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Vanja Obad

HOW TO UNDERSTAND EXPERIMENTAL FILM (A cognitive approach)?1


Summary:
Very often experimental film puts our standard communicational expectations to test (it suffices
to remember Stan Brakhages visions, Mihovil Pansinis coincidences or the abstract dance of
shapes and colours of Len Lye) and explores perceptional potentials of a viewer who has to cope
with the break from standard relations. However, this does not mean that our understanding of
experimental film is different from our understanding of any other type of film or other genres.
The cognitive approach understands that everything must be based on our cognitive capacities. In
the cognitive film theory the basis is the perception of the film so, on the example of experimental
film, I will try to define some cognitive problems which are dealt with by way of specific
standardized film procedures. I will also try and clarify the specific perceptive purpose to be
achieved by way of these procedures. As an example, I will use the films by Ivan Martinac
(Rondo, 1962), fixation films from 1960s (term coined by Duan Stojanovi) such as Tomislav
Gotovac The Straight Line (1964), structural film (Larry Gottheims Four Shadows, 1978) and
materialistic films (Vladimir Peteks Encounters, 1963; Peter Gidals Clouds, 1969).

1. Introduction
There

is

an

example

given

by

David

Bordwell

on

his

internet

blog

(http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2004), which I will borrow from him in order to


illustrate what psychologists call the primacy effect - the likelihood that the first items
of information have a greater influence on the impressions we form: Here is the example:
8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1=?
1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8=?
What happens when we ask for a quick, rough estimate of the result, the product of the
sequences, without calculating. People given the first sequence tend to give bigger
estimates than those given by people who see the second sequence, and it is the first
number that is to blame for this. Although the product of the sequence is exactly the
1

The following paper was originally published in the Croatian Film Chronicles, 15, 60 (Winter, 2009): 34-

48.; summary: http://www.hfs.hr/hfs/ljetopis_clanak_detail_e.asp?sif=32638

same, the order in which we have received the information greatly influences the
impressions we create.
There is also an experimental film by the Canadian Michael Snow, not his best known
Wavelength from 1976, but a film he made six years later, called So Is This (1982). The
film consists entirely of words, appearing in succession on a black screen, making up
sentences, while Snow, amongst other things, explicitly comments (by means of wordshots) on what is coming up in the film, thus taking control of the natural process of
film viewing.
What is Snow doing? I will try and visually present a succession of ten shots: 1. The 2.
rest 3. of 4. this 5. film 6. will 7. look 8. just 9. like 10. this.
The rest of this film will look just like this. After the first few sentences, Snow directly
informs the viewer that the film will consist of words that fill follow each other on the
screen according to the same principle. Besides thanking people who helped make the
film (also by means of words shots) and the remark that a word film such as this is
often unsatisfying for those who dislike to read over other peoples shoulders, Snow will
soon play with the viewers predictions arising from the preceding sentences. We read
that this film will be about 2 hours long. Does that seem like a frightening prospect?
Well, look at it this way: how do you know this isnt lying?. In this way, Snow
problematizes the situation with regard to the hypotheses formed earlier on and confronts
viewers with their own responsibility in watching this film, as well as films in general.
It is enough to recall the often cited example from Alfred Hitchcocks Strangers on a
Train (1951) or any other example of a film that managed to deceive us by previously
placing false leads: after Guy Haines frightened wife screams in the tunnel of love, our
assumption that she was murdered by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is in fact based on
the information gleaned from previous shots (or story). Still, things will not be quite that
simple, the viewer sighs with relief although he has been deceived (the unfortunate Mrs
Haines will not meet her end until the following shot).
The films of Alfred Hitchcock and those of Michael Snow are not, of course, of the same
kind. According to a conditional classification, Hitchcocks film would belong to the

crime film genre and Snows would be classified as a structural experimental film, but
both rely on activating the viewers existing cognitive capacities (Turkovi, 1999: 50),
both make use of the fact that it is from the relationship of the earlier material with the
later details that the viewer infers his most logical explanations (Carroll, 2001: 4). 2
I will now return to my initial question how do we understand experimental film? and
try to deal with it. Experimental film often tests our standard communicational
expectations (it suffices to recall Brakhages visions, Pansinis coincidences or Len
Lyes abstract dance of shapes and colours) and explores the perceptional potential that
opens up when viewers must cope with a disruption of the standard relationship
(Turkovi, 1999: 52).

This, however, certainly does not mean that understanding

experimental film differs from understanding any other kind of film (romantic comedies,
horror films, TV soap operas or the Die Hard series).
The cognitivist approach implies that everything must be based on our cognitive
capacities, the perception of the film is the starting point, so, using the example of
experimental film I will attempt to ascertain the cognitive problems that are resolved by
means of certain standardized film procedures and will try to clarify the specific
perceptual purpose these procedures seek to achieve (Turkovi, 1999: 55).

2. An Example of Poetic Discourse (Ivan Martinac)


To begin with, I will take the example of the poetic experimental film by Ivan Martinac
Rondo (1962), because it seems it can be sufficiently and easily grasped for presenting
poetic discourse (we can also call to mind music videos or emotionally heightened scenes
such as those from the film Die Hard). The young men and women we encounter in this
film, although connected in terms of space, are preoccupied with themselves, immersed

Generally speaking, the example I have chosen using the primacy effect need not apply primarily to
conclusions based on editing connections, as dealt with in detail by Carroll (2001) in his text Toward a
Theory of Film Editing, but can, like in social situations, refer to the spectators forming impressions
(hypotheses) of the characters, based on the information first received, later confirmed as correct or
incorrect. Bordwell, for instance, takes the characterization of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) based on the
opening scene of Back to the Future (1985) (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2004).

in their own story, their own world playing the piano, drawing, staring through the
window and the like and this is basically all that happens in the film.
I will ilustrate a few of the films opening shots (linked by Beethovens music off-screen).

Figure 1. Rondo (1962) by Ivan Martinac

I will stop here to avoid exaggerating after all, the example was chosen for being simple
and typical, and also because its perceptual purpose is familiar from experience. I should
nevertheless point out that the static shots in close-up (medium close-up) are repeated (10,
11, 12, 13, 14, 15), as are also the two shots of a woman playing the piano (16, 17). The
mentioned sequence of shots (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) is repeated one more time, as is shot
7, with our attention in the new round being directed toward the details (e.g. a close-up of
the girls nails, the drawing that reveals that the young man is not drawing the girl or
perhaps sees in her a monstrous being, the girls fingers tapping the book etc).
The shots are recognizably linked in terms of setting we find the young men and
women in the same environment - although this is something that poetic films often avoid
by means of discontinuity editing (Turkovi, 2006: 17) for example, a shot sequence
from Fernand Lgers classic film Ballet Mecanique, (1924), or the way Bruce Conner
plays with different film reels. Just as in the mentioned films, here we are also dealing
with non-narrative discourse.
If we were to ask a volunteer to edit the sequence of shots in Rondo and mix it up, to
begin, for example, with the medium long shot (a more encompassing view) because, it
seems that according to an established and cognitively grounded filmic consideration,
when faced with a new space we first take an overall view (Turkovi, 2004: 10) we

would find ourselves in the living room, see the young men and women and only then
would we direct our attention to the details, gradually constructing the film (e.g.
medium close-up of a young man drawing, a girl with a book on her knees, piano keys
etc). This would follow the usual logic of observing events in a setting and this kind of
sequence, the most favourable in descriptive terms, would evidently provide us with more
information value, but the emotional (rhetorical) value, the one the film relies on,
would probably be weakened.
Here, certain regularities are disrupted: we are not immediately acquainted with the
setting; in other words, there is no encompassing view (long shot/medium long shot) that
would create the most favourable conditions for us to observe the situation in the scene
(the standardised procedure of the establishing shot)3, but rather we are quickly faced
with the heroes, and this is done only with obtrusive shots such as close-up and
medium close-up. Static shots of faces in close-up (medium close-up) recur, while their
pensive and vacant expressions do not change significantly. To be precise, nothing
really changes until the end of the film one of the heroes shifts from one armchair to
another, another comes closer and lifts the telephone receiver and that is about all the
potential action there is.4
We could say that the film also has descriptive elements5, although description is far from
the main goals of its discourse. The purpose of the mentioned stylization procedures is to
show the specific atmosphere of an emotional state and mood, a feeling of immobility,
aimlessness, perhaps also resignation on part of the heroes, the impossibility of
communication6. What dominates the content are characters dedicated to their own story
3

Of course, this procedure with a detail shot of the setting at the beginning of the scene is not unusual
and often appears in narrative film, but is considered a stylistic feature because it always lends special
emphasis to the scene (cf. Turkovi, 2000: 130).
4
The film in fact ends in the moment when potential narration occurs: the young man with the dark glasses
goes to the telephone, lifts the receiver and dials a number. Something that may signal the beginning of a
story for instance, someone answers the phone, tells him that they are fed up with existentialist films
and throws them out of the flat is not developed any further, the film ends there.
5
The descriptive discourse used, for example, in poetic documentaries is very close to poetic experimental
films. Nevertheless, the difference should be sought precisely in the accentuated disruption of the
descriptive function it is up to the viewer to discover sufficient indicators of a different fundamental
purpose (goal) of the discourse (cf. Turkovi 2004: 3-12).
6
Although everything in Rondo takes place in the same space, poetic films often take sequences of shots
that do not share the same setting, as for example in Fernand Lger's classic film Ballet Mecanique (1924).
In this film, however, the viewer takes movement as the key focal point, while Carroll speaks of a shift

immersed in their own thoughts playing the piano, doing their nails, staring out the
window, drawing a portrait etc. They do not communicate with each other using words,
nor do they try to establish communication. They are connected by the shared space and a
similar absence, and, of course, by the music off-screen.
One of Martinacs heroes (from shot no. 3) wears dark glasses, probably sunglasses,
and is standing by the window, even though in the evenings it is almost impossible to see
anything through the window with such glasses. This would suggest a certain
absentmindedness. What he is (or may be) watching or whether he sees anything at all is
insignificant. The situation is similar with the others. For example, the young woman
with glasses (shot no. 15) is staring wistfully into space, and her gaze is never returned
with a counter-shot. It seems she is looking at nothing in particular. This evidently
suggests that the important things are happening in her head (or there is actually
nothing happening at all). The facial expressions do not change much, they are obviously
mere mediators between the author and what is being shown and they suggest the
authors understanding.
A face in close-up always enables the viewer to become close and intimate with the
people he is watching, that is, to form a hypothesis about their thoughts and feelings
(Persson, 2002: 64). The viewer of Rondo detects emotional states, infers a depressing
mood (an existential crisis, resignation, boredom), and all this is heightened, and
confirmed, by the other mentioned stylistic means - cyclical repetition of identical shots,
marginalisation of eventivity etc. In explaining close-ups, Persson uses a pattern of the
spectator's behaviour familiar in social psychology as personal space behaviour (Persson,
2002: 63). Although the function of a close-up depends on the context for example,
threatening and frightening when we are assaulted by the sudden close up of a living
corpse in Evil Dead (1981) its function here is clear in the given context and the other
expressive means that create a unique impression (mood). It enables the viewer to

from the narrative to the sensuous basis (Carroll, 2001: 7). Compilation films, made up of different strips,
such as the well-known example of Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958), in which there are no firm connections
within the scenes, require a similar kind of strategy for understanding. In this sense, they all emphatically
stress the author's specific (non-standard) choice.

enter the character's personal space and, as in real life, entering the zone of intimate
distance implies greater intimacy (Persson, 2002: 67)7 and allows better understanding.
If the activity of feature film protagonists is grounded in clear goal-orientation, activated
by a problem (cf. Bordwell in Smith, 2002: 30), here, the immobility of the heroes is
motivated by the atmosphere, the state that is being depicted, and no problems have been
placed before them. The hypotheses on the basic mood, formed by analyzing the
stylistic procedures, can be experienced suggestively by the viewer as he follows the
content of the scenes, especially the close-ups (medium close-ups) of the faces of the
young men and women.8 Style and content obviously serve to depict the atmosphere.
3. Fixation Films
Fixation films emerged in the 1960ies in Croatia as a reductionist, minimalist current of
experimental film (as an anticipation but also a variant of the international currents of
structuralist cinema). They typically involved long static filming of mostly static scenes
or the constant use of a single visual procedure.
Film theorist Duan Stojanovi, who noticed this kind of presence in the films of the
Zagreb experimentalists, gave them the name fixation films (Stojanovi, in Pansini,
1987: 26, Turkovi, 2004: 44). According to Stojanovi, fixation films use dynamic
means because a film is essentially a moving picture to suggest something static,
while the action dwells on a seemingly insignificant moment in life (Stojanovi, in
Pansini, 1987: 27). Obviously, the foundation of such films is their pronounced
7

If we wanted a clearer illustration of the meaning and the perceptual effects of different types of shots in
relation to everyday behaviour in personal space, we need only to look to television programmes that
establish distance very precisely. We could, perhaps, imagine a TV anchor, such as a news presenter, who
would speak to us about daily issues in close-up. The viewer would probably find such unnecessary
intimacy unacceptable, and may even experience it as truly hostile. When he is in medium close-up, the
distance is sufficient but he is also close enough, and this, after all, is what it is like with people in everyday
real life communication. Therefore, here we are not dealing with an arbitrary convention of television
programmes the distance has a psychological, cognitive grounding (cf. Persson, 2002), so that its
perceptual purpose may be used this way.
8
Smith states that it is difficult to create brief, strong emotions, so film structures attempt to create the
conditions for the experience of emotions (Smith, 2002: 35). Narrative film is stronger in this because it has
a higher level of contextual preparedness, while in examples like this the viewer is alone, cues are
missing - for example, why are the people sad and immobile so that it is difficult to achieve emotions and
it is rather moods that are created.

conceptual aspect most of them were in fact films with an initial inventive concept and
did not aim toward a fully completed work (Turkovi, 2007: 8). In addition, they were
also somewhat inclined toward a critique of subjective and spontaneous expression.
I will take a well-known example, an experimental film by Tomislav Gotovac Pravac
(Stevens-Duke) [The Straight Line], part of a 1964 trilogy, together with Krunica
(Jutkevitch-Count) [Circle] and Plavi jaha (Godard-Art) [Blue Rider], to try and
elucidate viewer strategies in understanding and perceiving the film.
In Pravac, a camera is fixed beside a tram driver and there is uninterrupted movement
forward (one rail is centred through the trams front window). The viewer unmistakably
notices this procedure.9 Even though the camera is fixed (it is placed in a certain position),
the frame of the film always selectively singles out a certain scene, giving it preference
over other, mostly endless, possibilities; second, the choice of scene as, in fact, is the
case in all the examples we have discussed is not motivated by any internal narrative
logic of the film and as the authors choice it gains additional significance, becomes an
end to itself as we can also discern from the temporal flow, that is, the uninterrupted
continuity of the ride.
Clearly, these two components significantly alter our relationship to the recorded scene.
Narrative, cause-effect logic has no bearing here and any practical side of the
viewers/passengers journey is eliminated we are not rushing to work or to any other
chosen destination, so that this shot, arranged by the author, requires the viewer to take
a different stance, it requires us to discover its special significance. Within the
experimentalist tradition, but often also that of modernist narrative cinema, this kind of
poetics of seemingly insignificant detail is based on the belief that if we direct our
attention to the marginal details of life, we may discover extraordinary nuances.
(Turkovi, 2003: 12).
The author chooses (arranges) the shot (that often carries personal significance), and it is
up to the viewer to develop a sensitivity to that which is presented, a sensitivity to
9

The planned continuity was disrupted only by the strip winding mechanism which had time limitations so
that the author inserted subtitles into the breaks.

insignificant things and to discover extraordinary qualities that she often does not
notice in everyday life, whereas here they demand attention (cf. Bordwell Thompson,
150, Turkovi on one shot films, 2004: 36). The viewer, of course, need not be aware of
all the circumstances of the making of Pravac, his attention is automatically directed at
the movements of the pedestrians, the changes in setting as the tram drives through
different areas of the city and everything new that he sees and watches in the shot.
What we are dealing with here is a concept, chosen in advance and devised in order to
methodically explore chance. Naturally, films inclined toward experimenting with chance
rely on uncertainty and the unpredictability of the outcome (Turkovi, 2003: 12), which
brings them onto slippery ground: inventively devised concepts often do not have a
successful perceptual application.
In the same year (1963) Mihovil Pansini made his film experiment Scusa Signorina in
which he explores the concept of chance in a far more radical manner, but one, we might
also say, that also offers somewhat less for the viewer/perception. Just as in Pravac,
Pansini's use of chance was thoroughly planned: it is a combination of a procedure
determined in advance a running camera mounted onto the author's back and chance
the unpredictability of what will happen, of what will be filmed. The running camera was
only conditionally left to arbitrariness the author did not see what it was filming, but he
chose the direction he would move in and later he edited the material and added the
sounds of the tapping of people's steps to it. Experiments with chance (or
automatism), a favourite of the avant-gardes from their very beginnings, obviously
stem from a romantic view of unpredictable factors that are often ascribed unusual
value (chance is preferred over strict planning).10
10

Of course, the idea of conceptual art lies partly in dematerialising the object of artistic creation. The ideal
content that precedes the work or is contained within it is more important than the product itself, the actual
work. (cf. uvakovi, 2005: 309-312). An entire school of experimental film randomly put together
discarded film strips (waste becomes material) just as the surrealists did with the words they drew out of
a hat. Still, earlier on I mentioned Bruce Conner who organised the material he found not randomly but
with the intention of providing a framework for understanding a new whole. Conner puts together different
film strips but within the film we discover certain relational events (shot, counter-shot) while on the global
level he is dealing with a basic theme (e.g. disasters, dangers, spectacles). Of course, connecting shots in
this way does not necessarily have to be rounded off with a certain thematic meaning connecting the film
unexpected meanings could be generated, perceptually interesting connections may be discovered, often
comically intoned as it is. The delight the surrealists found in randomly drawing words from a hat was in
fact the result of suddenly being able to understand a combination.

Fixation films, especially real-time ones, that rely on the time that feature films as a rule
condense, such as Warhole's 1960ies films like Sleep (1963) or Empire (1964), can have
a problem if they do not offer all that much perceptually (but can also have conceptual
justification).11 It is enough to go to the cinema and watch them in their entirety. It is in
this sense that experimental films that make use of pre-existing material actually explore
and test different possibilities that are often tiresome for the viewer but that often result
in interesting perceptual discoveries. The process of attention consists in sensitising us
to certain phenomena in our perceptual environment, while desensitising us to others or
even suppressing them entirely (Turkovi, 1994: 232). But because the intensity of our
attention is short-lived and exhaustible (Turkovi, 1994: 232), this way of selectively
singling out certain scenes (Pravac, Dvorite, Empire, etc) makes these films ill-suited
for practical, viewing purposes after the initial orienting reflex we may well soon
yawn and leave the cinema. Because their structure is predetermined, with the
significance they aim at located within a frame, films focused on a single shot require
of the viewer a patient, special sensitivity. For such conceptual fixations, through
selection and the knowledge that there is also something outside the frame, detail is
obviously significant, so that in fixation films such shots often acquire a symbolic or
metaphoric meaning.12
Naturally, it is the characteristics of that which is being viewed that will determine the
amount of attention the viewer will give them whether he will get up and leave the
cinema, or remain interested or awed by the scene. It is, however, most often changes
rather than something static that ties our attention to a shot. This is also illustrated by
Pravac, and, for example, by a shot/scene from Tomislav Gotovacs experimental film
Prijepodne jednog fauna [The Morning of a Faun] (1963). The shot/scene filmed in long
shot, from a distance, from the window opposite it, shows the movements of patients
11

For example, the film by Milan Bukovac and Milan Buni, Pore Trg F. Supila oko 19 sati [Pore F.
Supilo Square around 19:00 hours] (2003), which used a fixed camera to film a square in an old town on
the coast for three hours with mostly a minimum of human activity was not included into the competitive
programme of the One-Take Film Festival in 2003. Evidently, the fact that a procedure is good in
principle does not always mean that its concrete application will be effective (Turkovi, 2004: 37).
12
For example Geography (1989), a film by Breda Beban and Hrvoje Horvati, is made up of four scenes
(a puddle into which raindrops are falling, a man's face, a fish's head and granite blocks). Although they are
mutually connected by a certain state, each image induces and requires a different perceptual stance (a
narrative film, for instance, instantly occupies us with a problem).

10

on a balcony of Vinogradska Hospital, accompanied by the music of Glenn Miller. Their


awkward movements, tapping with sticks, riding around on beds with wheels, juxtaposed
with the music, remind the viewer of the experience of the very first film gags and the
precursors of comedy, such as Louis Lumire's Arroseur Arros (1896 or 1897).

4. Structural Film and Problem Solving


One of the tendencies of the American experimental (avant-garde) film of the late
1960ies, to which experimental film historian and theorist Adams P. Sitney gave the
name structural film after noticing similar tendencies in the work of authors such as
Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, George Landow (or Owen Land), Paul Sharits and
others (Sitney, 2002: 347- 370) and for which he was later often criticised especially by
the competing British school of structuralism was also present to an extent in the
Croatian films I mentioned earlier.
The name structural film clearly underscores the importance of structure. The authors of
such films play with structure and different organizational combinations, aiming at
certain but also eliciting perceptually different outcomes. One of the viewers tasks will
be to unravel the basic structure of the work because it is these films that most directly
and most clearly call forth the viewers cognitive processes in discerning the structure of
the work.
Let us take a look at an example cited by James Peterson precisely because of its
schematic simplicity the film Four Shadows (1978) by Larry Gottheim, otherwise
known for his so-called observational, real-time films. Four Shadows (1978) uses what is
known as a permutational schema (Peterson, 1994: 103-104). In simple terms, it consists
of four four-minute sets of images each representing a season, and in addition to this
there are also four-minute passages of recorded sound. Each set of images is repeated
four times so that every combination of sound passage and image set is included once. As
with puzzles, there is no single obvious place to begin nor is there an order that would
have to be followed in presenting (or putting together) the different combinations. The

11

appropriate ending, however, becomes self-evident after we become aware of the system:
the film ends when all the combinations have been exhausted (Peterson, 1994: 104).
Film viewers always fill in the gaps by activating innate capacities (capacities that
viewers more or less use daily) and films, almost as a rule, provide the instructions on
how to predict the organisation of their elements. Bordwell and Thompson (Film Art: An
Introduction, 2004: 50-52) use combinations of words to illustrate the form of narrative
film. For example, if the letter A is the first element of the system we might assume that
the sequence (series) continues in alphabetical order with the letter B. The hypothesis we
have formed regarding the imagined sequence can be further tested for the next letter, so
that the question: What comes next? May be answered with C. However, the system
could always meander away in another direction as in the earlier example of Michael
Snow's film, and surprise us with a new combination, for instance ABA, just as Alfred
Hitchcock, regardless of the cues, may spare his victim. Viewers of structural films often
find themselves in the position of people solving intelligence tests seeking to establish the
differences in cognitive functioning between individuals, for instance questions of the
complete the sequence type:
A, D, G, J, ?
Experimental structural films mostly provide sufficient information to serve as
orientation during viewing. Films with a complex organization, such as Hollis Frampton's
Zorn's Lemma (1970) that also play with the alphabet as well as structures that are
simple for the viewer such as Gottheim's films, function according to their own internal,
strictly formal logic which the viewer gradually discerns. Frampton, for example,
borrows his formal system from set theory, but the viewer need not have an A in
mathematics or be familiar with set theory to be able to discern that the film produces its
own patterns and rules of exchange which the audience infers not only in order to
organise the numerous shots but also to predict the end of the sequence (Carroll, 2001:
11). . Still, in some films, such as those of Austrians Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka,
organised according to serial rules, the viewer generally cannot make out the composition
while seated in the cinema at a normal screening. Kren organises the internal invisible
structure of frames according to strict mathematical rules, so that the length of a frame is

12

determined by the sum of the two preceding frames 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 (Tscherkassky,
2008: 25). And while Kren's early films sought, in the environment of Viennese
Actionism, to be subversive, both politically and with regard to bourgeois values (e.g.
9/64 O Tannenbaum showing dirty and decorated naked bodies under a Christmas tree),
Kubelka's metric film, named after the Viennese Actionist Arnulf Reiner (1960) is not
mimetic but is made up of serially organised white and black frames and evidently
inspired by similar pioneering innovations in Arnold Schnberg's atonal music.13
However, structural films, especially the American ones, usually supply sufficient cues to
help us discern the organisation just by watching, and to recognise this we do not need to
go to Peter Kubelka's lectures but only use the skills we normally use in our everyday life.
These can be schematically simple works like Gottheim's or intricate combinations like
Zorns lemma. What both of these have in common, however, is that they assume that the
viewer forms expectations: the viewer surmises the remaining part precisely because he
has registered regularity in the permutation. However, as I have said already, too much
simplification often means that the film is ineffectual in terms of perception. If the
outcome is self-evident, the work usually cannot hold the viewers attention or arouse
deeper interest (just as something too demanding can also be unappealing). Peterson
states that in order to hold the viewers interest the film must rely on a more frequent
generation of hypotheses that the viewer can test in the film (Peterson, 1994: 107)14, but
for the authors of such films it is conceptual design that comes first.
In narrative editing, the viewer fills in the gaps in the same way. For instance, in the film
Jerry Maguire (1996), as Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) leaves the office with Jerry
(Tom Cruise) and his fish, we conclude that she is obviously fond of him (there will be a
love story). Or we could take Carroll's well-known example (2001:3-4): a rifle fires,
followed by a close-up of a woman screaming and a shot of a man on the ground in the
13

Kubelka exhibited film strips on a wall as an installation and at his lecture-screenings he would ask the
audience to develop a print so that they may see the physical object that produced the screening
(Tscherkassky, 2008: 48).
14
Interpretations of experimental film often draw correlations with other artistic products of modernism.
Structural films are often interpreted by being placed into a wider artistic context as the film equivalent of
the minimalist current in art, whose main features were precisely simplicity, geometrical forms, flat,
uniformly coloured surfaces, clean and solid colours etc). However the development of this minimalist
method is not a modernist novelty for example, it was touched upon by Gombrich in his study of
decorative art (Peterson, 1994: 97).

13

context of a murder mystery in which the preceding scenes contain cues, that is, point to
an existing threat, and we interpret the shot chain as a murder scene. It is such
assumptions about a resolution (hypotheses) that make deception possible for example,
in the case of Hitchcock, it could be the amusement park scene because in the process
of reasoning, we make assumptions, based on experience, about the most probable (most
logical) outcomes.15
In order for the viewer to understand the film, he must be able to incorporate the
presented information into a coherent framework together with the information he has
previously been given in the film. Nol Carroll speaks of engaging the viewer's inductive
capacities (Carroll, 2001: 3), that is, drawing conclusions based on observing a number of
individual cases (which is what Michael Snow plays with in the already mentioned
example of the film So Is This).
Experimental structural and narrative films share a basic common trait - formal
(discipline) strictness, but they result in entirely different perceptual outcomes. Just as
there are poems with a strictly defined form (e.g. the sonnet) requiring that established
rules be respected in constructing the verses and stanzas or the arrangement of rhyme, so
there are also rules for constructing a story (without these rules there could be no
screenwriting handbooks such as Lew Hunters or Robert McKees). Still, there is a
fundamental difference between them: structural films seek to make the organisation
something that is authentically the author's (the authors have taken it upon themselves to
come up with new organisational principles), while the organisational structure of a
feature/narrative film is already given in advance (we might say it is super-authorial), it
conforms to the established rules of the game, but this kind of scheme is often more
complex and demanding than leaving the structure to one's own, often unruly (poetic)
authorial perception.

15
As we saw with Alfred Hitchcock, the method of testing hypotheses is at its most obvious in murder
mystery films and novels: the viewer/reader solves the murder mystery based on the cues provided. The
solutions he finds are, of course, not a coincidence - we test them thanks to the information we have been
given. The viewer will probably be more inclined to find the solution in a place where checking is simple
although his film experience may also teach him the following: wait a while with your conclusions the
most suspicious ones are generally not the murderers. Another convention then says: the murderer is the
one that you least suspect (the one the director is least indicating), which can also deceive.

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An experiment with the narrative organisation of a film such as Nolans Memento (2000)
or Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) which actually has some schematic structuring
reveals the firm system of narrative film, so that the viewer is more or less able to
organise into a narrative whole seemingly unconnected and chronologically mixed-up
sequences (the last scene in Pulp Fiction, for instance, comes well before what we would
call the ending). Just as in the first example of Four Shadows, in narrative film, what the
viewer most often does is predict (recognise) the end, which resembles what happens
with film inserts, sudden flashbacks within the narration, which the viewer, sooner or
later, places in their proper chronological place.

5. Materialist Films
The films I have been discussing deal, amongst other things, with certain specific traits of
films that are not typical for the so-called standard, dominant cinema. Vladimir Petek,
who was in these parts a leading proponent of the so-called materialist orientation films
that greatly emphasize the material aspect of film, for example, and explore the
perceptual possibilities generated by physical interventions on the film strip (Turkovi,
2007: 5) also anticipated the discussions about film during the times when there was a
shortage of film equipment and material: he began making films from old, discarded film
strips.

Film procedures like this emphatically thematised the material aspect and

experimented with the results of procedures that once would have surely had them thrown
out of any serious film studio for good: scratching the emulsion layer, scribbling and
painting on the film strip, creating sound manually, exposing the strip to heat (as well as
publically burning it), and then trying to bring it back to life by projecting it.
For now I will mention Petek's film Sretanje [Encounters] (1963), and Clouds, a film by
Peter Gidal who coined the term structural/materialist film. In the latter, there is no direct
intervention into the material but the film does thematise and confront the viewer with a
paradoxical duality: we see two-dimensional objects as three-dimensional. In this nineminute film from 1969, we see the sky, while in the bottom left corner an airplane
occasionally protrudes slightly, so the viewer rightly asks: what is moving - the camera,
the airplane, the clouds? (Curtis, 2007: 207). It is, of course, true that when viewing any

15

recorded film our general capacity for recognising people and settings enables us to
detect scenes from everyday life, but we can also feel empathy, be touched or cry at the
end of a film (cf. Turkovi, 1999: 50), and filmmakers obviously count on this. However,
the experience of a film is definitely not the same thing as our living experience and it
is precisely this fact that is the starting point for materialist authors. With films, standard
cognitive reactions are induced in very non-standard conditions of stimulation and
consequently film has opened up the possibilities for specialised selection for
investigating and elaborating on particular cognitive potential and reactions. Each
production move in a film that has some reception (perceptual) effects reveals the
possibility of eliciting those very perceptual effects.
Historically speaking, this is part of the modernist story according to which a work must
take into account the material and structure of its medium, the most influential
formulation being that of the critic Clement Greenberg (Bordwell, 2005: 113). Generally
speaking, texts on experimental film also often draw on modernist views in the world of
visual arts (e.g. parallels are often drawn between the works of Stan Brakhage and
abstract expressionism). Greenberg, who wrote that the artist deliberately emphasizes
the illusoriness of the illusions which he pretends to create, believed that the work of art
(a painting) should create a fruitful tension between illusion and materiality,
representation and a critique of representation (Bordwell, 2005: 114) even though this
soon became kind of boring to proponents of pop-art who replaced the dominant
fashion with alternating feelings of love and hate toward abstract expressionism (e.g.
Lichtenstein's series Brushstrokes where the artist elaborates, in minute detail, variations
of brushstrokes that abstract expressionism would complete in one energetic stroke, in
Lucie-Smith, 2003: 260).
We might see and interpret the entire discipline of experimental or avant-garde films as
an exploration of the perceptual potential that opens up when we have to deal with
disruptions of the assumptions of our standard relationship when, as viewers, we must
deal with non-standard tasks of coping (Turkovi: 1999).
Spectators of Petek's film observe its materiality, the coloured intervention on the film
strip for example, a strong yellow covering the girl's face, scribbles, artificial

16

perforations, the exchange of negatives and sound negatives uncharacteristic of standard


film, and at one point Petek combines different film strips (16mm and 8mm) brought
together onto a larger one (35 mm). While Petek's film directly reminds us of the material
aspect of films, Gidal confronts us with the flatness of the film screen, draws our
attention to its two-dimensional nature, playing with the film space within a shot16. The
issue of illusion is one of the central concerns in his discussion of structural/materialist
film.

In

polemic

tone,

Gidal

insists

on

its

non-illusionist

nature.

Structural/materialist film attempts to be non-illusionist. The process of the film's


making deals with devices that result in demystification or attempted demystification of
the film process (Gidal, 1987: 272).
Still, there are some principled differences between Petek's and Gidal's film. If we jump
back to an earlier chapter where I discussed poetic cinema in which there are, for
example, no spontaneously recognizable links between shots, and this disruption of
meaning evokes a certain emotional state (Turkovi, 2006: 17-18) and the technical
innovations in Sretanje, such as the mentioned colouring, gluing of smaller strips onto a
larger one, perforating the strip, exchange of positives/negatives and the like, are actually
stylization procedures no less so than the accentuated visual or sound aspects, camera
angles or information transgressions in the film Rondo achieved by means of external
interventions into the film material (film strip), in order for the recorded scene to make
and impression or to heighten that impression. The author's interventions on the strip
function as a kind of comment through which he places himself in a specific emotional
relationship to the recorded scene of the girl, creating a very specific film portrait.

16

Films that emphatically thematise film space and movement are known as pixilation
(flicker) films. When very brief shots from one to several frames appear in succession,
they create the impression of a rapid, jerky succession of images. (Carroll, 1999: 8). An
example is Paul Sharits film T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1969) where photograms appear in
succession. One shows a young man placing his tongue between the blades of scissors
and another shows a womans hand scratching his face. The quick succession of
photograms, alternately as positives and negatives, is used by Sharits in an attempt to
demystify film movement that is made up of stills images that can also stand on their
own, as suggested by the films cut up title. Sharits also deforms the sound in the film,
the word destroy! is the films soundtrack and here it dissolves, turning into
incomprehensible mumbling.

17

Although films of the materialist orientation often treat the recorded scene as secondary,
the actual materiality of film is not the only thing thematised by the film. Peteks
undisciplined treatment of the film strip reveals some interesting perceptual outcomes of
the procedure when the authors interventions are seen in relation to the recorded film
material.
In Clouds, Gidal tries to draw the viewers attention to the duality he is thematising: the
flatness of the film screen and the illusion of depth. Showing living and inanimate
beings in motion also intensifies the illusion of seeing three-dimensionality, because our
experience links the possibility of movement primarily with three-dimensional space
(Peterli, 2000: 17). In Clouds, we can only assume the depth of space (there is no clear
point of orientation/the whiteness of the clouds and the tiny black airplane), so Gidal in a
way inverts Bazin and his calls for the use of the depth focus shot as a stylistic procedure
(cf. Bordwell, 2005: 87). In contrast to this, Gidal warns us that depth actually holds
nothing. But is this really so?
What such experimental films like to signalize and what they draw our attention to, is
precisely non-standard perception. Naturally, when we are watching a film we are always
faced with a paradoxical duality: film scenes seem to be identical to scenes from real life,
even though they are merely two-dimensional reflections of light on a screen we are
watching while seated in a cinema. Even if we were to get angry, get up from our seat
and attempt to interfere in the scene, we would certainly not be able to save the hero.
Peter Gidal actually criticised the mediums representational qualities under the influence
of the growing political radicalization of the time. Such films mostly focussed on the
specific traits and limitations of the medium 17 , while illusion carried negative
connotations. Naturally, every film has its material side. Every viewer knows this. Not
every film, however, takes this as the main subject of the film. In his definition of
17
In his book Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim speaks of moving photographic images as an anti-naturalist
phenomenon that transforms the passive registering of an actual scene into a means of expression, a
special type of perception, by the projection of three-dimensional objects onto a flat surface, in other words,
using means of limitation that in the process of perception become a means of shaping with regard to
the impression of reality (Arnheim, 1997). He would no doubt find great joy in the mentioned avant-garde
films. Nowadays, however, there are numerous discussions that challenge and point to the non-existence of
a pure film medium (cf. Nol Carroll).

18

experimental film, Peterli, for instance, points to the significance, or quantitative


dominance, of the factors of difference (Peterli, 2000: 239). This is not necessarily
always the case: we find both factors of similarity and of difference in every film, but
experimental films of the materialist orientation merely seek to make the differences
more evident than the similarities.
It is widely known that the way in which we perceive something static as something
dynamic: a recorded strip of film is made up of a series of images, each of them showing
a static moment of a scene, as we see in Paul Sharits attempt at dissolving them. It is
procedures like these that they tried to oppose, polemicising with the dominant currents
of narrative film, even though this kind of playing with film, emphasizing its artificial
nature, is often also present in dominant cinema (for example, as far back as 1928,
Buster Keaton made a film about a cameraman, The Cameraman, which is also autoreflexive). Acts of intervention on the film strip emphatically draw attention to the
materiality of the film, but it is precisely examples from dominant film that show us that
the material foundations of the film image and sound are always implied.18
Films that play with our perception in fact suggest that we are simultaneously grasping
the surface of the screen with its markings and the depth of the scene, so that once again
we can look to psychology for help (examples of the so-called figure-ground principle in
Gestalt psychology). A film always provides us with a sufficient amount of metacommunication signals that frame certain situations (Turkovi, 2000) and underscore
the film screening/presentation as a communication phenomenon and this framing is
dictated by the very nature of the cognitive process: the ability to clearly differentiate
between reality and fantasy (Anderson, 1998: 125).
Experimental filmmakers were not satisfied with merely drawing attention to the
materiality of film and its internal limitations. They also wanted to make the viewers
physically active, which gave rise to the idea of the expanded film or direct interaction
with the viewer (what traditional forms used to achieve with card games or social games,
18

For example, according to a norm of classical narrative film, there is to be no intervention into the events
of the film. If in the middle of Casablanca (1942) Humphrey Bogart were to look into the camera (that is,
address the viewers) and say about Victor Laszlo: What a pain in the neck!, this would, in fact, change
nothing in the viewer's perception of Casablanca as a fictional film.

19

and today is done with computer simulations, cf. Turkovi, 2005: 18), partly influenced
by how theatre performance was expanded by happenings and performance art that
required direct participation from the viewer. Linked to this were attempts to eliminate
traditional meta-communicational boundaries, and the presentation area was no longer
restricted to the screen but could be someones body, a skyscraper and the like, while
viewers (apart from being confronted with technology) could be directly invited to
communicate. Tony Conrad, for example, used various extra-filmic means and
preparation acts (a metaphor of the production and projection process), where the
actual screening comes only at the end (Hanhardt, 1987: 333). He made exhibitions
presenting rolls of film in jars and projected films that had previously been cooked as part
of a recipe, something that can be seen as an extreme joke stressing the materiality of
the film and its artificial nature. The viewers could look at the film and inspect it, take
it into their hands, taste the meal prepared with it, discovering film as celluloid material.

6. Conclusion
All that film explores and achieves must be based on perceptual possibilities: if certain
effects and forms of the film experience were not perceptually possible, in other words, if
the viewer did not possess the capacity for such perception, this perception would not
occur (Turkovi, 1999).
During its history, film explored and later established different models of the viewing
relationship in its various types and discourse styles. As we have seen, experimental film
explored the perceptual possibilities of new, as well as old procedures, it often
polemicised with the dominant film discourse, eschewing the kind principles of what we
term cooperativeness. It is, however, precisely its pursuit of experiment, novelty, the
unconventional, exploring the perceptual potential that opens when the viewer must cope
with unusual, thwarted assumptions of the standard relationship with the world or with
film (Turkovi, 1999: 52) that places it within a special area of exploring the unimagined
possibilities of perceptual reactions.

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The search for connections between events, such as we find in narrative film, is actually
an essential part of our mental life (discovering and organising the world), so that our
understanding of experimental film is often based on the way that we understand
narrative film, which we are more exposed to. On the other hand, narrative conventions
were frequently an element of film experimentation just as stylising aberrations, which
I have taken as an example, are often present also within narrative discourse. The
difference is that within a narrative system, stylization is employed functionally in other
words, its purpose is to underscore, emphasize a certain locus of discourse, and is valid
only for the purpose of achieving certain perceptual effects (Turkovi, 2000, 2006). In
non-narrative discourse, on the other hand (for instance, in that which we call poetic),
they dominate the discourse. They can be identified precisely owing to the norms of
dominant film and the regularities valid in it.
We have seen that while watching any film, and thus also the experimental kind, we
activate already existing perceptual (cognitive) capacities capacities that exist
irrespective of films in our everyday experience of the world and our orientation in it and
without which we would be completely and utterly lost. However, mans standard
cognitive reactions are called forth in the extremely non-standard stimulative conditions
of viewing a (film) scene, while filmmakers come across as experimental cognitivists of
the most varied research interests (Turkovi, 1999: 50).
Although there are attempts by some authors and critics to give experimental film special
status, it can never really have cognitive preference over narrative film, even if
conceivably it could achieve a higher status. It is also a fact that narrative film often
engages the viewer in more complex ways than experimental film.

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