It’s “avant-garde” week, which I always find sort of gleefully entertaining. Lots of people think they know what a film should be and how it should work, but our preferences are (generally speaking) a conditioned result of the confluence of a natural human affinity for narrative and the willful manipulation of that preference by the established film industry. I don’t mean this pejoratively since there’s a reason that a standard becomes a standard. I am suggesting, however, that other modes of filmmaking are foreclosed when any standard is established, and its always useful to keep that in mind.
Arguably the most famous of the films we watch in the class screening for the week is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, which was a willful attempt by two provocative artists to create a film based entirely on free associated irrationality. Almost invariably, first time viewers try to impose an order on the plot, which pretty much entirely misses the point. At the same time, it says something interesting about our urgent desire for some sort of narrative backbone when we watch a film. We expect a story, and if it isn’t clear to us we grow bored, restless and frustrated. A film such as Watson and Weber’s Fall of the House of Usher can be even more frustrating, since we know that there’s a vague resemblance to an established plot (it’s based on a novel after all), but it’s so irrelevant to what we see on-screen that it’s even harder to make sense of the imagery. The “topper” is the trio of Stan Brakhage films which close out the screening, none of which even pretend to have a narrative. Mothlight, Garden of Earthly Delights and Rage Net consist of insect parts, plant matter and paint splashes (respectively) smeared across film without any apparent rhyme or reason.
All of these leave viewers scratching their heads, but that’s a large part of the point. They function so far outside of our expectations – and what were used to – that people frequently find them baffling. The key question, of course, is why we find them so baffling. It’s fair to suggest that, in part, the creators of these works are happy to confuse us. It’s their fervent hope to be provocative and make us ponder why we like what we like. But that doesn’t help answer the question, it only helps us ask it.
Though there are many possible answers, the one I find most compelling is that we’re naturally primed to arrange the world according to the principles of narrative. We expect a story, and if we don’t see one, we’re perfectly happy to make up something appropriate to our needs. Certainly, we see this every time someone asks us what we did yesterday. We don’t relay a lot of disconnected images which may or may not cohere at any given time. Instead, we tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We may not even really have thought about our daily events as a single entity until someone asks, but we connect them in the telling. Something similar happens with small children when they’re learning to draw. There’s all sorts of interesting literature analyzing childhood cognitive development through childhood scribbles, but the common theme is that we begin by making certain patterns, which eventually evolve into pictures, which usually tell a story. Abstract lines become pictures of our families, ourselves, our houses and our surroundings, and we use narratives to fit the images together.
This helps to explain a part of our tendency toward narrative, but it still doesn’t completely overcome the objections of innumerable art professors who fervently believe in the simple power of images. And those objections aren’t without merit. When we go to the beach, we might sit for hours watching the waves or enjoying the sunset. Most of us, however, would run screaming from a film which recounted the same event in real time, even if it completely duplicated the visual and aural experience of that beach lounging. So why does that make any sense?
At least in part, I’d suggest that the nascent film industry quickly realized that people responded not just to a “cinema of attractions” (essentially movement for the sake of movement), but to actual stories told through film. As I suggest above, there’s nothing wrong with this, and it may be perfectly natural. The people who establish those standards don’t even have to understand how they work, they just need to know that they do. What follows, however, is a hundred years during which the industry refines storytelling rules calculated to pander to this impulse, and to turn us away from just enjoying the beauty of an image on its own merits. We’re less tolerant of a stunning sunrise, or a spider building a web on film because we expect a story which moves. At the same time, trying to use film as a simply visual, non-narrative, artistic medium playing in unconventional ways with color, light or images makes most of us move – right out of the theater.
I’m not suggesting that a less narrative, more avant-garde approach is somehow better – though the Hollywood industry is perfectly happy to borrow elements of that approach when it suits their needs (think of the ending of Kubrick’s 2001 or the visual and narrative games of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I just believe that it’s important to watch something every now and then which isn’t conventionally “normal.” It’s good to see something which leaves us at a complete loss and makes us consider the source of our own frames of reference. It gets us to think in new ways, and it might help us appreciate a sunset a little more – both on film and in real life.