'Expanded Cinema' is the term coined by writer Gene Youngblood to describe the group of filmmakers in the 1960s who shifted the boundaries of what experimental film could be. They would transcend the flat, single projection movie screen in favour of multi-sensory experiences and unique viewing environments. Youngblood described their work as an extension of “man's ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.” Likewise, the content of many of these films eschewed traditional narrative in favour of abstract thought, ruminations on the cosmos, the subconscious, dreams and nightmares. It is with this is mind that I approached this list, the idea of psychedelia as an expansion of consciousness, through any means. I've chosen films that are easily available to view, so more well-known films may be omitted. Some of the films below prefigure the idea of expanded cinema, but certainly laid the foundations for the movement to come. It is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list, more a primer that will hopefully lead you on a path of psychedelic wonderment!
MARY ELLEN BUTE – Synchronomy No. 2 (1935/36)
Mary Ellen Bute was one of the first female experimental film makers, and an exponent of “visual music”, the synchronisation of sound and image in a startling and imaginative form. Created through light refractions and lenses, Synchronomy No. 2 urges the viewer to imagine “seeing sound,” before soft abstract shapes and shadows combine and rotate to the sounds of 'The Evening Star' by Wagner. Futurist constructions meld into crystal facets, animated blocks build staircases and gothic arches, a female form, disjointed through a prism, slowly reveals itself as a statue of Venus. Neither the image nor the music is defined as being more significant than the other, rather the two converge in an organic manner and the effect is mesmerising, almost dreamlike.
Bute's work would go on to incorporate more complex shapes and movements, eventually utilising the oscilloscope to consolidate her ideas of combining sound and image. Her films were a huge
influence on a generation of filmmakers, most significantly Norman Mclaren and his playful visual symphonies of dancing lines and shapes.
HARRY SMITH - Film #11: Mirror Animations (1957)
Harry Smith's prolific work as an experimental animator is often eclipsed by his other numerous creative endeavours, as painter, alchemist, anthropologist and folk music archivist, yet this sprawling body of work alone is enough to solidify his standing as some kind of beat-era celluloid sorcerer. His own psychedelic experiences while listening to music inspired him to attempt to capture, in a dynamic form, the shapes and images his mind conjured up. The resulting films combined mysticism, the occult, alchemy, dada and surrealism in Smith's unique vision. They were created with a combination of collage, painted film and multi-layered projections onto three- dimensional constructions. The effect in #11: Mirror Animations is truly enchanting, with shapes and objects dancing around the frame, choreographed to the music of Thelonius Monk (who undrestandably nicknamed Smith “the magician”). Smith's visual language is at once absurd and sublime, a mass of symbols fighting to be deciphered. Any attempt at interpreting meaning is soon overcome by a feeling of awe and pure wonder at the stream-of-consciousness images. He's less the filmmaker, more the magic lantern showman, orchestrating his own phantasmagoric visions to the amazement of onlookers.
STAN BRAKHAGE – Dog Star Man (1959-64)
Watching a Stan Brakhage film is akin to experiencing life in it's entirety, from overwhelming beauty to disorienting confusion and all points between. Colours flicker and pulsate, shapes contrast and collide, focus drifts from the semi-recognisable to the completely abstract. Brakhage thought of film as a reflection of vision, not only the open eye, but “closed-eye vision”, the abstract patterns and pulses of colour one sees with eyes closed, visual memories, imaginations, hallucinations and dreams. In addition to conventional camera use, he employed a dazzling array of experimental techniques: painting, scratching and bleaching the film; exposing objects and textures onto the film before printing; and even growing mould onto the film surface.
Dog Star Man hits the viewer with a barrage of images, the central repeating motif of a man climbing a hill and cutting down a tree is distorted, refracted, interspersed and overlaid with footage of solar winds, the moon and stars, a beating heart and bloodstream. He shifts focus between the telescopic and the microscopic, outer space and inner space, to meditate on his own place in the cosmos.
JORDAN BELSON – Samadhi (1967)
Jordan Belson helped pioneer the concept of the psychedelic lightshow through his role as visual coordinator of the Vortex Concerts, multi-projector film performances accompanying contemporary electronic sounds and musique concrète held at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francsico during the late 50s. Although initially inspired by his own psychedelic experiences, Jordan Belson's films sought to capture something more transcendental as he evolved as a filmmaker. As well as references to Eastern mysticism (the mandala is a recurring symbol in his early work), Belson's immersion in meditation is explored in Samadhi (which is Sanskrit for “that state of consciousness in which the individual soul merges with the universal soul”). There is something truly cosmic about Samadhi, galaxies expand and dissipate, heavenly bodies shimmer and gaseous forms swirl. We appear to travel to the heart of a star, as particles fly past us and an intense glowing colour field fills the screen. This otherworldly imagery is made all the more remarkable as it was created using Belson's home-built contraption incorporating an old X-ray machine, various rotating tables, lights, motors, lenses and prisms, and filmed in real time. The music was also created by Belson on electronic equipment and works in complete harmony with the visuals, soundtracking the cosmic events we are witness to. The sound is so integral to the imagery that Belson said of it, “you don't know if you're seeing or hearing it.” Belson's work was a huge influence on Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull when creating the stargate sequence for “the ultimate trip”, 2001.
SCOTT BARTLETT – OffOn (1968)
Released the same year as 2001, OffOn by Scott Bartlett could be a spiritual cousin of Kubrick's sci-fi vision. It's largely considered to be one of the first works to combine film and video together, being filmed in monochrome, then coloured by hand and processed using the emerging video technology of the time. It begins with the close-up of an eyeball, over-saturated with colour, which flickers and throbs to the sound of a human heartbeat. Colours are polarised, images cross-pollinated using video feedback as we are drawn further into the eye. Vibrations gather around a growing force-field which expands and gives birth to a human figure, dancing along to a mirrored version of itself. Bird silhouettes swoop into the frame, encircling the disintegrating dancer, who begins to break off into geometric segments revealing a close-up female face. This metamorphosis continues, images fizzing and degrading, decaying off into infinity until a final burst of energy fades to nothingness. OffOn is the perfect representation of film as an extension of human consciousness, a celluloid journey through the eye to the centre of the mind, fed through electronic circuits and cathode ray tubes, then back into our retinas through the medium of light - a feedback loop of human perception.
LAWRENCE JORDAN – Orb (1973)
An associate of Stan Brakhage, Lawrence Jordan spent a portion of his early artistic career as an assistant to Joseph Cornell, and his films seem to belong to the same tradition, almost like Cornell's boxes opened up and brought to life in celluloid form. Jordan was a pioneer of cut-out animation, collaging 19th century engravings and Victoriana and bringing them to life with the same kaleidoscopic wonder as a psychedelic light show, the fantastical visions of Jules Verne skyrocketed into the psychedelic age. Orb takes us directly through the looking glass, following a balloon-like object as it passes through fragmented Gustave Doré landscapes and architecture, flickering and transforming into the sun, moon and stars, alchemic symbols and planets. The symbols are repeated in rapid-fire colour overlays, taking us to increasingly fantastical landscapes, until the orb of the title expands and envelops the screen. This journey is less about specific place and time, moreover a transformation between different dream-states, a free-association of imagery Jordan described as “theatre of the mind.”
Expanded Cinema – Gene Youngblood, 1970, Studio Vista, SBN 289 70113 9
The Underground Film – Sheldon Reenan, 1967, Studio Vista, SBN 289 37061 2
https://expcinema.org/ - A great resource for experimental film, past and present.
http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/ - Film archive holding the work of Jordan Belson, Mary Ellen Bute and Oskar Fischinger, amongst others.
http://www.ubu.com/film/ - An extensive archive of avant garde films, animations and documentaries.
http://lawrencecjordan.com – Personal site of Lawrence Jordan, with extensive biography and filmography.
https://www.nfb.ca – Online archive of the National Film Board of Canada, featuring much of the work of Norman McLaren.