The First Time Underground (excerpt)
By William Moritz, B.A.
Originally published in Yankee - Underground Film Festival Program, Occidental College, CA. "50 Years of the Finest American Films - in 7 Hours". April 20, 1968
Approaching underground and/or Experimental Films for the first time -- especially if your first experience happens to be a festival program of hours of short films by several different directors (which is the way experimental films tend to be shown) -- is likely to seem confusing, frustrating, and disappointing.
Part of the reason for this bewilderment is unavoidable: the mind boggles at being exposed in quick succession to a variety of tricks and trials, distortions and effects all calculated to be new and ingenious, stunning and distinctive, expressive and impressive. And many of the experiments fail, so they seem just poor or boring. Ideally, the viewer should be exposed to unconventional films one at a time in the home of the filmmaker, but that is most often not possible, unfortunately.
There are also other reasons for initial negative reactions which can be somewhat anticipated and partially compensated for. If you can adjust your mind ahead of time to expect approximately what you will see, then one area of disappointment can be eliminated. In general, we come to the theatre expecting to be entertained by a well-conceived, well-executed work of art. But experimental films are not, by and large, entertaining even in the expanded sense of ordinary European "art films"; they are not usually well-made technically, and often a mostly mediocre half-hour film will be shown for the sake of one great scene -- a minute or two of brilliant effects. Try to remember, then, that the value in experimental films lies in exactly the opposite places from the value in an ordinary movie: Underground films are dynamic personal expressions, in which the filmmakers have rejected the movie-establishment's presentation of an entertaining world-view governed by family-style happy endings and censorship, and, what is more important, they have rejected Hollywood conventions as being too commonplace to express the force and magnitude of their own vision of reality. On one hand, this is their value, and on the other hand it is the source of that upsetting, crude quality of the films themselves.
You should try to watch experimental films, then, asking constantly, "Why did the filmmaker use that device? How is it meaningful? Is he reacting against conventions or is that technique all that was technically available to him?" And of course, meanwhile you should be relaxing and enjoying the films as pure emotional and aesthetic experiences at the same time.
The real stickler is that this means you should ideally have a great deal of knowledge about film history and aesthetics at your disposal. You should sit down, rather like Alice in her enchanted world, and say to yourself, "All art, of course, is governed by sets of conventions -- fashions that change every decade or so, but which nonetheless constitute a continuum of rules and limits and styles which are (at any given moment) considered standard, acceptable, and easily comprehensible to the public. Any art work functions in relation to the conventions of its time, since it must either use them, ignore them, or reject them...
For greatest enjoyment of an underground film then, even if you do happen to know precisely when it was made and what it was reacting to, and whether the maker had the technical facilities to do differently if he wished (which most film critics and experts don't know, either) try to relax and assess it with an open mind. Forgive the grainy, rough qualities and think of what the maker was trying to reveal about himself and life.
Yankee Underground Film Festival Program Notes, in the Collections of both Center for Visual Music (Moritz Collection), Los Angeles, and The Fischinger Archive.
Notes by CVM:
According to the Program booklet, films shown at this 1968 festival included: Florey, "Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra"; Webber, "Fall of the House of Usher"; Deren, "Meshes of the Afternoon"; Harrington, "On the Edge"; Anger, "Fireworks"; Fischinger, "Motion Painting No. 1"; McLaren, "Neighbors"; Belson, "Raga"; Peterson, "Lead Shoes"; Broughton, "Pleasure Garden"; Thompson, "N.Y., N.Y."; H. Hirsch [sic], "Gyromorphosis"; Conger, "Odds and Ends"; S. Clarke, "Bridges Go Round"; H. Smith (one selection); Kimball, "Escalation"; Van Meter, "Uptight"; Nelson, "Oh dem Watermelons"; VanDerBeek, "Wheeels #1"; Conner, "Cosmic Ray"; U.C.L.A., "Lately"; Emshwiller, "Thanatopsis"; Lipsett, "2187"; P. O'Neill, "73-62"; DeVino, "Finnish Fable". (note, list not complete).
This 7 hour festival, presented by the Art Affiliates of Occidental College and held in Thorne Hall, began at 3:30 pm, included intermissions and a dinner break, and ended approx. 10:30 pm. Admission was $2.50.
The Program Notes contain other articles on underground/experimental/avant-garde film, including one on Oskar Fischinger by Mrs. Lois Boardman, the program coordinator of the Film Festival; "Experimental Films: Avant-Garde, Underground, or What You Will" by Marsha Kinder, Ph.D., and others.
The next year (1969) Moritz would meet Elfriede Fischinger and begin his work with The Fischinger Archive and Fischinger's films, which continued for over 30 years. Moritz would also soon begin teaching Humanities courses at Occidental College.
LINKS: William Moritz. Oskar Fischinger. Fischinger Archive.
Go to Center for Visual Music Library
Go to CVM Directory