Since they flickered onto history, movies have been shot, cut and massaged into many different forms. Some of these forms – feature films, documentaries, toilet paper commercials – are familiar to us. They seek to tell us stories, make us to buy things. But there are other films, often overlooked, that seek to visually express something different and harder to define.

The Renegades: American Avant-Garde Film, 1960-1973, an exhibit now open at the Walker Art Center, celebrates these other films, some of which seem to be in categories all their own. Until January, museumgoers can walk the exhibit and watch six movies by filmmakers from various cells of the homegrown avant-garde. Watching the movies takes much less than two hours. Indeed, in most cases, you don’t have to watch the entire film to figure out if what you’re seeing – light on a lemon, industrial dreamscapes, fireworks over bare breasts – says something to you.

That’s the thing about these movies: they suggest feelings, thoughts. They don’t tell you directly if an image (or wash of images) is sad or electrifying, scandalous or pacifying. In this way, the movies are elusive and, in some cases, more than mildly rewarding. Below are descriptions (initial impressions, really) of each film in the exhibit.



Filmmaker: Hollis Frampton
Made: 1969

Lemon is delightful. The 8-minute movie is one still shot of a lemon, the surface of which is glazed by various washes of light and shadow. The image welcomes you to the exhibit together with the nostalgic sound of a running projector. And after a few minutes, Lemon ceases to show a fruit,  offering instead something like a crescent moon, or a weird, soft piece of space debris. At one point, there’s even an eclipse. Or, at least, so it seemed to me.


Serene Velocity

Filmmaker: Ernie Gehr
Made: 1970

Ever play Valve’s Portal 2 and get trapped for a bit between two portals in a small space? If so, you’ll know the feeling Serene Velocity gives. The movie is 23-minutes of a fluorescent-light lit hallway shown in two perspectives, near and far. The movie jumps between those two perspectives, giving the viewer a constant feeling of movement, something akin to teleportation. It’s mesmerizing, in a way.


My Name Is Oona

Filmmaker: Gunvor Nelson
Made: 1969

This 10-minute, black-and-white picture-poem is perhaps the most human of the movies. It shows images of the filmmaker’s daughter, Oona, flowing over and into each other as the girl runs around and wrestles with another child. It’s pretty (full of smiles and snowscapes), but its soundtrack is slightly disturbing. You just hear the name “Oona” over and over again, like a softly distorted pulse.


Three Screen Ray

Filmmaker: Bruce Conner
Made: 2006

I’m not sure if Three Screen Ray was my favorite “Renegade” film or just the most entertaining. The black-and-white movie seems to explore and make fun of sex with its mashed-up images of cartoon canons going off and fireworks exploding over naked women. The work plays on three separate screens, each of which holds its own cut-up, irregular set of images. Enlivening the entire work is Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say.” If there’s one “Renegade” you see, make it this.



Filmmaker: Stan Brakhage
Made: 1963

Mothlight is a phoenix-like film. It takes a bunch of dead things and makes them live again on screen in an erratic, ochre-colored, 4-minute waterfall. Brakhage made the movie by pressing moth wings, leaves and other organic matter between two pieces of Mylar tape, re-photographing it and then running it through an optical printer, the Walker says. The images are what the writer Vladimir Nabokov, a superb lepidopterist, might have seen in dreams.


Castro Street

Filmmaker: Bruce Baillie
Made: 1966

Castro Street is the filmmaker’s attempt to create a portrait of a place. In this case, it’s a street near an oil refinery in California. The 10-minute movie is a wash of industrial images (duplicated, crisscrossing) reminiscent of documentaries seen in elementary school, but stained with various flavors of Kool-Aid. The audio track is similarly trippy.


“The Renegades” opened on Sept. 20, and it runs until Jan. 6. And on Thursday nights throughout the coming months, the Walker is hosting ‘Renegade’ lectures and screenings, hosted by artists and those that fostered avant-garde movies. The schedule is below. All of the screenings start at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 18: Minneapolis-based artist Cameron Gainer hosts a showing of short works by Stan Brakhage.

Nov. 29: Sally Dixon shows works done by filmmakers she helped foster.

Dec. 20: Former Walker curator Melinda Ward hosts a showing of game-changing American short films.

Jonathon Sharp

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