‘Open the Doors!’: Sci-Fi and the Avant-Garde

Program curated by Peter Lichter.

PETER LICHTER is one of the most talented and prolific young avant-garde filmmakers working in Europe today. He is a filmmaker and writer who, since 2002, has made all kinds of cinema: found-footage films, abstract experiments, and lyrical documentaries. He wrote his PhD thesis about the historical and thematic connections between avant-garde and science fiction cinema. He is currently working on his first feature, an experimental horror film named Frozen May.

People regularly think that the legacies of experimental cinema and classical Hollywood are completely inoculated from one another. But after World War II, there was, in fact, an increasing crossover between these two genres: abstract and experimental film was frequently digested into the machine of big-budget narrative cinema. Conversely, experimental filmmakers began to appropriate Hollywood imagery, drawing on the body of narrative cinema as found footage, material to be manipulated, twisted and edited into original—often subversive or counter-cultural—works of art. So, over the course of the 20th century, a complex relationship developed between normative/narrative cinema and avant-garde/ underground cinema—a bond rooted in a history of mutual appropriation and inspiration.

Science fiction has always been fertile ground for intercourse between the mainstream and the avant-garde; indeed, experimental filmmakers commissioned by big Hollywood studios often produced technical innovations for big-budget special effects. An early example of this engagement was a milestone of the genre: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which the director hired John Whitney to help special effects designer Douglas Trumbull create the famous “Stargate” sequence. This scene was one of the first examples of “framed abstraction” (and the abstract cinema form) appearing in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece was followed by other examples during the 70s and 80s, in which the formal strategies of the abstract film appeared in the texture of the narrative film.

Jordan Belson, a contemporary of James Whitney and another crucial figure in the avant-garde, similarly produced special effects sequences for genre films, including The Right Stuff (1983) and Demon Seed (1977). The abstract scenes in these and other films had similar functions in their respective narrative structures—pathways to another, unknown world. The most interesting aspect of these short, abstract sequences is their indebtedness to the spirit and form of experimental film; the effect on the viewer is hypnotic.

On the other hand, there exists a rich tradition of experimental filmmakers basing their practice on the material produced by the Hollywood tradition. The purest examples of this approach are the found footage/collage film—an avant-garde tradition in which filmmakers create new works using the previously shot materials from various sources (studios, TV, news reels, etc.). Today the found footage tradition is the most vital genre of the experimental film world, with artists like Michael Fleming, Peter Tscherkassky and Craig Baldwin working with film material from the world of classical cinema. These films eat and digest the materials of the mainstream, making jokes and self-reflexive cinema-sculpture from the stuff of classical, narrative cinema. In this spirit of digestion and appropriation, we’ve paired Michael Fleming’s The Rapture, which uses magazine advertisements to create a visual assault of flesh and consumption, with John Carpenter’s The Thing, where the titular monster murders and then mimics people to assert its power over their world.

Further, in the Hollywood-Experimental relation- ship we can find artists with similar aims with similar means. Takashi Makino and Ken Russell, for example, wanted to create works evincing similar effects, though from two different realms of filmmaking. Russell’s narrative feature, Altered States (1980) and Makino’s abstract films have the same formal roots—trying to conjure a hallucinatory trip.

Both types of cinema motivated the techniques and technologies of their counterpart to create
a new means of filmic expression. These two types of art expanded upon themselves and each other, borrowing and mimicking one another to push the borders of the question, “What is cinema?”