The most important experimental filmmaker of the 1940s was clearly Maya Deren, who was also one of the most significant avant-garde directors period. In addition, she's up there with the all-time female directing greats, especially in an era when there were so few women directors.
Born in 1917 in Kiev, her work disregarded conventional logic as well as temporal or spatial continuity. Deren shot, wrote, and edited her own films, with her rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness editing style being especially influential and marking a strong contrast to Classical Hollywood Cinema.
Furthermore, Deren was a film theorist, dancer, photographer, and poet. She was very interested in Haitian Voodoo and filmed many hours of their rituals, even joining the ceremonies herself.
She was also involved in politics, specifically socialist causes as she was part of a Trotskyist organization in the late 1930s.
Deren is often lumped in with surrealists like Bunuel or Cocteau, but she specifically rejected European surrealism.
Deren began her career in 1943 with Meshes of the Afternoon, co-directed with her husband, Alexander Hammid, and they also starred in the film. Shot on a 16 mm Bolex camera and costing under $300 to make, it was silent, black and white, and lasted 14 minutes. There was a score added in the 1950s, so keep in mind if you watch this online, any music was added later.
Meshes abandons narrative and traditional concepts of causality and instead aims to give the viewer a dream or trance-like feeling, with techniques like double exposure, slow motion, and false eyeline matches. It features the iconic hooded figure whose face is a mirror, and this makes for a striking, memorable image.
Meshes of the Afternoon is easily one the most seminal experimental films ever made, and her experiments with time, causality, and identity strongly affected directors like David Lynch, as seen in his films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and his TV show Twin Peaks. If you haven't seen any of the films I mention here, start with Meshes of the Afternoon.
The next year in 1944, the husband and wife duo released another silent short in the vein of Meshes called At Land. Like in her first film, logic is thrown out the window and time and space are played with. Characters seemingly transport to another location in an instant and footage of waves is played backwards. Chess pieces move on their own and Deren herself crawls on the table at a social gathering. No one seems to notice her and this has been construed as a criticism of social norms.
A Private Life of a Cat was produced by Deren and Hammid around this time, with some sources placing it at 1944 and others in 1947. It features no humans whatsoever, just cats going about their daily lives. It does feature a pretty gross scene of a cat giving birth, which I wish I hadn't witnessed.
Other works Deren created in the 1940s include Meditation on Violence and A Study in Choreography for Camera.
A filmmaker whose impact would eventually rival that of Deren's began working in the 1940s, and that's American Kenneth Anger, who has cited her as an inspiration. Anger made several films in the early 1940s, but his earliest surviving one was the transgressive Fireworks in 1947, made while he was still in high school.
Anger was one the earliest openly homosexual directors and Fireworks was among the first examples of a film with gay themes. This led to Anger getting arrested on obscenity charges, and the case eventually ended up in the California Supreme Court.
This isn't surprising given the social climate of the era and the fact that the movie isn't subtle or coded in its depiction of homosexuality. Unlike most of the other films in this article, there are moments of humor, and they're unsurprisingly sexual in nature. It's not quite as surreal as Deren's work, but Anger himself described Fireworks as a "dream of a dream", and it shows a clear influence from French surrealist director Jean Cocteau.
After Meshes, this is the second most important experimental film of the 1940s.
Two years later in 1949 Anger made Puce Moment, a six-minute dialogue-free color short, that is a fragment of what was intended to be a longer work called "Puce Women". It consists of a somewhat deranged looking woman getting ready to go out, choosing between dresses, putting on shoes, and then laying back in a chair and staring off into space. Eventually, she holds her dogs on a leash and goes for a walk.
In 1966, Anger added a noisy, folksy soundtrack that's pretty bizarre and experimental and does feel a bit out of place for something filmed in the 1940s. Puce Moment was originally set to opera music from Verdi, but as far as I know, it's not available to watch with this soundtrack.
The short has a 1920s feel as the dresses and main character's hairstyle harken back to this time period. Also, Anger used alternating camera speeds to give the feel of a silent movie. There isn't too much to Puce Moment, and it's not nearly as interesting as Anger's later work.
Anger would go on to make landmark experimental films in the 1950s and 60s, like Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising. He was retired in the 1980s and 90s, but is still kicking and has made films as recently as 2013.
His significance is undeniable, especially in avant-garde filmmaking, but also with more mainstream directors like Martin Scorcese and David Lynch.
Anger was very interested in the occult and was a follower of Aleister Crowley's Thelema religion.
A German animator named Oskar Fischinger made an early animated music video called An Optical Poem in 1938 and produced a similar work, often considered to be his magnum opus, called Motion Painting No. 1 in 1947. Like his earlier work, this is completely abstract and set to classical music, with this time the music being one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
This 11 minute short is probably the most entertaining and accessible film in this article and features some vibrant, intricate animation. It was made by painstakingly putting oil paints on glass and took a whole nine months to create.
Motion Painting No. 1 is now in the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry. This was Fischinger's last non-commercial work and he died in 1967.
A more minor example from this era is Moods of the Sea, directed by Slavko Vorkapich and John Hoffman and released in 1941. It's basically an early music video and is set to the music of 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Moods of the Sea consists mostly of shots of waves crashing, but we also see animals and views of the sky. It's an interesting idea, but the execution really isn't anything special. It's mainly only worth watching from a historical perspective and doesn't justify its 9-minute runtime.
Other avant-garde films of the 1940s include Hans Richter's Dreams That Money Can Buy, Pacific 231, directed by Jean Mitry, and The Lead Shoes by Sidney Peterson.
Finally, I'd like to mention Lady of the Lake from 1947, which is much different than the other films in this article, as it was a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood production. However, there is one major way in which it was experimental, and that's how almost the entire film was shot in a first-person perspective. This leads to an odd look and feel and plenty of long takes.
This was done to mimic the first person prose of the novel by Raymond Chandler and as far as I'm aware, this was the first movie to be shot in this style. It's sort of gimmicky, but still interesting enough to be worth checking out, and overall the movie is pretty solid.
The only exceptions to the first person perspective are a couple of extratextual addresses to the audience and other than that, the protagonist is only seen in reflections.
Eventually, other movies would be made using this technique, like Hardcore Henry and Enter the Void.
That'll be it for this post, keep an eye out for my next one on the experimental films of the 1950s, where I'll cover more works from Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, as well as films from directors like Stan Brakhage and Chris Marker.