A history of everything?

A History of Experimental Film and Video
July 23, 1999

What is an experimental film? Judging from A History of Experimental Film and Video , A. L. Rees must know. However, having just read it, I am still in doubt. "Experimental" clearly means more than just innovative. Otherwise how is it that Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète features here, but not the equally inventive Orphée ? And why no mention of Bergman's Persona or Welles's Citizen Kane - for if those films are not experimental then what is?

Rees sees these objections coming. There have to be limits. This, he tells us, is a book purely about avant-garde film. As such, it is closer to the world of 20th-century art than to mainstream, narrative cinema. Of course, any general survey is open to accusations of omission, bias, undue brevity and misdirected enthusiasm. Such faults come with the territory, and it is beside the point to blame the author for what he could not help doing.

In any case, Rees's parameters are by no means as limiting as might at first be thought. Sometimes this reads like a history of everything, as the author adeptly draws into the orbit of his story such diverse themes as the theory of time, optics, the history of painting from Cezanne to surrealism, photography, punk, computers and the contemporary art scene. More importantly, he persuades us of his mastery of each of these subjects: we confidently feel that we are in good hands.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a theoretical overview; the second presents the history of the "canonical avant-garde" from the futurists to Warhol; and the third concentrates on British experimental film and video from the mid-1960s to 1998. This structure leads to an inevitable worry about parochialism. Actually, the real problem is that this apparent national bias painfully draws attention to the much more damning parochialism of the whole activity of experimental film-making. As Rees resolutely charts the political/aesthetic ins and outs of almost completely unknown groups of film-makers, one inevitably finds oneself wondering, what is the importance of this? This is a book that describes a coterie. If it has a fault it is the consequence of Rees's otherwise admirable immersion in his subject.

Yet this is nonetheless a pleasurable and interesting book. Rees's defence of films that can indeed look merely "stupid" is an effectively impassioned one, and left this reader with a great yearning to see the "aesthetics of failure" in Ken Jacobs's Little Stabs at Happiness , the kazoo player in Humphrey Jennings's Spare Time , or the orgiastic mayhem of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures . The cinematic pleasures here are concealed and too rarely screened, but Rees is an eloquent advocate for them.

Michael Newton teaches English at University College London.

A History of Experimental Film and Video

Author - A. L. Rees
ISBN - 0 85170 684 3 and 681 9
Publisher - BFI
Price - £35.00 and £13.99
Pages - 152

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