The History of the American Avant-Garde and Experimental Cinema: European Influences


Location: Theatre Vanguard
9014 Melrose Avenue , Los Angeles, California 90069


The history of the avant-garde/ experimental film does not begin in America. It begins in France, in the work of the professional magician, Georges Melies. The motion picture was invented to reproduce movement, to reproduce reality, to reflect like a mirror what went on before the lens of the camera. Film was primarily objective until Melies stumbled upon the transformatory possibilities of the medium. This happened as he was filming a view of traffic in Paris. His camera jammed for a minute, and after he developed the film Melies discovered that the bus that was on the scene when the camera stopped was magically transformed into a hearse that was in the bus's place when the camera started again. Following this invention, by accident, of stop-motion photography, he went on to discover fading, dissolving, masking, super-imposition, slow motion, fast motion and reverse motion. In short, he learned how to use film to manipulate reality. Melies films were commercial successes. They were also works of totally personal art. He wrote the scripts, designed and painted the sets, ran the camera, directed the action, and sometimes even played the lead role. From 1896 to 1913, he made hundreds of films, most of them stagey spectacles such as VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE. Action in Melies' films was restricted to sets of proscenium stage dimensions, however, and he was drive out of business when others made more dynamic and realistic use of the camera. Many contemporary underground filmmakers have adopted Melies as a progenitor and hero. Reprinted from Sheldon Renan's AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AMERICAN UNDERGROUND FILM [Source: Theatre Vanguard Program Notes, 1976]