Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 51, December 2003



Tammy A. Kinsey


Let us Never Speak of It?:Edward S. Small's _Direct Theory_



Edward S. Small

_Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre_

Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994

ISBN 0-8093-1920-9

122 pp.


Direct theory sounds like a simple idea. We figure we are talking about theory that is a consequence of something, an effect instantaneously brought about by some event, book, idea, or film. Edward Small's 1994 book takes this concept as its title, and presents a short yet dense set of information intended to elucidate this idea. The concept of direct theory itself is taken here as an inevitability, an obvious result of experimental film and video work. The Preface explains a bit about the approach: 'this is a book of theory . . . also a book of history' (xiii). Much of the text reiterates established historical accounts of those notions inherent in experimental production. Small makes a point of stating repeatedly that he feels experimental film and video to be 'overlooked, greatly misunderstood' (xv), and he sets out to correct this.


Small delineates three distinct theses as the content of _Direct Theory_. First, he states that experimental film and video should be seen as a major genre, a category of work like that of narrative fiction or documentary. Next, he suggests that experimental film should be linked -- technically, structurally, and historically -- to art video. He then points to eight common traits seen in works of this type, whether produced in film or video, to substantiate this claim. Finally, Small states that experimental film and video functions as a unique 'direct theory that bypasses the limiting intervention of separate semiotic systems, especially the spoken or written language upon which the accepted history of film theory depends' (xv). It is here that we find Small's most provocative notion. This is not as simple as it seems, nor is it without conceptual problems.


The six chapters that follow are designed to give credence to these concepts, chiefly by means of an historical overview of the work typically termed avant-garde. The first two chapters look at arguments in support of direct theory itself and at the means by which genre studies may more correctly incorporate experimental media. Subsequent chapters explore chronologies, theoretical discoveries and critical discourse from the various movements collected under the rubric of experimental film and video. The European avant-garde is covered, along with American avant-garde, underground filmmaking, expanded cinema, visionary film, and finally, experimental video. Small correlates the experimental film of various decades with the philosophical notions brought forth in response to the work. Andre Bazin's exploration of cinema's ability to reproduce reality is investigated in relation to Sergei Eisenstein's studies into the transformational power of images. Film theory's turn towards semiotics is discussed with much emphasis on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. Films discussed are posited as concrete examples in support of the main concepts of the book.


Small asks two very important questions in the first chapter which are the substance of the rest of the book. He speaks of the history of written film theory as a body of 'academically accepted texts. How, then, can a given body of film (and later, video) production be said to fit and follow this same tradition?' (4) A couple of paragraphs later, Small states that:


'a second, more fundamental question remains: how can the semiotic system of images (cinematographic or videographic, likely accompanied by sounds but for the sake of this question no pertinent written or spoken words) function as that mode of philosophic discourse we regard as theoretical?' (4-5)


Small goes on to say that experimental film's major function is neither to reveal information (as documentaries) nor to entertain (as is common with fictive narratives), but rather to 'theorize upon its own substance by reflecting back on its own intrinsic semiotic system(s)' (5). These issues inform the discussion of direct theory.


Let us take Small's trio of thesis statements into account. First, the idea is presented that experimental film and video should rightly be construed as an independent genre. One must realize that the book in question is nearly a decade old, but one must also wonder about the question. Yes, experimental film and video are obviously a major and separate category of cinematic art, but one must also discover that *genre* itself is not altogether clear in our contemporary world. Our system of images today is infused with all manner of materials, with new concepts in narrative fictions, so-called *reality* TV, non-linear narrative structures in mainstream Hollywood films, etc. Contemporary media seems to be breaking the bounds of when and where we see certain styles and forms arise. What is really *generic* about experimental film and video at all? So much difference is present that perhaps those of us who espouse a deep love for experimental work have the commonality of enjoying images that are *different*, modes of storytelling not typically seen in all areas of cinema.


Small lists eight characteristics for the form of experimental film and video in his discussion supporting the argument for genre separation as well as for the connection between art video and experimental film. The first three, personal autonomy of the artist ('acollaborative construction or quintessential auteur control'), financial autonomy, and brevity of the work (17-19), are likely familiar to those well versed in production of experimental and independent work. The fourth characteristic listed names 'an affinity for ongoing technological developments' (19), and calls forth the idea that experimental artists are very interested in technical aspects of production, including 'animation, step printers . . . special effects . . . an eventual embrace of video technology and computer graphics' (19). This element is certainly true for some artists, but not for all. Fifth, Small names 'a penchant for the phenomenology of mental imagery' as a characteristic of experimental work (19). Again, this is true for some filmmakers. Small's sixth characteristic is 'the avoidance of verbal language' (20). The last two listed are obviously the post pivotal to his argument for direct theory overall: 'an exploration of nonnarrative structures' (21) and the reflexivity inherent in experimental work. Small's discussion of these areas in broad terms is somewhat limited, but his consideration of the problems in defining reflexivity is particularly compelling.


Small's second major thesis is that of the correlation between experimental film and video art. Again, it seems obvious that these areas are linked in a great many ways, and Small's discussion of the aesthetic qualities of video is quite interesting. There are many reasons an artist may choose to present his or her work in either film or video, in Super8 film loops or multi-channel digital displays, but an assessment of the choices of the artist is not a part of Small's discussion.


Finally, Small presents his intriguing concept of 'direct theory'. He asserts that experimental film and video call for a unique mode of theory, one that transcends the written or spoken word. This is indeed a satisfying notion, and one that requires much thought, but I am left wondering then what is next? Is this possible? How can we speak of it? Can anyone write about it? What is the next step here? I believe _Direct Theory_ moves in a very precise region of the discussion of experimental forms, and there are fewer conclusions here than are needed. Small states in his Preface: 'beyond (or beside) these three theoretical theses is a careful chronological overview that should serve as a thorough text for college courses devoted to the history of its subject' (xv). The book is brief and the works and theories outlined are naturally used in service to the theses presented. I wouldn't use this book as a text in my courses on experimental film and video, as I find it lacking in scope as a historical overview. The discussion of cognitive science as it relates to film theory is almost entirely absent, and that area is of great relevance, especially when we are considering the idea of direct theory. Is it possible to herd experimental work into this large space and say that the obvious sub-genres should be considered in the same theoretical ways? The book has in some cases clarified my own thoughts about certain works, but it hasn't changed my notions. It does, however, inspire many questions. For this, it must be applauded.


University of Toledo

Ohio, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Tammy A. Kinsey, 'Let us Never Speak of It?: Edward S. Small's _Direct Theory_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 51, December 2003 <>.


Read a response to this text:

Edward S. Small, 'A Reply to Kinsey', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 52, December 2003 <>.


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