On Experimental Film:
Contribution to an Internet Discussion Group in 1997


I – who come to the experimental film/video sphere as a critic and writer – have often faced incredible difficulties and arguments at the jury level when it comes to classifying, selecting and rewarding experimental work. I have often been incensed when a patently non-experimental work gets a prize it doesn’t deserve! And I have often wished there was a simple, working definition, a protocol, that could resolve such disputes or head them off at the pass – like sexual harrassment guidelines in the workplace!


People tend – no matter how much goodwill they may have towards experimental film/video – to get merrily bogged down in hair-splitting, definition-eroding distinctions and queries about experimentation that get us nowhere in the task of developing such a protocol. On the one end, certain old-school purists (if there any still around) jump on anything with any trace of narrative or character-acting as definitely not-experimental. On another end, certain populists with a liking for avant-garde transgression want to stretch the experimental category to include things like Natural Born Killers (which is, from one angle, a pretty wild film stylistically).


Suggested negative criteria don’t really do it for me. For instance, defining experimental as ‘the product of a single vision’ is a problem in a world where 1. Auteurism makes even Steven Spielberg a visionary artist; and 2. Many experimental films are no longer in that artisanal, one-person-does-it-all mode. And a ‘non-corporate/non-profit’ definition could not accommodate, for instance, Godard’s most way-out films, like Hélas pour moi (1993), which is utterly experimental, but was financed and distributed (in France, at least) in the conventional arthouse manner (it may even have made a little money!).


Here is the conclusion I have reached, after many years of thought and worry. I believe we have to be able to define experimentation in the positive, as a type or mode of audio-visual work – not something defined (in the first place) by exterior factors like political stance (e.g., counter to mainstream ideology) or monetary or technological resources/means. For me, experimental film/video and mainstream film/video can be differentiated in that they are based upon a fundamentally different economy of form in relation to content.


Again, we can get into absurd hair-splitting here about what form and content are in film. But I think we all have a commonsense understanding of the difference: content is story/characters/theme/etc, while form is colour, framing, brute sensation. Form is the signifier and content is the signified. Content is what is represented, the second-order meaning, while form is the primal, material level.


The basic form-content economy of mainstream cinema/video is that form serves, is secondary or subservient to, content. It helps to shape and express the content. Form is centrally important in mainstream cinema (as it is in all aesthetic expressions), and there are many extraordinary stylists from Murnau to Cronenberg who work the formal parameters underlying a narrative with incredible mastery – but it is still the content that we are meant to primarily ‘get’ and experience.


In experimental film/video, the relation is the other way around. Form is more foregrounded than content – in an important sense, it is the content. This definition enables us to embrace avant-garde films that are completely abstract (the obvious example of pure form over content), but also those experimental works (Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’acte is a stunning example) that work with fragments or elements of fiction, character, meaning, etc.


For me, seeing this difference in textual economy correctly helps us to adjudicate those controversial cases where categories like experimental drama or experimental documentary can do so much sloppy damage. For me, a fictional piece that is tricked out or tarted up with a few crazy camera angles, décor shot through a lurid filter, and an exaggeratedly kooky music track, is not an experimental work. Its content, in the conventional sense, is obviously still the most primary thing.


If, on the other hand, I am watching a doco in which formal elements, of editing or pictorial treatment or whatever, end up completely taking over (even obliterating) the nominal content, that might well be an experimental film (I can think of one example of exactly this: Raúl Ruiz’s Grand Events and Ordinary People. And maybe some Chris Marker. But not those damn cute, quirky docos which aim the fish-eye lens at the same old subjects ad nauseam!)


I hate it when people apologise for their long posts, so I won’t.


© Adrian Martin 22 January 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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