What is experimental cinema? The definition "experimental cinema" (inadequate and ambiguous according to most experts) can refer to a vast range of different types of film, almost always characterised by: a) a lack of script, dialogues, actors and staging; b) total independence on the part of the film-maker (according to Stan Brakhage's definition, experimental film is nearly always the work of a single person); e) special attention to the image in itself (starting from the single frame), images experienced in all their immense perceptive and emotional power, capable both of representing the real with immediacy and authenticity as well as manipulating it through various techniques during the filming and/or during the developing and printing process; d) the use of not necessarily professional supports (8mm, super8, 16mm) and in some cases even the absence of technological devices; e) editing that is particularly creative, non-linear, that is, discontinuous, or the refusal of editing, which is done directly "in camera"; f) close connections with other disciplines such as painting, music, dance, photography, etc.; g) being outside the usual channels of production and distribution, and therefore not under the rules or censures of the market.
Today, experimental cinema and video form part of (and partly dissolve) that huge area called "non-fiction" (of which the documentary is also a part), distinct from the predominant rule of "fictional" or traditional narrative cinema. Is experimental cinema for the reality of the image or for covering it up? Is it for the pure recording of the real or for its overcoming? An experimental cinema more interested in form and its elaboration, labelled somewhat limitingly "formalist", exists. A cinema that is, by definition, concerned with technique, usually made by artists. Next to this we find an experimental cinema where the image does not undergo further modification, a cinema which locates in direct connection with reality, being able to show existence, renouncing all staging. These two types are not mutually exclusive, and indeed often blur into one another and complement each other. There is a vast range of different shades: from a stage of simple aniconicity, or loss of any kind of figurative element (so-called "abstract cinema"), to a certain level of pseudo-narration. From the absence of sound or word, it is easy to pass to a heavily verbal cinema, where the contents outweigh even the visual aspect.
A master of experimental cinema such as Brakhage, for example, contemplates and takes on both options, simply because he explores physical nature as much as the mental structure of the images, attempting to capture the ultimate truth (?) of the gaze. His films represent the invisible. Be careful, however - this is not expressionism, there is no attempt to load up on reality, to express human interiority through a process of reification. The operation is much more complex and reaches a level of total "realism", so absolute that it cannot be judged using the usual parameters of mimesis. When Brakhage, like an alchemist, films himself and his family, sucking them back into a visual vortex where bodies mix with dust and luminous interference (Scenes From Under Childhood, 1967-70) - and in this way describes both metaphorically and literally a panicked, expansive, atmospheric sexuality - he carries out an operation so unashamedly pure and intimate that no other documentary maker would have been able to realise it.
It may seem to be a paradox, but the relationship with the deepest and most unknowable reality is the most important thing for many experimental film-makers. Jean Cocteau defined his metaphysical-surrealist film "Le sang d'un poète" (1930) as "a real documentary with unreal events".
Antonin Artaud, writing the script for another surrealist film, "La coquille et le clergyman" made in 1927 by Germaine Dulac, did not in the least intend to reproduce a dream as much as look for "the hidden truth of the spirit in images made only from themselves, and which do not involve their sense of the situation in which the develop, but form a powerful interior necessity which projects an undeniable evidence into the light".
The main subject of experimental cinema is technique itself which, however, is always something "natural", something that has the same nature as iconic material, even - we might say - something which pre-exists the image. Over and above the content, an experimental work generally arises from a technological motivation, from the desire to experiment with a procedure, to apply it to a specific situation. The possibilities really are infinite if we think of the huge number of variations and perfections of one technique, as well as the the fact that a filmmaker can combine different procedures, much as a scientist in a laboratory mixes chemical and optical elements, setting off unexpected filmic reactions. The modifications of the analogue support are chemical and optical by nature (toning, negative prints, double exposures, increases or decreases in speed, slow motion, chromatic variations, manual intervention on the film itself, dissolves, multiple exposures, split screen, phased animation techniques, lettering, mixture of formats and different supports, and so on). Starting then from something like subject matter - an absolute cult for the cinema - we arrive at a de-materialised dimension of the image. Gilles Deleuze rightly observes that "if there is a constant in this cinema, it is exactly the construction of a gaseous state of perception", obtained through various methods: intermittent editing, re-filming, and so on.
Alongside a history of experimental or "avant-garde" films (in the most historicised use of the term) - which assumes other connotations and/or ulterior specifications ("underground", "structural", etc.), also with respect to the geographical area in which it develops - we can understand tout court experimentalism not as a macro-genre, but rather as a collection of particular techniques of re-elaboration and image modification, configured under the form of stylistic elements also used in the field of fiction. Official cinema has always drawn on experimental cinema, but in recent years this phenomenon has grown notably, so much so that we are now actually witnessing a genuine "mass experimentalism": just think of the frequent "thefts" by pop videos and TV adverts.
How is experimental cinema changing in the era of the digital image? It's difficult to say. On one hand it's true that there are no more differences between cinematographic experimentation and video experimentation, in that these two areas are different parts of the same story. On the other hand it's also true that a film-based experimentation exists - based on a specificity of language and technique - which would lose its sense if made in digital. How can the expressive force of a single frame be replaced, the materiality of the grain, the variability of the speed, the changeability of light and colour typical of film through numeric support which is by its very nature virtual and dematerialised? Naturally with digital software it is possible to simulate imperfections, the jumps and lineations of the film, but the spectator can never be given back the same physical and temporal sensation of a projected film. Take an experimental "genre" such as found footage film, currently one of the most common and amply documented in this Neapolitan show. Intervening on pre-existing materials of various types - from amateur films to newsreels, from full-length feature films to advertising - is something decidedly manual and concrete. The film-maker confronts it with the gaze of another, already codified, often re-photographing the image, critically re-interpreting it and creating an ulterior staging. This kind of operation is also actually carried out using digital processes: scratching, for example, is a form of visual re-elaboration of stock images still more creative and complex, as well as displaying an affinity with the musical culture of hip-hop and those genres focussed on the remixing of other tracks. Some experimental film-makers - I'm thinking of the Austrian Martin Arnold - create their found footage works on video first, later transferring them onto film. In some cases these works can even be shown in both forms seeing as the final result doesn't change from a conceptual point of view. Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi themselves - pioneers of found footage - electronically re-elaborate their archive films (making a wonderful installation at the last Venice Biennale). Moreover we know that a film maker such as Peter Kubelka will never give up using celluloid, will never be able to deny himself the pleasure of the emulsion.
Chemistry therefore - at least as far as experimental cinema is concerned - should continue to co-exist with electronics, not as a polemical alternative or a bulwark to protect the past, but simply as a technological complement. Film is not a simple support, as in the case of mainstream cinema, but an expressive variable that cannot be omitted. It is therefore fundamental that a large number of young film makers use film and digital methods, mixing them up where possible, creating fertile co-habitations and interferences, in the name of a different way of making cinema and becoming directors. Over and above genres, labels and definitions.
Bruno di Marino