During the late 1920s and early 30s, some amateur filmmakers embraced formal experimentation and contributed to the growth of cinema as an art form. As Hollywood shifted its attention to sound film, amateur filmmakers focused on enhancing the visual artistry of silent filmmaking. Removed from commercial filmmaking and its limitations on creativity, amateurs were free to explore the film medium’s expressive potential.
Beginning in the late 1920s, the Amateur Cinema League (ACL), via its Movie Makers magazine, promoted the notion that experimentation was a cornerstone of the amateur filmmaking ethos. In these terms, the amateurs producing experimental films were regarded as artists working to augment film art (Zimmerman, 144). These filmmakers experimented with camera angles, cinematography, editing, framing, lighting, and mise-en-scène, while also reconceiving standard conceptions of silent film narrative (Tepperman, 255).
James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Ralph Steiner’s H2O (1929) led the initial wave of accomplished amateur experimental films. But these two films also illustrate opposing approaches to formal experimentation. Where The Fall of the House of Usher uses camera accessories and editing tricks to achieve its expressionistic aesthetic, H2O employs only juxtapositions of scale and light reflection to represent water in a defamiliarized manner. Hence, amateurs could experiment by means of supplementary equipment, in post-production, or, vitally, with only their camera and an inspired approach to the world (Tepperman, 266).
The Fall of the House of Usher, H2O, and subsequent amateur experimental films were widely screened at amateur movie clubs, which proliferated in the early 1930s (Horak, 25-26). Amateurs were also encouraged to engage in “waste work,” where unrefined films were produced in order to test the limits of experimentation (“Waste Work”). Meanwhile, some professional filmmakers were attracted to the liberating aspects of amateur filmmaking, and produced notable amateur (ie. small-scale and non-commercial) experimental films in this period. Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich’s film The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928) is a celebrated example of professionals venturing into experimentation in an amateur production (Horak, 17).
Experimental films were prominent winners in the early amateur film contests. Notably, Steiner’s H2O won in the non-dramatic category of the Photoplay Amateur Movie Contest in 1929. The early years of the ACL’s annual Ten Best contest, which began in 1930, also saw experimental films recognized alongside other amateur film genres. ACL recognition for this kind of filmmaking reached its pinnacle in 1932 when two experimental films (Portrait of a Young Man and Lot in Sodom) placed in the Ten Best and three more (I’d Be Delighted To!, Little Geezer, and Water) received Honorable Mentions. Despite this high-point in 1932, experimentation would soon fall out of favour with the ACL.
The increasing politicization of experimental film in the 1930s did not align with the ACL’s apolitical vision of the amateur filmmaker (Tepperman, 273). The process began in the early 1930s with notable amateur experimental filmmakers addressing social and political topics. In particular, a dispute arose in the amateur community when the experimental film Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand, a Ten Best winner in 1933, blended fantasy and realism with satire and politics (Tepperman, 277). In 1934, as amateur experimentation trended toward politics and away from an artistic foundation, the ACL distanced itself from the experimentation it had earlier promoted (Tepperman, 281).
While experimentation was never again as closely intertwined with the amateur identity as it was in the early 1930s, the connection was not entirely severed. In the 1940s Maya Deren wrote several articles for and about amateur filmmaking, and her (and Alexander Hamid’s) film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) was much praised in amateur circles. But recognition for amateur experimental films was irregular in postwar years. For a brief period ranging from around 1927 to 1934, amateur filmmakers and amateur cinema publications contributed a committed focus to the advancement of cinema as an art form. This short-lived commitment tied early amateur cinema to formal experimentation and produced a wave of innovative amateur films.
Horak, Jan-Christopher (ed.). “The First American Film Avant-Garde, 1919-1945.” Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, 14-66.
Posner, Bruce. Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1893-1941. Anthology Film Archives, 2001.
Tepperman, Charles. Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Moviemaking, 1923-1960. University of California Press, 2014.
“Waste Work.” Amateur Movie Makers, January 1927, p. 5.
Zimmerman, Patricia R. “Startling Angles: Amateur Film and the Early Avant-Garde.” Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945, edited by Jan-Christopher Horak, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, 137-155.