For every Hollywood blockbuster I saw this summer, I saw just about as many under-the-radar releases that defied those very structures and subverted the expectations developed by those predictable structures. I consider myself to be relatively egalitarian and open-minded when it comes to the media I choose to consume, and the balance I’ve struck between big budget fare and art house alternatives has got me thinking, can simply anyone watch these quirky, experimental, often inexplicable films? For fear of sounding unintentionally pretentious, let me put it another way: would simply anyone want to watch these films? In what ways might we approach these movies, particularly if we aren’t film students (or film snobs) so that we too may gain something fruitful or meaningful from the experience?
The first thing I’d like to put forward would be this crucial and overarching piece of advice: know, at least to some degree, what you’re getting into. As someone who works in an art house/independent theater, I’ve seen countless patrons leave a film in a state of shock and confusion at what they just saw, alienated and wholly unprepared. This happened when I saw Mood Indigo (2014) earlier this summer—I was, for some reason, responsible for explaining the film’s themes of authorship and predestination in the theater’s restroom after the screening. The film is undeniably eccentric, almost absurdist. But after a while, I started to accept its quirks and gradually see the purpose of them, and besides—it was Michel Gondry’s film, after all. So, that brings me to the first point of research you can (and should) do before deciding to be adventurous in your movie-going endeavors:
If the director seems iconic, look into their stylistic tendencies and thematic concerns—what are their movies like, and what makes this filmmaker tick? Two perfect examples that I’ve been exploring more this summer would be Leos Carax and Jafar Panahi. The former is an enigmatic French director who has only made five feature films in three decades. The latter is an Iranian dissident filmmaker, banned from filmmaking for 20 years.
Carax’s first feature, Boy Meets Girl (1984), feels like a punk-rock extension of the French New Wave, gorgeously moody and shot in black and white. His most recent, the acclaimed oddity Holy Motors (2012), is like a complex dream, full of surreal imagery and subconscious meaning. Neither should be watched for their plots—and yet, that is perhaps the most difficult piece of advice to accept, so we’ll return to that bit of guidance again later.
Panahi serves as a clearer case study though, for he has continued to work even under the governmental ban placed upon him. His most recent work, Closed Curtain (2014), was shot entirely in Panahi’s actual seaside villa (partially on smartphone cameras and eventually smuggled into Cannes on a USB flash drive). While it starts off narratively enough, it soon branches out into chilling abstractions when Panahi himself shows up; from there, we’re left to question whether these characters are really just aspects of Panahi’s psyche as he deals with how creativity and imagination can pose both a burden and potential liberation.
So, knowing just a little bit about the director is important, but knowing a little bit about what country the film is coming from can be handy too— the film industry and film history, not to mention politics, of countries outside of your own may be different enough to really affect the tone and shape of a film, and that can make these films seem truly foreign, in more than one sense. Romanian festival favorites such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007) and The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) might be too slow and too bleak for many viewers, with their stiflingly idle camerawork and dark, dreary lighting (to match their dark and dreary subject matter, of course). But if there is such a pattern that could speak to the culture surrounding the films, then the films become more reasonable, more justifiable, once you connect those dots.
Plus, the more foreign films you see, the less foreign they may become to us— well, maybe. So don’t give up immediately—find a country whose culture interests you and then try a sampling of films from there. You’d be surprised what strange and off-beat cinemas you’ll be drawn to once you give such cinemas a chance. You can also look to film history too— if you are a film buff and know you like Italian Neorealism, for example, see what kinds of films are extending from that or emerging from Italy now.
All that being said, let’s return to the issue of plot for a moment. To me, films can be compared to literature in certain ways: some films are like novels or prose— they make sense to us, they follow a logical trajectory, replete with cause and effect and climaxes and denouements— while others are more like poetry— they’re flowery, expressionistic, and take a lot more work on the part of the reader/watcher. Many of these films are less concerned with plot and more concerned with the medium itself— just like poetry is concerned with the words, what they can do, and how they can be arranged and used for effect. Many non-narrative films are likewise more experimental and so it’s helpful to focus on those aspects more than the story— what about these visuals is interesting in telling that story or in proving a point, for instance, or how does the editing make us feel?
Now, all of this seems easy enough to me— I took countless classes at school that dealt with contemporary cinema from all over the world, and I learned about the world through these kinds of films: how other countries dealt with issues and what those issues were. But some of this may be harder for those who watch films casually. Film can be used for spectacle as well as for storytelling. Film can be art as well as entertainment. These foreign films and perhaps some American independent films as well, are a different kind of spectacle than we’re used to— they are art. And maybe that is why we find ourselves so often saying that they’re “not for everyone.” But I do believe that they can be for anyone—anyone willing to do a little bit of extra work to comprehend them, anyone who wants to see something unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, and anyone who does want to learn about the world through a medium that is paradoxically so universal and yet so varied.