Experimental films, like documentaries, tend to interest a small subset of the movie-watching public and even devoted cinephiles may struggle to appreciate experimental efforts, but without such films, movies would still be a loop of footage showing us a galloping horse or some people walking through a garden. In a sense, all films are experimental because the medium is so young and new technologies and innovations are still being developed at a fairly steady pace. Granted, however, when one says experimental film, one intends a film that approaches narrative (or refuses to approach narrative) in unexpected or strange ways, juxtaposes images, sound, and words without regard for usual formal conventions, exhibits a self consciousness of its own construction as a film, or, generally, rejects the standards and formal techniques that mainstream films, and mainstream audiences, take as given. The following list reflects my own preferences as far as experimental films are concerned; many are documentaries in one way or another and more than half were directed by women. These are films that tell stories that break apart traditional, conventional, and comfortable understandings of history, gender, art, progress, and reality.
Radical feminist Věra Chytilová was banned from working in her native Czechoslovakia for nearly a decade once the censors got a look at her subversive masterpiece, Daisies, a film that deconstructs and cheekily pulls the rug out from under patriarchy and the hypocritical capitalism of the soviet model of industry. Unlike so many well-regarded cinematic experiments, Daisies is legitimately both fun and funny, though some of the more gleefully incendiary jokes, as in the scene where the two Maries cheerfully snip up phallic foods like pickles, might make men squirm in their seats. Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová play the two girls who throw off all social constraints and follow whatever anarchic impulse emerges in their bubbling psyches. The world cannot contain the two Maries; either they or every social institution must be subdued. Chytilová's film is not utopian, but its spirit is impossible to suppress, for no matter how oppressive a state, an ideology, or simply a man may be, below the surface lurks a mischievous, happily destructive id, and at any moment, anyone might decide, like the two Maries, to "be bad," the consequences be damned.
The Gleaners and I (2000)
This stunning documentary by French filmmaker Agnès Varda is part autobiography, part sociological study; its ostensible subject, the practice of gleaning and the men and women who glean, ultimately encompasses a plethora of far-ranging themes, from the French class system, immigration, art history, collage and found object art projects, viticultural agricultural methods, French property law, psychoanalysis, and the beauty of heart-shaped potatoes. Both deeply personal and intellectually curious, The Gleaners and I is marked with a singularly French quality of engagement. The political coexists and interacts with the personal and the artistic in such a way that the film is texturally, structurally, and thematically enriched. The film's form mirrors its subject, for Varda gleans images, interviews, sounds (the use of birdsong is striking), and objects in the process of filming and editing. Who would have imagined that such an odd, seemingly marginal and obscure subject like gleaning could yield such satisfying results?
The Immortal Story (1968)
This rare film directed by Orson Welles has only this year finally been released by the Criterion Collection after languishing for decades in obscurity. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, the film is not obviously experimental and in fact has a regimented narrative structure, yet its dizzying obsession with narrative renders the experience of watching it something like walking through a house of mirrors. Welles plays a despotic colonial merchant in Macao, slowly and painfully dying. He is utterly heartless, obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in his environs, and his final coup de grace, he insists, will be to make a fictional story happen in the real world, to create reality like a god. He is aided in this by his nihilistic and fussily unemotional bookkeeper (Roger Coggio), who recruits the vengeful Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), daughter of the merchant's former partner, whom he ruined, to enact in real life the story of a sailor paid by a wealthy, impotent man to impregnate his beautiful young bride. Reality resists being shaped, however, and something at the core, some essence, eludes the merchant, just as it eludes Welles, and this is precisely the point, and also why I would claim that the film is purely experimental. This is a film about storytelling as an empirical science, as pure form, and by exposing the artifice of narrative, it transforms into pure artifice itself.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's feminist masterpiece stars the enigmatic Delphine Seyrig, muse of Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras, as Jeanne, a single mother whose monotonous daily routine is so crushingly miserable that only an act of violence can break through its mechanistic patterns. Subsistence and biological necessity are the sole gods in Jeanne's universe; her time is consumed with the buying, cooking, and eating of food, the washing, mending, and wearing of clothing, the applying of lipstick, the submission to utilitarian and paid-for sex. Jeanne experiences nothing that is not directly tied to the maintenance of the body. Made with a crew of all women, Akerman's film unspools at a glacial pace and yet it hypnotizes as it aggravates. Loathed or loved, Jeanne Dielman makes an irrefutable case: if a woman is merely a body, a reproductive entity to be consumed, then the only way out is death, whether her own or someone else's.
La Jetée (1962)
French director Chris Marker's short film is a miniature time travel epic, a brilliant meditation on love, purpose, utopia, and nuclear apocalypse that unfolds in a series of rhythmically edited photomontages. Narrated by Jean Négroni, the film shows us a Man (Davos Hanich) haunted by a pre-nuclear apocalypse memory, in which he witnessed a man killed on a jetty. This memory proves key to the Man's capacity to withstand the exigencies of time travel and he is sent to the past, where he meets a Woman (Hélène Châtelain) with whom he falls deeply in love, in an effort to save the harrowing present. This is a delicate film and none of its many imitators have come close to evoking the aura of ethereal mystery, tinged with menace and longing, that Marker succeeds in calling up like a spirit. No other film has ever portrayed with such perfection the stickiness of time, in which we are caught like flies in a web.
Koyaanisqatsi is unquestionably one of the most successful avant-garde American films and its success is deserved. Director Godfrey Reggio juxtaposes footage of the natural world with footage of an ever accelerating human development of buildings, airplanes, rockets, escalators, and highways, altering film speed to dazzle us with the jewel-toned light show of traffic at night, the oceans of clouds crashing across mountain peaks, or the stunning wafting of debris in the aftermath of an explosion or shuttle launch. Though a plain description of the images could make them seem boring or mundane, as the film rushes towards its astonishing conclusion, it is impossible to look away; the everyday world has become bizarre and strange; the remote and relatively untouched landscape of deserts, mountains, and oceans explodes off the screen in hyper-reality. The exhilarating and yet increasingly disturbing impression one receives watching this film is partly due to the intense rhythmic quality of the editing and probably mostly due to Philip Glass's pulsating minimalist score, his first in a long and brilliant career as a film composer (the scores for The Thin Blue Line and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters are some of the best in American cinema).
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren's apocalyptic fever dream of psychological breakdown is one of the most significant and copied avant-garde films. In the space of fourteen minutes, the film circles through a succession of images, which with each repeated frame seem to grow denser and heavier with unknowable, unspeakable meaning. In contrast to the surrealist short films of Luis Buñuel, Meshes of the Afternoon refuses the temptation of randomness rendered satiric, and unlike the films of Stan Brakhage, the clarity of the objects on screen only alienates them further from their usual meaning, without the need to obscure them with rapid jump cuts, scratches on the film, or extreme close-ups. Though some (including Brakhage) contend that the film was more Deren's husband, Alexander Hammid's creation, Deren is credited with directing, writing, editing, and producing, and although Hammid has credit as a co-director, without significant evidence to the contrary, it seems to safe to assume that this was Deren's project. Whatever the truth may be, Meshes of the Afternoon depicts with subtlety and psychological specificity a gendered perspective on the dissolution of the mental safeguards that hold us in reality.
Pina Bausch was one of the most innovative choreographers of her time, a leading exponent of the Tanztheater (that is, dance theater) movement, and an artist of fierce and compassionate vision. Director Wim Wenders blends segments of some of her most significant ballets, including Café Müller, Vollmund, and The Rite of Spring, archival interview footage, and new interviews with the dancers of her company, filmed in 3D; the result is a spectacular celebration of Bausch and, by extension, the overwhelming power of the body to quicken the mind and the senses through movement. The bonds that hold her company together, even after her death, are testament to both the uniqueness of her artistic perspective and the loving generosity with which she treated her dancers. As Bausch said, "Dance, dance otherwise we are lost."
Russian Ark (2002)
Alexander Sokurov's gorgeous tour-de-force retells three hundred years of Russian history in one glorious, ninety six minute shot, a breathtaking marvel that dwarfs similar such experiments. A ghostly wanderer walks the halls of the Winter Palace, accompanied by the European, an aristocratic French visitor come to court. The camera, manned by Tilman Büttner, dips, weaves, and leaps through seas of dancers, soldiers, musicians, coffin-makers, artists, and museum curators, wending its way through the corridors, ballrooms, and antechambers of the palace. With a cast of over 2,000 and three orchestras spread across thirty three rooms, Russian Ark dazzles, inviting (literally - the narrator invites us in) the viewer to bask and whirl in a pastel and wintry tinted Russian vortex, in which the boundaries between past and present collapse. The bizarre effect of the film is part dream and part chiaroscuro theater, a heady mixture of the painfully real and the evanescent fantastic.
Sex Is Comedy (2002)
French writer-director Catherine Breillat is one of the most intellectual and daring filmmakers working today and this film indulges both a penchant for analysis and a blisteringly unflinching cinematic perspective. Sex Is Comedy is a self-reflexive reconstruction of the filming of one of the most controversial scenes in one of Breillat's most controversial films, Fat Girl. Breillat's stand-in, played by Anne Parillaud, is struggling to film the scene in which her ingenue (Roxane Mesquida, both reprising her role and playing herself) loses her virginity to a handsome older student (Grégoire Colin). The two actors loathe each other, the prosthetic penis won't cooperate - in short, nothing is working out according to plan. The metafictional elements of Sex Is Comedy insist on constant re-examination, constant revision, but then, in the end, Breillat's magic moment somehow comes together, an alchemical flash of cinematic authenticity achieved by the most artificial of means.
The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)
Germaine Dulac is one of the earliest surrealist film directors and often credited as the first genuinely feminist filmmaker. The Smiling Madame Beudet is her most famous film and a most brilliant, extraordinary one at that. Using double exposures, Dulac shows the tortured and increasingly violent fantasies of a repressed bourgeois housewife (Germaine Durmoz), whose husband's predilection for faking suicide by revolver, which he perceives as a hilarious joke, sparks her imagination and inspires a sinister plan. The woman's life is bifurcated, but the lines between her fantasy life and the mundane reality of housework and obligatory sex blur as the monotony of her day-to-day existence erases any sense of time, while her husband, whose job brings him out into the world, lives in a strictly factual reality, his practical jokes a vent for whatever dark subliminal impulses are at work within him, thus rendered harmless. Though Freud is clearly an important influence, Dulac succeeds in mounting a stinging critique of his highly phallocentric philosophies, decades before feminists began deconstructing and reinterpreting psychoanalysis.
Stories We Tell (2012)
Sarah Polley's documentary doesn't at first glance appear especially experimental. Using what are disparagingly referred to as talking head interviews, home videos, and reconstructions with actors, Polley narrates her family's unconventional history. The reason I would consider this film experimental is the way in which the crafting of the film forces the viewer to confront the porousness and ambiguity of what we are accustomed to assume is factual. Each person's truth has genuine weight, each person's truth is true, which means that the truth is riddled with contradictions. Formally, the film's structure reflects this multivalent quality, for it is next to impossible to clearly ascertain which footage is home video, that is, actual depictions of Polley's family, and which is a reenactment, carefully composed with actors. The incredible poignancy of Stories We Tell, the heartbreaking images of her mother and the man she loved on a snowy bridge, of her mother dipping her baby's feet into a pool, of Polley herself as a child patting a snowman, isn't contained; it spills out, breaking apart the comforting idea that reality is singular and verifiable.