Gonna start this one off with a short anecdote that’s actually true.
I was waiting in line for a very cool concert ‘cuz I’m just a very cool person, by nature, and I was going to the concert by myself because my extremely high sense self-confidence allows me to enjoy activities without friends or family members.
So these high school kids were having a loud conversation behind me (clearly they were too insecure to go to the concert alone), and at some point it landed on Eraserhead, the very famous David Lynch feature film that took several years to make.
Apparently the one kid has just seen the movie for the first time, so it made sense that he was excited to talk about. He even pulled up the trailer on his phone, at which point his buddy said, “Is this like an avant garde movie?”
“No, I think it’s experimental.”
Being an angry person (who is still very cool, don’t you worry about that), I wanted to explain that the distinction between those two categories is completely meaningless.
I’m glad I didn’t. Talking to strangers isn’t that much fun, especially when you don’t like them very much.
Instead, I decided to write up a long, lingering internet essay about this somewhat popular question: what is avant garde cinema?
It’s not that I think avant garde cinema is unimportant, though the value of these movies varies pretty wildly based on your personal tastes.
But I do think that strict classification of movies, any movies, is just a big waste of time, especially if a certain movie’s category makes you less likely to watch it.
So let’s talk about it, starting from the very beginning.
Let’s ask the internet
The Wikipedia article on avant garde and experimental cinema is actually pretty helpful.
Basically, it defines these kinds of movies as works that challenge traditional filmmaking, whether in their visuals or storytelling methods (or lack thereof).
Makes sense, right? Experimental films experiment with different methods, techniques, and approaches.
And this difference doesn’t just apply to the movies themselves but also to the motivations behind them. Commercial movies, for the most part, want to entertain and make money, while avant garde movies don’t typically care about either of those things too much.
The real goal is to do something new and interesting.
As the article notes, a lot of older experimental films also heavily incorporated other artistic mediums: books, live theater, and the visual arts. This may have been because, in the early days of cinema, movies weren’t necessarily seen as high art, or seen as art at all, for that matter.
It generally takes time for a new medium to be respected as a form of art. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote and spoke about this idea quite a bit, arguing that a specific artistic form needed another form to surround it, acting almost like a picture frame, at which point, the form inside the other would earn greater respect.
This theory has played out almost exactly across the latter half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st.
When TV was new, it was seen as disposable trash. The first TV was inveted in 1927, and the first Oscars came around in 1929 (Cannes started in 1946, around the time TV was becoming mainstream).
Only recently did critics announce that we were living through the Golden Age of TV Writing, around the early 2000s. What had just risen to prominence? The internet, which, in contrast, was, and still is, seen as being a disposable medium (thanks for visiting the site, by the way).
Is it any wonder that now, since film has been seen as a legitimate artistic medium for several decades now, many experimental films now include references to other films as their means of including what they consider “high art”?
This is all just to say that avant garde cinema, like narrative, commercial cinema, is frequently changing and evolving over time.
Is there even a need to use the term avant garde anymore? Movements within the visual arts are separated into distinct periods. We’re now living through the age of contemporary art, which is distinct from modern art.
Calling something avant garde isn’t just vague, it also carries with it a really terrible amount of baggage, which leads into the next point.
The terrible branding of experimental films
Just walk up to a friend and say that you’d like to show them an avant garde film. The response will either be one of fear and/or hostility, or, worse, one of snobbish excitement.
For better or worse (mostly worse), the terms avant garde and experimental now have a great deal of weight behind them, and in most cases, that’s not a good thing.
Many people hate the idea of watching movies that fall into this category, and the people excited to watch movies from the margins have a higher likelihood of only doing so for the sake of performance and image.
I used to be like the kids from my opening anecdote. The main reason I wanted to seek out weird movies was so that I could brag about it, telling other people about their strange content and even forcing some friends to sit down and watch them so that I could keep tabs on their reactions.
I don’t want to act in bad faith here: not everyone who enjoys avant garde films is a phony who wants to be seen as smarter or more sophisticated than everyone else, and I also understand that when it comes to media criticism, labels and categories are extremely useful and sometimes just plain necessary.
But when we’re talking specifically about movies that are pushing the boundaries of what a movie can and should be, I think the best thing to do is to say as little about them as possible when recommending them.
Even when reviewing one of these movies, focusing on the meat of the movie, what it actually does and says, is so much more helpful than trying to fit it into a pre-established category.
Bringin’ it all back home
This idea might sound a bit strange, but, for the sake of promoting movies that dare to be creative, original, and exist in direct contrast to the glut of commercial remakes, reboots, and late sequels, interesting movies need all the help they can get. And highlighting the fact that they’re on the margins otherizes those movies.
Otherizing human beings on the margins or in minority groups is harmful, as we’ve (very slowly) learned through the decades, and it works in opposition to positive social change.
Yes, differences should also be celebrated, but when otherization leads to feelings of being unwanted or not belonging to a larger culture, negativity abounds, and suddenly those people receive less respect.
I’m not saying that movies deserve the same amount of respect that human beings do, and the otherization of certain genres of movies is noooowhere near as important as the fight against human prejudice, but if we want mainstream audiences to start taking innovative movies more seriously, then maybe we should try to avoid the ghettoization of those movies.
Do you want to see original, interesting movies get wider releases? Do you want them to have a shot at not just an Oscar but also box-office glory? Yeah? Then we need to cut down on the gatekeeping.
Maybe we can stop using incredible vague labels that will make Joe Blow less likely to see something that might be a bit beyond his cinematic comfort zone.
We can even compare the situation to the Blade Runner sequel. Don’t worry, this is going somewhere.
In Mikey’s incredible review of the movie, he ponders the question the original movie asked (namely, “Who is a replicant and who isn’t?”), and applies it to the sequel, which basically breaks the question in half. IT DOESN’T MATTER. Doesn’t matter who is and who isn’t. The labels ‘replicant’ and ‘human’ are irrelevant when all these characters share vastly more important qualities like dignity, emotions, loss, and the various trials/tribulations of being alive and questioning your existence.
Likewise, does it really matter what category a movie fits into? In certain ways, sure, but every single one was (presumably) made by people who worked really hard to make something great. The filmmakers had something to say, and they did their best to say it, using the techniques and methods they felt would serve that purpose.
Can we all try to be a little bit more open to movies we think we won’t like? If we want original content, then we need to prove to Hollywood that audiences respond to original work.
We’re the audiences, guys. We have that power.
Remakes can still be good (sometimes), but a Hollywood system that rarely produces anything but is in desperate need of new blood.
Stop asking what avant garde cinema really is. Ask whether a movie speaks to you, moves you, makes you want to talk to someone about it. That’s the useful kind of media criticism, so how ‘bout we just stick to that.