Cinema of the Abstract
By: Coheed 2.5
This list, which I plan to expand in the future to lists and a reference archive, is the frustrated results of reading websites dedicated to ‘weird’ and ‘para’ cinema that, for all their applaudable dedication and level of detail, felt conservative and lackadaisical in complete contradiction to the films they were reviewing and making notes on. This statement could be loaded with elitism, egotism and, if my own judgements end up being conservative in the eyes of others, potential hypocrisy, but as an ordinary fan of film, with no training in psychology, philosophy and only the basic of film studies knowledge from classes in college, my biggest concern is to move this away from judgements on the merits of a ‘weirdness’ scale and ostracising works that ‘possess no meaning to their weirdness’. I intend to use a scale of some sort, but I want to dissect even the films I hate to see why this cinema has the effect it does on me rather than simply give reviews. It will rationalise the sensations of this cinema for myself, as well as open me to the delights of irrational cinema even more, improving my ability to write and think about such complicated ideas. It will also indulge my penchant for the unconventional side of film, feeding my internal imp hooked on ‘odd’ entertainment.
The cinema that I would include is that which evoke the following words…
For my criteria, it is not…
- Avant-garde and experimental cinema as a whole. Even if one plays with the form of cinema, it may not necessarily mean it’s intended to evoke the ideas shown above.
- Extreme gore and rubber prosthetic effects. A cult film like The Story of Riki-Oh will not be on the list for me as, bar some peculiar aspects, it’s a comic book prison movie with a lot of ridiculous prosthetic gore. Mood and tone are far more potent aspects to the really ‘out-there’ films that are talked about in cult cinema circles.
- Fantasy, science fiction, horror or animation, as a concept or a genre, on a whole. Having space ships or anthropomorphic animals is not enough for me to have the effect I am looking for. The most distinct or analysed films in these areas, such as the classic Looney Tunes cartoons or horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, have their own unique logics to them that make them stand out above the rest.
- Films or works that try to have strange premises or feel ‘unconventional’ in plot or in technical production. For the later point, experimentation can exist in areas of cinema such as the documentary and not cause the results to feel ‘peculiar’ next to others in its area. As for the former, just sticking your actors in strange costumes and making them talk in abbreviated ways is not going to cut it.
- Transgressive cinema. Controversial films can be anything from documentaries to dramas covering subjects taboo to the period they were made in. That is different to what I am thinking with this project. The same can be argued for ‘disturbing’ and ‘discomfort’ depending on how I differentiate certain films.
This will be a biased view on these works since I will write about my personal opinions on them. My ideas may change however, and it does not stop you the reader of this to contribute your opinions and also recommend choices for me to watch. This is also a project that, as I continue, will hopefully improve in quality and knowledge as my general interest in reading about these ideas in books and articles, as well as how I think about even the worst of films, will build on a well as thoughts to pull from.
I will be strict on what I include on this list and write about even if the quantity of entries suddenly expands rapidly. I will not be lazy about why I choose certain choices and include reasons in the notes. If anyone wants to make an argument for certain films to be added, I encourage you to try and influence me. Aside from that, any work is liable for inclusion…
- All nations of cinema
- All eras
- All genres and types
- Even television series, video work and other areas of moving visual work
…provided the rules I’ve placed for myself are kept to.
There will be only a basic system of ratings for each entry. No complicated scoring systems, as what I write will be of more importance. The two are…
Abstract Rating: High/Medium/Low
High – Works which play with mood, structure, music, style, form or as many factors existent in film/motion art as possible on purpose or by accident. There entries are not placed here for quality, as that is another subject by itself, neither are they merely abstract or weirder than anything other films not on the list(s). They are films which create their own rules for themselves, even if they rift on the conventions of genre or areas within cinema’s canon such as cinéma vérité, and manage to be alien and yet familiar at the same time. They certainly are almost impossible to forget afterwards even if you hate them. Potential Examples – Satantango and the later films of Bela Tarr; Once Upon A Time In The West; Guy Maddin
Medium – Those that saddle the border line between films of genre and ‘non-abstract’ cinema but manipulate their own forms to the point that, cutting through the flowery sentences, pull the rug from under viewers’ feet expecting the films they’ve seen before being repeated. They are not on the level of the ‘High’ entries, whose abstractness is fully embraced, but the ‘Medium’ entries still push themselves to unexpected areas, and that doesn’t even mention the unintentional creations that manage to dumbfound the viewer by their accidents and mishaps. Potential Examples – Tarkovsky’s Solaris; The Holy Mountain; Lady In The Lake
Low = Films that only exhibit some traits of the ideas I am exploring with this list. They are genre films, they are possibly experimental, they can be any type of film, but many ‘weird’ and ‘abstract’ films and work will not be added to the list while these have. They may be great films, terrible films, but the ones that managed to make my biased list for clear reasons above the rest. Potential Examples – A Chinese Ghost Story; Ichi the Killer
Personal Rating: Out of 10 [Like with my other ratings]
Most of all for this project of mine, I want to entertain myself and anyone reading it. The worst circumstance is if this was to become pretentious nasal grazing. I want this to be a treasure hunt for myself for interesting cinema and something that may give you more things to find and see.
[Note: When this increases, these will be added to their own lists]
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Kenneth Anger, 1954) – Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome Review
Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii, 1985): Angel’s Egg Review
Azumanga Daioh (Hiroshi Nishikiori, 2002) [Including ‘Azumanga Daioh — The Very Short Movie (Hiroshi Nishikiori, 2001)’] – For the most part, this is a conventional animated highschool comedy series from the anime subgenre, one of the most well known and loved though, which follows six highschool girls, all with distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies which heightens the comedy, through their entire three years of school to graduation. It is worth adding to the list for the fact that, while the eccentric (and charming) humour is common in anime comedies, this particular one also follows the traditional of pushing said humour into a grove of odd tangents, where the (already gentle paced) show suddenly stops and you can see the small details of animation, even for a television series, as a character moves their head or gestures slightly in response to another’s or to start a tangent, leading up to a punchline and a comically heightened expression abruptly happen soon after, giving the show a dreamlike effect even though animation as a form breaks from reality through its creation. It helps that there are dream sequences too, even a whole episode devoted to them, expressing the peculiar desires and thoughts of the characters. This offbeat humour is personified further by the character Osaka, nicknamed from the region she originates from who takes the terms ‘head in the clouds’ and ‘slow’ to their extremes. When scenes suddenly stop, it’s usually because Osaka is about to say something completely random or from a place alien to anyone else in the entire cast. This is even given a morbid edge with a few later jokes – the words ‘dead animals’ she utters in one of the episodes devoted to the Cultural festivals will be stuck in my mind for a long while.
The rigid structure of the series – where characters never stray greatly from their defining traits, where there is only the three years of schooling as a plot-thread, and the episodes are split up into multiple sketches – does limit it over 26 episodes. The only real issue I had with the series though is with the recurring character Kimura, a male teacher who makes no qualms over lusting over the schoolgirls he teaches, a brave running joke considering anime like this is notorious for fetishising underage girls sexually, but with the exception of when his wife is introduced, it is a toe-curling gag that mars many of the early and middle episodes. It is a good solid series aside from this, continually funny and sweet, avoiding becoming the saccharine or sickly cute despite its content. If you can find it still, long out of print in the UK on DVD at least, anime fans especially should watch it.
Abstract Rating – Low
Personal Score – 6 out of 10
Malice@Doll (Keitarou Motonaga, 2000): Malice@Doll Review
Arden, Jane and Bond, Jack
The Other Side of The Underneath (Jane Arden, 1972) – The Other Side of The Underneath Review
Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980) – Inferno Review
Terror At The Opera (Dario Argento, 1987) – Terror At The Opera Review
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) – Wake In Fright Review
Dreams That Money Can Buy (1948) – Dreams That Money Can Buy Review
International Gorillay (1990) – International Gorillay Review
The Milky Way (Luis Bunuel, 1969) – The Milky Way Review
Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buñuel, 1974) – Rationally leaves the room when an emu enters it, as this film literally shows. A continuous flow of unfinished narratives, characters crossing each others’ paths and introducing new sketches, and some of Bunuel’s most overtly surreal and comedic ideas, this manages to be a more digestible film and yet is far less conventional than his other work from the period, fully disregarding narrative structure, and containing some exceptionally dark and scathing humour despite the almost intentionally silly tone to some of the segments. By the end the serious ideas behind the hilarity rings true.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low) – Medium
Personal Rating – 9 out of 10
Things (Andrew Jordan, 1989) – Things Review
Naked Weapon (Dir. Ching Siu-Tung, 2002) – For the most part this film, about young girls who are adducted and trained to become adult assassins who use their bodies as well as weapons, would have never been added to this. Why it has is the factor of director Ching Siu-Tung, the director of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) but sadly as well films that are extremely erratic in tone and quality. Watching a couple of his films this month (June 2012), including this one, there is a reoccurrence in his work where they are not only incredibly erratic in nature, but by the half way mark, or especially in the final sequences, the films shift into far more fantastical tones. In the tonally fantastical and well paced A Chinese Ghost Story, it is exhilarating. In Belly of the Beast (2003), Siu-Tung’s only contribution to Steven Seagal’s filmography, it is a godsend from the dull plot. In this, when the violence increases, and the tropes of wire-fu and chi ability are abruptly introduced, it shows up how poor the whole work is. It is an incredibly dull film, Maggie Q and the cast drifting through sequences without any sense of engagement. Neither does the plot have anything of interest – the Category III Hong Kong film Naked Killer (1993) is a far more interesting, and peculiar, take on the sub-genre of female assassins. Even when the wire-fu takes over and a gristly take of a human marionette is played out, there is nothing really of interest bar how Siu-Tung suddenly seems to get bored with the first hour or so and then throws the story into an abrupt change of tone. Sadly tone becomes a problem too when it comes to the gang rape sequences in the middle of the film. Intentionally horrifying, it is however tonally out of place in the film which, despite the lack of sex, revels in soft, softcore titillation once or twice as well. I have seen, and defended, films with worse content in this area, but most of those cases it is intended to unsettle and provoke the viewer in specific ways. The rape sequence in Naked Weapon feels inappropriate in such a flippant, lazy action thriller and leaves the film rancid in design rather than playing on the viewer’s anxieties. That it doesn’t feel like it’s in the right film also shows up the laziness of the whole production. These odds and unsettling tangents make it appropriate for this to be on this list but not a film you want to watch again.
Abstract Rating: Low
Personal Rating: 3 out of 10
Krakatit (Otakar Vávra, 1949) : Krakatit Review
Fellini’s Roma – Fellini’s Roma Review
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974) – Celine and Julie Go Boating Review
Dracula: Prisoner Of Frankenstein (1972) : Dracula Prisoner Of Frakenstein Review
Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010) – Film Socialisme Mini-Review
Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) – Two Or Three Things I Know About Her Review
Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) – Weekend Review
A Zed & Two Noughts (Peter Greenaway, 1985) – A Zed & Two Noughts Review
Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, 1991) – Once decimating academic listings in the surreal lunacy of The Falls (1980), Greenaway would afterwards fetishise list making and then view it as an inseparable way of life. Polarising even for his fans, Prospero’s Books can be immediately recognised as a Greenaway film, from image-within-image inserts and image manipulation seen if one digs deep and investigates his part of A TV Dante (1989), a Dante’s Inferno adaptation for television in short episodes, to staging scenes as vast tableaus that continued up to his last film Nightwatching (2007). Once a director in my eyes who, between good films, had a terrible tendency to make unintentional sketches from a lost Monty Python episode or deeply pretentious work, Greenaway’s unique directorial style has now grown more and more on me, an individual with enough clout to enter this list and who has now become an immensely underappreciated British director who deserves his due.
A film this majestic in presentation is an overwhelming experience, the director weaving the individual pieces together as a tapestry that becomes a vast tribute to Shakespeare, art and making the film for the sake of it. As the first version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest I have soaked in, having only read the original texts of Othello and Macbeth back in school, this does however change the play into its own vision. The titular Prospero is now his own creator, played by the late John Gielgud, a duke in exile who writes of himself as a wizard who shipwrecks a Royal ship on his island and having to contend with the results, both his daughter falling in love with one of the survivors, and others, in alliance with the beastman Caliban, planning to take the fantastical realm of spirits and magic for themselves. Prospero’s library of books is just as importance, mirroring the events on screen, but by themselves, beautiful brainstorms of imagination, with books of mirror to books of myth belonging to great fantasy themselves, all of which are (literally) brought to life on screen and are awe inspiring. How Greenaway recreates Shakespeare, on one hand, is in danger of collapsing in on itself – nudity, body paint, mass dance choreography, numerous and continuous camera tracks – a potential visual overload, but it is full of love and beauty, an achievement for everyone in their specific production departments, for John Gielgud for his wonderful performance(s) where, until near the end, he plays all of the characters’ parts vocally, and Greenaway himself for tying it all together through his own vision. Seeing this film, I understand fully now that the Bard’s work needs to be acted out to truly blossom, as visually awakened as one sees in this, such a fantastical tale in this fully blooming through the production design and digital manipulation. Such a feverish work is far too vivid and alive with life to be as difficult to find or maligned as it is. Something this wonderful should have been more celebrated.
Abstract Rating: High
Personal Rating: 10 out of 10
The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965): The Saragossa Manuscript Review
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1961) – The Birds Review
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932) – Vampyr Review
A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura, 1967) – A Man Vanishes Review
Noisy Requiem (Yoshihiko Matsui, 1988) – Noisy Requiem Review
Shogun Assassin (Robert Houston, 1980) – In a restored version, this goes from being a re-cut of the Lone Wolf films into its own wonderfully strange world – I over use the words ‘dream’ and ‘dream logic’, but with its dubbed voices, comic book violence and brilliant cinematography, I could have dreamt the film up rather than have seen it. The music is incredible, its dated synths the reason why it is ominous and adds an cathartic power to the work.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low) – Medium
Personal Rating – 10 out of 10
Marquis de Sade’s Prosperities of Vice (Akio Jissoji, 1988) – Prosperities of Vice Review
Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1997) – Perfect Blue Review
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003) :- Gozu Review
Hausu aka. House :- Hausu Review
Death Laid An Egg (Giulio Questi, 1968) – Death Laid An Egg Review
Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (Dirs. Kuang-chi Tu & René Vienet, 1973) – Can Dialectics Break Bricks? Review
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922/Denmark-Sweden) – Even in this era, Benjamin Christensen’s most well known and accessible work is unique and yet to be replicated to my knowledge in cinema’s history. It is not that is has images of witches kissing Satan’s buttocks that makes it a ‘strange’ film, but that this is a documentary that, to explain its points, projects its history of witchcraft through fictitious scenarios that are both surreal and yet, according to Christensen’s sources, based on real dialogue expressed in witch trials and superstitions. That it is a silent film with ‘dated’ effects has a pronounced effect on its dreamlike nature – far from dated, the effects and silent cinema techniques, where the visuals have to conjure these images without reliance of a score, adds to the nightmarish tone of the subject matter while, through Christensen’s knowing humour and desire to emphasis a serious message, retaining a realistic tone to the scenes of inquisitional interrogations. The film is a gem, both for what it creates in terms of said images, but also for the fact that the message, by the end of the film where a shower at a health clinic is contrasted to a burning stake, still strikes with a sobering clarity. That its message is squarely on the issue of gender politics and how women are viewed is still raw as, while we do not accuse women of witchcraft now, issues of sexism and treatment of gender are still yet to pass and are still under scrutiny. It shows Benjamin Christensen as an applaudable humanist whose effort in making this work, in contrast to some documentary and essay directors of today, avoids a lecturing, patronising tone and creates a film that is impossible to shrug its images from your mind.
Abstract Rating: High
Personal Rating: 8 out of 10
*Corpus Callosum (Michael Snow, 2002) – Corpus Callosum Review
Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (Jan Svankmajer, 2010) – Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) Review
Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962) – Pitfall Review
Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam aka. Turkish Star Wars – Turkish Star Wars Review
They Eat Scum (Nick Zebb, 1979) – They Eat Scum Review
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981) – Possession Review
Potential Candidates For The List
If you want to suggest a film for this list, do so. The user Mr. Arkadin (Arkadin’s home page) was the first to suggest one, Sleepaway Camp, and it will start things off. The ones in italics are ones I’ve added for reference.
Sleepaway Camp (1983); Hellzapoppin’ (1941); Lost Highway (1997); Suddenly, Last Summer (1959);Un Chien Andalou (1929); Arizona Dream (1993); Being John Malkovich (1999); Black Moon (1975); Brand Upon The Brain1 (2006); A Clockwork Orange (1971); Delicaressen (1991); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972); Donnie Darko (2001); Eraserhead (1977); The Holy Mountain (1973); Hour of the Wolf (1968); INLAND EMPIRE (2006); Made in U.S.A. (1966); Mulholland Dr. (2001); Naked Lunch (1991); Pi (1998); Pierrot le Fou (1965); The Saddest Music in the World (2003); Santa Sangre (1989); Songs from the Second Floor (2000); Synecdoche, New York (2008); Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989); Waking Life (2001); Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970); Videodrome (1983); Wild at Heart (1990); The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984); Alice (1988); Altered States (1980); Antichrist (2009); Archangel (1990); Bad Boy Bubby (1993); Barton Fink (1991); Begotten (1991); Branded to Kill (1967); Careful (1992); Carnival of Souls (1962); Cemetery Man [Dellamorte Dellamore] (1994); The City of Lost Children (1995); The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961); Belle de Jour (1967); Crank 2: High Voltage (2008); Blood Tea and Red String (2006); Cowards Bend the Knee, or, the Blue Hands (2003); The Dark Backwards (1991); Dead Man (1995); Dillinger Is Dead (1969); Don’t Look Now (1973); Elevator Movie (2004); El Topo (1970); Enter The Void (2009); Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970); Eyes Without A Face (1965); Fantastic Planet (1973); Fellini Satyricon (1969); Final Flesh (2009); Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005); Gothic (1986); La Grande Bouffe (1973); Greaser’s Palace (1972); Gummo (1997); Help! Help! The Globolinks (1969); The Horrors of Spider Island (1960); Idiots and Angels (2008); Jacob’s Ladder (1990); Johnny Got His Gun (1971); Kwaidan (1964); The Lair of The White Worm (1988); Lucifer Rising (1981); Maniac (1934); Nostalghia (1983); O Lucky Man! (1973); Paprika (2006); Performance (1969); The Pillow Book (1996); A Report on the Party and Guests (1966); Repulsion (1965); Sans Soleil (1983); The Science of Sleep (2006); A Serious Man (2009); Shock Corridor (1963); Skidoo (1968); Solaris (1972); Stalker (1979); Steppenwolf (1974); Suspiria (1977); Taxidermia (2006); Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989); Tideland (2005); Trash Humpers (2009); The Tree of Life (2011); The Triplets of Belleville (2003); Tromeo & Juliet (1996); Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010); Visitor Q (2001); The Wicker Man (1973); Willy Wonka and the Chocolate (1971)_; You, The Living (2007); Zardoz (1974); 200 Motels (1971); 964 Pinocchio (1991); Phase Four (1974)
Will Not Be Added To The List
Unless you, the reader, can argue for their inclusion, or if I re-evaluate some of them, these films will not be added despite qualities similar to the list’s guidelines (yes, even Your Highness has qualities befitting the list despite not being added).
Ivul (Andrew Kotting, 2009); Atomic Dog (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1998); Crush (Alison Maclean, 1993); Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011); Fathers Day (Astron-6, 2010); Gurren Lagann (Hiroyuki Imaishi, 2007/Anime Series); Frau im Mond aka. Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929); Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995); Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, 2005); Münchhausen (Josef von Báky, 1943); Terror Firmer (Lloyd Kaufman, 1999); Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (Philippe Mora, 1985); Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (Akio Jissoji, 1988); Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine-Taylor, 2012); Blood Diner (Jackie Kong, 1987);
03Carl Theodor Dreyer
35Melvin Van Peebles
43Vittorio De Seta