Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fear Not the Art House Film

When choosing a film to watch, I think most people aren't looking for a challenge. With the everyday obligations of work or school, it's understandable that a movie with hidden messages or a degree of ambiguity would not be seen as a priority. For those that decide to take that leap into the abstract, the ponderous and the more open-ended side of cinema, the result can be rewarding. Engaging with tricky concepts and a different approach to pacing or storytelling has the capacity to spark discussion and change opinions. Even if the message isn't clear, it's the exposure to art house that counts.
My own journey of becoming a cinephile began with the exploration of these so-called "artsy" pictures. Films like Last Year at Marienbad (pictured above), The Color of Pomegranates and Tropical Malady were a regular component of my viewing cycle. I found them captivating- visually arresting and mentally stimulating. However, within the last year or so, my intake of more demanding cinema has severely dropped off. Every once in awhile, I have found joy in the likes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gertrud or Wake in Fright, but that doesn't erase the fact I have mostly stuck to recently released English-language, genre fare. This has all culminated in my putting off seeing one specific film. For three months, the Netflix disc has sat on my shelf, unwatched. I haven't felt "in the mood" for it and I haven't felt properly ready for it. Last night, though, I decided that it was time to finally knock it out.

How does one begin to describe Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo? The original midnight movie, the film is technically a western, but it takes a completely different direction from the expectations the term conjures up. It has the horses, the hats, the guns and the showdowns customary of the genre, but that's all. Everything else draws from Jodorowsky's endless imagination and proclivity for bizarre, surrealist imagery. There's a semblance of critique regarding society, religion and deification and the story is obviously allegorical, but I found the film aggressively provocative and unpleasant in its unrelenting bombardment of the viewer with its singular logic and plethora of vague symbolism.

It is a trip and a half, let me tell you. Watching the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune earlier this year, I thought I was ready for the eccentric filmmaker's brand of storytelling, but I had no idea. El Topo is an unbelievably original vision, but I think it's also a case of a director abstracting themes to the point of frustration. It is unforgettable, its images permanently branded upon the brain in their clarity, but the meaning is murky (at least for me it was).
So, maybe this wasn't the best choice for a return to the realm of art house cinema. I was more bewildered than fascinated, but I guess the point I'm trying to make is that I tried it. Watching El Topo reminded me of my experience with another similarly complicated film. Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (pictured above) was also a challenge. Even more defiant of description and maybe even more thematically opaque, it was a heady delight featuring gunplay, a quest for treasure and a mind-blowing (or is it mind-numbing?) mushroom sequence. I didn't know what the meaning was (or if there even was any), but the film remains clear in my mind three months later.

I'm starting to slip more into the sub-category of surrealist art house, so let me step back a bit. With the art film, the assertion by those averse to it often falls in the range of "It's slow/boring/pretentious/ confusing/not my thing, etc."That's all well and good, but if what I've written here is any indication, perhaps the experience, with its quirks and confusions included, is what's really worthwhile. If film is only a way of passing the time for you, then I suppose it doesn't really matter what you watch, but for everyone else, why not take a chance on something different? I wasn't particularly enlightened by El Topo or A Field in England, but I richly recall both of them and each film offered an experience like no other. The odd generic blockbuster will fade from memory within days or hours, but even with a bad art film, there's something to chew on. I don't mean to preach or guilt you, dear reader. I mean only to champion more adventurous viewing. Like myself in some of these situations, you may not entirely "get it", but sometimes "getting it" isn't the most important thing. Give it a shot. Fear not the art house film.

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