Expanded Cinema

2 On the Development of a Critical Approach

In his investigation of film and its historic development, in particular after 1945, Gilles Deleuze formulated a clear criticism of the lack of reflection on how film actually works. His considerations made reference to filmmakers such as Rossellini, Antonioni, and Godard, who deliberately broke with conventional cinematic traditions. This increasing scrutiny of the filmic apparatus not only became apparent with reference to film itself (montage, framing effect, etc.), but also clearly concerned the presentation venue for film — the cinema — and the circumstances in which films were shown. As early as in 1952, for instance, in his film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howlings in Favor of de Sade), by showing only a black or a white screen over the course of seventy-five minutes, Guy Debord attacked not only the established narrative practice of conventional films, he also deliberately cast doubt on the film’s venue and its technical equipment.[7] In the white sequences in particular — when texts on the subject of revolution and youth were read — the audience’s gaze frequently wandered to the movie theater’s architecture, which was otherwise hidden behind a veil of darkness. Thus, the way film works, for which Deleuze called for greater awareness, was extended by Debord to the venue itself.

This criticism of the cinema would several years later be continued by other members of the Situationist International founded by Debord. Not only the cinema, but the organization of urban space in its entirety was opened up for discussion. One project that united this growing criticism of the city and the cinema and sought new forms of presentation was Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon.[8] According to Constant, in this concept, which consisted of a wide variety of media and formats as well as the life led there, people were invited to liberate themselves from the rigid functional structure of the city and seek a more playful way of dealing with space as a topographical and urbanistic category.

In order to expand his space-related discussion so as to encompass cinema/film, Constant cooperated with the filmmaker Hy Hirsh, who in his film Gyromorphosis (1956) explored the spatial potential of light and color and, drawing on the idea of color-light music, in this way began a critical examination of the narrow spatial idea behind the cinema. The project dealt less with the issue of classic film projection, rather should be regarded more within the context of the sculptural light experiments conducted by László Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s, such as, for example, Light-Space Modulator (1930) and Light Display: Black-White-Gray (1930).[9]

In the 1950s, renewed interest was again shown in other fields of reference from the 1920s, such as visual music and the color-light organ. Criticism of the filmic apparatus was often no longer the primary interest, rather the expansion of the filmic experience. Harry Smith, for example, conceived his experiments with film not lastly in his intense examination of jazz, and he developed numerous projection ideas for musical performances at the Bop City jazz club in San Francisco.[10] Jordan Belson, Smith’s college friend of many years, also increasingly explored the idea of the visual concert outside the classic setting of the cinema. Beginning in 1957, Belson collaborated with Henry Jacobs to organize a series of film evenings at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco that became famous under the name Vortex Concerts. He not only used the particular architectural conditions of the planetarium with its vaulted projection dome, but also all of the technical equipment available there. Belson was thus not only able to show several films simultaneously, but also to superimpose them and insert them in parallel into one other and thus overcome the classic image-framing effect. He nevertheless emphasized that he was not attempting to simulate a psychedelic trip. He commented to Scott McDonald: I used the effects carefully. I wasn’t just blasting the audience psychedelically. It was all carefully composed, and synchronized with the music.[11] Thus the Vortex Concerts became a kind of controlled, expanding spatial experience that clearly set itself apart from the classic cinema setting. Making reference to these kinds of forms of presentation, it was in this spirit that Gene Youngblood coined the term expanded cinema.

That in addition to the resonance in the arts this expanded form of cinema was increasingly endorsed in the commercial sector is clearly demonstrated by a project that originated at virtually the same time as Belson’s Vortex idea. On the occasion of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, Charles and Ray Eames collaborated with Richard Buckminster Fuller to develop a screening room for the multiscreen project Glimpses of the USA.[12] The intention behind this cinematographic installation was less of a critical or media-reflective nature than an affirmative one. Visitors to the installation could hardly escape the overwhelming immersive impression triggered by the images produced by this propaganda machine.