“Sometimes I write poems that fail and I call those experiments.” I don’t know where I picked that up from, but I have attributed it in my head to Robert Frost. I think about it a lot these days. The Boy and I go to a lot of movies and, invariably, most of the movies are “indie”. This isn’t a prejudice on our part: Modern American mainstream movies fail to do what is expected of them—primarily on a story level (which is why you hear me extolling the virtues of Korean, Japanese and Chinese pop cinema). But “indie” is a wide, nearly meaningless term, as it can encompass movies that are meant to be pop cinema (romcoms, action films, horror, war, etc.) that just don’t have the reach (due to budget or distribution concerns) of those in the Hollywood system.
Hell, Hollywood has been abandoning more of its own movies, particularly since the lockdowns, rather than gamble on the costs of distribution and marketing.
Which leads us to that most repulsive of modifiers, “art”. An “art film” can be succinctly described as “a movie no one wants to see”. As James Madison’s Phone pointed out, historically, the Academy Awards were given to big hits. In recent years, they’re almost exclusively art films. Some of you may recall my lament last year that while I enjoyed many of the movies I saw, I couldn’t think of any that I wouldn’t highly qualify before recommending.
But just as mainstream movies fail, art films have their own traps they fall into. I’ve heard people complain, for example, they don’t want to see romcoms or an action flick because they know how the movie is going to end. This is, of course, absurd: Everyone knows Hamlet dies, Elizabeth Bennet gets married, Carrie murders everyone. Try to get a surprise ending every time and you end with M. Night Shyamalan.
This compulsion to be different and unexpected is the main trap of the art film. The most common one we’ve seen is “movies that, rather than pick an ending, just stop”. An “arty” love story will take you that crucial moment where the character has to make THE choice and then just roll credits. It isn’t necessary to spell things out, of course, but if the audience not only doesn’t get to see the climax of the story but you’ve also given so little information about the characters that the audience can’t enjoy figuring it out, you’ve failed.
Horror is a great vehicle for experimentation. Horror movies don’t have to make sense. They can effectively mess with traditional movie pacing. They can leave questions unanswered. Since survival is the common thread among all living things, they don’t need elaborate character development. They benefit inordinately from marketing. They’re cheap to make and they can become unreasonably popular. Being cheesy isn’t necessarily a barrier to success.
And now that you’ve read this, I’ll finally get to my recipe for chocolate chip cookiesmovie reviews. I’m going to contrast four movies today: The first two of are being hailed as arty, experimental films.
Shot for $15,000 and raking in a cool $2 million at the box office, Skinamarink is the latest blight our neighbors to the north have visited upon on. The title comes from a once popular Canadian kid show. What’s it about? It’s about 100 minutes of staring at walls. When we came out of the theater, the concessions guy said, “Yeah, that movie is dividing people.” The Boy and I had the identical reaction: “Really?” This has irked The Boy so much that he’s been trying to find anyone to go to bat for it (who wasn’t stoned while watching it).
I encourage you to watch the 100 second trailer, even though it is a lie. It’s cut to make it look as though something happens. But that 100 seconds more-or-less encompasses the entirety of action in the film, which is sixty times longer and actually holds each of the shots shown for minutes on end, with no movement whatsoever. The story, which I defy anyone to get from the actual contents of the movie, is that a couple of kids wake up to find all the windows and doors in their house are gone. Some sort of entity has done something to their parents.
There’s enough here for a ten-minute short. Twenty, if you’re as patient as I am. There’s an atmosphere here. The audience has to do all the heavy lifting in order to rescue fear from the boredom, and the movie trips over itself making that nigh impossible.
The kids, for example, don’t act like pre-schoolers. There’s some talk of food but not much. (We’ll get to the time issues in a moment.) Their parents, or simulacrums thereof, are in the movie briefly. But nothing changes the kids’ tone from “walking around the house whispering” mode.
The house is completely cut off from the outside world. About three days into the proceedings, the kids decide to use the phone. The phone works! They talk to 9-1-1! What are we supposed to make of this? A demonic entity turned a house into a box, removed the plumbing, but not the phone wires? Somewhere out in Toronto, there’s a house just sitting in the middle of its block with doors and windows gone like we’re in a Luis Buñuel movie?
About time: One of the lies in the trailer is the “coming soon in 19732023″ gag. But it’s not 1973. 1993, maybe. The kids are constantly watching (public domain) videotapes. A minor point, perhaps, but why? Could you not make up your mind what time period it was? An hour into this nonsense, we get a “SIX MONTHS LATER” card. And nothing else changes. Our children have gone six months without food, without light, without human companionship and they’re completely unchanged. The whole thing could have (and should have) taken place in a very short time period.
Overall, the central conceit of this movie strikes me as bogus: In a found footage movie, which this comes across as, there are gaps and oddities due to the fact that the characters are experiencing what’s happening. You only get part of the picture because your cameraman is involved in the proceedings. This movie just says “We’re aiming are camera at a doorjam for three minutes. Write your own movie here! Enjoy!”
Give me Badass Ninja, made for about the same budget, but with one-hundred times more conviction.
Here’s a movie that genuinely takes place in 1973, was shot on 16mm film, and uses many of the conventions of 1973 filmmaking, where the film crew’s top priority was minimizing their carbon footprint. Well, fuck.
This is a genuinely arty film, full of interesting shots and homages to one of the most melodramatic periods of cinema, scattered images of varying degrees of spookiness, and an incomprehensible narrative. Strike that: An incomprehensible narrative would’ve been fine, this is a non-existent narrative. A woman lives on the lighthouse island of Enys Men and observes lichen. (Which, now that I put it that way, strikes me as how someone would parody an art film.) Sometimes there’s a girl in the house with her. The girl is her. We know this because they say the same words at the same time and the girl is only there sometimes which is impossible because it’s an island with nowhere to go, etc. The later “reveal” that they’re the same person comes across as “well, duh”.
This is emblematic of the whole movie: Who is there and who isn’t? Were there people on the island before and she’s the sole survivor? Is she dead? She drinks a lot of tea for a dead person. What’s the deal with the miners? Did they burn witches? Did the witches get together and burn everyone else?
To avoid the trap of falling into a clichéd narrative (which all the aforementioned things would be) Enys Men opts for giving you no narrative at all. Again, very “arty”. In some ways, this a bitterer disappointment than Skinamarink because it’s all potential and there’s a lot of skill here (where Skinamarink is just a guy aiming his video-camera at the ceiling).
On the other end of the spectrum, we have this little Thai creature feature called The Lake. This is a movie that tries very much to be in the genre throwing in the tropes of the cranky rural fisherman who discovers the monster, the hero cop who’s alienated from his daughter, the heroic young college students who save the day, the “or is it?” ending that actually seems to indicate we’re in the middle of a series somehow, etc., but it never develops anything in to a proper story. Mostly, it’s got The Monster.
And unlike most creature features, The Monster is actually pretty damn good, with the filmmakers mixing practical effects with CGI. It’s hit-and-miss, sure, as this stuff always is, but the production values are overall very professional. When the Thai figure out the basics of storytelling, they’ll be a force.
If you were to ask me what the best movie of 2022 was, I might, in all honesty, say Terrifier 2. This movie fits squarely into the slasher genre, and into the specific subgenre of splatter. As reference points: Halloween is a slasher movie but not a splatter movie. Halloween 2 is a slasher and a splatter.
I don’t really like splatter movies. While I have come to appreciate the artistry of some of the films (and it’s hard not to love the creative bravura of Tom Savini, e.g.) I tend to avoid movies that I think are just going to revel in gore. I only saw this film because the buzz was strong.
And this movie hits the mark: If you like the splatter subgenre, this movie is for you. It delivers on everything it promises, then runs for another half-hour and delivers a transcendent deconstruction of the slasher genre. If you can tolerate splatter without really enjoying it (like me) this movie might still blow you away.
It starts with a murder, naturally, by series villain Art The Clown (played by the amazingly talented David Howard Thornton), but you immediately sense that something else is going on. It’s so over the top and so public, the movie takes on the air of a fairy tale or fable. (And what are slashers if not fables?) The gore here and elsewhere is so beyond the pale and so beyond what scolds would call “unnecessary”, it’s like a dance number in a Gene Kelly musical.
The Final Girl, Sienna, played by Lauren LaVera is the perfect counterpoint to Art, gradually becoming aware of his existence, his demonic quest to kill, and becoming a rival to him, first in the traditional slasher way as the scrappy survivor trying to protect her little brother, then in a metaphysical way. LaVera, who is a trained martial artist, plays the part so convincingly that as the movie veers into its fourth, unexpected act, it genuinely transcends its own genre.
Grossing $13M on a $400K budget, it embraces its narratives, its genre tropes, and goes whole hog. The energy is like the first two Evil Dead movies, and one can see shades of young Sam Raimi hanging from the rafter with his camera to get the shots he wanted in director Damien Leone’s hiding under the bed and working the bellows for a pair of disembodied lungs. The three of them: Thornton, LaVera and Leone make a powerful team.
I like arty films and I don’t regret seeing Enys Man or even Skinamarink (much). But like Picasso drawing a stick figure of a bull, I suspect that the most successful experimental movies are going to come from those who have mastered the basic tropes and genres and narratives first.