Is Narrative Overrated? Finding New Ways to Engage With Cinema
Having recently studied Back to the Future on my degree course, a film which has never had a much of an effect on me, I was amazed at just how many people describe its wonderful escapist qualities. I find this interesting because Back to the Future has always had the opposite effect on me – creating a feeling of detachment due to its predictability. I could say the exact same thing about films like Jurassic Park, The Goonies, and Star Wars. For those suffering from a similar feeling of dissatisfaction, who, like me, are more excited about the release of The Zero Theorem than Guardians of the Galaxy; I hope to provide a few alternative ways to lose yourself in cinema.
1. Aesthetic and Narrative Innovation
Personally, I find the most satisfying films are ones that offer unpredictability and originality. Instead of the déjà vu of a conventional narrative, some films manage to surpass this by providing something much more enigmatic. There are many auteurs that can be linked to this form of cinema, including David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky, but I think one particularly interesting director working in cinema today is Shane Carruth. His films Primer and Upstream Colour have taken the art form out of the restrictions of convention and into the realm of something purely cinematic. Films of this type are often criticised for being style over substance or unashamedly pretentious. Although, to prioritise narrative would be to stick to the restrictions of theatre and novels when something much more expressive has the potential to be created through the medium.
The music and editing in Carruth’s films largely contribute to their overall effect and they create an almost transcendent feeling. These are experiences more than stories. There is also a definite sense of rewatchablity due to their enigmatic elements and lack of clear resolution. This is not to say that they are without meaning or completely avant-garde; Primer is a complex time travel story which becomes more and more comprehensible upon repeat viewings.
It is misleading to suggest that the makers of these films do not achieve a great amount of success. All of the directors listed above have large fan-bases, but, to generalise a little, these tend to be avid cinephiles more than the average cinemagoer. It has become commonplace for their work to be labelled as ‘arty’ or outside of popular culture; despite their significance in film history and the influence their imagery has had on pop culture (Kubrick is particularly notable in this regard).
In terms of specific examples of aesthetic innovation, some recent films worth mentioning are Antiviral and Only God Forgives. Both of these are beautifully shot and provide ways to engage with cinema through the beauty of the image alone.
Other examples: In the Mood For Love, Werckmeister Harmonies, A Scanner Darkly, The Thin Red Line, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, The Tree of Life, Last Year in Marienbad, The Face of Another, Pi, Melancholia, Eyes Wide Shut
2. ‘Trippy’ Cinema
This category consists of bizarre cinematic experiences that are so otherworldly they create the feeling of drug-induced states. The work of Gaspar Noé is frequently referred to in relation to this, but I think another great example is the recently overlooked Beyond the Black Rainbow. Heavily criticised for its lack of narrative or explanation, it plays out like a music video using abstraction, combined with a heavy soundtrack and flawless cinematography. Another great example is Requiem For A Dream, which sets up a clear conflict between its anti-drug narrative and drug-replicating aesthetic.
I think Noé’s Enter the Void is one of the most escapist masterpieces ever made as it never expects you to focus on the details of character or narrative, the performances leave a lot to be desired and its pacing is varied, but this allows the viewer to completely lose themselves in the sound and imagery alone. A lot of these films could be linked back to the work of many avant-garde artists over the years who have attempted to create a similar feeling through image and sound. Often these works can have the opposite effect and be too jarring to find a way into. Personal preference and experience are everything, which explains why reactions can be so mixed.
Dystopian settings can also have trippy effects and transport the viewer to another world that is far removed from reality. These films can of course still have strong narrative ties but they are never limited solely to this. Blade Runner and Brazil are the first that come to mind but this is not only limited to science fiction; Lynch’s Eraserhead is one of the finest examples of a dystopian nightmare that revels in its ambiguity and expects the viewer to let it wash over them rather than become invested in narrative; Beyond the Black Rainbow is also very similar in this sense. The horrific elements of trippy escapism also tie nicely into the next category.
Other examples: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Spring Breakers, 8 ½, The Fantastic Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Solyaris, Easy Rider, Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Twelve Monkeys
3. Shocking Cinema and Body Horror
Fascination is key when it comes to escapist cinema and this is a fundamental element of body horror and torture porn genres. The grotesque has the ability to repel some and absorb others. It is can also be purely cinematic in many ways. The camera can linger voyeuristically as Jeff Goldblum pulls off his fingernails in The Fly or hurl the audience towards Bruce Campbell as cuts off his arm in Evil Dead II; either way, these are moments of gruesome spectacle but also pure visual pleasure for any horror fan. The excess of horror often takes on a life of its own outside of narrative. Torture porn takes this to extreme lengths, at the name suggests, and crudely pushes the viewer to breaking point through an excess of unpleasant imagery. Recent French shockers, Martyrs, Inside, and Frontier(s), are all clear examples of this.
This type of horror has become even more pronounced in the postmodern era. The Cabin the Woods literally throws every possible piece of horror imagery at its audience for their satisfaction. Another interesting thing about this film is that it appears to have a very conventional horror narrative at the beginning but subverts this with a heavy dose of self-awareness, later undermining all narrational and character development. The ‘releasing of the monsters’ sequence is set up for niche audiences to revel in. Postmodernism has led to a whole new form of cinema in itself with the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge creating a new form of engagement.
Other examples: The Shining, Kill List, The Human Centipede, Scream, Carnival of Souls, Suspiria, Phenomena, The Tenant, Tokyo Gore Police, Possession
4. Postmodernism and Genre Revisionism
Postmodern cinema priorities visual pleasure in a similar way to body horror, although it can work in different ways, as satisfaction often comes from the reference tied to the image more than the image itself. Quentin Tarantino is one of the most widely regarded postmodern directors but these films are not simply products of auteur cinema. A rather controversial, but also valid, example of this is Showgirls and its relation to All About Eve. For those of you who enjoy this film, and other forms of paracinema or exploitation movies, it could be because it takes the set-up of a classical Hollywood film and recycles it into something overtly exploitative and just plain crazy at times. The same could be said in relation to Natural Born Killers which draws on classics like Badlands and turns it up to eleven. Again, excess and spectacle are key to audience satisfaction but expectation and pre-existing knowledge also play a big role when it comes to postmodern cinema.
One way I have often applied this to myself is in relation to melodrama. I find Douglas Sirk’s films to be particularly unpalatable yet absolutely adore the work of Pedro Almodovar. The only way I have ever been able to explain this is that Almodovar takes the established conventions of melodrama and self-awarely moulds them into something original. There is a sense of unpredictability and beauty to his melodramas, making them more than simple imitations, and original works in their own right.
Comedy is another genre that has benefited from the postmodern treatment. The ‘existential comedy’ is one of the finest sub-genres to emerge in recent times, taking comedy in new, more ‘intellectual’ directions. I Heart Huckabees is a great example of this as it is very much out for laughs but is also a deep philosophical study that utilises the cinematic image to present its abstract ideas. Genre revisionism can be very enjoyable for those familiar with classical filmic structures and is a way for directors to take something old and mould it into something new.
Other examples: Kill Bill, Amelie, Garden State, 500 Days of Summer, Synecdoche New York, Lost in Translation, Scream, American Beauty
Hopefully I have managed to provide a few alternatives for those of you looking to escape from the restrictions of narrative cinema. I think it’s important to remember that, as an audio-visual medium, cinema has the ability to break free from these restrictions and certain filmmakers have consistently proved this. It’s a shame that art films are often lumped into one category when they deserve to be sub-categorised as much as genre pictures.
What do you think? Leave a comment.