"Art is thinking in images."—Victor Shklovsky
Undulating water patterns; designs etched directly into exposed film; computer- generated, pulsating, multihued light tapestries—the visual images that often constitute experimental film and video provide the basis for Edward S. Small’s argument for a new theory defining this often overlooked and misunderstood genre. In a radical revision of film theory incorporating a semiotic system, Small contends that experimental film/video constitutes a mode of theory that bypasses written or spoken words to directly connect Ferdinand de Saussure’s "signifier" and "signified," the image and the viewer. This new theory leads Small to develop a case for the establishment of experimental film/video as a major genre.
Small contends that the aesthetic of experimental film/video would best be understood as a coordinate major genre separate from genres such as fictive narrative and documentary. He employs eight experimental technical/structural characteristics to demonstrate this thesis: the autonomy of the artist or a-collaborative construction; economic independence; brevity; an affinity for animation and special effects that embraces video technology and computer graphics; use of the phenomenology of mental imagery, including dreams, reveries, and hallucinations; an avoidance of verbal language as either dialogue or narration; an exploration of nonnarrative structure; and a pronounced reflexivity—drawing the audience’s attention to the art of the film through images rather than through the mediation of words.
Along with a theoretical approach, Small provides an overview of the historical development of experimental film as a genre. He covers seven decades beginning in France and Germany in the 1920s with European avant-garde and underground films and ends with a discussion of experimental videos of the 1990s. He highlights certain films and provides a sampling of frames from them to demonstrate the heightened reflexivity when images rather than words are the transmitters: for example, Ralph Steiner’s 1929 H2O, a twelve-minute, wordless, realistic study of water patterns, and Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie, which unites his themes of war-weapons-death and sexuality not by narrative digesis but by intellectual montage juxtapositions. Small also examines experimental video productions such as Stephen Beck’s 1977 Video Weavings, which has a simple musical score and abstract images recalling American Indian rugs and tapestries.
Small adds classic and contemporary film theory discussions to this historical survey to further develop his direct-theory argument and his presentation of experimental film/video as a separate major genre. He stresses that the function of experimental film/video is "neither to entertain nor persuade but rather to examine the quite omnipresent yet little understood pictos [semiotic symbols] that mark and measure our postmodern milieu."