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Direct Theory

Experimental Motion Pictures as Major Genre

Edward S. Small and Timothy W. Johnson

Publication Year: 2013

Making the case for the significance of experimental motion pictures
Undulating water patterns; designs etched or painted directly onto clear or black film leader; computer-generated, pulsating, multihued light tapestries—the visual images that often constitute experimental motion pictures are unlike anything found in either fictive narratives or documentary works. Thus, Direct Theory provides an historical and theoretical survey of this overlooked and misunderstood body of international films, videos, and digital productions that offers a strong case for the understanding of experimental motion pictures as a separate, major motion picture genre.
In a radical revision of film-theory that incorporates Ferdinand de Saussure's semiotic system, and adds to it historian Raymond Fielding’s technological determinism, Edward S. Small and Timothy W. Johnson argue that experimental moviemaking constitutes a special mode of theory that bypasses written and spoken words. By exploring the development of experimental motion pictures over nine decades, they trace the practice from its beginnings in the European avant-garde movement in the 1920s, through American underground productions, into international structuralist works that marked the experimental films of the 1970’s, and finally the digital experimental innovations of the twenty-first century.   
To demonstrate that the aesthetic of experimental motion pictures is best understood separately from other major film genres such as fictive narrative and documentary, Small and Johnson highlight eight defining technical and structural characteristics of experimental productions, including the autonomy of the artist, economic independence, brevity, and the use of dreams, reveries, hallucinations, and other mental imagery. They also highlight a number of films, including Ralph Steiner’s 1929 H2O and Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie, and provide a sampling of frames from them to demonstrate that the heightened reflexivity of these films  transmit meaning through images rather than words. 
A deft historical interweaving of experimental production and scholarly discourse, this thought-provoking work firmly establishes the importance of experimental motion pictures in the discipline of film studies (theory and history) and production.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

A portion of chapter 2 was previously published in a different form in Edward S. Small, “Film and Video Art,” in Film and the Arts in Symbiosis, edited by Gary Edgerton (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, Conn.); published by permission. ...

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pp. 1-8

A number of interesting digital technological developments have occurred since the publication of the first edition (written in 1994 and republished in 1999 with a few corrections and edits), making it appropriate to update the book with Timothy W. Johnson. ...

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1. Experimental Motion Pictures as Direct Theory

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pp. 9-19

Contemporary film/video curricula and pedagogy recognize a dichotomy between coursework in production and coursework in three scholarly areas: criticism, history, and theory. To be sure, these same distinctions are often served by overlapped boundaries. ...

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2. Experimental Motion Pictures as Major Genre

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pp. 20-31

Experimental productions at once suffer and enjoy a marginal position throughout the history of motion picture scholarship. While these productions constitute a remarkably coherent genre, that genre remains an unusually overlooked one. ...

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3. The European Avant-Garde

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pp. 32-46

The European avant-garde (EAG) has become a common film history label for that body of experimental production realized by a number of fine artists on the European continent who turned to the cinema as an extension of their work in painting, sculpture, and other media during the decade of the 1920s. ...

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4. The American Avant-Garde and the American Underground

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pp. 47-67

It is convenient to posit a precise end for European avant-garde production with the advent of the Great Depression followed by a sudden flourish of sometimes fresh, sometimes derivative work in the United States. Yet certain concomitant productions preclude such consideration. ...

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5. Expanded Cinema and Visionary Film

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pp. 68-88

Sheldon Renan’s pioneer study concludes with a chapter anticipating a “whole new area of film and film-like art . . . expanded cinema.”1 Approximately three years later, Gene Youngblood’s book Expanded Cinema continued documentation of the explosive growth of experimental motion pictures’ affinity for technologic innovations: ...

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6. Experimental Video

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pp. 89-109

During the decade of the 1980s, a great many experimental films continued to be made by both established artists like Stan Brakhage and newer, younger artists who were often products of the hundreds of college and university classes devoted to film-making that had become established since the 1960s. ...

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7. Digital Experimental Motion Pictures

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pp. 110-128

What might the digital age hold for the major genre of avantgarde/experimental productions? We believe that this particular technological change will prove so vast and so long-lasting that, at best, our futurism is but “seeing through a glass, darkly.” ...


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pp. 129-136

Select Bibliography

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pp. 137-138


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pp. 139-144

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About the Authors, Back Cover

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pp. 160-161

Edward S. Small is an emeritus professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas. He is a motion picture theorist specializing in semiotics and a motion picture artist concentrating on experimental production. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780809332144
E-ISBN-10: 0809332140
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332137
Print-ISBN-10: 0809332132

Page Count: 160
Illustrations: 25
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Second edition.