The 15 Greatest Avant-Garde Filmmakers Of All Time
Existing beneath the razzle and dazzle of mainstream cinema are an underground community of cinephiles, who remain intent on subverting the conventional, and exploring the realms of cinematic capability. Fifteen of these individuals are listed below – a multicultural select few who specialise in an engagement with experimental filming techniques; creating alternative works that question the medium we so often take for granted.
There remain hundreds of talented avant-garde artists scattered all over the globe, but the list below can be recognised as comprising of key members that constitute the bedding of the cinematic underground, please note this list is ranked in no particular order.
1. Andy Warhol
A unique character in every sense of the word, Andy Warhol remains one of the most inimitable figures ever to pick up a paintbrush or camera. Conveying a curious demeanour and pasty complexion, Warhol specialised in the structural aspect of the American avant-garde, utilising a minimalist aesthetic and silent soundtrack to turn images of everyday America into exhibitions of art.
Warhol’s fixed camerawork enforced a meticulous examination of sexual explicitness that had been consciously repressed and unexplored in mainstream cinema before his arrival. But this unflinching exploration of a taboo subject was fitting in its aligned attitude with sixties America. It was a time where the youth of the USA engaged in sexual liberation.
Warhol veered in an opposite direction to those demanding a tighter grip on societal conduct, using a camera as a tool to dig deeper for an up-close-and-personal look at the taboo subject of sex that was oozing through freethinking America.
The likes of his 1963 film “Kiss” initially appears as intrusive in its unnerving refusal to turn away from two breathless lovers, but eventually emerges as a document of the beauty of human intimacy.
An even more controversial case in point is his scandalously titled picture “Blow Job”; which consists entirely of a static shot of young man DeVeren Bookwalter apparently receiving fellatio from an unseen participant. Bookwalter’s neck writhes and his eyes roll, but the camera remains resolutely static; enveloping the film in sexual ambiguousness. Is there even a sex act being performed at all?
Warhol also filmed a collection of portraiture cinema known simply as the “Screen Tests”, where he instructed a variety of individuals of all shapes and sizes to simply stare into his camera. The most captivating of these characters is a girl named Ann Buchanan, who attempts to return the unblinking gaze of the camera and ends up with tears streaming down her cheeks. The result is a captivating, tragic and beautiful piece of authentic filmmaking.
For all his experimental artistic efforts, Warhol’s 1964 production “Empire” remains arguably his most cryptic work. Lending a hand from one of the best-in-the-business in Jonas Mekas for the film’s cinematography, the completed effort documented over eight hours of footage of the iconic American landmark.
Shot at 16 frames per second, Warhol’s camera simply stares at the Empire State Building for an unwatchable amount of time – asking difficult questions about our patience as viewers and indeed as humans.
2. Luis Bunuel
Hailing from Spain but often associated with the early cinema of France, Luis Bunuel is a pioneering figure in the surrealist avant-garde movement of the 1920’s. A provocateur who thrived on maddening satire, Bunuel’s near fifty-year filmmaking career contained works that were often immersed in dream logic, were consistently controversial, and always much discussed.
In 1929, Bunuel joined forces with fellow surrealist Salvador Dali to launch a combined directorial effort named “Un Chien Andalou”, a film now universally recognised as one of the greatest pieces of world cinema ever made. Running for just fifteen-minutes, it is the first few moments of the film that have remained the most iconic, as a sitting woman calmly has her left eye stretched open and slit by a razor.
Outrageous in content and chaotic in chronology, “Un Chien Andalou” is the probably the best-known surrealist avant-garde film. To attempt to unpick it is a waste of time – with Bunuel purposely juxtaposing images against one another to allow for a nonsensical, violent contrast that recontextualises typical modes of both filmmaking and viewing.
A disturbing side-note shows that the two leads in the film both eventually committed suicide – one overdosing and one enacting self-immolation – providing “Un Chien Andalou” with an inadvertent corroboration of its already tragically bizarre aura.
Bunuel followed “Un Chien Andalou” with “L’Age d’Or” in 1930, a film that incited uproar and riots upon its release. The screenplay (also wrote by Dali) which underlined the hypocrisy of Catholicism is brought alive by surrealist techniques, with the story told in a series of maddening vignettes involving sex and violence.
Aside from the two aforementioned avant-garde gems made with Dali, Bunuel’s strikingly daring cinema is perhaps best exemplified by his surrealist documentary “Las Hurdes” – a travelogue that represents the poverty-stricken mountainous town of La Alberca in a peculiarly sensationalised way, underscored by an almost mocking tone.
Steeped in surrealist themes of death, disfigurement and dream-like qualities, the film was quickly banned by Spanish leader Francisco Franco for its hellish depiction of Spanish land. Bunuel seemingly killed at least two animals during its production; smothering a donkey in honey so it would be stung to death, and forcing a mountain goat to stumble off a high cliff.
Surrounded by copious amounts of controversy and conspiracy theories, there is even modern-day speculation that the whole documentary was completely fabricated.
It seems fitting that the greatest story about Bunuel remains one shrouded in scepticism. The story goes that after the premiere screening of “Un Chien Andalou”, the Spaniard positioned himself behind the screen with stones in his pockets, ready to pelt them at the angry mob that was sure to arise upon the screening’s conclusion. No fact about Bunuel is ever certain, but if that tale isn’t true; it ought to be.
3. Stan Brakhage
“I document the act of seeing” claimed Stan Brakhage; one of avant-garde’s most treasured assets since the inception of cinema. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Brakhage’s influence on American experimental filmmaking stems from his documentation of an eye before language, and a desire to create an unmediated cinematic experience.
Brakhage created films that documented the pre-linguistic eye; a purer form of vision free from the baggage of language. For several of these productions, he didn’t even use a camera. Indeed, for Brakhage, the capability of the camera to see further was less interesting than the inner vision of the human eye.
He remained fascinated by the flashing lights and shifting patterns created when one rubs or presses on the eyelid, and attempted to recreate this closed-eye vision through film with the likes of “Eye Myth”, “Black Ice”, and “Rage Net”. Each of these films consist of incoherent streaking dots and spots; reconstructing the eye’s inner vision and putting it on screen.
Brakhage even went as far as to speculate on the vision of other beings, with his cameraless 1963 film “Mothlight” being an appropriate example. Brakhage described it as “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black”.
Brakhage made the film by collecting moth wings, blades of grass and leaves and pressing them onto the film which was then fed through the projector. The result is a visceral experience of nature intertwined with cinema – a document of pure vision.
Aside from analysis of the impact of light on vision, Brakhage also sought to foreground our visceral responses to certain images that make us recoil before we have even acknowledged the meaning of the image itself. His 1971 documentary film “The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes” highlights our physical response to such images, with Brakhage taking his camera into a morgue and filming a variety of autopsies in patient, silent and unblinking fashion.
A fearless examination of the human eyes and body, and the notion of subjectivity, the film contains a plentiful amount of utterly unforgettable images, and is the most enthralling cinematic experience that can never be recommended to anyone.
4. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
For a man who lived at a pace of a thousand-miles-an-hour, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s tragic passing was one of staggering contrast in its unobtrusive repose. The capricious king of New German cinema lived and breathed film – directing, screenwriting, producing and acting in 40 productions in 14 years before his tragic passing at the tender age of 37; quietly slipping away alone in his room after a typical night of drink and drugs that had become his standard diet.
Fassbinder stood shoulder to shoulder with Werner Herzog in his contribution to New German cinema of the seventies; often taking the movement into new, fascinating experimental directions.
A larger than life character with a relentless work ethic, Fassbinder’s collection of strangely mesmerising cinema included “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” and “World on a Wire”, but his style truly came to fruition with 1974’s “Fear Eats the Soul”. Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s melodrama “All That Heaven Allows”, the film tells a tale of unlikely romance between Moroccan labourer Ali, and 60-year-old widower Emmi.
Stilted and strange, “Fear Eats the Soul” is full of stretched-out moments of silence and endless stares of judgement from other characters as Ali and Emmi share quiet instants with one another. Fassbinder’s framing becomes a character in itself, whilst the murky mise-en-scene portrays a continuously uneasy atmosphere. Bold and powerful, yet also darkly humorous, “Fear Eats the Soul” remains one of Fassbinder’s greatest pieces of work.
It is admirable that Fassbinder’s later efforts showed no sign of a slide in class, with “Lola”, “Veronika Voss” and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” resembling the striking quality that he had churned out since his first feature film “Love is Colder than Death” in 1969. One of cinema’s most exhaustingly intrepid characters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder remains a key figure in the history of avant-garde film.
5. Chantal Akerman
If there were ever a women’s cinema, then “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” is it. A pivotal work with regards to the role of women in cinema and society, “Jeanne Dielman” topples three hours of running time in a 48-hour depiction of a widowed mother and a life entrenched in domesticity.
Resolutely structural cinematography and patient editing frame the eponymous character’s life of household routine in a distinct cinematic space unlike anything before it, and the film put young female director Chantal Akerman on the map.
Originally from Belgium, Akerman moved to New York at the age of just 21, and after releasing “Jeanne Dielman” went on to project her life in the city through her essay film “News from Home”; a perfect example of the personal filmmaking. It’s a piece that demands viewer patience, but is ultimately enormously rewarding.
“News from Home” consists entirely of static long shots of grubby seventies New York City – streets, doorways, subway carriages and platforms – with Akerman reading aloud letters from her mother over the imagery. Her static camera is often regarded with second-glances and suspicion by passers-by.
Whilst in reality these citizens are simply wondering what Akerman is doing with her camera, the effect it creates is one of alienation. These New Yorkers appear to be looking at her with unfamiliarity; she feels acutely aware of her foreign heritage.
Yet, as the content of the letters becomes more distant, the soundtrack of the streets gets louder. By the film’s conclusion, the roaring subway train drowns out her mother’s words – reflecting how Akerman has made a significant shift away from her roots and been immersed by the culture of her new city. Even the camerawork becomes a little more fluid, with one segment filmed from the window of a moving taxicab to resemble a lateral tracking shot: a rare departure from the film’s static camerawork.
“News from Home” – much like “Jeanne Dielman” – is so simple and serene, yet so dense and zoetic. To achieve such powerful effects from such minimalistic imagery is hugely admirable, and Akerman is a vital member of the avant-garde whose filmmaking deserves great attention.