Over the last year or so, a few people have told me that they stumbled upon the syllabus for my Experimental Film at Pratt Institute and have adapted it as the basis for their own similar courses. I imagine that for each person who has gotten in touch, there must be some order-of-magnitude more that have used the syllabus but didn’t alert me to that fact. Let me be clear: I don’t mind anyone using my syllabus. This is why it’s available on the open web, and not hidden behind some walled-off LMS.
However, I would like to know how others have used this syllabus so that I can improve my own course. As I’ve noted before, the syllabus for this course draws heavily on an undergraduate course I myself took in the 1990s, taught by Constance Penley at UCSB. I made a few adjustments in designing my own course. For example, I added more New York-centric films to reflect the fact that I teach these courses in New York City. Another change is dealing more directly with the early days of video art. This in turn was to reflect what I learned in a graduate course on video art at NYU, taught by Chris Straayer. Ending the class with video art allowed me to wrap up one major narrative thread about my approach to studying experimental film: video in the 1970s was like film in the 1920s, generating great enthusiasm among artists to create new visual works that were previously impossible with other forms of art.
As much as I like the narrow focus of the course, especially in its one-semester, weekly format, I feel there are many improvements that I can make, and I’d like to know how others have approached teaching this material. First, I know there is a ton of great work that has emerged since the 1970s—nearly fifty years ago at this point—that should factor in to a survey course like this one. Second, there are a lot of titles in my current syllabus that are similar to each other. I would welcome some diversity to this course. Third, how should I incorporate experimental “film” that is born digital? This question has nagged at me for decades now, but honestly, there’s so much work out there—of varying quality and subjects—that the mere thought of figuring out how to summarize even some of it seems overwhelming. For example, does Fortnite count as a born-digital experimental work? (It doesn’t, but these are the kinds of questions that haunt me in revising this course.)
In the spirit of academic collegiality and cooperation, I request anyone who has used my Experimental Film syllabus to please contact me and share your syllabus with me. You reach me via email or via the contact form on this website.
Anthology Film Archives is arguably one of the most important institutions for film in New York City, and with the back-to-school season upon us, Anthology Film Archives is offering a substantial discount on one book relevant to their mission as a home of experimental and avant-garde cinema.New and renewing members can purchase one of the following four books at a 50% discount:
Adolfas Mekas’s The Adolfas Diaries, Books 1 & Book 2 (now just $22 for both)
Support Anthology Film Archives, get free admission to Essential Cinema screenings, and enjoy discounted tickets to all screenings by becoming a member. Regular memberships start at $70 and student/senior membership cost $50. Also, student members will receive two bonus months of membership for free.
The Japan Society is hosting its annual festival of new Japanese films. Japan Cuts starts this Thursday, July 9, and runs through Sunday, July 19. Much like the New York Film Festival, this festival devotes a program commemorates experimental filmmaking.
Mono No Aware x [+] (Plus) celebrates the work of two filmmaking organizations: New York’s Mono No Aware and Tokyo’s [+]. The program of films screens on Sunday, July 12, beginning at 8:45 PM, at the Japan Society.
Almost all of the films in the program will be screened in New York for the first time, and many of them will be screening publicly for the first time anywhere.
Here’s the complete list of films:
Year, Time, Format
Mono No Aware Direct Filmmaking/Animation Workshop Films
2015. Approx. 8 min. 16mm.
Various 16mm works from the participants of Mono No Aware’s Direct Filmmaking/Animation Workshop held at Japan Society on June 21.
2014. 11 min. Super 8mm to HDV
A moving-image document of the visual environment created by artist Ei Wada that emphasizes his grassroots approach to instrument making and reflects his concepts about performance as art.
New York Premiere
2015. 5 min. 16mm.
A moving portrayal of an ineffable force that can be humanlike or embody itself within displayed objects. Inspired by concepts from the Koropokkuru folktale within Japanese Ainu culture and The Invisible Man.
Louis Armstrong Obon
2015. 14 min. Super 8mm and HD to HDV.
A portrait of Japanese jazz musicians Yoshio and Keiko Toyama as seen through their annual summer pilgrimage to the grave of Louis Armstrong in Flushing, Queens.
2012. 16 min. 16mm to HDCAM.
Video footage for the research of Japanese endangered species of raptors is turned into a decorative fiction film through the conversion process between video and film.
New York Premiere
2015. 4 min. 16mm.
Red blue green, circle square triangle, dog star man. The life and death of a star.
Takashi Makino & Takashi Ishida
2011. 16 min. 35mm & 16mm to HDCAM.
Drawing on film by Takashi Ishida; edit and telecine by Takashi Makino; music by Takashi Ishida & Takashi Makino.
sound of a million insects, light of a thousand stars
2014. 2 min. 35mm.
100 ft of 35mm negative film was buried under fallen leaves about 15 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station from the sunset of June 24, 2014 to sunrise the following day.
DUB HOUSE Experience in Material No.52
Kei Shichiri & Ryoji Suzuki
2012. 16 min. 35mm.
Strict but exquisite evocation links two artistic disciplines and two visions of light and darkness. Architecture and film meet in the cinema.
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.
Some years ago, I helped organized the NYU Cinema Studies student conference, an annual event that started as a practice-run for the much larger Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Under my guidance, we expanded it from a single-day conference of about a dozen speakers to one where we had about a dozen panels, with about forty presentations, over two days.
One of my goals was to include as many students as possible to present and to have the faculty also contribute. Not only did we manage to get every single faculty member to either moderate or participate on a panel, we also included undergraduate students and even some graduate students from other departments, specifically some art historians from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. The IFA panel was controversial because the audience thought the papers were really bad. Was it sour grapes because someone outside our field encroaching on our turf? Or was it because, as novice film scholars, they were unfamiliar with the fundamental scholarship in our field? Whatever the reason, I distinctly remember someone—I won’t say who—told me an unforgettable nugget after the IFA panel:
This is why we don’t let art historians do film.
On Friday night, I went with my friend, softball teammate and esteemed art historian Annie to a screening of Gil Wolman’s L’Anticoncept at Light Industry, one of my favorite microcinemas in New York. The screening was packed. Part of that was due to the rare opportunity to see this particular work and because the College Art Association conference held its annual meeting in New York this weekend, bringing all kinds of art historians into town. One of them was Kaira M. Cabañas, an expert on the Lettrist movement and the author of a new book that includes an extended passage on L’Anticoncept. I’m not an expert on Lettrism, but I do have a very rough idea about it: I wasn’t expecting a “night at the movies.”
L’Anticoncept consists of a circular white image, alternating (or flickering) between complete white and complete black, projected onto a two-meter–wide white balloon. The white image fits exactly on the balloon that hangs from the ceiling. The work is historically significant because it anticipates the flicker films of Paul Sharits, someone who used single film frames and persistence of vision to fuck with viewers, by almost twenty years.
Also, the form and rhythm of the narration is as much a part of the film as is the image. According to Light Industry’s screening notes:
L’anticoncept’s sound track begins with a voiceover that invokes the history of moving images. Part two presents TRITS, a Lettrist poem structured around a chorus and punctuated by the whistling, phonemes, and other sounds pronounced from four superimposed voices, seemingly all Wolman’s. In part three, the longest part of the sound track, Wolman reads a disjointed story that he authored. Here the voiceover’s incessant speech contributes in large measure to the experience of an aural assault. The sound track provides little respite (that is, few silences) from its verbal bursts and abrupt shifts in volume and pace. Finally, after a short “Post-scriptum,” the film ends with approximately three minutes and thirty seconds of superimposed mégapneumie, what Wolman elsewhere described as a poésie physique that is based on breath, rather than on the letter as with Isou, and that explored the use of “all human sounds.”
As interested and knowledgable I am about experimental film, Annie is writing her dissertation on screens. A moving-image work that uses a white balloon as a projection surface is right up her intellectual alley, but neither of us could figure out how to engage with this work. Maybe because we were sitting in the back of the room, and couldn’t hear Cabañas very well, we didn’t know why this work is important. Instead of explaining in accessible terms the meaning of the work, Cabañas read a passage from her book. As I’ve written before, one of my biggest peeves with academic presentations is hearing someone read their paper instead of, you know, watching someone present their work. There were some interesting bits of information from Cabañas’s introduction, like that the film was banned, but I would have like for her to “coach us” on how to watch this film.
Another issue was the French-language soundtrack. To their credit, Light Industry distributed printed English-language copies of the narration, but since the room was dark, we couldn’t read the text unless one of us illuminated it with a phone. Moreover, attempting to read the text made it impossible to watch the image and its flickering. I understand that form is crucial for experimental works like this one, but it would have been nice to engage with the content, too.
Thirty minutes into the ninety-minute screening, Annie and I couldn’t take it anymore. We stopped paying attention and started to observe the number of people sleeping, texting, and otherwise uncomfortably fidgeting in their seats. A few minutes later, I turned to her and suggested we leave. Right as I turned to Annie, who sitting to my right, a guy sitting to her right shushed us and firmly suggested, “I think you should leave.” I was offended for a split-second but then realized that if this guy is really into the screening, God bless him. We promptly and quietly headed for the door.
On our way out, we encountered another art historian who was also in town for CAA and also left the screening early. We spent the rest of the night swapping stories about art and academia over a few drinks. At first, I felt like a troglodyte for not only leaving a screening, which I never do, but also being asked by a patron to leave. However, when we confirmed each other’s reservations about the experience, I felt vindicated about what I learned many, many years ago from organizing the student conference.
Earlier today, the Social Science and Cultural Studies department at Pratt announced that Laura Mulvey, one of the best known film scholars and experimental filmmakers, will be a scholar-in-residence this coming spring semester.
Professor and Chair Gregg Horowitz:
Laura Mulvey has accepted the invitation of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies to visit Pratt in the spring as our scholar in residence. We are still working out the schedule of lectures and seminars for Professor Mulvey’s residence, but we do know that her visit will fall March 10-12, 2015.
In recent years, it’s been pretty regularly expected for my fall classes to begin before Labor Day weekend. It’s something I despise, but since I have little power over the academic calendar, all I can do is complain out loud.
This year, however, only one class begins before Labor Day weekend. Experimental Film, a course at Pratt Institute begins on Thursday, August 28. That is less than two weeks away!
Experimental Film surveys the major avant-garde film movements of the twentieth century. We will closely examine the films and theories of the film and filmmakers that challenge the dominant commercial cinemas of Europe and the United States.
A nice thing about teaching this class at Pratt Institute is that the department always markets the electives throughout the institute. Here is the poster they designed to pitch my experimental film class.
Yes, that’s a frame grab from L’Age D’Or (1930), one of my favorite Buñuel films from his surrealist era.
If you’re wondering about the rest of the costume, you’re not missing it. There’s no more to my costume. I’m just wearing a dark t-shirt and black slacks. Because I’m still riding my bike to class, I’m also wearing a pair of Converse high tops, Showers Pass rain jacket (30% of chance of showers, they say), and helmet, all of which is black and keeping with the sullen artist image.
But at least I got the hair right, even if it’s wrong for my skin tone.
Today, my Experimental Film class took their midterm exam. Since we’ve focused on analyzing specific films from the historical avant-garde, the exam consists of an in-class portion and a take-home portion:
In class today, I screened four clips, each two to three minutes in length. Students were to identify the title, filmmaker, and year of each clip. One of the clips will be from a film we have not studied in class but should be familiar.
After class today, students went home and began writing a 200-word rationale for identifying each of the four clips screened in class. Their analysis is due before class next week.
If you’d like to play along at home, here are the clips I screened in class today. Mind you that the clips are based on what we’ve studied during the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks of class.
This particular clip is more challenging than the first three because it is from a film we did not screen in class. However, this film bears a strong resemblance to film we did study. Can you name the film it resembles? Can you identify this particular film?
Did I really say that I’ve been procrastinating in preparing this semester’s syllabi because I’ve taught all of this semester’s courses before? That’s not entirely true. It turns out that the first two courses this week and next are new to me. The first class, which starts in two days, is Experimental Film at Pratt Institute. I’ve based this class on an undergraduate class I took at UCSB, taught by Constance Penley. This introduction to non-narrative experiment film truly changed my life, exposing me to films that were radically different from what we had studied in other classes. It helped me make sense of film theory, a challenging course in its own right, because I saw what was possible with film when not constrained to telling stories. And in some significant way, it lured me to New York because a great deal of these films were made and continued to circulate in the vibrant film culture of this city.
I’ve relished the opportunity to teach an experimental film class somewhere, but it’s been difficult because the subjects I’ve been teaching have little connection to the avant-garde. My classes at Fordham are geared towards communication students looking for jobs in the media industrial complex and, at Queens College, I teach the core curriculum for media studies and film students. However, when I started teaching at Pratt last year, I proposed the course on the historical film avant-garde and they accepted the course for this fall semester. When I first taught an early film history class last fall, we covered a section on the European avant-garde, and the students responded really well to the films of Fernand Leger, Rene Clair, and Marcel Duchamp. Perhaps it had to with the fact these particular filmmakers were artists first, and their aesthetic came from their experience in other art forms. It was an exciting revelation.
The syllabus is still not done. I’ve been working on locating films for the screening list. It’s a long list, covering about ninety films, and I’m still grouping them into a coherent fourteen-week schedule.
Here’s the list so far, subject to time and budget constraints:
Manhatta (Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, 1921, 11 min.)