By: Daniel Volfson
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve always harbored a romanticized image of The Experimental Filmmaker which goes something like this. Unkempt grizzled beard. Facial features made severe and gaunt from years of scrutinizing minutiae. Stern bloodshot sunken-in bespectacled eyes staring intently into some beyond which no one else can even begin to fathom. Eyes so mesmerized by the potentialities of the medium they’ve assumed a permanent look of hypnosis. Someone who’s glimpsed a world so inconceivably more compelling than our quotidian reality that his pupils seem to be perpetually affixed to a dimension invisible to mere mortals. If you can, imagine the lovechild of Stanley Kubrick and Sergei Eisenstein and you’ll realize what I’m talking about. There’s something about it which somehow evokes both pathos and reverence at the same time. There’s something irresistibly mysterious and cryptically alluring about the aura that experimental filmmaking is shrouded in.
I imagined The Experimental Filmmaker as someone fiendishly devoted to some sort of lofty aesthetic vision and I became so enthralled with this ideal that I felt it necessary to see firsthand how closely the reality conformed to my fantasy. And so, brimming with a giddy fascination, on a grim Saturday morning I apprehensively trekked across the city to the RPM film festival, one of the only annual avante-garde filmmaking melting-pots in Boston.
As it so happens, getting to RPM is an experience in and of itself. On the weekends, there are few detectable lifeforms on the UMB premises. When the train expels you onto the desolate platform you have to vigilantly scan the area for the shuttle busses which on weekdays are usually swelling with despondent students. After waiting stranded on the begrimed bus stop for what seems like an interminable 20 minutes, a faceless driver ushers you in. The ride is glacially slow and proceeds with the solemn dignity of a funeral procession. University Hall emerges towering above the horizon like a fortress in the ocean-water-suffuse hazy morning nonlight. You then have to make your way through capacious echoing halls which make you acutely aware of your puniness. The festival is snugly secluded in the furthermost depths of the university, perched precariously miles above the ocean. Once you enter the veritable sanctum, you feel your connection to civilization gradually taper off. You’ve reached one of the most profoundly solitary areas in Boston; the outside world recedes into the background.
**At this point you may be frustrated at how absurdly hyperbolic this all seems. You may think I’m either neurotic or just fond of excessive embellishment but I assure you that if you let it be, the entire journey is ritualistic and foreboding. **
A modest crowd gradually trickles in and each time I see a new face I feel a knowing kinship with my newly-minted comrades. The requisite onerous journey is a way of siphoning out the phonies; you know that a person willing to take such great traveling pains is not here to mess around. As I scan the room I realize that I let my imagination get the best of me. I could at best only identify one or two devotees which faintly possessed a few of the characteristics of the ideal I’d so longingly chiseled out and nurtured. I was right about one thing though, sort of: pretty much every attendee had that patent artistic glint in their eyes. It’s a look that’s indelibly and innately imprinted on select individuals and if you spend enough time around artists you’ll be able to instinctively spot it. It’s the appearance of having an imperceptible mental antenna which receives signals from another world. It’s also accompanied by an even more deeply-embedded phenomenon: a sense that the owner of the antenna feels a compulsion to decipher these signals into something tangible and comprehensible. The layperson won’t be able to experience what it feels like to be the bearer of these signals, but she’ll be able to ingest the deciphered result. I don’t have to wait long to find out what the said result looks like; the festival begins abruptly and for the next few hours I sit wide-eyed and rapt as images feverishly flit across the lenses of my eyes.
During the intermission there’s a confused silence. Nervous coughs puncture the air. People stare blankly forward. No one compliments or acknowledges each other’s films. During the Q and A sessions, the questions asked are strictly technical and are of little use to me because they just seem like jargon. If you try to ask the filmmakers more abstract questions in person, they’ll either guardedly respond or try to slyly evade your queries. I feel the urge for someone to diffuse the tension by asking a basic yet profound question: “Huh?”
It can be very trying to watch a series of films deemed artistically prestigious and not have any idea what the judges saw in them. It makes you feel helpless and stupid. Standard criteria go out the window; each film is so intimate and self-contained that maybe only the creator herself can truly understand whether she’s achieved her artistic goals or not. When it comes to music and narrative art forms, there’s a receptor in my brain which goes abristle when it detects something off. This receptor is rendered obsolete in the case of experimental films. I cannot tell which parts are essential and which are nonessential. For many of the films, I don’t think it would make a significant dent in the overall gestalt if 30% of the movie was excised. Had I not been told these films were high art, it’s likely I wouldn’t give a second thought to them.
This makes me wonder how the judges went about the selection process. Are their receptors just so hyper-refined that they can discern fine imperfections? Is it a matter of almost purely subjective taste? Were they selected on a whim? I ended up deciding that while you cannot judge the films using clear-cut criteria, you can tell which films have “something” to them and which don’t. My guess is that the judges siphoned out the ones which felt dead from the ones which had a distinct yet undefinable spark to them. So I’m flummoxed by the films but at the same time in awe of their creators. It’s mystifying how they (the creators) can sustain a lifelong commitment to the form even at the cost of not being understood by anyone other than themselves. How do they summon the conviction and drive to produce film after film year after year with little to no acknowledgment in return?
Here’s a thought experiment which may be illuminating even though it’s somewhat of a stretch. Even if you’re not religiously-inclined, it’s not all that inconceivable to imagine having faith in a popular religion. After all, your faith is reaffirmed by the countless other followers, which makes it feel robustly valid. But imagine having faith in a religion for which you’re the only believer. Would you really be able to stomach the feeling of being totally alone? Would you really be able to stay devoted in spite of all your eye-rolling peers? Staying devoted under these circumstances is the ultimate test of faith. I’m pathologically averse to religious sentimentality, but even I find something sacredly pure about all this.
As I write this I’m straining every mental muscle I can to conjure a panorama of the films I saw, but to no avail. After sitting through dozens of narrative-bereft mini movies, my brain cannot retrospectively recall all that many particularities. What I’m left with are torrents of images, sounds, and miscellaneous effects which have coalesced into a kind of kinetic blur. This initially seems like a trivial detail but it actually expresses something essential about experimental films: they’re fleeting and instantaneous. Their inherent nature bars them from existing for more than a few moments in memory. Unlike the majority of films underpinned by a robust narrative infrastructure, experimental films rely on starkly different propulsive forces to achieve something which I will try my best to try to make sense of here.
If you try your hand at writing about experimental film, you’ll soon gain a keen awareness of how feeble and inadequate words feel in the face of the task. We wield words to create a semblance of intelligibility in a world that is overwhelming in its ambiguity and unpredictability. Words allow us to categorize reality and to arbitrarily draw demarcating lines around things. A label does not correspond to reality; in part, it’s artificially constructed to allow us to feel in control of a world which seems to be persistently eluding our grasp. A large part of experimental filmmaking seems to involve confounding the conventions we’ve come to complacently take for Realism. The artists behind the films are unified in their resolve to resist any sort of pigeonholing; I once innocently asked an attendee whether he happened to be an experimental filmmaker and he scornfully replied that he was simply a filmmaker.
That’s not to say that experimental filmmaking is a hipster-pastime intended to coolly transcend the vapidity of the mainstream. It would be all-too easy for stubbornly impatient lay onlookers to write off these films as only deceptively appearing as though they have artistic worth. They are indeed at times maddeningly obscure, but it’s intuitively obvious that their intent isn’t to con the viewer into believing she’s seeing something Deep. I think this instinctive inclination to readily disregard anything which doesn’t snugly fit into our accustomed ways of creating meaning is a major reason why the avante-garde community is so esoteric. Truly deriving something meaningful from the experience requires overcoming a whole host of preconceived notions and intellectual barriers. I expended a great deal of energy trying to intellectualize the films using the standard liberal arts criteria I’d been conditioned to employ when confronted with artistic questions. This approach incapacitated me in an anxiety chokehold. If you try to follow one of these standard “critical-thinking” lines of thought, it ends up being self-defeating. Trying to decoct some sort of intellectually-hefty explanation which would neatly crack the code doesn’t work because there isn’t a crackable code in the first place. It’s both unsettling and liberating to realize you can tune out the annoyingly nasal rationalist voice that ceaselessly drones on in the typical philosophy major’s mind. Stripped of the only interpretive instruments I had at my disposal, I was unsure of how I was supposed to react towards the films.
For the one and a half years I’ve been a student at UMB, I vaguely remember being awake in some of my philosophy classes. In between snatches of sleep, I’ve garnered various haphazard philosophical concepts by sheer osmosis. Thankfully, one of these half-baked concepts rescued me from further cranial strain. I crudely remembered something about a “Dao,” which, if my memory isn’t too shoddy, is a state of indwelling boundless serenity. It’s purported to be a state of total will-less contemplation–a detachment from all desires. This is supremely liberating because to want to attain something is to be in a state of ongoing suffering. The only way to exempt yourself from the relentless cycle of gnawing craving=>nullification of craving=>renewed craving is to sever the infantile part of yourself that always needs something to satisfy an insatiable void. There’s a particularly irritating psychologically-cornering catch when it comes to experiencing the Dao, however. Wanting to experience the Dao is in itself another noxious craving. Venturing to attain the Dao therefore defeats its own purpose.
This suddenly appeared to me as an antidote to my overwrought intellectual convolutions. The more I tried to grasp the “point” of the movies by imposing my feeble rationalizations onto them, the more I felt alienated from their ultimate purpose. Henceforth, I resolved to yield to the stroboscopic images on the screen; I threw my hands up and let the images work upon me on a visceral level. For the next few hours I resolutely resigned myself to the abyss in blissful surrender.