Viewing Experimental Film is Hard Enough

Kristin Strayer, a volunteer at the Carnegie Museum of Art and a lecturer of Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote something about the nature of curating experimental film that caught my attention.

She criticizes contemporary curators and scholars who write about experimental film and generally only address “those already converted” at the expense of less-knowledgable but receptive viewers. She writes:

The authors address a rather small group of filmgoers: scholars, filmmakers, artists, and occasional cineastes. Whether amateur or professional, these are viewers who haven’t just seen particular films but know the historic details surrounding the films, or which filmmakers worked with other filmmakers, or stories of how so many films were made by circles of friends with little money or resources.

This was one of my chief complaints about the recent screening of Gil Wolman’s L’Anticoncept at Light Industry. To “get” this film, I needed to be fluent in French and well-versed in Lettrism and the mid-century French avant-garde. I confess: I am neither. This is where a curator can really shine, explaining the importance of this film and suggesting an approach for watching it. Curating a film involves more than just selecting it. You need to describe the work—sometimes overly pedantically—so your audience can appreciate it as much as you do.

Another challenge experimental film faces in contemporary exhibitions, according to Strayer, is the gallery setting itself. She notes that “the exhibition gallery is radically different from a theater that shows [a] traditional cinematic text.” Whereas “a theater expects a stable subject who watches and the consistency of a darkened room,” a gallery accommodates the visitor’s physical movement around the space. This poses a challenge for any experimental film or video longer than five minutes because people can’t stand still much longer than that.

As I wrote last week, the staff at Light Industry mitigated some of the major challenges of screening this work. They procured an appropriately sized white ballon for a screen, instead of simply projecting the video on to a white wall as they do for their other screenings. They distributed printed copies of the English-language translation of the narration. And, to their credit, they seated us in a darkened room to watch in a theatrical setting. As a testament to that last bit, a patron even shushed us and asked us to leave for ruining his experience.

And because we didn’t know how to watch this film or how to contextualize it, we left as quickly and as quietly as we could.

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