Cinema and avant-garde (Master in Film and Screen Studies)

Objectives Methodology Study modes Contents Evaluation Bibliography Back to the Master
Program details
Subject: Cinema and Avant-Garde
Course: First
Semester: 1
Modality: Optional
Professor: Andrés Duque


To offer the student notions about the cinema that is developed outside the industry and conventional narratives, taking into account historical, technological and aesthetic considerations.

To initiate students in experimentation through different exercises of recognition of artistic identity and the realisation of an audiovisual exercise where they decide on a logic or sense of order in accordance with what they wish to propose.


This subject proposes an “unofficial” history of experimental cinema, outside the industry and articulated with other arts that support its validity. The term avant-garde is useful for this subject because it is unchanging (there is no such thing as post-avant-garde) and also because it refers to any experimental or innovative work at any given time and in any given circumstance in terms of art, culture and politics. Within this framework I can relate many interesting aspects of film and the arts.

But how to assemble so many avant-garde works and authors from the origins of cinema to the present? The answer can be simple if we assume it as a defeat, but also as a starting point that allows us to draw a timeline where we can trace a different way of understanding cinema or of transmitting love for cinema. Something comparable to Histoire(s) du Cinèma by Jean-Luc Godard, the texts of Alexander Kluge and his Histories of Cinema or The Story of Film: An Odyssey by Mark Cousins.

Experimental” is a questionable criterion in this subject. As Jacques Brunius used to say: “Anything that departs from the routine in a film can be considered experimental”. This subject does not attempt to define or categorise experimental cinema as a genre or group or movement (although it is true that we use it casually to refer to a type of cinema). What is important is to underline that experimental is a decision or a strategy to exercise freedom. Experimentation will be the filmic gesture that we will find in all the works we will study.

Study modes

Aesthetic, artistic movements such as surrealism, Dadaism, situationism, fluxus, etc.

Political, the anticipation and accompaniment of political struggles throughout the 20th century and the present.

Theoretical, currents of thought such as structuralism, feminism, queer theory.

Cultural, generational movements such as beatnik, hippie, punk, DIY, etc.

Technological, the history of cinema is the history of its technology and in this sense the advances in this field have transformed the way we produce and consume images from analogue to digital. Understanding technology as a function of the artist and not the opposite.


  • Realism Vs illusionism.
    • (Re)definitions of cinema throughout the 20th century. What is reality and how has it been represented? What is the illusory? The Deleuzian power of “the false” as part of its nature. The first pulsations and experiments: pre-cinematographic toys, scientific experiments, the study of movement (Edward Muybridge), experiments with light, and the body. The mise-en-scène and the mise-en-scène in situation. The Lumière Brothers and George Méliès as a paradigm of the dual nature of cinema.
  • Chronology of avant-garde cinema.
    • The pioneers of cinema did not know they were filmmakers but they knew they were experimenting. With this statement I allow myself to include those early transgressors of images, the dreamers and camera hurgers such as Etienne Jules Marey, James Williamson, G.W. Blitzer, George Albert Smith, Jean Painlevé and amateur filmmakers to arrive at the avant-garde in the decade of the 20th century. Blitzer, George Albert Smith, Jean Painlevé and amateur filmmakers to arrive at the avant-garde in the 1920s, when film became a medium for art (Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, etc.). Its most direct consequence can be seen in the “Impressionist School” with essential authors such as Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier, Dimitry Kirssanoff and many others. We will also study peripheral and/or isolated cases such as the influence of the Bauhaus on cinema, and avant-garde films in atypical contexts for this avant-garde cinema such as Limite by Mario Peixoto (Brazil, 1930) and A Page of Madness by Teinosuke Kinugasa (Japan, 1926). We will discuss the “Poetic Realism” of American amateur filmmakers and, of course, Soviet cinema, which was traversed by ideological instrumentalisation and theoretical innovation.
  • This Is (Not) Entertainment.
    • Although the term “avant-garde cinema” has a fixed duration (1920-1930), it had a strong impact on the following generations of filmmakers who took a stand against an increasing standardisation of cinema. Although many of them did not work within any collective movement, some theorists tend to link authors such as Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington with the label of “Psycho-drama Cinema”. We will also discuss the Objectivist school, with authors such as Hans Richter and Vikking Eggeling, and its later reformulation as a non-Objectivist school, with filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger, the Whitney Brothers and Douglas Crockwell. It is also the right context in which to study the contributions to the avant-garde of the Grierson School (UK) because they will be reformulated by Grierson himself two decades later when he becomes director of the National Film Board of Canada. Finally, we will study how Hollywood and avant-garde cinema have always maintained a symbiotic relationship, or at least a relationship of recognition. In the 1940s there are some atypical examples of experimentation in cinema such as Gjon Milli’s film Jamming The Blues (1944).
  • The author is an amateur.
    • Film directors such as Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner, Robert Breer, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Paul Sharits, Marie Menken, Tony Conrad, Gregory Markopoulos, Robert Breer, Harry Smith, among many others, revitalised experimental cinema in the 1960s. Each in his own defined area: Mekas, with his filmed diaries; Brakhage, experimenting with the film medium; Conner, with the footage of old films, newsreels, pornographic films and any kind of film document; Breer and Smith, with different kinds of animations. The amateur spirit remains, but not the way it is incorporated into cinema. Underground cinema as such did not formally exist in Europe in the 1960s, but similar examples of subversion can be found in Viennese shareholders (Gunter Brus, Albino Birolle, Otto Ruehl and Kurt Kren). Other representative cases of experimentation in cinema: the French Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who developed almost all of their work in Germany; Jean Cocteau and his Orpheus trilogy; the Belgian Chantal Akerman and the British filmmakers Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, and the work of the British filmmaker Sally Potter. In Japan, the great filmmaker Shuji Terayama would create the most radical film work of all time, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
  • Materials.
    • In the mid-1960s, a current of analytical and self-reflexive cinema appeared in the field of American experimental cinema, no longer focused on the visible but on its own formal structure, making the cinema machine the subject and object of experimentation. Structural cinema, so named by P. Adams Sitney, analyses ideas or concepts concerning particular aspects or problems of cinematic experience, creating structures that demonstrate them. The films show special attention to materiality, to the structural mechanical components of cinema, to the support and to the modalities of perception. Some of the filmmakers we will study: Gill Eatherley, Peter Kubelka, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, George Landow, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, Joyce Wieland, William Raban, Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal and Tony Conrad. Structural cinema caused the same stir in underground cinema that it had caused in narrative cinema. So different was the path he took that it cost him the loss of the underground name. We will also talk about the book “Expanded Cinema” by Gene Youngblood, a text that evokes this “spirit of change” and invites us to “embrace new ideals, demand rights and proclaim a more just society”. What the author calls “expanded cinema” refers more to this expansion of technology (including film) and, consequently, to the way in which it can influence the perception and consciousness of the spectator. Cinema thus becomes the medium that allows us to see (and at the same time produce) this expansion of consciousness.
  • Body, celluloid and videotape.
    • Experimental filmmakers in the 1970s began to question the necessity of film technology for filmmaking and started to make works without film that were nevertheless still part of the avant-garde film tradition. Paracinematic” works are identified by their creators as films that lack one or more elements of the material-mechanical medium. Such works began to appear in the 1960s in the wake of conceptual art’s rejection of standard artistic media such as painting and its embrace of ephemeral and transitory materials. Tony Conrad’s yellow films (1972-1975), rectangular pieces of paper coated with house paint and left to yellow for many years, are another example of these filmmakers’ investigation of the fundamental properties and effects of cinema outside physical boundaries. We will also discuss video art as an artistic movement, in full swing in the 1970s. It experimented with the various trends of the time, such as Fluxus, conceptual art, performance art and minimalism.
  • Utopian images
    • What makes an image political? What makes militant cinema militant? The cinema around May ’68 is political not only because it documents, is a loudspeaker or denounces situations of oppression or struggle, but also because the conception, production and circulation of the films propose autonomy, the overcoming of social borders, the emergence of new subjectivities, the negation of all forms of representation (political, trade union, intellectual). There will also be space for the so-called “Third Cinema”, which was a Latin American movement that emerged in the 1950s, consolidated in the following two decades and counterposed itself to the hegemonic Hollywood model. This movement reinterpreted the modes of film production and exhibition in order to create a political cinema that took into account the social issues of the time and radically broke with the passivity of the spectator. In Latin America, social actors were faced with a scenario in which they had two options. The first was to join capitalism or imperialism, and the second was to join the socialist revolution.
  • Spanish cinema on the periphery.
    • Avant-garde movements directly inspired by the creative effervescence of the prodigious decade of the 1920s-1930s have appeared in every country. Spain was no exception. The most notable case is Luis Buñuel’s Un perro andaluz, financed in Spain but shot in France. Other interesting titles of the period: Manuel Noriega’s Madrid in the Year 2000 (1925); El sexto sentido (1926) and Nemesio M. Sobreviva’s Al Hollywood Madrileño (1928). Jose Val del Omar and his Tríptico Elemental (1953-61) elaborates, from the fifties onwards, a lyrical discourse revealed by an exceptional formal sensitivity. The Granada-born filmmaker’s knowledge of film technique provokes a marvellous sonic and visual development accompanied by multiple mystical and religious references. The second stage of experimental cinema in Spain took place towards the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. The political situation of the country and the cultural repression of the dictatorship unleashed a film production linked to militant cinema, both ideologically and formally. In the Barcelona School, Pere Portabella was one of its most incisive filmmakers. Together with the musician Carles Santos and the poet Joan Brossa, he made a “making-of” avant la lettre entitled Cuadecuc-Vampyr (1970). Filmmakers against the tide of their own free will: Antoni Padrós, Antonio Maenza, Adolfo Arrieta. They filmed in 16mm and clandestinely. They showed their films at film festivals and film clubs. Super 8 film festivals were born, connecting filmmakers to join forces and develop joint initiatives around film theory and practice. Authors of note from this period: Iván Zulueta, Eugenia Balcells, Eugeni Bonet, Antoni Muntadas, Francesc Torres, Francec Abad. At the beginning of the 2000s there was a resurgence of experimental practices with an eclectic group of filmmakers influenced by the work of filmmakers such as José Val del Omar or Zulueta, leaving aside the most prominent names in national video art. This generation of filmmakers coincides in time with a certain recovery of this “other Spanish cinema”. A cinema to be vindicated, not only for its aesthetic and ideological quests but also for its value as a cultural heritage.
  • Free Radicals: Cine Punk, DIY, CGI, Cyberactivism.
    • Avant-garde cinema lost its strength in the 1980s, due to technological, industrial and organisational transformations. The independent filmmaker went from being an agitator of political consciousness, autonomy and radical opposition to being a “freelancer” for the media industry. Globalisation has transformed modes of production, distribution and consumption. Digital media, however, offer an ideal platform for independent production, distribution and experimentation. We live under an apparent democratisation of the media; under constant control and evaluation by macro-corporations. Nothing escapes capitalist logic. The explosion of algorithms implied new characteristics of the digital image, such as dependence on the observer, interactivity and virtuality, programmable behaviours, the loss of the indexical and new proposals for representation; yes, from a completely virtual world, which places us in the present and raises many unknowns that will be studied in class. (Re) Definitions of cinema, this time from the digital environment: cinema as mixed narratives. Towards a cinema without screens?


This subject gives importance to attendance, as the student must be able to understand all the moments in the history of experimentation that will allow him/her to arrive at the end of classes with sufficient knowledge to be able to position him/herself in relation to everything that has been assimilated and to give something back in return. The artistic identity exercises will be carried out in the classes. Class attendance will count for 50% of the mark and the other 50%, the final work.


Andrew, Dudley. Las principales teorías cinematográficas, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili,1978.

Bordwell, David. El arte cinematográfico, Barcelona, Paidós, 1995.

Bordwell, David. Pandora’s Box (Film, Files and The Future of Movies), Madison

Wisconsin, The Irvington Way Institute Press, 2012.

Brenez, Nicole. Cinémas d’Avant-garde, Le petits Cahiers de Cahiers du Cinéma, Scérén-CNDP.

Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film, from Montaigne, after Marker, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles. La imagen-movimiento, Barcelona, Ediciones Paidós, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles. La imagen-tiempo, Barcelona, Ediciones Paidós, 1987.

Dorsky, Nathaniel. El cine de la devoción, Ed. Asociación Lumière, 2012.

Gidal, Peter (Ed.). Structural Film Anthology, London, British Film Institute, 1978.

Horak, Jan-Christopher. Lovers of Cinema. The First American film Avantgarde,

1919-1945, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

James, David E. Allegories of Cinema. American Film in the Sixties, Princeton,

Princeton University Press, 1989.

Krakauer, Siegfried. Direct Theory. Experimental film/video as major genre. 1965

Le Grice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1977.

Lippit, Akira. Ex-Cinema from a Theory of Experimental Film and Video, 2012.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1995.

Mekas, Jonas. Diarios de Cine (El nacimiento del nuevo cine americano),

Madrid, Fundamentos, 1975.

Ramey, Kathryn. Experimental Filmmaking, Break the Machine, Kathryn Ramey, Focal Press, 2016.

Russell, Catherine. Experimenthal Ethnography. The Work of Film in the Age of

Video. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1999.

Sitney, P. Adams (ed.) Film Culture. An Anthology, Minneapolis, University of

Minnesota Press, 1971.

Sitney, P. Adams. The Avant-garde Film. A Reader of Theory and Criticisim,

New York, Anthology Film Archives, 1987.

Suárez, Juan Antonio. Bike Boys, Drag Queens and Superstars: Avant-garde,

and gay culture, and gay identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema, Indianapolis,

Indiana University Press, 1996.

Sánchez-Biosca, Vicente. Cine y vanguardias artísticas. Conflictos, encuentros,

fronteras, Barcelona, Paidós, 2004.

Small, Edward. Direct theory. Experimental film/video as major genre, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Tyler, Parker. Underground Film. A Critical History, Grove Press, New York, 1969.

Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art, C.T. Editions, 1974.

Películas seleccionadas

Derek Jarman – The Art of Mirrors (1973) James Williamson – The Big Swallow (1901) G.W. “Billy” Bitzer- Westinghouse Works – Panoramic View Street Car Motor Room (1904); G.W. “Billy” Bitzer Interior NY Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (1905) Etienne Jules Marey – Main Ouverte et Fermeture (1893) George Albert Smith – Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) Fernand Léger – Ballet Mecanique (1924) Jean Painlevé – La Pulga de Agua (1929); Man Ray – L’Etoile de Mer (1928)Vikling Eggeling – Sinfonia Diagonal (1924) René Clair – Entr’acte (1924) Oskar Schlemmer – Das Triadische Ballet (1922) Mario Peixoto – Limite (1930) Teinosuke Kinugasa – A Page of Madness (1926) Charles Wheeler & Paul Strand – Manhatta (1921) Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapic – The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928) Dziga Vertov – El Hombre de la Cámara (1929) Germaine Dulac – La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) Jean Epstein – Finisterrae (1929) Len Lye – Rainbow Dance (1936) Oskar Fischinger – Optical Poem (1938) Gjon Milli – Jamming The Blues (1944) Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid – Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) Kenneth Anger – Puce Moment (1949) Ken Jacobs – Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (1957) Jonas Mekas – Lost, Lost, Lost (1970) Stan Vanderveek – Science Friction (1959) Robert Frank – Pull My Daisy (1959) Barbara Rubin – Christmas on Earth (1958) Andy warhol – Chelsea Girls (fragmentos ⅞) (1967), Bruce Conner – Breakaway (1967), Caroleee Scheenemann – Fuses (1969), Forough Farokhzad – The House is Black (1963) Kurt Kren- Mama und Papa (1964) Gunter Brus – Self-Mutilation (1965) Valie Export – Mann & Frau & Tiere (1970) Hollis Frampton – Zorn’s Lemma (1970) Peter Kubelka – Arnulf Rainer (1958-60) Malcolm le Grice – Berlin Horse (1970) Ernie Gehr – Serene Velocity (1970) Michael Snow – La Région Centrale (1970) Carolee Schneemann – Fuses (1967) James Whitney – Lapis (1966) James Broughton – The Gardener of Eden (1981) Bill Viola – I Don’t Know What It Is I Am Like (1986) Nam June Paik – Global Groove (1973) Zbigniew Rybczynski – Steps (1987) Guy Sherwin – Man with Mirror (1976) John Smith – The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) Fischili & Weiss – Der Lauf Der Dinge (1984) Shuji Terayama – Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1971) Guy Debord – In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) William Klein – Grands Soirs et Petits Mains (1968) Santiago Álvarez – Now! (1965) Jose Celso y Celso Luccas – 25 (1975) Luis Ospina – Agarrando Pueblo (1977) Derek Jarman – Jubilee (1978) Jose Val del Omar – Fuego en Castilla (1960) Jose Antonio Sistiaga – Impresiones en la alta atmósfera (1989) Pere Portabella – Cuadecuc Vampir (1970) Antoni Padrós – Dafnis y Cloe (1969) Ivan Zulueta – Amalgama (1975) Lluis Escartín – Mohave Cruising (2000) Hito Steyerl – How not to be seen (2013) Steve McQueen – Deadpan (1997) Harun Farocki – Ausdruck der hände (1997) Jean-Gabriel Périot – Video Diaries (2004) Mark Leckey – Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) Ken Jacobs – Canopy (2014) Duncan Campbell – It for Other (2013) Isiah Medina – 88:88 (2015).