One day – the exact day, we can’t say for sure, though it was some day in the middle of the 1910s – but one day, in New York, the modernist painter Charles Sheeler mentioned to his friend, photographer Paul Strand, “You know I’ve just bought a motion picture camera. It’s a beauty. It’s a Debrie camera, a French camera. It cost $1600.” Strand was intrigued and after seeing this French beauty, the two friends made a scheme to make a non-narrative film about New York City.
They shot the film over several months in 1920, and it premiered at the Rialto Theatre in 1921. It displayed the two artists’ particular interest in urban landscapes, and as Jan-Christopher Horak has previously noted, the tone blends Romanticism and a fascination with industrialism in a uniquely American way. Manhatta, as the 11-minute short would come to be called, is the first known experimental film made in the United States. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, a vibrant alternative cinema culture would develop in this country, revolving around the cinephilia of amateur cinema, the counter-culture ideology of leftist cinema, and the modernist impulses of abstraction and visual music. Of these, the importance of amateurism most significantly distinguishes the U.S. avant-garde from its European counterparts.
Yet, until relatively recently, we knew very little about this early film culture, and we still find it under-taught and under-researched. If we are to believe old, standard histories of experimental and avant-garde film, the Europeans dominated the pre-World War II era, with a viable experimental film culture not emerging in the States until the likes of Maya Deren and Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 hit the scene. There are a number of reasons for this gap in history (the paucity of distribution and exhibition networks before the 1940s standing out as key), but our overall definitions of “avant-garde” and what such a term means contributes greatly to what we include in the history of experimental cinema more generally.
How do we know what an experimental film culture looks like? What counts as avant-garde? Should we define such film practices negatively, in that cliché way that so often traps avant-garde movements, as anti-mainstream filmmaking? In the United States, the term “avant-garde” did not even become common usage to describe alternative or non-narrative filmmaking until the 1940s. Previous to that, independent filmmakers engaged in “experimental cinema,” as they called it; sometimes these experiments explicitly defied Hollywood, but other times they simply explored the possibilities of the medium with no antagonistic intentions. This had caused critics to largely overlook the pre-World War II period and start histories of American avant-garde cinema in about 1943.
A further problem is that one of the key components of experimental cinema in the U.S., amateur filmmaking, finds itself easily dismissed (or simply forgotten), despite the importance amateurism has had throughout the history of U.S. avant-garde filmmaking. The now-canonical home movies of those such as Stan Brakhage or Jonas Mekas have ancestors in 1920s amateur film culture, a culture which had a strong experimental component. In fact, Maya Deren was involved with the amateur film movement in the 1940s, including publishing articles on the subject (some of which can be found in the edited collection Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film).