For almost as long as there has been art there has been convention and since convention, there have been those who have strived to push those boundaries. The innovators and visionaries who always try to imagine a different tomorrow for their medium. These people are known as the avant garde – those few who dare to try to steer the very course of art. This is the harshest environment for any artist to occupy since failure means mocker by not only the audience but also one’s peers, where one risks falling into utter obscurity and nothingness, or rise to the top to become one who will be regarded as pure genius. Let’s take a look at just a couple of those important few films and filmmakers who have ever dared to step into the realm of cinema – before 1980.
This should not be misconstrued as being a ranking of any kind, simply a sample platter of some of the more important people and films in cinema you may or may not have already been familiar with.
Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)
Probably one of best known of any of the names on this list, Andy “Can-of-Soup” Warhol is fabulously important name when considering next to anything pop culture these days. His works have impacted the contemporary age like double barrel shotgun into a phonebook. Warhol, like all of his peers on this list, liked asking the question ‘why’? But the context for his inquiries were often to challenge social normalcy in terms of what is socially acceptable, permissible and even withstandable with regards to human attention. His film construction forced his audience to consider subjects and acts otherwise considered too risqué, too mundane or outright taboo for audiences. Utilizing a static camera set up with few or even no cuts, he would shoot things such as the empire state building for 8 hours continuously, a man eating mushrooms for 45 minutes or intimate couples err, being intimate.
If it sounds unendurable, that we more the point than for people to come away with a profound appreciation for every subtle nuance of the empire state building a bladder 8 hours fuller. Warhol’s work forced people to consider their subject matter in ways other than what was comfortable and convenient for them. The net effect of his work is not beyond calculation, influencing not only innumerable films but also entire genres. Consider where the horror genre would be without all of those up close and personal shots of visceral carnage? How else may Gaspar Noë have been able to capture the utter shocking tragedy and horror or rape without his unflinching, 11 minute take of just that topic? it’s gut-wrenching a moving. But then again, it has to be! Reality isn’t always conveniently packaged for us and Andy Warhol taught us to sit and watch.
Dziga Vertov (1896 – 1954)
Vertov’s importance to cinema today stems from a profound level of passion and respect for the medium that was unlikely to have been matched by anyone else in history. Vertov believed that the camera “kino-eye”, or “camera-eye” was the perfect eye. It retained the ability to not only see the world in an unbiased, unflinchingly honest way that it would shape the very course of human evolution itself! This may sound crazy when considered for its audacity, but upon further consideration, hasn’t it? Wasn’t he right, after all? Look where we are now and what’s been shaped and influenced by the camera’s lens?
Vertov’s views lead him to pioneer a new style of filmmaking that employed no actors, no synthetic props, lights or any falsities of any kind. This would come to be known as cinéma vérité, a modus operandi for documentary filmmaking that strives to provide the spectator with a utterly honest and unbiased depiction of events. He knew that with the camera rested a powerful tool to shape and guide emotion and opinion. With simple montage and editing an audience could be guided to elicit almost any desired emotion and in so doing, could rest a powerful tool (or even weapon, depending on the responsibility and intent of the filmmaker)and with it, a responsibility. The camera could also depict perfect honesty and realism. It was up to us to use it to this end.
Check Out: The Man With a Movie Camera
This is an outstanding example of Vertov’s hypothesis. Boasting no script, no actors, sets or synthetics of any type he captured everyday people going about their lives with such candor and sincerity that that harkens back to the original films by the Lumiere brothers. This is the birth of the modern documentary.
David Lynch (1946 – Present)
David Lynch is one of those filmmakers who rose to popularity for a melding aesthetics. Utilizing conventionally ‘safe’ filmmaking techniques to keep his audience captivated and ground, a vaguely coherent narrative would then vault into surrealism and ‘dream logic’. This mixed platter of the familiar/foreign enabled Lynch to achieve what most avant-garde filmmakers could only great of, achieve mass-market level success, not merely recognition.
The allure of Lynch is in the juxtaposition of his filmmaker and narrative styles, if it can even be called that. The easily digestible, readily accessible visual presentation he uses belies the complex and utterly illogical narratives that lurk beneath the surface. The attempt to apply any semblance of logical sense to his works is the cause of many of the pitfalls experienced by those who attempt to experience and interpret Lynch’s work. It simply doesn’t lend itself to being read in this way. But this is the magic of his work, that there’s more than what we see, or that what we see is false, or what we don’t see is false, or both! Lynch’s marriage of function and form are undeniably unique and singular.
Check Out: Eraserhead
Almost noir-esque in aesthetic, this film is simultaneously beautiful and horrid to watch. Filmgoers were captivated by this new style of familiar and unfamiliar and would clamour for meaning in his montage ever since.
Un Chien Andalou 
Hailed as the first, true experimental film, this was the collaborative brain child of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. This film encapsulates all that we, today have come to understand and even expect of the avant-garde. It incorporates a non-linear or even logical narrative structure and a seemingly random juxtaposition of images and montage. This film is arguably not only one of the single most important avant-garde film, but quite possibly one of the most important films of all time.
La Jetée 
Little known yet undeniably haunting and infinitely influential, this may be the single most striking example of avant-garde filmmaking. Narratively, this is a very linear film however it’s presentation is anything but conventional. Presented as almost a filmic ‘missing link’ of sorts, connecting contemporary film with that of the silent area, it is told via voice-ver narration and still photographs. The net result is something between Tarkovsky-esque Sci-Fi and holocaust photography. Jarring, gripping, moving: perfect.
Meshes of the Afternoon 
Intended to follow in the tradition laid out by Dalí and Buñuel in Un Chien Andalou, director Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid set out to use surrealism to create a work that would address profound psychological problems. In this manner, the film is linear however, with matters of the human psyche, there can be no absolutes. Meshes illustrates the manner in which emotions, thoughts and feelings are perceived and processed, rendered as a film.
So what are your thoughts? Should we do another installment of this article and cover more films and filmmakers? Who would you like to see appearing on that list? What are some of your favourites? Leave your comments below!