Whenever the term 'experimental cinema' is used a good deal of confusion ensues, for its meaning is apt to be over-inflated or diminished. Many other names have been in circulation, but none has won the right to endure. We have had 'pure cinema', 'integral cinema', 'abstract films', but nobody has succeeded in proposing a definition for any one of these terms that might have imposed itself and been adopted. To avoid subsequent confusion before plunging deeper into the subject, it may not be unprofitable to try, if not to define them at least to differentiate between them, and trace approximately how far the meaning of each may be stretched.
'Experimental cinema', used more especially in England, is certainly the most comprehensive term. All that is out of the every-day rut of film production at any given time can be considered as experimental. The preoccupation with the future, with research, implied by this expression make it tempting to use. And yet it seems to give rise to serious objections. As.soon as a scientific experiment succeeds, by the mere fact of attaining its end it ceases to be an experiment and becomes merely another scientific acquisition, a scientific fact. In the field that concerns us, a field of art, any attempt crowned with success not only at once goes beyond experiment to become an artistic acquisition, but more, it often happens that the success if complete, perfect, impossible to outstrip or even to equal, absolutely forbids anyone, even its author, to repeat it. Imitated or copied it becomes odiously trite. Chaplin A Woman of Paris gave birth to the 'Lubitsch style', and no one would dream of complaining of that. Neither would it be denied that the man rash enough to repeat the Dance of the Rolls in The Goldrush, even by replacing the forks by toothpicks and the rolls by sponge-fingers, would be rated a fool.
Apart from this, it seems that the words 'experimental cinema' lead to unfortunate confusion with what must properly be qualified as experimental and can be called nothing else. I mean the many laboratory experiments made by the Russians, above all in cutting and editing. There was Pudovkin's experiment, alternating a railway accident, a scene of domestic affection, and so on, with the same close-up of a face: an experiment by which he proved that cutting can modify an actor's expression, for the same impassive face successively appeared to be horrified or affectionate, according to the preceding or ensuing shot. Here, properly speaking, is experimental cinema: as soon as this discovery had been put into practice it could no longer count as an experiment.
In fact, if we admit the validity of this term in the cinema, all great original works of art and literature, which have always been at variance with their epoch's prevailing aesthetic, would equally have to be qualified as experimental. Nothing in any case can induce me to place under so restrictive a heading the two films that I consider of first importance in this field: Entr'acte by René Clair and Un Chien Andalou by Buñuel, both successes, absolute, isolated and conclusive.
The French term 'avant-garde' which has crept into the English vocabulary is certainly no better, for with its slightly ridiculous suggestion of military heroics it can hardly be uttered without putting one's tongue in one's cheek. It can be said that every artistic activity has its spearhead, when new means of expression are being created for original thought or feeling, but their creator does not plume himself upon what to him is the natural end of his activity. People who make a parade of avant-garde had better beware, for we have the right to expect them never to repeat themselves, never to imitate anybody, and that what they have to say shall be an absolute revelation every time. Precious few 'cinéastes d'avant-garde', as they used to be called with the utmost seriousness, have lived up to their pretensions.
The terms 'pure', 'absolute', 'integral' cinema, that almost caught on in 1925, had the merit of attempting to be less vague, more limited and less ambitious, but they were none the less unsuitable, and certainly not attractive to the ear.
The three words have usually been given the same meaning, and they cannot better be defined than by quoting Henri Chomette , the author of Jeux des Reflets et de la Vitesse and Cinq Minutes de Cinéma Pur. He thought it necessary to justify these two very beautiful films, which incidentally needed no justification, in these lines:
'The cinema is not limited to the representative mode. It can create, and has already created a sort of rhythm (I have not mentioned it in connection with present-day films, as its value is greatly attenuated by the meaning of the image seen). Thanks to this rhythm the cinema can draw fresh strength from itself which, forgoing the logic of facts and the reality of objects, may beget a series of unknown visions, inconceivable outside the union of lens and film. Intrinsic cinema, or if you prefer, pure cinemabecause it is separated from every other element, whether dramatic or documentary--is what certain works lead us to anticipate . . .'