Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Seven Recent Experiments

The following is a brief look at seven films that represent bold cinematic experiments in a more or less narrative context, all taken from the last ten years. The experimental nature of the selections ensures that the films represent varied degrees of success, with a couple of outright failures sprinkled among the triumphs.

1. Psycho (Gus van Sant, 1998)
What justification can there be for a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's classic? Despite van Sant's claim that his goal was to bring the film to an ignorant public and the equally unconvincing justifications of the film's few defenders, the picture's very existence is essentially pointless. But it is just this superfluity that makes it such a bold conception. Trading the black and white of the original for a garish color scheme (courtesy of Wong Kar-Wai favorite Chris Doyle), the film feels completely out of place in time, at home neither in 1960 nor 1998, adding to film's unsettling quality. Although the shots are all determined by Hitchcock, by filtering them through van Sant's visual sensibility, a new and completely unique product emerges. Written off as a cynical (and unnecessary) marketing strategy by its detractors, the film actually stands as a unique cinematic artifact, a work at once derivative and wholly original. Only Vince Vaughn's dismal performance as Norman Bates puts a damper on the proceedings.

2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
Although The Blair Witch Project represents an admirable (and surprisingly successful) attempt to subvert the traditional Hollywood marketing system and the film's conception exhibits a similarly commendable willingness to forgo the conventions of the horror genre, the picture itself is nearly unwatchable. Shot in hand-held pseudo-documentary style purportedly filmed by three students investigating the presence of a witch in the local woods, the film consists of a jarring series of camera movements that not only refuse the expected payoff but leave the audience with no images sufficiently suggestive to fill in the resultant sensory gap. In the end all we are left with is a feeling of nausea brought about by the film's jerky visual aesthetic and the sense that the characters are much more terrified than we are. The film's internet campaign, which shrewdly targeted its expected audience, and turned a truly independent production into a hit remains the most radical thing about the picture, even if its example has rarely been followed.

3. Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2001)
Thai director Weerasethakul's debut feature is structured around the storytelling device known as the Exquisite Corpse, in which one storyteller picks up the narrative thread where another left off, often moving the story in a completely different direction. Here, Weerasethakul visits a cross-section of the rural Thai population and enlists them as storytellers, intercutting documentary footage of the narrators with fictional reenactments of the tale. The ever-evolving story, which takes in kidnappings, aliens, and a certain mysterious object, is told by a hard-luck young woman, a dance troupe and most memorably, a group of children who embellish the tale with delightfully surreal touches. Weerasethakul's attempt to democratize the narrative process results in a diverse, but surprisingly unified work.

4. Russian Ark (Alexsandr Sokurov, 2002)
The most difficult conception to achieve technically of any film on the list, Russian Ark is a single 95-minute take shot in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, involving a remarkably intricate choreography among the film's cast of thousands. But the technical achievement would mean nothing if the film itself weren't so beguiling. A guided tour through one of the world's greatest art museums led by two hosts, a 19th-century Frenchman (seen onscreen) and a 21st- century Russian (who remains offscreen), the film takes in 300 years of Russian history, as historical events and social phenomena are re-enacted for the audience's benefit. The work's stunning conclusion finds the narrators intruding on an intricately staged costume ball, a set piece in which the technical achievement is matched by the sensual pleasure of the proceedings. After the ball, the cast slowly files out of the museum and the film comes to an end. The period costumes, the grand staging and the museum's unmatchable collection ensure that the film has no shortage of visual delights. More than simply a bold conception, Russian Ark, in its awesome historical sweep, is one of the finest pictures of the decade.

5. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2003)
In many ways, the elements that would seem to be the most radical in Noe's film (the reverse chronological narrative, Monica Belluci's 12-minute rape scene) register as surprisingly conventional. It is certainly no longer a revolutionary gesture to tell a story backwards and the rape scene simply adds length to an already well established cinematic conception. What seems boldest about both moves is the complete lack of necessity of either one. There is absolutely no justification for telling this particular story in reverse and the whole film (a not particularly interesting revenge story) is built around superficial effect, of which the rape is just the most obvious example. A completely superfluous film may not seem like a particularly bold proposition, but Noe's total obliviousness to the conceptual demands of his cinema coupled with his devil-may-care attitude create one of the most unnecessarily jarring films in recent memory, a film so over-the-top in its effect and ultimately so pointless that it takes the cinema of sensation to new levels of audacity.

6. The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Another offbeat gem from the perennially inventive Herzog, his "science fiction fantasy" The Wild Blue Yonder alternates a long monologue with video footage taken from a space expedition and from beneath the polar ice caps and combines them in a single unified conception. The monologue, full of genuine disgust, is delivered by Brad Dourif in the guise of an alien who years ago fled from his planet to the earth. Now, he explains, earthlings are fleeing their increasingly uninhabitable planet in search of a more sustainable world, a search that ends with humans discovering his former home. The space footage stands in for this fictional expedition, and the water beneath the polar ice caps becomes Dourif's planet. A bold imagining of a not-too distant future, Herzog skilfully puts documentary footage to fictional use and confuses the boundaries between fact and fantasy in a way that adds to the audience's unease at the imagined demise of their planet.

7. INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)
The latest offering from David Lynch is his most radical yet, a work that gives final reign to the expression of his psyche. INLAND EMPIRE represents the furthest possible extension of the Lynch aesthetic, with the director replacing anything resembling a linear chronology with a narrative conception that forks off in a myriad of directions and continually snakes back on itself. Lynch's film relentlessly probes the multiplicity of his nightmare world, with characters appearing in different guises, locations constantly shifting and standard cinematic techniques eliminated in favor of a hand-held digital camera and a murky lighting scheme. As far a step past Mulholland Drive as that picture was beyond the rest of this strain of filmmaking, INLAND EMPIRE is as bold a cinematic conception as any work in recent memory.


PVLGO said...

How is The Blair Witch Project a "cinematic" experiment?

andrew schenker said...

The experiment is to relate the narrative through the "amateur" camerawork of a pseudo-documentary crew, to refuse the expected payoffs of a horror film and to (unsuccessfully, it turns out) attempt to create tension through a series of (supposedly) suggestive images that take the place of conventional horror imagery. Perhaps not a revolutionary proposition, but an experiment (in both narrative and aesthetic conception) nonetheless.