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The Science of Experimental Film – Lessons in Perception: The Avant-Garde Filmmaker as Practical Psychologist by Paul Taberham

The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928)

A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

For many, the term “avant-garde” is synonymous with pretension: a sub-subgenre that revels in its impenetrability and niche appeal. One of Paul Taberham’s overarching goals in Lessons in Perception: The Avant-Garde Filmmaker as Practical Psychologist (Berghan Books, 2018) is to negate this misconception; experimental filmmakers are not going out of their way to create inaccessible art as much as they are trying to engage underused mental capabilities, the author argues. Hence, the intriguing term, “practical psychologist.”

As the title suggests, what separates this text from other critical studies is the author’s scientific approach to the material. The book consists of three main sections, “Cognition,” “Visual Perception,” and “Audiovisual Perception,” each of which examines how avant-garde filmmakers “draw inspiration from their own mental capacities, provide cognitive experiences under-rehearsed in life and commercial art, and offer spectators the occasion to reflect on their own habits of mind” (Taberham 3).

TaberhamLessonsThe opening third initially addresses how many avant-garde films do not reject narrative storytelling outright but instead re-envision the idea of narrative. 1928’s The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is cited as an early example not because of an absent narrative (the easy-to-follow story chronicles a wannabe Hollywood star who gets swallowed up by the system) but because of its formal experimentation and absurdist social commentary (Taberham 35-36). In terms of nonnarrative storytelling, Taberham then explores what Stan Brakhage termed “ghost films,” which transcend “language description, and in turn defy normal routes to ‘memorable-ness’” (70); such works emphasize surface details over semantic content.

The second, most-engaging section zeros in on two artists: Stan Brakhage (the genre’s posterchild) and the lesser-known Robert Breer. Taberham focuses on the former’s ongoing efforts to cinematically capture entoptic vision (flawed perceptions of the eye itself that usually go unnoticed by humans), such as his replication of so-called “floaters,” or “transparent blobs that slowly drift across our visual field” (104). Nearly forty pages are dedicated to the latter’s self-taught animation style, which draws attention to film’s inherent artifice and challenges cognitive thresholds of motion and depth (Taberham 117). This analysis is especially fascinating, since Taberham includes precise screenshots of the artist’s idiosyncratic drawings. The reader is allowed to analyze and appreciate these illustrations, which would otherwise flash across the screen within fractions of seconds.

Synaesthesia (cross-modal perceptions, such as hearing colors) and visual music in avant-garde film guide the final, cursory section. Pieces that try to replicate synaesthetic and hallucinatory experiences (or, in some cases, even try to provoke such experiences within the viewer) are briefly examined. Taberham also touches on how some mainstream fare, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), incorporate these psychedelic stylings; most intriguingly, he proposes that Jeremy Blake’s audiovisual interludes for the aforementioned film may be representations of the protagonist’s interior, synaesthetic experiences (154-155).

Blazes (Robert Breer. 1961)

Blazes (Robert Breer. 1961)

Taberham’s writing style is clear and accessible, if occasionally repetitive. For example, he uses “Now that…” as a transitional phrase at least three times in the introduction alone. Although such diction conveys a logical argumentative progression, it also comes across as stiffly academic; indeed, the book sometimes feels more like an anthology of previously published journal articles than a singular, cohesive work. Thankfully, Taberham’s prose becomes looser and more passionate in the book’s midsection, especially during his fascinating Breer analysis. It is also within this section that he clarifies his definition of filmmakers as practical psychologists: “[A]rtists who attempt to provide visual experiences that are explicitly unlike visual experiences encountered in the natural world,” he explains, “expansively offer the spectator the opportunity to psychologically attend to visual stimuli in a way they might not otherwise” (Taberham 119).

Although Taberham primarily incorporates cognitive and psychological theory, he also peppers dozens of references to little-known filmmakers and their works throughout the book. I will be forever thankful, for example, that he introduced me to Kurt Kren’s mesmerizing ASYL (1975), in which the artist chronicles a country landscape by shooting over the same filmstrip over different seasons: “A snow bank leads into a grassy meadow, and raining portions of the frame lead into sunny portions. Seasons run seamlessly into one another” (Taberham 86). While such works are open to theoretical or even thematic interpretation, they may also simply be enjoyed aesthetically and emotionally.

Despite these myriad references, it should be noted that nearly a third of the book is devoted exclusively to American, male artists: Brakhage and Breer. Clearly, Taberham’s two case studies do not provide much in the way of diversity. While he consistently extols Maya Deren and cites her ongoing influence, fewer than ten pages are allocated to two of her best-known works, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1946). Elsewhere, the great Chantal Ackerman is briefly mentioned on a single page. Although the book is admittedly not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the genre, a bit more variety would have gone a long way. Nevertheless, the author’s desire to synthesize experimental artwork with psychology yields some fascinating insights and will hopefully inspire similar analyses of other avant-garde films.

The full text of Lessons in Perception is available here, free of charge.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

Read also:

Telling Tales: The Company of Wolves by James Gracey

For and Against the Grand Narrative: The Hollywood War Film by Daniel Binns

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