I recently spoke at the annual Magic & Meaning Conference held in Las Vegas. In my presentation on Cinema and Magic I spoke of my love of avant-garde films their filmmakers. That is to say, filmmakers whose objective was to introduce new, experimental ideas and imagery through film. Avant-Garde films by nature are not the typical plot-driven, action-packed movies, but rather use film as an artistic medium for exploration and introspection. For those interested in seeing films in this genre I thought I would share my compiled list of what I think are 10 essential films to start with…
1.) Un Chien Andalou (1929)
A film made by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. These two artists set out to make a film with no conventional storyline or meaning. Focusing instead on creating dream logic within a collection of strange situations, this film features such imagery as an eyeball being sliced open by a razor blade, ants crawling out of a hand, and a man’s mouth disappearing. Without a doubt this film was a landmark in cinema, influencing many contemporary independent filmmakers.
2.) Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren’s first short film. This film documents the experiences in a dream of one individual. It reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience. Maya Deren has been the biggest influence on my work and ideas in film. She completely revolutionized film technique and form. Through creative editing she was able to depict internal psychological processes on film. Though she made only six short films in her lifetime, each one is distinctly unique.
3.) The Orphic Trilogy (1930, 1950, 1960)
Directed by Jean Cocteau. This is actually three films all tied together by the classic Greek myth of Orpheus. The trilogy includes The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, and The Testament of Orpheus. All three of these films are amazing in the way the stories are told and the magical visuals Cocteau creates. The special effects, while primitive, are quite clever – paintings coming to life, characters passing through mirrors into the world of death and back into life.
4.) Ballet Méchanique (1924)
This is a Dadaist/Cubist film by the artist Fernand Léger. Léger made this film as more of a collection of images brought to life by using film techniques to add movement. In this film, much like in his paintings, Léger uses a lot of still images and distorts them one way or another, juxtaposing them in a unique order and sets the entire montage sequence to music making for a beautiful spectacle.
5.) Last Year in Marienbad (1961)
A fascinating classic film by Alain Resnais. The plot is basic, a man meets a woman at a European hotel and tries to convince her that they met last year in Marienbad. But what continues is a thought-provoking exploration of memory and imagination told through visual dream sequences. The Cinematography is some of the best of its time. The non-linear storytelling leaves much to be interpreted by the viewer. In the right mindset and setting, this film can be a stimulating exploration of memory.
6.) The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Peter Greenaway weaves a visually striking tale of revenge. After watching this heavily stylized tale of a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover, you will never see Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) the same way again. I consider this to be one of the most beautiful, horrifying movies ever. The film features lavish set designs with room color tones and costumes that change as the characters move from room to room. The costumes (designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier), set design, cinematography, the acting, and the soundtrack are stunning in and of themselves. The hypnotic musical score by Michael Nyman perfectly suits the visual imagery. In an age where many movies depend on special effects and CGI to create characters this film is a testament to how color can be utilized as a character.
7.) Eraserhead (1977)
This was David Lynch’s first feature film. This film is very abstract but, as with many of the movies on this list, is something to be experienced rather than interpreted. David Lynch’s combination of industrial landscape and sound with dream imagery creates a dark, disturbing waking nightmare. It may seem very slow and tedious at the beginning but stick with it as the story builds. This film is best viewed with the mindset of film as abstract art.
8.) The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Directed by Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, this film is a surreal satire of upper class society, the bourgeoisie. While this film has a distinct plot and message in a narrative story, there is great symbolism and underlying messages in the story. The basic plot follows a group of high society friends at a dinner party who become trapped in a room in the house. Though there is nothing physically trapping them they cannot physically leave. Buñuel expertly mocks social class and social and political norms.
9.) Conspirators of Pleasure (1997)
Made by the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, this film displays the strange fetishes of several different individuals. While there is no dialogue, we are witness to characters, everyday people on the surface, who meticulously, painstakingly and creatively invent methods, tools and constructions for fulfilling their bizarre fantasies. Jan Svankmajer is a master of storytelling well known for his intricate stop-motion video in his films.
10.) 8 1/2 (1963)
Being a fan of Federico Fellini, having seen most of his films, this is still my favorite. This story follows a director who, stressed and overwhelmed, retreats into his dreams, fantasies, and memories to cope. At its core this film is a commentary on the nature of creativity, art, mid-life crisis, and the stresses of being a director. This film does a great job of blurring the line between what is reality and what is fantasy.