The experimental film a fiction?
The experimental film is perhaps less to be understood as another cinematographic genre alongside others but as a neutralisation of the borders between them. It potentially covers the whole spectrum of cinema. Put simply, this becomes possible through (at least) one additional level which is peculiar to the experimental as opposed to fixed forms. This may be described, according to the point of view, as a meta or sub-level or as something else.
This can be explained in more detail with the help of Peter Tscherkassky’s thesis that the experimental film has on the whole a non-fictional character, whereas both feature films and documentary films belong to the realm of fiction. This means the following: the conventional forms of the feature and documentary film have a “maintaining” character, because they pretend to directly describe the way the world is, independently of whether it refers imaginably or directly to reality. In this respect, it is a decisive factor that the reading of the film is determined by the utilisation of strongly conventionalised, clear codes and that thus the processes of codification and decodification themselves do not become visible and a theme for discussion. They occur, so to speak, automatically, that is, by themselves, with the effect that the described world is mostly seen and taken as true without contradictions or questions. In the veiling of their own functioning, feature and documentary films have this strong fictional (and ideological) character. In general, they do not break out of the area of the imaginary in which they both move and the audience follows suit. On the other hand, the experimental film sees itself traditionally as a critical and enlightening undertaking in which no monolithic “maintaining” takes place, but in which, as an integral part of the work, the constitution of sense is instead made visible.
By reflecting itself, the film becomes a reality in its own right, a reality which is not merely representative and as such remains transparent, and consequently invisible. The film makes itself recognisable as that which it has always been, a symbolic construct. Its self-reflexibility potentially communicates itself to the observers who can now read the images as signs: “Especially in the open, plural reading in which no clear sense is understood one can observe oneself in the reconstruction of sense.”
Experimental films cannot do without this reflexive work of the receivers, they do not make any sense and thus do not give any pleasure. Lisl Ponger’s film “Passagen”, for example, is made up of a large number of visual and textual fragments, the connection and significance of which do not appear of themselves. The film remains a patchwork if the observers do not reveal the construction themselves, produce connections between the components, fill gaps and thus try to produce a whole. In this respect the process of reconstruction is generally open, free and unterminable, that is, just as the art process prior to it, it does not aim at constants, but develops itself ideally as ?continuous variation” (Deleuze/Guattari). As (primarily) an individual process it involves the imaginary just as any other film: desires, projections, reflections of the ego come into the reflective game.
On the objective side the experimental film also always remains in the sphere of fiction; it is demonstration and imagination. It can show the fictive of the film only from inside. However, by emphasising its own specious character it establishes itself at the same time as independent reality. This “specious” truth about oneself can become the starting point for a truth about other things. Self-reflexibility alone is certainly not essential to the “truth”, or in the first place and more moderately it is not essential to the relevance of films. Looking at many experimental works, however, the question arises of what those films have to offer nowadays beyond this self-absorption. The ?avant-garde film”, an art form with tradition, is frequently threatened to fall to blind academism which often does not succeed anymore to refer beyond itself. If one asks oneself for relevant content, however, one may not forget the æsthetic side and what the experimental film has accomplished here: the appearance of each film, the fictive character on which every object and every objective truth are always founded.
A feasible and extremely fruitful way within the tradition is now as then the experimental sub-genre of the found-footage film, films made of found and appropriated material which make up the main part of the film programme of this Biennale. The work with found-footage “alien” and at the same time often too familiar images from the mass media or also from a private context has always explicitly been on a material and thus æsthetic level. With the second viewing and as a part of a media reality which as such only becomes visible in its repetition, the found material is virtually taken (back) into reality. The unthematised appearance, the unreflected imaginary/fictive, constitute the starting point for a critical re-reading of the material taken up and its original context as symbolic and thus social constructs.
In this respect Martin Arnold’s disassemblies of the Hollywood world and life concepts are paradigmatic. His latest film “Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy” probes once again the abyss of Western family scenarios, this time with the help of a feature film series from the 1940s with the juvenile stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. By means of an image-for-image analysis of short, not particularly exiting, single scenes, Arnold drags energies and significance hidden beneath the codes of industry to the now heavily moving surface. As in “Alone. …” the pointed criticism of the dominant practice and the social norms manifested in it, ideally produces an excess; it does not stop at the (abstract) negation, but aims at the creation of its own language or diction within/underneath/beyond the given one. The experimental in the film is in general that dimension of the cinema where personal languages are developed. Old stories, the oldest stories, are newly told, newly invented, as for instance in Dietmar Brehm’s “Macumba”, a remix of pornographic material, the story of a seduction, the story of Eros and Thanatos as an exciting, “optical tangle” (Brehm).
Often one’s own story is directly told in a personal style, or better: it is imagined and constructed, as in “It Wasn’t Love”, Sadie Benning’s search for sexual identity which also involves, apart from a manifold self mise an scène, much material from Hollywood. In other works one’s own history, the self, is completely derived from alien images. The appropriation of pre-existing material from the mass culture that often marks us, is formed from the appropriation of the alien/own past. Marcel Schwierin’s (fictive) autobiography ?Die Bilder” represents such a repetition, such a bringing back of the imaginary into reality which is reminiscent of Bruce Connor’s retrospectively synthesised children’s dream, “Valse Triste”. Both are films which like others in the programme oscillate between a mobilisation of the imaginary/fictive and its reflection as the symbolic, between one’s own story, individual memories and the socially always given and prescribed. This includes, last but not least, taboos, especially those that refer to the body and the sexual, topics which the experimental film has taken up repeatedly.
Whereas Benning tells about homosexuality and Brehm puts onto stage the sexual with alien material, Mara Mattuschka (“Es hat mich sehr gefreut”) and Constanze Westhoven (“kühle fluten”) directly and confrontationally use their own bodies. They develop a game with desire, their own and that of others (which implicitly includes the observers), a game whose inherent mirror problematic, whose entanglement in their (own) image, in the imaginary, makes them descriptive. Also Matthias Müller’s “Pensão Globo” is about a kind of doubling, in this case a very personal narration about AIDS, in which the disease is presented as a literal standing-beside-oneself of the protagonist.
By telling the story of the others, the experimental film can explicitly become political. In “Passagen” these are the narrations of immigrants from or to Vienna, stories of the others which equally could have been one’s own story, and which have been ambivalently dramatised by Ponger with (found) private travel pictures from all over the world.
Also Johan Grimonprez observes in “Kobarweng or Where is your Helicopter?” home-movies from abroad, in which he pursues a sort of reversed anthropology, telling a first contact story from the point of view of the people of New Guinea.
Also in “Bedevil” by Tracey Moffat, an Australian of indigenous origin, cultural difference and its depictability is treated. “Bedevil”, a feature film which isn’t really a feature film, and which is divided into three separate highly individually produced episodes, generally unites motifs of the programmes. The film oscillates between or underneath the different film types and genres and thus forms its own language within the majority language which allows the narration of one’s own story (as well as that of others). This minority speaking (Deleuze/Guattari) does not aim at majority, does not intend to create constants (clear meanings) but follows the process of continuous variation which alone means autonomy.