Friday, September 12, 2014

"New Cinema" and the Emergence of the Puzzle-Box Film

Last week, I watched The One I Love. An impressive directorial debut, it's a film that, on the surface, appears to be a typical indie relationship dramedy with a quirky sci-fi slant on the story. What it actually is is a one of a kind mind bender that somehow manages to grapple with relationship issues in fascinating ways, dealing with themes of longing, identity and the fallacy of romantic idealism. The film is almost impossible to talk about without spoiling the twist(s), so I'll keep it at this: Imagine Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets The Twilight Zone as written by Charlie Kaufman and you'll get something somewhat similar to The One I Love.
So, this got me thinking about a trend in modern cinema, and that is the trend of the "puzzle-box film". By this term, I am referring to the type of film that holds the audience at arms length with its meaning, steadily doling out pieces of information in a way that is perhaps not immediately graspable. It's difficult to characterize, as I could easily be referring to surrealism, but the likes of El Topo are not what I'm driving at. These films may have outlandish characteristics, but the stories themselves, when looked at closely are mostly grounded. It's the methods of telling the stories that are complicated. Like a puzzle box, these films can take several days or several viewings to figure out.
This is not the puzzle box I'm referring to.
The puzzle box film is not necessarily a "new" creation, though. In last week's post, I mentioned Last Year at Marienbad, a movie that is possibly the ultimate puzzle box film, inspiring a wider range of theories than anything else out there. Robert Alman's 1977 film, 3 Women could probably fall under this classification, too, as well as David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. The point I'm trying to make, though, is that there seems to be more of them coming out as of late (and made by relatively younger filmmakers). The One I Love is an incredibly mild version of this, but also released this year was Denis Villenueve's cerebral doppelganger drama, Enemy and James Ward Byrkit's challenging debut, Coherence. Spearheading this pseudo-movement is Shane Carruth, who, since 2004, has directed, written, edited, shot, musically scored, starred in and personally distributed two of the most difficult and innovative puzzle box films of the last decade with Primer, a time machine thriller like no other and Upstream Color, a beautiful, yet elusive identity drama with romantic undertones.
You don't want to know what he's looking at...
"Enemy" has one of the most startling endings of all time. 
Two questions lie at the heart of all this is: Where is cinema headed and have we really seen it all? People love to say that all the stories have been told and you can't do something truly new in film, so is it possible to develop a new cinematic language? The aforementioned Upstream Color and this year's masterpiece, Under the Skin (by Jonathan Glazer) are the closest I think we've come to doing so in the last few years. Even if the basic story is old or the themes have been seen before, the manner of expression can still be fresh. Seeing young(er) filmmakers tinkering with editing and storytelling methods is very exciting to me. It shows that invention continues to thrive and not just in the creation of fantastical lands and stunning visuals. Could it be that the art of storytelling, itself, in the realm of film is under renovation? I don't expect every film being released 20 years from now to be as complex and multi-layered as Primer, but as long as experimenters and innovators like Carruth and Glazer (among others) exist in the film community (and they always have), the medium will inevitably evolve and reach heights we never dreamed of.

Also, for a taste of Shane Carruth's unbelievably ambitious and likely never to be made film A Topiary, check out this link.

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