Pioneers in film: the art-house films that have shaped popular culture

Tate Modern is showing the art-house films that have shaped popular culture – from music and advertising to fashion and design. Charlotte Cripps gets a sneak preview

The cinema is coming to the art gallery. From next week, Tate Modern will be screening such seminal works of art-house cinema as Kenneth Anger's Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), where a man strokes his new car with a powder puff, and one of the most influential short films ever made, Un Chien Andalou (1929), directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.

Dreams is the first programme of films in a series of more than 40 artists' films to open at Tate Modern, before touring nationally. All of the themed programmes, including Modernity, Pop, Play, Expression and Protest, collectively explore the ways in which the artist's film has influenced popular culture at large.

"Behind every great feature film, the innovation probably came from an artist's film," says George Clark, one of the six curators of the series. "The films we have chosen are films that people talk about as influences, but have rarely seen. The whole idea is to put these films centre-stage."

In the Protest programme is Jean Vigo's anti-bourgeois film A Propos de Nice, showing a flash cut from a woman on holiday dressed and then naked. "It is a satire for people on holiday in Nice: an attack on wealthy tourists who are totally oblivious to the working-class people around them."

In the Play programme, meanwhile, is René Clair's early Dada film Ent'racte (1924), starring Man Ray, Erik Satie and Marcel Duchamp. "It was made as an interval to Francis Picabia's ballet Relâche at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1924. It became so famous that it went on to have its own life after that. It embraces all the throwaway tricks of film – early primitive trick photography and scenes played backwards. A coffin procession is run backwards so people are chased up a hillside by this coffin that is on the run, and another sequence where a ballerina is revealed as a man with a beard."

Clark has hand-picked all the films for the Dreams programme. His choice of films aims to illustrate the "imaginative potential of cinema using abstract imagery, animation, and elliptical narrative," he says. "Buñuel and Dali's surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou is the first film that really explored the unconscious and dream-like narrative. Directors such as Terry Gilliam and David Lynch are indebted to it."

Other films in the Dreams programme include Maya Deren's enigmatic Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a pioneering film by a female director. "She explores her fractured personality in the film by mixing the everyday with the surreal. She has been an inspirational figure in independent cinema since the 1940s. The American Film Institute created the Maya Deren Award to honour independent film-makers, but she is a film-maker's film-maker rather than a household name," he says.

The Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) will also be screened. Clark says: "He is a key figure in the idea of dark and challenging adult animation and he inspired the Brothers Quay; he would animate anything from meat to shoelaces, which was revolutionary at the time." The expressionist film Les Jeux des Anges (1964), by the Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, creates a labyrinth of rooms through animation to evoke the horrors of the Second World War. The film Asparagus (1974-78) by the American director Suzan Pitt is a psychedelic exploration into sex and creativity.

Other films in the series include Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) in the Expression programme, again directed by Anger. "The film is an intense collage of psychedelic images – occult imagery such as Satanists mixed together with images of biker gangs and hippies, with a soundtrack by Mick Jagger. The whole film is like a spell; he mixes all these ingredients to create a new type of cinema," says Clark.

The Modernity programme includes the abstract film Lichtspiel: Schwarz-Weiß-Grau (1930), directed by the German visionary Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a founding member of the Bauhaus movement in Germany. "He made these light machines that created a matrix of geometric patterns and shapes in the film."

In the Pop programme of films is Film-Montage (1965-68), directed by the early German Pop artist Peter Röhr. He has edited together offcuts of commercials to create an aesthetic film based on these fragments stolen from advertising.

Clark says: "These films have not only influenced film culture, but also visual art, music, fashion, advertising and design. We experience all these films through second-hand imitation so this is the chance to see the real thing."

ICO Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk), 18 to 21 January, then touring (www.icoessentials. org.uk)

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