Avant garde influences the mainstream

Mainstream filmmakers dip into experimental aesthetics

The action takes place mostly within characters’ subconscious, with mind-bending visuals,” USA Today’s Claudia Puig enthuses. “Most breathtaking are the implosion of a Parisian boulevard, a runaway train careening down a Los Angeles thoroughfare and a midair tussle in a hotel corridor. (Director Christopher) Nolan’s inspirations include ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and a fusion of M.C. Escher with Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali.”

The film is, of course, “Inception,” the blockbuster that for many looks less like a follow-up to its director’s Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” than a gigantic rendition of the sort of visual experiment found in the works of Maya Deren, Gregory Markopoulos or Michael Snow.

Mainstream filmmakers have always tapped into the avant-garde. But that’s quite a reach for a project that cost in excess of $100 million to produce and is aimed at the largest audience imaginable. But think of Nolan’s master, Stanley Kubrick, and a film he made some 42 years ago, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Inception” may be complex, but it boasts identifiable characters and a plot that can at least be followed. Kubrick’s epic had little narrative and no central characters — just a series of incidents strung out over thousands of years of earthly and extra-terrestrial history. Plus, it led to a climax whose visual effects were clearly inspired by the kaleidoscopic images of Jordan Belson — an avant-garde filmmaker few “2001” viewers had ever heard of.

Many doubted there would be much of an audience for “2001.” Yet, defying the odds, it emerged as a great success, setting a standard for science-fiction films to follow. In trying for something new, Kubrick wasn’t “ahead of his time” but with his “psychedelic” space-trip imagery, right on it — as is Nolan now with his computer-generated effects of a city collapsing like a Japanese paper fan. Both filmmakers recognize that the “experimental” can be retrofitted into the idiom of the “mainstream.”

Back in 1929, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali made “Un Chien Andalou,” a film whose opening image of an eyeball being sliced by a razor is as shocking today as it was 81 years ago. What followed that shot, however was less shocking than simply odd. We chiefly see a series of scenes featuring a man and a woman (played by well-established French actors Pierre Batcheff and Simone Mareuil) in a Paris apartment having some sort of erotic/romantic struggle. Weird moments, like ants crawling from the young man’s hand and his mouth vanishing from view predominate.

Those looking to find surreal parallels for the film can point to a sequence showing the young man riding a bicycle dressed in a suit covered in pieces of a chambermaid’s uniform. His odd manner apes that of very popular cinema comic of the time — Buster Keaton. Many of Keaton’s films, particularly “Sherlock Jr.,” with its hero leaving his theater seat and entering the movie he’s been looking at, have been cited by critics and filmmakers as being every bit as surreal as Bunuel.

The key to “Sherlock Jr.” is that what we see onscreen is part of the leading character’s dream — just as it is in “Inception.” Dreams make a perfect rationale for avant-garde imagery of all sorts. Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick hired Dali to design dreams for their psychological thriller “Spellbound.” The flaming giraffes and melting watches of Dali’s painting had nothing to do with everyday life, but they were perfect for depicting a dreamlike state. Likewise Fred Astaire’s Dali-influenced musical number in Vincente Minnelli’s “Yolanda and the Thief” — so disarming that when his character awakens, his pal Frank Morgan remarks “Boy, when you dream — you sure keep busy!”

Dreams are bread and butter when it comes to fantasy and horror films, including episodic British shocker “Dead of Night” and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, as well as the later films of Bunuel, such as “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” Clearly the Spanish surrealist hadn’t neglected his roots.

The recent reconstruction of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 drama “L’Enfer” shows the old French master had been gorging himself on Kenneth Anger — the better to keep his tale of raging jealousy au courant. And when Federico Fellini came to New York for the premiere of “8 1/2,” the first thing the director wanted to see were the films of Jack Smith; the weird hothouse colors of Smith’s “Normal Love” inspired Fellini to make “Juliet of the Spirits.”

Meanwhile, Fellini compatriot Michelangelo Antonioni had visited Andy Warhol’s Factory and seen several sections of Warhol’s 25-hour-long “Four Stars.” That inspired Antonioni’s zeitgeist blow-out “Zabriskie Point.”

Warhol famously decreed that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, which, given the proliferation of unscripted TV, has pretty much come to pass. And were Andy still with us, there’s little doubt he would welcome the “Jersey Shore” gang with open arms.

But what about a cinematic world outside of dreams and far from Snooki? It’s there you’ll find one of the most experimental filmmakers of our time, Jean-Luc Godard.

Though his lengthy career began with sprightly variations on American crime thrillers (“Breathless”) before moving on to love letters to his first wife Anna Karina (“Vivre sa Vie”), then capturing the world of late-’60s revolt (“La Chinoise”), Godard in recent years has eliminated narrative and actors entirely, reaching in his latest work, “Film Socialisme,” a free and easy visual form far in advance of Dziga Vertov, whose 1928 “The Man With a Movie Camera” he once so admired.

What sort of audience does a film as challenging as “Film Socialisme” — which freely mixes imagery of an ocean cruise with that of a family living in a house somewhere in Europe before ending at Russia’s Odessa steps — have ? Hard to say theatrically. But you can download it right now on the Internet — the home base of the cinema’s future, mainstream, avant-garde or a mixture of both.

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