I suspect you may be asking too much from Maxwell as his opening message
stressed the assumption that he knew nothing about the subject... whether
his request was actually meant for himself or for others I don't know
(given that he's subscribed to the mailing list for "years"), but sometimes
it's better to plead ignorance on the matter. Either way, the questions you
pose are ones that he can ask himself when he has gained some familiarity
with the subject at heart. To use some lazy analogies, there's a big
difference between doing laps in a swimming pool with lifeguards on watch
and inflatable arm bands on, and swimming across the sea or keeping afloat
in river rapids. Better to let them get used to the waves of the water,
before they jump into the deep end and drown?

We all had to start somewhere with this interest and passion - for what
it's worth, my introduction to avant-garde/experimental cinema was through
a second-hand edition of James Monaco's How To Read A Film, which I picked
up as a teenager curious about cinema history and theory as a whole. I
believe the only artist film mentioned in that book is Michael Snow's
Wavelength, but the written description and pictures made me curious to
seek out similar works and books on the subject. In fact, it was only
recently in the last few years that I actually got to see Wavelength
projected via a 16mm print, but the journey I took to eventually doing so
made it all the more special and rewarding. Thankfully, Monaco's passage
about Mel Brooks' Oscar winning short film The Critic (the only other film
of an "experimental" nature mentioned in that book) didn't completely put
me off wanting to learn more about this often derided art form...

Some other books that are freely available for anyone to read are Gene
Youngblood's Expanded Cinema which can be found as a pdf via the Vasulka's
website (, and
Sheldon Renan's An Introduction to the American Underground Film, which has
been shared by the author on the Internet Archive as a gift ( Oh, and there's also
UbuWeb (a dirty word on here I'm sure) which has plenty to offer. These are
not substitutes for the real thing, nor are they definitive histories or
the final word, but you can at least dip your toes in, get a sensation and
wade in further if you enjoy it and want to learn more...


On Mon, Jan 9, 2017 at 12:00 PM, <>

> Hi Maxwell,
> Your question about an introduction to experimental/avant-garde film is
> quite interesting.
> Basically, I find it difficult to recommend a text based on your request.
> This task is uniquely difficult in this field because, in my opinion, the
> historiography of experimental filmmaking as a whole perpetuates a number
> of problematic assumptions. In the main, conventional histories of
> experimental/avant-garde film tend to be wedded to a modernist-formalist
> schema of historical progress, in which film appears to evolve (and then
> die) according to its own internal dynamics, and the artist is postulated
> as a quasi-heroic Romantic figure (usually with an unmarked body, which is
> to say educated, white, hetero male).
> The first "official" histories of avant-garde film emerged when the Western
> art world was in thrall to a high modernist paradigm. High modernism led
> historians to apply an extremely narrow lens to the object of their study.
> Most "classic" accounts of experimental film, then, rely upon tools of
> modernist-formalist historiography, such as artist biography, formalist
> poetics, medium specificity, an avant-garde v. kitsch distinction-- the
> presuppositions of which were inherited from German/Austrian art historians
> working at the turn of the century.
> This work has been enormously helpful in all kinds of ways. It has meant
> that we can claim avant-garde film has a history. It can be taught in
> thematic units, and it has given rise to a canon of works. It made film
> intelligible as art, and therefore worthy of critical attention and
> collection/preservation by organizations.
> But, in my opinion, the formalist ethos of avant-garde film historiography
> has also made it exceptionally hard to tell stories about art and film in
> such a way that is relevant to the contemporary moment, with our concerns
> about inequality, social crisis, immigration, public participation,
> technological change, etc.
> It may be easier to recommend a text, then, if you ask yourself what you
> personally want to get out of avant-garde film/film history: Do you want to
> know major figures, major debates that defined particular eras? Do you wish
> to see how artists and artworks of the past have a connection to the
> present day film- and art-worlds? Do you want a critical, institutional
> history about how artists and organizations colluded to institutionalize
> film as a commodity and work of art? There are many, many directions to go
> in.
> Good luck.
> Ben
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