We’ve covered one or two earlier experimental and avant-garde films before this, but we’re about to get into a whole lot more. I haven’t always had the best luck with prior surrealist films – and it got me thinking about surrealist, avant-garde and experimental films as a whole – because there are some I actually kind of enjoyed.
Before the list, most of the time I encountered experimental films was in an actual art museum, which emphasized the “art” side of the equation for me. They were things freed from the usually bare-bones conventions you’d expect from film – some kind of consistent characters and some kind of consistent plot. They weren’t “movies”, they were “art pieces”, usually either Statements the artist was making or just neat things they figured out how to do with film or a camera. I’ve visited museums in New York and in other major cities, and I always poke my head into a screening room if they have one set up – however, all too often I find myself turning around and heading out again.
But sometimes I linger to watch. And it’s not always the films with a plot that catch my attention – sometimes an artist has just caught something that strikes my fancy. Once in the Whitney Museum, I saw a film that was a parody of big-budget movie trailers, one which speculated what the trailer for a 2000’s remake of Caligula might look like. It was a spot-on parody – they’d even gotten Don LaFontaine to do the narration – and boasted an impressive list of A-list actors, like Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro, Gerard Butler, and Milla Jovovich, with Courtney Love turning up to play Caligula at the very end. I kept ducking back to watch that again and again, picking up new details each time. (Fair warning that it is also very, very sexually graphic in places, so be careful with this link.)
With another film it was the music that caught my attention – the film was nothing more than a garage band in an airline hangar doing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues in four different music styles while a whole gaggle of ten-year-olds stood around them and jumped rope. I don’t know what statement, if any, that was meant to make, but I lingered there to watch, singing along under my breath (“Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine…..”). Still another film was a deep dive into a pop-culture meme – that moment from the Star Trek: Wrath of Khan film where Kirk bellows “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” The artist took that one five-second clip and just started playing – freezing on some frames, rewinding the same half-second and replaying it a few times over in a loop, reversing the film in places, and ultimately stretching that five seconds into a three-minute sequence where we watched every one of Shatner’s lip curls and eyebrow twitches over and over and drew out the suspense before the final line. With still another film, the filmmaker filmed a pacing black panther in a dimly-lit room, then turned down the light levels in the editing even further so you could just barely see anything. It was an eerie effect – you could hear the panther pacing and breathing, and every so often a soft growl, but all you could see was a vast field of black, with maybe a hint of movement here or what might be a reflection in an eye there.
I think I do well with experimental films like that, where there is either some kind of gimmick or sense of humor about the whole thing, so I can appreciate it on those angles without having to understand any kind of deeper symbolism. But if there isn’t…..well. There’s one series of films that has particularly baffled me over the years – Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, which is a five-film epic artistic statement purportedly about the “pure potentiality” of the embryonic development of the male cremaster muscle but also delves into the interconnectedness of (checks Wikipedia page) Greek mythology, Gary Gilmore, Johnny Cash, Celtic myth, Harry Houdini, the Freemasons, Goodyear blimps, and Norman Mailer. The trouble is that you’re not told that when you rock up to the video screen – you’re just somehow supposed to glean that from watching airline stewardesses huddle around tables covered in grapes and Vaseline, or a goat-human hybrid climbing up from an underground cavern to find themselves in the Chrysler building, or a dude with cloth stuffed in his mouth troweling cement over the gas caps on some old Chryslers. (Note: I have not made that up, all of those images apparently actually appear in various Cremaster Cycle films.)
Ultimately, I feel that any piece of film is supposed to communicate something to an audience. Sometimes that thing being communicated is straightforward – like “here’s a story about a little girl who gets swept up in a tornado and may or may not have been brought to a magical country called ‘Oz’.” Sometimes it’s a little opaque – “here’s a story about two lovers from different street gangs in New York City, but really it’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet.” Or, maybe that thing being communicated is “hey, trailers today all kinda look the same, don’t they?” Or maybe it’s just “hey, have you ever really looked at all the weird details in that ‘Khan’ scene?” Of course, sometimes an audience member may miss the thing they’re supposed to get from a piece of film, but may get some other message out of it, like “dang, Subterranean Homesick Blues actually works as a Bossa Nova piece.” But if your work is so opaque that the only way the audience can get any kind of message is by having a written interpretation on hand mean to explain everything, I question whether it’s the film that’s actually communicating anything in the first place.
I’ll continue to duck into those booths in museums, of course – and urge you to do the same – and I’ll also be steeling myself for the avant-garde stuff on the horizon, hoping for Khan and dreading Cremaster.