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Direct Theory

Direct Theory

Experimental Motion Pictures as Major Genre

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Edward S. Small and Timothy W. Johnson


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
160 pages, 5.5 x 8.5, 25 illustrations


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About the Book

Making the case for the significance of experimental motion pictures

Undulating water patterns; designs etched or painted directly onto clear or black film leader; computer-generated, pulsating, multihued light tapestries—the visual images that often constitute experimental motion pictures are unlike anything found in either fictive narratives or documentary works. Thus, Direct Theory provides an historical and theoretical survey of this overlooked and misunderstood body of international films, videos, and digital productions that offers a strong case for the understanding of experimental motion pictures as a separate, major motion picture genre.

In a radical revision of film-theory that incorporates Ferdinand de Saussure's semiotic system, and adds to it historian Raymond Fielding’s technological determinism, Edward S. Small and Timothy W. Johnson argue that experimental moviemaking constitutes a special mode of theory that bypasses written and spoken words. By exploring the development of experimental motion pictures over nine decades, they trace the practice from its beginnings in the European avant-garde movement in the 1920s, through American underground productions, into international structuralist works that marked the experimental films of the 1970’s, and finally the digital experimental innovations of the twenty-first century.   

To demonstrate that the aesthetic of experimental motion pictures is best understood separately from other major film genres such as fictive narrative and documentary, Small and Johnson highlight eight defining technical and structural characteristics of experimental productions, including the autonomy of the artist, economic independence, brevity, and the use of dreams, reveries, hallucinations, and other mental imagery. They also highlight a number of films, including Ralph Steiner’s 1929 H2Oand Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie,and provide a sampling of frames from them to demonstrate that the heightened reflexivity of these films  transmit meaning through images rather than words. 

A deft historical interweaving of experimental production and scholarly discourse, this thought-provoking work firmly establishes the importance of experimental motion pictures in the discipline of film studies (theory and history) and production.


Edward S. Small is an emeritus professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas. He is a motion picture theorist specializing in semiotics and a motion picture artist concentrating on experimental production.

Timothy W. Johnson's career includes English teaching, a PhD in cinema from the University of Southern California, and more than two decades as editor and production supervisor for computer and printer manuals. he is an editor and a digital media artist.


“The motion picture’s entertainment values are so seductive that most people overlook the subtle and persuasive effects that films have upon our minds, and the neurological interventions by which they find their way into our consciousness and achieve aesthetic impact. Theorists with diverse disciplinary backgrounds have been trying to illuminate the intrinsic nature of the motion picture and its conceptual mechanics. Ed Small is one of the most productive of these, and the new edition of this important theoretical study will be read with interest by both academic specialists and film students.”— Raymond Fielding, dean emeritus, College of Motion Picture Arts, Florida State University

Direct Theory, now in a second, revised edition, was and remains a rare attempt to demonstrate what should be a commonplace in film and media studies: that certain forms of cinema are themselves theoretical. Small and Johnson argue that experimental motion pictures are a major genre precisely because they do the work of theory from within the screening space—as the audience watches and listens, the nature of cinema is explored and its history and possibilities are reconsidered.”—Scott MacDonald, visiting professor at Hamilton College and author of thirteen books on independent cinema