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Friday, November 9, 2007

Pushing the Envelope (originally published 9/00)

Most of us, it would seem, go to the movies looking for nothing more than light entertainment. Just let us munch on our popcorn and enjoy some snappy dialogue and a car chase here and there and we'll keep on buying the tickets, even if they are overpriced. Some moviegoers, however, also enjoy films that challenge them by offering imagery and/or content that doesn't conform to accepted norms.

"The Cell," a recently released serial killer movie with a twist, certainly obliges in that way. Since the setting of a significant portion of the film is the perverse and irrational landscape of a monstrous killer's thoughts, director Tarsem Singh was free to indulge his most rococo flights of fancy in designing the imagery. But "The Cell" goes even further, pushing the envelope in terms of content as well as style. As a result, some moviegoers may well have found themselves fascinated and stimulated by the film's stylistic experimentation and yet simultaneously repulsed by the perversity of its content.

If that was your reaction, don't worry. There are plenty of films available on home video that reflect the same spirit of stylistic adventurousness without finding it necessary to rub the viewer's nose in the basest instincts of which human nature is capable. Here are just a few of the many avant-garde classics available on video.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919). The artistic movement known as "expressionism" made its most significant impression on world cinema with this German horror classic. The story concerns a sinister carnival sideshow operator who exhibits the occupant of a forbidding cabinet as a "somnambulist" who exists in a state of permanent trance. Actually, the sleepwalker is being sent out by night to commit a series of murders. The story, however, is incidental. What makes this a classic of experimental cinema is the imagery, which is, after the expressionistic fashion, completely non-naturalistic. Walls slant crazily, shadows are painted on where no shadows should exist, stairways lead nowhere, and the actors deliberately sacrifice realism in order to portray the inner essence of their characters.

"An Andalusian Dog" (1928). This collaboration between surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and surrealist painter Salvador Dali (often listed under its original French title, "Un Chien Andalou") could hardly have been expected to conform to typical cinematic stylistic norms, and indeed it did not. There is no attempt at telling a story here. Instead Bunuel and Dali flood the screen with a cascade of dreamlike images, some of which are meant to be disturbing. The most famous of these is a tight closeup of a woman's eye as it is neatly bisected with a razor. Because this is a short film, it is often bundled together with other titles on videotape, but in one form or another it remains widely available.

"Blood of a Poet" (1930). Jean Cocteau was one of the great renaissance men of the Twentieth Century. Having made his mark as a poet, a novelist, and a dramatist, it was inevitable that he should also try his hand at cinema. This was his first film. Divided into four sections, it presents not so much a story as a visual poem, a meditation on the poet and his relationship with the world.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943). Poet and choreographer Maya Deren was largely responsible for the burgeoning of an American avant-garde film movement after World War II. "Meshes," her most famous film, shows us the emotionally charged imagery of a woman's dream. Structured more like a piece of music than like a narrative, it repeats key motifs, developing and elaborating them while building to a climax. The effect is hypnotic and engaging. Like "Andalusian Dog," "Meshes" is a short film, usually found on video releases in combination with other short subjects.

Because of their experimental and unconventional nature, none of these films were box office hits in the usual sense. Even so, they remain significant in that they have influenced a great many filmmakers whose films have enjoyed popular success. Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino, to name just a few, have borrowed techniques from the avant-garde in their mainstream successes. In that sense, even a film as outlandish as "The Cell" may be seen to be part of a well established tradition.

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