20 Of The Best Experimental Short Films You Can Watch Online
10. The Blood of a Poet (1933) by Jean Cocteau
Jean Cocteau’s first film, financed by a rich nobleman Vicomte de Noailles , made dreams and psychodrama an essential element of experimental cinema, specifically surrealism. In this personal film, a painter wipes lips from his canvas, but they come to life in his hand.
As he tries to eliminate the lips by placing them in a statue, the statue also comes to life and tells him the only way out of his studio is through the mirror. When he enters the mirror, he ventures into a series of rooms which reflect his artistic works.
This short film is personal to Jean Cocteau because the artist’s journey through the mirror demonstrates various motifs that are also present in his poetry and drawings. Motifs like this include a lyre and muse figure. This dream narrative was influenced by other surrealists such as Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, whose work is heavily based on the subconscious.
The Blood of a Poet is the first part of the Orphic Trilogy, which is continued with Orphee (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960).
9. Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love) (directed in 1950, released in 1975) by Jean Genet
French poet Jean Genet presents a different take of surrealism: desires of prisoners and guards. Instead of relying on dreams or hallucinations, he strictly remains with the transient emotions of the characters. The separation of two prisoners by brick walls forces them to find different means of communication while in a desperate situation.
While these two convicts try to fulfill their sexual and emotional needs, a sadistic prison guard spies on them with jealousy, influencing him to beat violently one of the inmates. Even if this encounter happens to be hurtful, the prisoner still fantasizes of his lover, of how their relationship would progress if together.
This is virtually one of the most memorable short films, inspiring artists such as Andy Warhol. It also was one of the most controversial, awakening a subject matter unspeakable of at the time: homosexuality. The consequence of the film’s existence was it’s ban for numerous years, relying upon underground distribution for artists to appreciate.
8. Street of Crocodiles (1986) by Stephen and Timothy Quay
Twin brothers Steve and Tim Quay created this animation of an overtly thin figure who explores a decaying Victorian Street with strange dolls, sawdust, writhing screws and sinister machinery. This entire world based of a novel of Bruno Schulz is repleted with symbolism, as the brothers believed that there is no truth without meaning.
Brutal and sexually violent imagery are demonstrated amongst organic materials, such as screws and tailor’s pins representing male genitals. These signs all lead to the insanity and decay the dependence of modern advancement causes, where there is no definite conclusion. It all leads to madness, darkness and temptation. These ideals are invoked with beautifully sinister images, drawn with evocative techniques of shadow and light.
These American brothers won numerous awards for the presentation of their animation. Some of them include three awards at the 1986 Zagreb Animation Festival and the Grand Prix at Odense, Sitges, Brussels and San Francisco.
7. The Mascot (1934) by Ladislas Starevich
One of the director’s longest works, it mixes live actions and puppets in a story about a poor seamstress who crafts stuffed toys to support her sick daughter. One of these toys, a dog, is sold off with the rest, but decides to escape to give the little girl an orange. She had originally asked her mother for one, but she could not afford it. Amongst the many adventures the dog takes he happens to go through hell, as other toys also want the orange he found.
Ladislas Starevich was a puppeteer master. He was one of the first to create animations out of puppetry, as seen in previous famous films such as Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman (1912), where he used insects as puppets. He was an expert at moving several characters at once and in giving them mobile, expressive faces.
This is very evident when the toy dog ventures into an inn, where numerous characters are dancing as well. These innovations make the film a true classic, which Terry Gilliam recognizes as one of the ten best animated films of all time.
6. Window Water Baby Moving (1962) by Stan Brakhage
One of Brackahge’s domestic lyrical films, it documents Jan Brakhage’s childbirth of their first born, Myrrena Brakhage. It is rendered in flashbacks and motifs that set an emotive tone. Motifs include light falling from the window, shinning towards the mother’s belly, the miracle of birth.
Stan depicts this entire process without any type of restraint. There is no censorship for the mother’s body, even with the cutting of the umbilical cord and the removal of the placenta. But Stan’s purpose is not to repulse the audience, rather, he cuts from the baby’s head to the mother’s face and recurrently flashbacks to the couple kissing and sharing their love. Part of the explicitness of the movie is to present the natural process and how it is not something grotesque, rather beautiful.
The film could also be seen as educational, since it depicts the entire process of giving birth. It shows the head of Myrrena coming out of her mother’s womb. Brackhage payed close attention to have a close up of his daughter’s face, a very moving image of the power of nature.
5. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexandr Hackenschmied (Alexander Hammid)
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid created a masterpiece of avant-garde cinema at their own home with primitive 16mm equipment starring themselves. This was not only the first narrative experimental film, but also a stepping stone for feminism at a time where women filmmakers were scarce in America.
The story consists of a woman (Maya Deren) having a series of mysterious encounters with a hooded figure whose face is a mask. She passes through different chambers, splits into different entities of herself, and eventually dies. These psychological characteristics of the protagonist and the dream structure of the movie also brought forth the trance film genre.
The short also paved way to experimental psychological dramas, presented as projections of the hero’s anxieties. Maya Deren referred to the film as a pure mythological experience, repudiating any psychological interpretation. The film has often been regarded as an autobiographical work, with interests in nonrealistic spatial continuity.
4. The Heart of the World (2000) by Guy Maddin
This short film tells the story of Anna, a Bolshevik scientist who studies the earth’s core. She loves two men, Nikolai, a mortician, and Osip, an actor playing Jesus Christ in a play. Both men form part of this love triangle while the Earth is dying of heart failure.
Maddin uses news reel footage style to present a concept for a feature film, all in six minutes. With over a hundred shots, he uses silent Soviet and expressionistic film techniques with dated angles, hectic montage and Metropolis-like machines. Guy Maddin also overexposed and scratched the film to resemble archival footage.
There are other details that Guy Maddin payed close attention to make as authentic as possible. Geometric set design recalls European avant-garde styles of the 1920s. For instance, a crucifix Osip carries has art deco patterns. Even the acting is loyal to the time, where facial expressions are heightened according to the tension and rhythm of the film.
The movie was originally meant to be a simple short film for presentation at the Toronto film festival, before the various features were screened. Since Guy Maddin heard most directors were making short simple movies with very few shots, he decided to break the norm. Indeed it proved successful, as the destiny of the film was highly esteemed rather than being a mere presentation at a festival.
3. Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929) by Luis Buñuel
Before the release of An Andalusian Dog, experimental films were usually represented as static imagery set to motion such as Anemic Cinema and Emak- Bakia. The screening of this short film marked the beginnings of experimental films having an association with a presentation strategy familiar with narrative. It depicted figurative actions rather than abstractions, making famous the surrealist subgenre.
Un Chien Andalou’s release marked a scandal for its audiences. It presents violence and sexual gestures not often demonstrated in theaters during the time. The famous eye slitting scene still proves disturbing, as ooze falls out of the young lady’s sockets. The drooling man while grabbing the lady’s buttocks is quite bizarre as well, his attempts to rape her are indeed uncomfortable.
It is a true landmark for surrealist filmmaking. It broke through the barriers of conventional storytelling by demonstrating inexplicable occurrences along with meaningless intervals of time. Perhaps a better description for this should be a “dreamlike narrative”.
2. The Hand (1965) by Jiří Trnka
Jiri Trnka’s films were known as the “Disney of the East”. They were often lyrical narratives based on fairytales. In his last film, the director decided to develop another perspective, a political one that would openly criticize Stalinism and risk his fame for artistic freedom. The hand gives the first impression of a tale similar to Pinocchio’s story: a puppet rebels against his puppet master. As the story develops, it gives an entirely different impression as the totalitarian influence is evident.
Trnka’s puppet was drawn with a constant facial expression to use instead shadows and light to convey the character’s feelings. This makes this short film all the more non Disneyesque, it is a dark tale of actual repression.
An individual is interested in making only pots for plants, the director takes extra care in conveying this by showing him delicately handling his plants. The man is disrupted by a disrespectful hand, who does not care to destroy his projects. He tries to manipulate him into creating a statue of himself, but the man refuses, which would then lead to a tragic demise.
One of the most riveting images of the movie occurs when tears fall from the puppet’s static face. Even if he smiles after being rewarded with medals for creating a hand statue, tears fall from his eyes. These are tears of hopelessness, as the puppet was forced to give up his ambitions for the imposition of the hand. It is a tremendous feat of repressed freedom. Trnka’s work was banned after his death until 1993.
1. Dimensions of Dialogue (1981) by Jan Švankmajer
An animated stop motion film tells the metaphorical story of communication in three parts: factual discussion, passionate discourse, and exhaustive discussion. Referred as a social representation of human dialogues, it transmits this allegation with repulsive effects.
Director Jan Švankmajer’s works are mostly surrealist, evident in Dimensions of Dialogue. Rather than using narrative, he explores feelings and social concerns with everyday objects, such as toothpastes, pencils and even vegetables. These objects come to life representing different discussions with horrible results.
For instance, vegetables versus machinery, a heated argument in which apparent three dimensional objects formed as two dimensional faces eat each other up. Sculpted lovers intermixing as they make passionate love, later mashing each other after being overcome by their feelings. And lastly, two heads trying to come to an agreement with each other, but failing as both force to connect objects that do not match.
Jan Švankmajer draws his inspiration from his art student years, studying in Prague and also specializing in puppetry. He has been making short films for over forty years, inspiring filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.
Author Bio: Maria Cristina is an aspiring filmmaker studying her bachelor of fine arts at UNC School of the Arts. She grew up in Puerto Rico with a passion for classic directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. Ever since, she’s been developing a screenplay called “Days in the Streets” hoping to start preproduction soon and wrote a novel currently in the editing process called “A Leaf in the Wind”.
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