York film Professor Michael Zryd is interested in the ugly ducklings of the film world.
As a researcher, Zryd’s current work is focused on the complexities of history and academic institutionalization from the 1960s onward in relation to experimental and independent film. While most of his past research has concentrated on American films, Zryd is also examining Canadian avant-garde films created since the 1960s.
Left: Michael Zryd
"To analyze an experimental film is not so different from analyzing an abstract painting," says Zryd. The fun, he says, is in finding intersections between the elements of sound and sight, and discovering how these contiguities trigger emotions and ideas in a viewer.
Although "experimental" and "independent" films are both considered avant-garde film genres, they are not interchangeable terms. Experimental films are made outside the mainstream practice of filmmaking. They serve "to broaden the horizons of what film can be and do," says Zryd. Experimental films usually lack dialogue and are sometimes referred to as "underground".
Independent or "Indie" films are made without studio aid and usually have a narrative. The more politically inclined avant-garde films, like many artistic endeavours of the 1960s, were created in response to events like the Vietnam War, the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy and the American civil rights movement.
Zryd’s research on Canadian film history will provide important information about the cultural contexts to which avant-garde filmmakers in Canada were responding. An interesting fact, notes Zryd, is that avant-garde were watched in the past by advertising companies to steal new techniques to market their products in television advertising. On the other side of the spectrum, avant-garde films have also influenced abstract and performance artists like Andy Warhol, Steve Reich, Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham.
Even the Hollywood filmmakers of many well-known classics were influenced by the avant-garde films they were exposed to in film school, he says. Big-time Hollywood directors such as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese have mentioned the influence of experimental filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Arthur Lipsett (a Canadian who was trained by the Group of Seven painter, Arthur Lismer).
One important difference between avant-garde and mainstream films is the sharp contrast in salary. George Lucas makes $121,354.16 per hour. Arthur Lipsett died almost penniless after losing his job at the National Film Board of Canada. Does that mean Lucas is any less of an artist? Zryd is no hippie. Since art is not defined by its price tag, he considers Star Wars as much a piece of art as any of Arthur Lipsett’s pieces – just not as interesting.
By Jacquelin Chatterpaul, Faculty of Fine Arts research officer aide