So tonight over Sushi we almost re-engaged in the never ending argument over experimental film. The moment of conflict arrived when I mentioned that I had checked the experimental film box on withoutabox.com when submitting my short film "Love is Deaf" (I'm not even sure if I actually checked said box, I was merely making the point that I checked every single category that could loosely apply). Either Tiina or John (can't remember which) promptly scolded me as a fake. Their argument went something thus: "There's no way in hell 'Love is Deaf' is an experimental film."
This got me all riled up, not because I wanted them to consider "Love is Deaf" experimental but because I find any attempt to exclude a particular film from the genre inherently incongruous to the idea of experimental film. Perhaps this is just my old postmodernist hang-up: labels are stupid and meaningless; we should do away with them. But if one embraces the idea of the avant-garde, how can one also go around pointing fingers and saying, "That's not it."
My handy dandy wikipedia defines experimental film as "organized neither as narrative fiction nor as non-fiction [. . . ] often but not necessarily made to test an audience's reaction to certain performances or types of presentation not normally found in mainstream cinema." Within this definition, "Love is Deaf" sorta fits. Let's consider how the film came about.
When I wrote "Love is Deaf," I was riffing off an idea. I had no story, no character background, just a particular perspective on language that I wanted to explore. Through every stage of production, I never knew what the script was about. That is to say, it was about deconstruction, the idea that language both binds and separates us, that meaning is not something that can be dictated and controlled (obviously a relevant topic for discussion since Tiina and I can't seem to agree on a meaning for "experimental film"). In other words, the film had no meaning, and that was it's meaning. Making it, I doubted myself often. I worried too much over whether or not an audience could accept a film that purports to have a narrative ("What happens when a heartbroken man washes ashore and meets a heartbroken woman?") but in fact is storyless. There is no beginning/middle/end structure to "Love is Deaf." Guy meets girl, and that's pretty much it. Essentially, I wanted to make an experimental film that looked like a narrative film, but "Love is Deaf" is not narrative. A narrative is an "account of connected events," says my Oxford English, but the point of "Love is Deaf" is that there are no connections, except those that we forge by blind faith. We "construct" connections, because human beings need to make meaning. That is why whenever anyone sees the movie, he or she asks me, "So was she really deaf? How'd she hear him at the end?" They ask the question because the film forces them into a moment where no obvious connection exists, where there's a pay-off without a set-up, a punchline without a joke.
If experimental film requires jump cuts, flashing colors, or unmotivated inserts of random inanimate objects, then I guess I have to agree with They Might Be Giants . That kind of filmmaking is pure masturbatory self-centered expression, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is valuable, however, only in the primitive emotional responses it provokes. Sure, it's art. It's some of the artiest art around, but I think calling it experimental is an insult to the spirit of experimentation. Experimentation is an intellectual pursuit. It begins with an observation, followed by an hypothesis, followed by the experiments themselves. There's usually a goal in site. I think too often we let preschoolers fingerpaint and call it the New Wave.
Anyway, my point is this. I'll agree to be open to all forms of filmmaking as long as experimental filmmakers agree not to turn up their noses, label, or exclude. Maybe then art can be a constructive endeavor instead of a pissing match between different schools of thought.