribution and exhibition arms separated. The distributor continued to operate cooperatively, while the distributor that would become the San Francisco Cinematheque became a non-profit and received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Canyon Cinema, which became a non-profit in 2012, remains one of the most important distributors of experimental cinema in the United States. Once an outsider, by the 1980s the Cinematheque was considered by locals to have become establishment and was subject to a revolution in the form of a “takeover” screening. The revolutionaries would go on to form No Nothing Cinema while the Cinematheque would form a programming committee with hopes of becoming more egalitarian.
Today the San Francisco Cinematheque operates as a mobile exhibitor, hosts the annual film festival Crossroads, featuring a combination of film and performance at SFMOMA, and presents a year-round screenings series featuring programs like “Imaging the Avant-Garde: Taiwan’s Experimental Films of the 1960s” and “The Shape of Surface.” In 2010, Steve Anker, who was director of the Cinematheque from 1992 until 2003 partnered with Steve Seid and Kathy Geritz of the Pacific Film Archive to co-edit Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945 – 2000.
Walker Cinema, Minneapolis, MN, since 1973
In 1973 the Walker Art Center consolidated its experimental film exhibition by establishing a dedicated film department under stewardship of film coordinator John Hanhardt, who had been recruited from the Museum of Modern Art, and began a film study collection with plans to develop an archive. As an interdisciplinary arts center, the Walker integrated media into its galleries, built a collection, and hosted theatrical screenings. During the 1970s, curator Melinda Ward collaborated with Sally Dixon who was running the media arts center Film in the Cities (FITC) to bring filmmakers including Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer to the Twin Cities. Pioneering filmmaker Hollis Frampton, whose (nostalgia) and Zorns Lemma experimented with time and language, was among the program’s participants, recalling that on earlier trip to the Twin Cities he had narrowly evaded a plane crash by lingering at an Edward Weston exhibition of photographs.
Today the Walker Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection features more than 1,000 titles, including works by Joan Jonas, Gunvor Nelson, and Derek Jarman, and selection plays regularly in an audience-programmed mini cinematheque on the museum’s ground floor. The Walker also commissions new moving image works and hosts curated screenings, recent programs include INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers Past and Present, combining narrative and experimental work, curated by Missy Whiteman and Film in the Cities: A History and Legacy.