Experimental Narrative the Lyrical Film Essay

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In the first post-World War decade, Maya Deren stood out among her experimental filmmaking contemporaries by collaborating with her husband Alexander Hammid on one of the most famous of all American avant-garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) in which a woman portrayed by Deren herself experiences a series of "mysterious encounters with a hooded figure whose face is in a mirror. She passes through chambers, splits into several personalities and eventually dies" (490). In this instance, the abstract imagery used in this film is focused upon the mirror which reflects the personalities of Deren, much like the common theme of Jekyll and Hyde, a type of doppleganger construction. This film also projects a dream structure, meaning that the images of part of the dream state and lie beyond reality. Deren also experimented with psychodramas which contain strong cues for the audience that "the images are projections of the heroine's anxieties," one example being Deren's at Land (1944) which portrays "a woman emerging from the sea and crawling across a variety of landscapes" (490).

Another highly influential filmmaking style or genre related to experimental narrative film is known as poetic or lyrical film in which the director "seeks to capture a personal perception or emotion," something closely akin to lyrical poetry which utilizes words to create images in the reader's mind. Overall, this genre which came into existence in the early 1960's attempted to "convey a sensation or a mood directly with little or no recourse to narrative structure" (498), an indication that this type of genre film was more dreamlike than its predecessors and were created solely as a means of expressing the inner emotions of the director at the time of filming.

Certainly, the most important and influential filmmaker linked to lyrical film is Stan Brakhage, often credited with inventing the lyrical film genre. Much like experimental narrative films, lyrical films also incorporated abstract imagery and structure, such as "hard-edged compositions which emphasize the design" of various shots and inserting bizarre lighting techniques and out-of-focus or deep focus shots used to "soften outlines and make the image" on the screen as abstract as possible without relying on too much technology (498). As compared to the experimental narrative films of Maya Deren and the so-called psychodramas, Brakhage, realizing that film could "dwell on the imaginative resonance of the instant," took on new non-narrative directions and accepted the idea that abstraction in film "carries symbolic overtones, enhances expressive qualities (and) conveys... direct perception" which Brakhage believed was the overall mission of art (498).

In the middle years of the 1950's, Brakhage created a number of fantastic lyrical films, including the Wonder Ring (1955), Flesh of Morning, Nightcats and Loving, all completed in 1956. In most of these films, Brakhage "records the act of seeing" from the perspective of the audience and the "flow of imagination," such as utilizing a jerky pan shot as a metaphor for a person glancing away, flash frame or a simple glimpse of what one sees on the screen, and a collection of cuts which resembles a traditional montage of insert cuts (499). In these films, light is also everywhere as it "radiates, reflects, refracts, dapples and dazzles," a good example being the Wonder Ring which portrays the city of New York as "a stream of layers, warped and fractured by the glass of a train window" as it clicks along the tracks from the perspective of a person sitting inside the train car and looking outwards. Brakhage, much like Maya Deren, also utilized psychodramas to express his ideas and personal emotional framework. The most famous is Anticipation of the Night (1958), a "sketchy psychodrama about a man hanging himself" which turns out not to be a real human body but only a shadow which helps Brakhage to explore the "surface, hue and movement in the visible world" (499). Thus, both of these genres of experimental filmmaking opened the proverbial door to other cinematic avenues which led by the late years of the 1960's to the complete renovation of documentary filmmaking into a style which most people are familiar with in today's modern world.


Danks, Adrian. (2006). "The Silent Village." Senses of Cinema. Internet. Retrieved November 9, 2008 at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/06/41/silent-village.html.

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