Exploring the Dark Side of Experimental Films

Going to the cinema is and has been a joy for millions of people for about a century now. Even if the film you end up seeing turns out to be putrid, there’s something special about sitting down in your seat, whether you’re by yourself, with friends, on a date etc., watching the lights dim down and waiting for the film to start. But every so often, when you skip the current blockbuster and chose to see that indie film that you’ve been hearing whispers about, you find yourself unsure of what to think afterwards and pondering what the film meant.

Some of those films can be categorised as experimental films. These are projects in which the content included may not be of the universal kind but it’s shown and stylised in a way to invoke a deliberate reaction out of the audience or convey obscure themes. Nicholas Winding Refn, director of Drive, is often viewed as an experimental director for his desire to film what he wants as opposed to what’s conventional (his latest film The Neon Demon proves that in visually gorgeous yet incredibly disturbing ways). People tend to avoid experimental films for they’re usually regarded as pornographic. While it’s true that strange, unorthodox material is usually incorporated, experimental films like that are important as they can help filmmakers discover new techniques to filmmaking and, in some cases, even change the entire face of cinema.

With that said though, experimental films can get very dark. An example of an early experimental film is 1959’s Window Water Baby Moving by Stan Brakhage, a detailed account on the birth of his first child Myrrena. This includes actual footage of the birth itself; the pushing, the stretching, the umbilical cord, the placenta – it’s all there on film and to say the least, it’s graphic stuff. It should only be watched if you think you can handle it, but with that said it’s not showing child birth just because it can. There is method behind the madness. The film offers an intriguing contrast between the initial scenes of the director’s wife in a bath and then the birth scenes themselves, suggesting that a water birth would’ve been much more natural than the proceedings of a hospital. Of course the truth of that statement is up to the opinion of the viewer but despite the graphic content you’re still able to pick up on its messages through its style. As unpleasant to watch as it must be for some, it’s abundantly apparent that the director is treating the birth of his child as something special, emphasised through the film’s use of sound and cinematography.

Another, darker example is the short Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by husband and wife, Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, who also star in it. It depicts a woman who dreams that she is chasing a hooded figure with a mirror for a face and the more she tries to catch him, the weirder the angles and the soundtrack get. While it’s nowhere near as graphic as Window Water Baby Moving, there’s a constant sense of the uncanny to its atmosphere and craftsmanship. It’s darker in the sense that the viewer doesn’t really know what’s happening until the last couple of minutes in which the film deals with the question of death. However, it’s more about the style in this case and the film, through its cinematography and tone, successfully creates a nightmarish environment for not only the characters but the audience. It’s eerie and arguably tough to watch but it’s undeniably impressive filmmaking on display.

But how do these experimental films, especially ones as dark as these, help define cinema today? What separates them from the common porno is that there’s substance underneath the surface. It’s not the content – it’s how the content is shown – and even the most disturbing of methods or subject matters used to show this can offer something insightful for movie makers or obsessives. Meshes of the Afternoon proved to be a big influence on many David Lynch movies (particularly Lost Highway) and other filmmakers of today like Refn. Even directors like Scorsese and Fincher still continue to play around with their filmmaking, which is exactly what these films showcase, emphasised even more so through their dark content.

So if you’re curious in the craftsmanship of film, experimental films like Un Chien Andalou or Wavelength are definitely worth a watch. You may need to brace yourself for the darker content – many of us don’t want to watch people giving birth or dissections being performed – but hey, you can’t deny their style.

[Calum Cooper]

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