Hanging Out with the Weird Kid: Avant-Garde Films and Their Power

Sometimes, artists are ignorant. Particularly the kind of artists that do art for a living – we have to work fast, and a lot of things get literally left behind on the cutting room floor. We have to orient ourselves in this film world, and the easiest route is to orient yourself by the most successful people in the industry. I have to admit that I’m one of those extremely ignorant artists. And if it weren’t for a class in Berkeley, I would have missed out on a huge part of filmmaking: experimental film, and the love for the weird. If film were a person, then everyone would want to hang out with the cool, suave Blockbuster kid, not the weird, fucked up Avant-Garde kid.

I probably would have never taken Avant-Garde seriously, if I wouldn’t know from personal experience that potential can hide behind the most bizarre facades. Let me wind back a bit…:

The Weird Kid Archetype in Our Childhood

We all know the times from the Playground, Kindergarten, up to even College. There’s always one or more weird kid in your direct surrounding. They don’t do the things others do, they have behavioral issues, they have a hard time making friends. They are geeks and freaks and loners and serious outsiders. The get beaten, bullied, ridiculed, and nobody takes them seriously. Maybe you were that weird kid, maybe you still are.

This was me, age 13. Definitively one of the weird kids.
This was me, age 13. Definitively one of the weird kids.

I, to some extent, definitively was one of the weird kids, although maybe not that deep down the rabbit hole on the weirdness scale. It took me until age 16 to warm up to interacting with girls, I was the class clown for most of my early teenage years, and I was one of the few hard nerds all the way through highschool, spending most of my free time on the computer. Eventually, I overcame that struggle through consciously working on my social skills, losing some of the fears with girls, taking on leadership positions and growing through decision making and taking responsibility for my peers. Fast-forward a few years and I was still as weird and nuts as before, but I was able to integrate myself. And now my bizarre ideas were taken seriously.

Some of the weird kids are the nicest, most selfless people out there, but there’s no one they can show those qualities to because everyone’s making an effort to never interact with them. We try to only hang out with the popular kids – until we grow up enough to look past our own social tunnel vision.

The Tunnel Vision of Entertainment: Story

It is Fall 2013 in Berkeley, California. The weather is unpredictable as always – rain and sunshine play rock-paper-scissors with each other.

I am grudgingly signed up in a class called “Avant Garde”; it’s a required course and there is no escape for anyone that dares to be a Film Studies major in Berkeley. “This is not a Film Production Program”, is the faculty refrain. “We want to create great film scholars here!”, is what comes out of the imaginary speakers on the side of the lecture halls. As a result, nobody knows of the Berkeley film program in  filmmaking circles. Even at DTC Grip, an Emeryville Grip&Electric rentals company five minutes by car from the campus, I get raised eyebrows: “Berkeley has a film program? Since when?”
Since around 20 years. It’s insane that nobody knows our community. This institutional ignorance results in disgruntled students who want to be filmmakers yet feel misunderstood. Including myself; I tried to bring some more film production to the program by starting a Cinematography DeCal class and felt quite some resistance from the department. I didn’t really get what their deal was with this obsession with theory. One professor in particular, Jeffrey Skoller, told me once when I visited his office:

“A film doesn’t have to have a story.”

I thought he was from another planet, but saved the eye rolling for later.

If you’re a filmmaker or someone in the Entertainment industry, you can relate: you want your stuff to be popular, you want to be part of the cool kids. Our films are – among other things – products for an audience. The bigger the audience, the better the box office or ticket sales. The better the story, the better a film it is. Story is always king – no matter if it’s a fictional story depicted in a narrative film or a real story interpreted in a documentary. Films are made to entertain people through stories…. or are they?

A Headache in Berkeley

Now, that very professor who tried to confuse me with “films don’t have to have a story” is standing in front of the packed Avant-Garde film class. Every single seat is taken and there’s people lounging on the stairs of the auditorium. Not because they really want to take this class, but because of force majeure: Our curriculum. This is literally a class that is packed with people only because some film professors wanted it that way. I look around; friends of mine everywhere, having a contest of who can roll their eyes the fastest. Fine filmmakers, good future producers and crew members, all sitting in a class room that just smells like a waste of time to us.

Skoller gives us an introduction to what the “Avant-Garde” is; a military-derived term for a bunch of rogue artists that saw an obligation to experiment and rebel against the mainstream, push the boundaries and explore uncharted territory – “the kind of territory nobody else is interested in”, I add in my head. Then, he chalks something on the blackboard: “Peter Kubelka”. An Austrian guy. Austria doesn’t really have a film industry that is relevant internationally (with individual exceptions like Michael Haneke, Harald Sicheritz and Christoph Waltz), so it seems too fitting that my home country produced experimental filmmakers that don’t care about a market for their work. The following film gets barely any introduction “so we can have our own impression of it”. Kubelka made the film with thousands of individually created frames. Skoller is excited to show this work of art and the film roll whirrs behind our heads, in an original 16mm film print.

White Screen. Black Screen. Static noise in the speakers. Silence. Noise. White. Black. White. Black. Noise, Silence, Noise. The speed picks up, the screen starts flickering in a completely random frequency pattern – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, never more than a few flickers in the same rhythm. Same with the audio – noise and silence swap presence in the room with an irregularity that is highly annoying. After twenty seconds, I have enough. I just want to get out. This is bullshit.

Six and a half minutes later, the ordeal is over and the class is dismissed. Skoller smirks when he says “See you next time!”, seemingly content with the torture he just had us go through.
“What the fuck was that!” is the chorus of my friends as we pour out of Dwinelle Hall. “This will be the longest semester ever!”, says one. I have a headache, and no appetite despite it being in the middle of a nice day in Northern California. A Cynic would say at this point, “This class is a perfect representation of what the Berkeley film program is: Showing you some weird ‘artistic’ scholar stuff instead of helping you get a career in film.”

In retrospective, there is no way I would have been able to comprehend my ignorance at this point – but that first day in Avant-Garde marked the beginning of a long intellectual, emotional and artistic journey. And as it will turn out, my journey with Avant-Garde is just like the case of the “Best Party” in Rekjavik: In a time of economincal and political despair, a group of comedians and punk rockers founded the joke of a political party, going into election for the major of Iceland’s capital against parties and politicians who had been doing it for decades. First they ignored them, then they laughed at them, then they fought them, and in the end, the little group of rogue amateurs won the elections for one of the most powerful positions in all of Iceland. Not only did they win, but they made some of the most popular laws, regulations and restructuring that Rekjavik had ever seen. They were the weird kids.

Waking Up From the Brainfuck

The next morning, I wake up with a weird feeling. Something about this Epilepsy-inducing version of what an analog film could be sticks in my brain like a tumor. I have been brainfucked, really hard. Meeting my Berkeley film buddies, this dawning feeling is reinforced: Everyone feels brainfucked from the class. Someone comes up with the term “Skollerex”, a mix between Jeffrey Skoller’s last name and Skrillex, the famous-infamous electronic music god of ultra-fast beats. If none of us had Epilepsy by genetic heritage, we now had it by institutional forcefeeding.

The next class is the same. Again, we learn about some rebels and auteur filmmakers; so auteur that they never considered filmmaking as a profession but as an amateur hobby. The definition of an amateur is

“someone who practices a field without professionalism”.

They usually work alone. They take years and years for a piece, building some insane apparatus in their mom’s basement, film without a plan or without a story.

These Avant-Garde people seem to all be like that, none of them seems to be interested in the things we are interested in: Having a career in film, telling a story, working in teams, doing something for an audience. I feel a disconnect. Why do they make films if nobody watches them? How can they work on a film for years when the final product is some flickering stuff with no obvious content? My questions would soon be answered – namely in the PFA.

Screening Experiments and Narcolepsy

The Pacific Film Archive is one of the shining stars on the Berkeley film firmament; it’s a screening institution committed to exposing students and the Bay Area film community to films that are hard to get to, educational, exceptional and usually auteur works. They usually have one or two screening series every semester that correspond to the Film Studies curriculum, and the PFA has a tendency to be very good at flying in filmmakers to talk about their own works after the screenings are over.

Don’t think celebrities or mainstream Hollywood filmmakers – think art film makers, people who are celebrated and adored by communities of academics, documentarians and scholars. In the Avant-Garde class, we have one screening a week at the PFA, and usually the artist is present (No pun intended, we didn’t get Marina Abramovic there).

The first screening, I fall asleep after five minutes. The second week is no better. The third one, I learn my lesson and drink a gallon of coffee beforehand (slight exaggeration, fine). I last twenty minutes before the film puts me to sleep. I would wake up throughout the screening, in different spans of time. Same in class – I would always pass out. I grew up with BOOM BOOM BANG films by Michael Bay , with gripping narratives by Spielberg, hilarious German comedies – stuff that already sucked up your attention and installed an adrenaline pump in your brain from minute one. Now, I am faced with all of these super boring, super abstract, super humble films that didn’t scream in your face but just … exist in front of you, for you to interpret and meditate on. My meditation always ended in sleep. Regardless how hard I tried – I would always sleep. Then, I discover a method that works: Drink a lot and don’t go on the bathroom before the screening. Now you can watch the film with a high level of discomfort, but at least your bladder wins over your narcolepsy.

Meeting the Artists

I have all sorts of ideas who these Avant-Garde people could be that make this weird stuff: People who used a ton of LSD, people who don’t need to work for a living, people who sell pieces of blue canvas for a 43 million bucks. People who say “What is truth” and don’t answer any questions in a Q&A, people who are conceited on their self-declared identity as artists and intellectuals.

Against my cynical expectations, the experimental filmmakers we get to meet are very pleasant, usually humble and down-to-earth people; practitioners, amateurs, scholars with a rebellious edge and a need for creation. They are often teachers, work odd jobs, or try to make a bare living with their film work or licensing. They usually have a good attitude about their stuff, and oftentimes there is no high-brow explanation:
“Why did you use blue throughout the film?”, is a question. “I felt like it fit the tone, and blue had some symbolic meaning to me from my childhood.” – that’s an answer I would give. No bullshit that goes deeper than “I had a hunch”.
“How come you made this film?”, some older guy from the audience asks (there’s some Berkeley retirees who are regulars at these screenings). “I went to check out this abandoned mental health asylum and found this book. It was really fascinating, so I tried to come up with an idea on how I could make it into a movie. The way I made it seemed the most practical.”, says the filmmaker – and I can absolutely relate to that rationality.

Out of all people that were there, there was only two negative experiences: One was a woman who had made a found-footage film. She believed that if she found a film in the trash, she was the author of the material; although many found footage artists have that attitude, their lack of a complex opinion on the topic appalled me. The other was a guy from an Ivy League university who ran his own film lab there and had made a critically acclaimed abstract documentary. When asked about his position on “Positionality” (i.e. the filmmaker’s stance on the topic and how that opinion influences or interacts with the material captured and edited), he just replied: “What… is…. Truth?” and looked into the audience. He would not give a single straightforward answer and seemed incredibly conceited; that’s just plain rude and I have a pet peeve for people who act out their conceit.

Getting Over Narcolepsy and Finding Gold

After a while I realize that it doesn’t matter if I stay awake for the entire film – as long as I enter the screenings and lectures with curiosity and leave with a brainfuck or total confusion, it was a successful session, no matter how long I was awake during it. A few days after watching “Arnulf Rainer” by Peter Kubelka – the first film we ever got shown by Prof. Skoller – I have a massive gut feeling that this film just changed my perspective on film itself. It is so simple – only light and the absence of light, and noise/the absence of sound – yet it took a great toll on my body and mind, and made for eight unbearable minutes. The film had a deep effect on my mind, and somehow my visual and auditive processing couldn’t handle it. That was amazing – it didn’t need massive explosions or stomach wrenching scenes of slaughter to evoke a strong physical reaction in an audience.

The second film we watched was a remix of “To kill a Mockingbird” by Martin Arnold, entitled “Passage a l’acte” in the finest Skollerex taste – stroboscopic and brain-shredding – made me completely dizzy yet revealed an amazing depth of analysis in the following class discussion: The high repetition of the same group of frames over and over again led to my fellow students getting deeper insights in the characters’ feelings, relationships between the people in the room, and – I had never seen anything like it before. This was probably the single most amazing conclusion out of all the Avant-Garde stuff I watched: I had seen nothing like these films before (I had never ever ever ever found the insanity to expose myself to this level of weirdness), their methods and feelings and styles were absolutely new grounds for me despite having watched around 700-1000 feature films in my life.

It’s basically like being a biologist and having traveled the world for a decade or two – and suddenly discovering a continent with all these horribly disfigured yet absolutely unique animals that had evolved in a totally separate universe than the animals you used to know. It’s the best thing I got from that semester – fresh ideas, crazy ideas – and the necessary push to go crazy myself.

Notable Films, Artists and Movements from the Class

One thing that I don’t like about Avant-Garde and higher education is that to a big extent it is an elitist area of society. Only if you’re smart or intellectual or privileged or rich or well-connected enough, then you get exposed and have access to it. I don’t believe in elitism – freely accessible knowledge is what allowed society to develop Mathematics and Physics, and it will be freely accessible knowledge that will prepare societies for scenarios like the repercussions of the end of manual human labor as we know it.

In film, it should be the same. You shouldn’t have to get into Berkeley to be exposed to the wonderful world of the weird; you shouldn’t have to take a sociology class to feel compassion for the weird kid in your class and go up to them one day to have a genuinely interested conversation. It took one semester and a lot of passion from DJ Skollerex and intellectually fascinating class discussions to open myself and some of my fellow Berkeley film students up to the idea of appreciating Avant-Garde. Although this article is nothing compared in force and longevity, I hope that I can pass on a fraction of that enlightening experience by showing you a small part of what is out there.

First, there’s the Austrian pack of course. Peter Kubelka with his Arnulf Rainer. And, I love this one so much – Peter Tscherkassy with “Outer Space”, who brings physical film stock to the boundaries of its material limits:

Then, there’s the American Stan Brackhage who pioneered the family movie in a way no one else did; making his family a sort of ethereally interesting group of people and turning the mundane into the thought-evoking. By far the most traumatizing and amazing of his works was – for me – “Window Water Baby Moving”, a film showing his first child’s birth and his young wife going through two stages of that process. I am embedding the video below – watch it completely silent as it was meant to be screened, and I hope you don’t faint like one girl did in the middle of the screening; people were ready to puke, and it gave me the most amazing thoughts the day after: How come we appreciate female genitalia when it comes to sex but are appalled when it comes to the birth process? How come we have this completely inverted perspective on the two ends of the life creation process? How is birth vulnerability and strength at the same time, and why don’t we like to see it in our culture? He also has more abstract pieces like “Dog Star Man“.

There’s Maya Deren with her series of “Trance Films”; films that pioneered the depiction of dreams and psychological thriller scenarios; surrealism and subjective reality, montage and story structure, like in “Meshes of the Afternoon”.

One piece that stood out because of its modern popular culture use was The Grand Theft Auto Series (example: “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”) by Phil Solomon. It’s basically a series of films made inside of Grand Theft Auto by a guy who is born in 1954 and you’d innocently assume he doesn’t even know of the game’s existence – instead, at the screening, he told stories how he had to barricade a boulevard with stolen firetrucks and other vehicles to fend off pedestrians and police in order to record a shot of an empty movie theater entrance, or use in-game cheats to fly with a car over a locked city in order to record an upside down shot of a bridge. Absurd.

Oscar Fischinger and other experimental animators from the olden days; I already knew their work from way back when in Anton Kaes’ class about the Birth of Cinema. And I also realized back then how this weird experimental stuff has completely entered popular culture and we don’t even realize what is going on when we dance off to some VJ visuals on an EDM festival.

Kenneth Anger and his crown jewels of absolute strangeness in “The Invocation of my Demon Brother“.

Jim Trainor and his experimental animation “The Bats”, which really pushes the boundaries of good taste and fearless humor.

John Smith and his mysterious “Black Tower“, which we couldn’t figure out how it was made back in that day with little means.


One Last Shameless Plug

I learned a ton by taking the Avant-Garde class, and I’m happy my faculty forced me to do so; otherwise, I would have never-ever-ever-ever watched any of this utterly insane stuff. At the end of the class, I felt that the only deserving final project was to make an Avant-Garde piece for myself, questioning the materiality of the digital medium through datamoshing (which Kanye West already did in 2009), super-compressing footage and doing video feedback loops. Heavily inspired by Tscherkassy. Here it is – entitled “REC”:

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