Some, if not most would agree it’s nice to get your head messed around with every now and then. There are several ways of going about it of course.
Fractured narrative, disorientation and the like are hardly new to art. Yet in movies, largely a commercial art form, you have to look to find them.
But there are reasons for doing so, if only once and a while: stimulation, fresh perspective, provocation of the senses and intellect. As a visual medium movies come ready made for blowing your mind. But you want the good stuff, not the dreck.
These works follows in the footsteps of the great surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, though these versions may not always be at the same level of moral and philosophical provocation as Bunuel at his best was. Yet the visual element is more astounding by several orders of magnitude.
First, are two films by American director Jamin Winans. Ink gives you the imagery of your best and worst dreams, though with less banal plotting. Here, your subconscious is where the action is, and there are a lot of people in there. Some of them are pleasant, some are just awful, and ugly to boot. What happens in the subconscious here all but determines outcomes in the real world, as in life itself, to some extent. On the surface, it’s a story about a widower stockbroker and his sickly, estranged child. But the drama for their souls and survival is a vividly twisted and fantastical one. And despite its title, it isn’t about tattoos. I don’t think.
In The Frame, also by Winans, two people are thrown together, figuratively at least, by a strange, inexplicable development, and the world that begins to envelop them grows only more inexplicable and finally, surreal. The characters here are full and distinctive, and their individual lives and circumstances patiently laid out before the funny business is taking hold for real. One of them has been forced into a life of criminality, but seeks escape, the other has been devoted to helping others, after a past life of shame and distress. Visually, the film slowly but surely becomes ever more intriguing, and at times beautiful, and understandable, at least on its own terms. Fate, alternate realities, the mysteries of people finding one another seem to be what’s in play here. But you tell me.
Made by French provocateur Gasper Noe, Enter the Void is by far the most pure grade psychedelia of the bunch. Visually, it is literally out of this world. It’s in English, but set in an extraordinarily filmed Tokyo (Think Lost in Translation on yes, acid) with an international gallery of characters. The separate and entwined lives of a young American and his younger sister in the demimonde are at its core. It has a prevailing eschatological aspect, as well as prodigious amounts of drugs and sex.
The drug life, the sex life, the inner life, the before life, the afterlife, they’re all here. It’s the film most likely to set your eyeballs spinning on the gerbil wheel, and have your poor synapses pleading for mercy. You’ll be by turns tantalized, enthralled, stupefied and disgusted.
The films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai might more accurately be characterized as stylized than hallucinogenic, even if they are as visually distinctive and enthralling as any you will ever see. They are moody, drenched in ambience and studied poses, transporting, emotive, and told as much through mood and poetry as through conventional storytelling.
Days of Being Wild, which in some ways resembles a classic film of the French New Wave, is photographed and filmed in such a manner as to transform Nineteen-sixties Hong Kong into Paris in the Thirties, accompanied by a Django Reinhardt-like Hot Club de France jazz guitar score (performed by Los Indios Tabajaras, a Brazilian duo). The tale itself is a cross between Rebel Without A Cause and The Third Man.
It includes one of Kar-wai’s typically caddish male protagonists, and more than one of his ethereal, damaged females, and every kind of cultural cross-referencing. It’s stirring, and just plain cool.
In Kar-wai’s 2046, 2046 is several things: first, it’s the number of a hotel room, and secondly, the year to which a train on occasion travels, where it is said, nothing ever changes, and lost memories may be recovered there. Yet no one knows if this is true, since no one who has ever travelled there ever returned. Except that is for one, the narrator of the story itself, who has written the novel, 2046, the third incarnation of the number. The novel, 2046, is about the past, not the future, reflective, nostalgic and melancholy.
The story gives us a beautiful Cambodian female gambler, known as the Black Spider, a stunning android, with whom the man on the train either to or from 2046 wishes would fall in love with him, but won’t. It’s a meditation on the ephemeral nature of romantic feelings and human connections. In love, timing is everything.
Speaking of love, Kar-wei’s In the Mood for Love is more linear, visually less flamboyant, than the others, yet a moving interplay of words and pictures seldom encountered in conventional moviemaking. It’s the story of a man and woman, neighbors, who discover their spouses are cheating with one another. Drawn together by their loneliness, they develop a friendship and eventually fall in love, though they never act upon it, in order, “not to be like them”.
The faces of the cheating spouses themselves are never seen, their presence largely that of ghosts. Ironically, it is the two non-cheating spouses seeking solace with one another who become the subject of gossip. The film is delicate and elegiac, suffused with sumptuous imagery and poignant music. Not simply a foreign film, it’s a film in another cinematic language.
Fallen Angels is Kar-wai gone wild, this one laced with amphetamines. With traces of Scorsese and Goddard, and Natural Born killers perhaps, it’s an even bolder work in its own right, a hyper-stylish, visually and musically witty joyride. This is Hong Kong after the sun goes down, and a gallery of young lost souls who wander there.
There’s The Killer, his beautiful, mysterious Manager, there’s Blondie, who really, really enjoys the rain, and like the Manager, has a thing for The Killer. Cherry believes Blondie has stolen her lost love, Johnny. There’s a young man who has ceased to speak ever since the age of six, victim of a “bad pineapple”. He roams the city opening businesses closed for the night, operating them himself.
Like the rest of the Kar-wai canon, it’s chocked with longing, desperation, doomed romance, bad timing, hedonism, lusciousness, doomed romance, self-destruction, immense beauty, and blossoming and repressed sensuality. This may be the coolest Kar-wei of them all.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention British director Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, having rougher edges than most of the others here, altogether rougher indeed. Set in fact in a field in England, it juxtaposes the English Civil War with tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Yes, you read that correctly.
You won’t find any high-minded talk of Parliamentarians versus Royalists here, nor do either Charles I or Oliver Cromwell make an appearance. Our heroes are four deserters who band together in search of an alehouse. They are commandeered more or less by two men who compel them to search a field for a rumored buried treasured, though the men have just dined on a stew flavored with mushrooms growing in the field, and gone, shall we say, weird.
Certainly A Field in England is in the running for oddest and most experimental historical film ever, rendering the period, whatever ideals propelled England into war with itself, as greatly more influenced by notions of the supernatural, whether Christian or pagan, greed, ignorance, and base need than any concern for the nature of government or true representation of the people. On the other hand, several of these fellows seem like pretty good blokes to me.
Upstream Color may be the most unorthodox of all the films here, yet the boldest and most successful example of pure cinema. It was created by actor and director Shane Carruth, whose earlier film, Primer, a brainy, complex, special effects eschewing story about the problematic nature of time-travel, is something of an underground science fiction classic, and deservedly so.
Upstream Color is largely, if not entirely indescribable, but wonderfully perplexing and transcendentally beautiful. Its two main protagonist are a man and woman whose lives have been profoundly altered by a series of events, in the case of the woman, that we are witness to, but the characters themselves struggle to recall.
In this film, as in A Field in England, a psychoactive substance is central to the story. A larvae goes from human to pig to orchid back to human again, and on with the cycle. I wouldn’t tell you every detail of how, even if I were entirely certain (you can get the gist though). The larvae are found in the orchids. The beautiful blue orchids grow in a stream where pigs infected with larvae removed from the human body have been discarded.
Outlandish as it all sounds, it really is a story about human beings, identity, life cycles, mutable or immutable, and mysteries relevant to us all. It’s exquisite, mesmerizing, and genuinely affecting.
Both Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick have been cited as Carruth influences. Malick, a favorite of mine to put it mildly, and among America’s greatest living directors, has of late been moving more in the direction of Carruth. Though Malick’s Tree of Life may have inspired Carruth, Malick’s most recent film To the Wonder (Knight of Cups has yet to be released, and is expected this year) to an unprecedented degree for Malick, eludes the conventional narrative, relying greatly upon Malick’s incomparable prowess with image and motion.
Though the films here, for my money are some of the most successful, and rewarding of their kind, there are other films that are less so, yet still worth the trip. These include the Czech film from the Sixties, Daisies, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and The Fountain, several of British legend Ken Russell’s films, and Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.
Was David Lynch too obvious to mention? I don’t think he’s much more well known than Wong Kar-Wai, although he has been referred to as America’s first popular surrealist.
“Eraserhead” is one of very few horror films that genuinely frightens me, perhaps because it simulates the feeling of being trapped in a dream from which I can’t wake up. And it’s not the sort of dream in which you’re running from some imminent threat or being consumed by a supernatural monster. Rather, it’s a dream in which there is no direction to run, nothing to run towards; and one in which you are being consumed by the world itself.
On the other hand, a relevant filmmaker who is much less familiar to American audiences is Roy Andersson. “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living” are both wonderful. I’m waiting for last year’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” to be available on Netflix so that I can complete my viewing of a trilogy of films that were each released seven years apart.
Each film is a series of fixed-shot vignettes, all of which illustrate a theme in their own right. The scenes are pregnant with emotion and often convey their messages as much through silence and aversion as through the vivid imagery that often takes center stage.