The 15 Greatest Avant-Garde Filmmakers Of All Time

11. Jonas MekasOften cited as the Godfather of the American avant-garde, Jonas Mekas is the catalytic source of the fire of experimental filmmaking. His tie to such a patronal label remains unsurprising and merited to this current day given his pioneering contributions to the underground movement in the States.

Aside from having six decades of production under his belt, Mekas was responsible for establishing Film Culture; an intellectual cinematic magazine akin to the likes of Sight and Sound and Cahiers du Cinema – only this time for America.

Forced to flee his Lithuanian homeland due to threat of war, Mekas went on to create several epochal pieces that became the go-to guides for experimental inspiration.

1964’s “The Brig” can be regarded as one of these quintessential films; which documents a peek at the bizarre insides of an US Marine Corps prison. Based on the play by Kenneth Brown (a former Marine himself), the film plays out almost like a comedy in parts, with the authenticity of the environment always being brought into question.

As I Was Moving Ahead I Occasionally Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

Mekas also went on to create “Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania” (1971–72) which documented his return to his home village in Lithuania, and also “Lost, Lost, Lost“ (1976), which portrays his life in Lithuania and his subsequent move to New York City and integration amongst the independent art scene.

One of Mekas’ most ambitious projects was “As I Was Moving Ahead I Occasionally Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty” – an epic home movie with a running time even longer than its title. Consisting entirely of recorded family footage with scattered voiceovers from Mekas himself, the film is a celebration of both life and filmmaking, and demonstrates Mekas’ ability to experiment with cinema to achieve an effect that lasts long in the memory.


12. Jean Luc-Godard

“The best way to criticise a film is to make another one” Jean-Luc Godard once said. It is a quote that somewhat encapsulates the personality and production methods of the iconic French filmmaker; a man who was so often ahead of his time.

Contributing to Cahiers du Cinema and regarded as one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave movement of the 1960’s, Godard’s style was so delightfully difficult in its rejection of typical French filmmaking – opting to experiment with sophisticated filmic values that few before him had dared to trifle with.

To analyse every one of Godard’s comprehensive list of works would take a separate list in itself, and even then it’d be difficult to do his work justice. “Tout va Bien”, “Week End”, and “Une Femme est une Femme” all subvert the rules of filmmaking in more ways than one and are all indispensable viewing, but the film that Godard is often most associated with is “Breathless” or “A Bout de Soufflé” – a film that proved enormously influential in its popularisation of the use of the cinematic jump-cut.

Breathless film

Indeed, Godard was astoundingly influential in his use of camerawork, having dabbled in feature film, short film and video projects such as “Histoire du Cinema”: a dense and complex eight-part investigation into cinema in the twentieth century, in production for ten years and spanning 266 minutes of running time.

The legendary stare of Travis Bickle into fizzing water in “Taxi Driver” was inspired by a scene from Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”, and he is often slyly referenced by contemporary filmmakers in modern-day cinema.

Godard is still going, still influencing young filmmakers and is still asking political questions with his most recent effort “Film Socialisme”. He continues to divide and surprise critics and audiences, and remains one of the avant-garde’s most absorbing ever characters.


13. Douglas Gordon

The smattering of walkouts that commenced during early screenings of “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” won’t have concerned the film’s architect Douglas Gordon too much. “Zidane” isn’t what you’d expect it to be. It is not an evaluation of one of the greatest footballers’ of all time – and nor does Gordon want it to be this way. It is a cinematic experiment that asks questions about the role of the image in the 21st century, and how we as viewers engage with these images and how they affect our lives.

Instead of an inside-look at the life of French sensation Zinedine Zidane, the film simply follows the eponymous football star for a whole ninety-minutes of a Real Madrid match against Villarreal. Zidane himself occasionally contributes with voiceover commentary; but it is more thoughtful and pensive than a simple exploration of how he feels about being famous. “I hear the supporters as they shift around in their seats” he says.

24 Hour Psycho

The isolation of sound and heightening of Zidane’s bodily actions and breathing contribute to the intensity of the filmic experiment, with Gordon removing the viewer from the stadium at half-time to flick through a selection of seemingly random global images – juxtaposing the viewer’s identification with a football star against their identification with world events.

Like much of Gordon’s other work, Zidane is a study of time and of the human gaze. His obsession with these aspects is enormously evident in his 1993 exhibition piece “24 Hour Psycho”, where he knocks down the Hitchcock classic from 24 to just 2 frames per second; therefore making the film run for an exact total of 24 hours. You can’t help but wonder what the master of suspense himself would have thought of this experiment.


14. Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov’s newsreel series “Kinopravda” – or “Film Truth” – was dedicated to exposing the wonderment of life by capturing it on camera when it least suspected it. Vertov, along with other Kinopravda collaborator Elizaveta Svilova, and brother Mikhail Kaufman, sought to capture life unawares through filmmaking, developing pioneering modes of filmmaking that have been integrated into the modern-day cinematic vocabulary that Vertov and company helped to create.

Vertov’s 1929 avant-garde documentary “Man with a Movie Camera” is often listed amongst the greats of world film, and is absolutely essential viewing for any lover of cinema.

A celebration of filmmaking and of the Soviet working-classes, “Man with a Movie camera” created a new cinematic language that promoted the notion of the “Kino-Eye” that aimed to document the greatness of Soviet society. Vertov wrote several pieces on his coined concept of the Kino-Eye; a camera and human eye combined that provided a whole new kind of vision. He saw it as a new entity – a ‘perfect’ eye with ‘perfect’ vision.

Man with a Movie Camera

“Man with a Movie Camera” comprises of an enormous variety of cinematic techniques never before utilised so brilliantly on screen, including changes in motion, freeze-frames, jump-cuts, split-screens, Dutch angles, tracking shots, and double-exposure.

By merging sophisticated filmmaking techniques with imagery of the Soviet working-classes, (transport, offices, leisure time, celebrations, parties) Vertov aimed to decipher the cinematic process for the average movie-goer; ultimately enabling an intimate integration between society and cinema.

Vertov’s self-confessed experiment of “Man with a Movie Camera” was inspirational in its documentation of the capability of cinema, but his impudence with filmmaking equipment did not excite everyone involved within the medium. Indeed, cinema’s master of montage Sergei Eisenstein was utterly unmoved by Vertov, labelling him a ‘film hooligan’.

Vertov considered filmmaking a process that should result in a documentary film, and whilst his ambitions didn’t come to his exact idea of fruition, Vertov can be considered an enormously influential figure in world cinema for both his academic contribution to film and his avant-garde filmmaking.


15. Martin Arnold

Martin Arnold may be one of the lesser-known filmmakers on this list, but the questions he asks about the representational practices of Hollywood through his experimental work are intriguing enough to earn him a well-deserved place. By engaging in warped fine-tuning of classic American films, Arnold’s productions threaten to permanently dampen the glow of Hollywood production.

By adopting tiny segments from benchmark films and manipulating them so that they constantly take two-steps-forward, one-step-back; Arnold spins the original material on its head.

The results are simultaneously enthralling and irritating; resembling a scratched DVD skipping at every moment. The constant rhythmic stuttering is pretty humorous on first glance, but as the films wear on and Arnold’s true intentions begin to surface, the heart and morals of the original Hollywood material are soon viciously ripped away.

Passage a’ l’acte

The best example of Arnold’s work arrives in the form of “Passage a’ l’acte” – a venomous reediting of a segment from Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Through use of unrelenting speed shifts and sudden halts, Arnold reinterprets the whole sequence’s initial intentions.

A quiet family meal scene is wildly twisted, as Arnold’s editing presents the family with nasty, aggressive, unsettling qualities; citing the dominance of male characters in Hollywood and the passivity of females. The grandmother is deemed to be so unnecessary she barely takes up any space in the frame – blink and you’ll miss her.

The way in which Arnold undermines the codes of convention of popular culture to find new meaning is fascinating. His work is deviously intelligent in how it comes to replicate a film that mocks its own material. The underlying frivolity of Hollywood filmmaking is accentuated by using the very same piece that aimed for the dizzying heights of the Oscars. Arnold’s cinematic angle is a black one, but boy is it effective.

Author Bio: Gareth Lloyd is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manchester in English Language & Screen Studies, and a pending Master of Arts degree from Aberystwyth University in Film Studies. Along with postgraduate study, he writes articles on film, sport, music, social life and literature.