Still from *Corpus Callosum
What is structural film? Alex Brannan explains the term and its place in the experimental film genre.
A wave of films deemed “structural” emerged in the North American avant-garde during the 1960s. This was a brand of minimalist and highly formalist cinema. P. Adams Sitney, who coined the term “structural” to refer to these films, sets the structural filmmaking in apparent opposition to other avant-garde filmmaking that sought out “progressively complex forms.” The structural cinema is one “wherein the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape that is the primal impression of the film.” “Simplified,” importantly, ought not be equated with “simplistic,” as the structures and patterns these films deploy may appear simple, but the audiovisual assemblages they create can be layered and intellectually stimulating. Within Sitney’s definition is a range of possibilities when it comes to aesthetics, content, and the predetermined structure itself. The three films in IU Cinema’s Structural Film at the Turn of the Century program demonstrate this formal and narrative diversity.
Two aspects that become strikingly clear when experiencing the structural work of Michael Snow are the central foci of space and duration. Snow, whose Wavelength (1967) is considered a seminal work in the structural film corpus, plays with generically familiar spaces in *Corpus Callosum (2002). There is a duality drawn between a domestic and a working space, environments which are then digitally manipulated by Snow. The title itself also points to a spatial duality — the corpus callosum being the tracts connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and Snow himself (who we can hear occasionally on the audio track) is a manipulator linking spaces together in an often humorous and/or surreal manner. One could go so far as to say that the film itself is something of a “two-hemisphere” film, wherein the end credits play during the film’s midsection, then conclude only for the narrative of the film to continue.
The spatiotemporal is crucial to how structural films function. In *Corpus Callosum, manipulating time and space results in a cleverly self-aware examination of genre and form. For Lynne Sachs and Martin Arnold, the awareness of space-time functions quite differently. Sachs’s Window Work (2000) is something of a mural of spaces, with each space operating in its own “window” and exercising its own sense of duration. These frame-within-the-frame films are home movies, playing out while Sachs washes the window on which these movies play. At this window, a collision of pastness and presentness occurs, not only with the images themselves and what they depict, but in the medium in which they were made. The home movies are film and the footage of the woman in various states at the window (washing the window, reading a newspaper, etc.) is video. The representations of temporality, brought together in this singular (artificially constructed) space, align the cinematic apparatus itself with questions of memory.
Arnold’s Passage à l’acte (1993) represents memory and temporality much differently by isolating a moment in time and elongating it. By rapidly looping frames from a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan, 1962), 10 seconds of film becomes almost 12 minutes of screentime. It is an assaultive audiovisual exercise that disrupts conventional notions of continuity editing and classical Hollywood narrative, forcing the viewer to confront the nature of cinematic representation as a part of an unsteady archival history. Arnold comes just short of freezing the normative American nuclear family in place; by allowing the scene to move, but only at an arduous and staccato pace like that of a skipping record, the film’s structure becomes itself a representation of the difficulty for this American family ideal to find stable footing. The film is Americana, and Hollywood cinema, in disruption.
Structural film is a movement often discussed in terms of the 1960s, but these 1990s-2000s titles demonstrate a continued desire to produce films in which the structure is the primary point of emphasis. These are films which ask their audiences to exercise different viewing strategies than the average film would. They are films which demand to be decoded: the filmmaker invites the spectator to share in the desire for pattern seeking, audiovisual deconstruction, and self-reflexive critiquing of the cinematic medium itself.
 P. Adam Sitney, “Structural Film,” in Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York City: Praeger Publishers, 1970), p. 326.
 Sitney, “Structural Film,” p. 327.
Alex Brannan is a Ph.D. student in the Media School at IU, and he previously earned an MA from the University of Texas-Austin. His research focuses on discourses of taste and film fandom on social media platforms. Occasionally, he writes about horror movies. He is never not in the mood to watch a John Carpenter film.