If someone discovers experimental film today and goes out looking to see films, they have a certain volume of work available to them. There will be experimental films online and films shown in local screenings (if they are lucky enough to live in a place where screenings take place). There will be films they can purchase locally or through mail order. Then there will be an enormous number of films they will not have access to. Part of that number will be private films that were never shared publicly, while another part will be films they can read about, can find mention of in books, in articles, online, but cannot, for the life of them, watch because these films are simply not available.

What is a person to do who finds themselves in this situation, of being excited to see a film but having no access? Maybe they’ll put the film on a list and look for the film to turn up at a screening (again, if they live in a place where screenings take place), maybe they’ll check every few months online to see if the film has been made available, but most likely they will move on. They will forget about the film, they will watch other films that are available, and they will move forward with their understanding of experimental film and experimental film history without that film being a part of their understanding.

How tragic, because most filmmakers who call themselves filmmakers want their films to be seen. And people who are interested in experimental film want to see them. So what is the disconnect that prevents audience access to filmmakers’s films? Why are filmmakers making it impossible to see their work unless their films are presented in very specific contexts and circumstances?

There are two main reasons. The first is the filmmaker’s desire to control the presentation and experience of the film. Some filmmakers want their films to be experienced on the big screen, or with the right sound system, or among an audience. Other filmmakers, especially who make celluloid based films, want their films projected on film, and not as a substandard, digital copy. The second reason is money. Filmmakers want to get paid for showing their work. Making film is expensive technically, it is time consuming, and if nothing else, filmmakers want to generate funds to be able to make their next film.

Both of these reasons are excellent ones for limiting access, but the question becomes what is lost when a film sits on a shelf (physical or digital) waiting for the right circumstances to present themselves for screening? Mainly, the ability to communicate its cinematic and aesthetic ideas with an audience. A film not seen doesn’t exist for those who cannot see it, and a film that doesn’t exist cannot add to the conversation of what a film is or could be. A film that doesn't exist cannot contribute to the advancement of film art.

So what are we as film lovers and filmmakers to do? How can we achieve broader access? The answer lies in addressing the two issues above. Regarding controlling the presentation/experience, while it is abundantly true that seeing a film on a small screen can never compare with seeing it in a theater, and that watching a flickering projection of a beautiful celluloid print can never be recreated digitally, there is a way to think about the worthwhileness of both the small screen experience of a film meant for theater release and the digital experience of celluloid based work: as that of a historical record of the original, a concept very much used in the study of every aspect of art history.

When we study art history, we study it primarily through books. We find in those books photographic reproductions of every possible kind of art form. We see photos of 40,000 year old cave paintings, we see photos of temples and figures. We see photos of painted canvases, of tapestries, and even of stills from moving pictures. Nobody reading an art history book believes that they have experienced the original work of art by seeing the photograph, but the photograph as a historical record allows one to appreciate, if nothing else, at least the concept behind the artwork. From a photograph we will never be able to feel the texture of carved wood or see the faded hues of five hundred year old cloth. We will never be able to feel what it’s like to stand under a half century old painted ceiling or what it’s like to look up at a stone statue four times our size. But from a photo we can appreciate the composition, the color choice, the style, the execution, the subject matter of an artwork. From a photo we can be inspired to make our own art and to plan to visit the original so we can have a more thorough experience of the work. There is so much to appreciate from a historical record of an artwork, just like there is so much to appreciate from a small screen experience of a digital film, or a digital experience of a celluloid film, mainly concept execution, technique, composition, rhythm and timing, all of which can inspire one’s own filmmaking and contribute to the dialog one is able to have with their own work.

Regarding money, the question is simply one of access versus profit. Free equals the broadest access. A few dollars, broad but smaller. Twenty to thirty means smaller still. One hundred and fifty dollars means only the wealthy or institutions can afford access. It is for the filmmaker to decide what they feel comfortable with, but again, if someone interested in a film is discouraged by the cost, they will simply move on and the film will lose its chance to communicate its aesthetic and cinematic ideas with that person, and thus its chance to contribute to the advancement of film art by way of their creativity.

Of course there are filmmakers who are completely fine with limiting access to their films, maybe because of a feeling of prestige that limited access brings them, or maybe because they do not feel that a historical record can ever be a good enough stand in for the original work. Either way, unfortunately, having taken themselves out of the pool of access, out of the pool of conversation, slowly but surely, the world will pass them by.


take me home!