By the early 1920s, film production was flourishing in America, Europe, and Australia, and technological advancements coupled with bigger budgets allowed filmmakers to release increasingly ambitious films. But the people involved in producing, writing, directing, and acting were considered entertainers more than artists and creators, and film itself was not thought of as an art form. Arguments began emerging that film should be considered a new and distinctly modern art, reflective of the industrial and entrepreneurial context from which it arose. While these debates were taking place, independently minded filmmakers working outside of the studio system, as well as enterprising visual artists, were approaching motion picture technology with different visions—and making art.

In Paris in the 1920s, artists like Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Duchamp brought film into the fold of the avant-garde. They focused on form, making freewheeling, semi-abstract films from assembled images and snippets of text. Around the same time in Germany and the Soviet Union, painters and filmmakers were experimenting with techniques like montage, fracturing and collaging scenes and sequences into hallucinatory visions. Soviet director Dziga Vertov took an especially radical approach, declaring, “We proclaim the old films, based on romance, theatrical films and the like, to be…mortally dangerous! Contagious!” In this spirit, he deconstructed the process of filmmaking itself in work that revealed the gamut of camera and editing tricks used to craft convincing filmic worlds and that argued for the superiority of the camera over the human eye.

As the decades progressed, Hollywood increasingly set the standard for how films were made. Some avant-garde artists and filmmakers reacted against Hollywood conventions, using montage and assemblage to develop narratives with a complexly layered and shifting sense of time, location, and action. They also disrupted narratives by intercutting still photographs or scenes shot in a different style or broke the illusion of reality altogether with dialogue, sounds, or images that jar viewers into awareness of film’s artifice. Hollywood has no bearing on the motivations of other artists and filmmakers, whose work takes a great variety of forms, including abstract studies of light and motion meant to play with perception.


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