Cinematic detritus: bits of unused film from projects years ago, with scratches and dust, out of focus, overexposed. Found footage with faded color. The mic catching wind. A man singing to us as these disparate images flitter past.
In 2006, experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas made forty films for his newly launched website in order to introduce his work to an online audience. Among them was Imperfect Film, a 4-minute film that pieced together older footage that never made it into his previous films, as well as some found footage shots of monkeys climbing on rocks. As the title suggests, the film is imperfect, but also lovely, like a string of memories.
Commercial cinema is perfect. At least, that’s what we tend to expect. Smooth cuts and seamless plots and perfect exposure and no artifacts (like scratches or pixels) that betray the medium that contains the story. It’s supposed to be immersive. We’re supposed to forget that we’re watching a film.
But the avant-garde has long rejected perfection. What if the film shows us that we’re watching a film? What if it feels like life? What if it gives us the impression of memory? Blurry, disjointed, scratched with emotion, and sometimes faded.
Jonas Mekas has long advocated for imperfect cinema, writing in 1959, “Every breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema is a healthy sign. We need less perfect but more free films.” He was not the first person to espouse this sentiment. Rather, his diary films build on a tradition of amateur cinema that has existed in the United States since the 1920s.
In 1926, a man named Hiram Percy Maxim founded the Amateur Cinema League (ACL), a network of local clubs scattered about the United States that brought together amateur filmmaking enthusiasts. While the Amateur Cinema League cannot be considered avant-garde, it laid the groundwork for a culture of film experimentalism in the U.S., and filmmakers like Lewis Jacobs, Ralph Steiner, J.S. Watson and Melville Webber all emerged from local ACL clubs.
The amateur film movement possessed a pervasive spirit of cinephilia, asserting a rhetoric of personal filmmaking that distinguished itself from Hollywood cinema. In a 1935 issue of Movie Makers, the official magazine of the Amateur Cinema League, an unnamed editor wrote, “Because it did not follow Hollywood’s path, [amateur cinema] has made its own discoveries and has added to the value of the film medium.” Most ACL members were certainly fans of commercial cinema, but they also desired alternate spaces where “average” people could create their own films. These included home movies, church films, educational films, and, yes, even experimental films.
One prominent ACL member, Colonel Roy W. Winton, criticized the notion that the only valid movies were big productions coming out of Hollywood. In 1927 he wrote, “We have exalted commercialization – which is not unnatural in a commercial age – and have, illogically, condemned artistic performance that is not professional – that is, not undertaken as a means of livelihood.” He goes on to praise experimental efforts of the amateur filmmaker, arguing that arts move forward when people have room to play without risk of financial failure.
If we removed the name and the year, his words would sound familiar in almost any avant-garde tradition, and they even ring true today. In fact, rejecting the supremacy of commercial cinema in favor of experimentation is one of the most frequent ways that the avant-garde is defined. For example, film scholar A.L. Rees characterizes the avant-garde by writing, “The avant-garde rejects and critiques both the mainstream entertainment cinema and the audience responses which flow from it. It has sought ‘ways of seeing’ outside the conventions of cinema’s dominant tradition in the drama film and its industrial mode of production.”
This is certainly true of Jonas Mekas, who championed avant-garde cinema through his critical writings and through the avant-garde distribution organization, the Film-Makers Cooperative, which continues to this day as an archive and distributor. Mekas’ diary films – Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) or Walden (1969) – exemplify the genre, illustrating that the collected impressions from daily life can be brought together in a poignant whole.
In fact, memories are more impactful for their imperfections. In spending time with Mekas’ Lithuanian family or in his New York neighborhood, we connect with those snowy days and wine-fueled sing-a-longs in our own past. Imperfect films breed intimacy, filling us with a scratched patchwork of nostalgia, faded but not forgotten.
The Film-Makers Cooperative started out as the New American Cinema Group in 1960. At the time, it was a loose collection of avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Vanderbeek and Gregory Markopoulos who were trying to solve problems faced by independent, non-commercial filmmakers. Namely, how do we get the funding to make our films, and then how do we get them seen?
In 1962, this group – under the leadership of Jonas Mekas – decided to start their own distributor, which became the Film-Makers Cooperative. They marked their founding with a document called The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group, penned in September of 1962 and still viewable on the Film-Makers Cooperative website.
The statement railed against commercial cinema, which the group characterized as “superficial” and “temperamentally boring.” The filmmakers band together to advocate for microbudget cinema, for films that present a different way of seeing. The group closes their First Statement by saying, “We don’t want false, polished, slick films – we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films – we want them the color of blood.”
The rhetoric is decidedly more violent than the tone of much of Mekas’ film work. After all, his films are generally not an assault upon the eyes. They do not attack the viewer like a Godard film, upending cinematic conventions to rewrite film language. Yet, Mekas has written words like this before. In his 1959 review of Robert Frank’s avant-garde film, Pull My Daisy, Mekas asserts, “The hygienic slickness of our contemporary films, be they from Hollywood, Paris, or Sweden, is a contagious sickness that seems to be catching through space and time.” Mekas bemoans the lack of authenticity and substance in commercial cinema, arguing that Pull My Daisy is a refreshing example of both.
So, although Mekas’ films do not take the form of radical assault, as was common with many of his experimental contemporaries, he is still violently opposed to the trappings of commercial cinema. Like a French New Wave film, the scraps Mekas pieces together in Imperfect Film do rewrite film language, and despite the sweetness of its tone, it stands as another example of the avant-garde’s continual rejection of commercial perfection.
Imperfect Film argues implicitly that memories have value even when they are scratched and faded and slightly blurred. It argues that we do not need a slick story or the latest technology or professional actors. We only need our own lives, any camera we can find, and the will to be observant and engaged with the world around us.
The IU Cinema previously screened Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania in 2011 as part of the Underground Film Series. Next month, the Underground will feature the films of Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler, two experimental filmmakers who have explored the beauty and imperfections of cinema since the 1960s.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.