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Genre or Die, Pt 8: Art Film – More Than Meets The Eye?

SPOILERS: Memento, Dust Devil, Angel Heart
Okay, Art Film isn’t *strictly* a genre on its own. But it’s a “type” of film and though Art Film can incorporate all types of genre (though it’s often horror/thriller, but not always), it’s something scribes are very often interested in. Not only did Elinor ask for Art Film to be looked at as part of Genre or Die, such films as Pi, Lost Highway, Hellraiser and Existenz [amongst others] have come up for discussion on this blog more than once. But what is Art Film? I don’t get a lot of art scripts, has to be said. What I do get is scribes making this assertion:

“I’m trying to do _______________ with the story and if it doesn’t work out, I can always pass it off as being an Art Film!”

Art Film is not the “easy” option or the option to take if your story does not make sense or your structure has gone to pot. I can see why some writers might think this: after all, looking at the work of David Lynch one might be forgiven for thinking he does exactly what he likes and be damned. Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Getty in Lost Highway: why? Because he does??? I’m not a of the surreal to be honest: there are many Art Films that literally do my head in. The moment in Pi when the protagonist drills into his own head?? Yikes, no thanks. Totally not my bag.

But there is more to Art film than madness or the surreal. In fact, many films that carry the “Art” tag are those you would not expect. Memento is a good example. This was a HUGE film, is there anyone left who hasn’t watched it? Art Film can be massive film, it doesn’t have to be on the fringes. What separates Art Film from Hollywood fare is its willingness to take risks. Can you imagine Christopher Nolan going into MGM, Universal or whatever and saying: “I have this idea! The main narrative goes backwards, the sub plot goes forwards…” They’d have stopped him right there. NEXT!

Art Film is a notoriously hard sell, full stop – but when it does sell, it’s nearly always the indies that make it. The hassle doesn’t end there either: you don’t just make a film and it comes out, it has to get distribution too. Art Films often spend ages languishing in the can, waiting for sales agents to pick them up. THEN you have to get your audience – luckily, audiences interested in Art Film seem to be more open-minded than average: they seem more prone to watching anything and judging it on its own merits, as opposed to making assumptions about the material in advance. What’s more word-of-mouth helps Art Film: we saw this with Memento. On the flipside of course, if they think your film sucks that will spread like wildfire too, especially on the internet via message boards, ebulletins and of course, blogs.

Yet why do scribes persist with the notion that Art film does not have to make sense? As far as I see it, a good Art Film has two layers: it’s LITERAL layer and its SYMBOLIC layer. The literal layer could be surreal (like Lost Highway or Pi) or it could be quite straightforward, but done in an unusual way (like Memento). Symbolism then is employed to give the film “extra meaning”: if you have Memento’s special edition DVD as I do, you will have seen in the special features section Nolan’s interest in presenting the narrative as a kind of Mobius Tape (though he never uses this term). This is a mathematical concept that talks about the possibility of other dimensions – and given Memento’s preoccupation with the different truths of different people (including Shelby’s “old” perception before his injury and his “new” one afterwards), it could be argued that Nolan did this as a representation of his own perception of those dimensions.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve read a completely different perception in there – maybe if he were to read this blog entry, he would say “That wasn’t what I meant EVEN VAGUELY.” Whatever the case, my reading of that symbolic layer – if it’s even there (or not!) – makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE to how the plot plays out on a LITERAL level: Leonard Shelby’s wife is murdered and he seeks to avenge her by killing the infamous John G. In other words, I believe Art Film has a straightforward way of taking it – and if you want to dig deeper, there is something more HOWEVER you want to take it.

Two of my favourite films are Dust Devil and Angel Heart. Both are thriller/horrors and both focus around the concept of facing up to who you REALLY are. On a literal level both include protagonists who go on a quest or journey: in Dust Devil, a woman leaves her abusive husband and drives out into the desert where she runs into a murderous hitch hiker. In Angel Heart, a detective is hired by the enigmatic Luis Cipher who wants him to find a client of his, Johnny Favourite. In both films, it means the protagonist’s literal death and the symbolic taking of their souls for they both meet their doom at the hands of The Prince of Darkness, Ol’ Nick himself.

Both these films resonated with me on a symbolic, rather than literal level. I’ve watched many films that involve women running away from husbands and I’ve watched many films where detectives are employed to find someone. What was different about these was the fact that I took something from that symbolic layer that meant something to ME personally. From watching those two films I made my own story in fact: an arty thriller called Thy Will Be Done which ironically has gained me the most reads and most opportunities, despite the fact Art Film is always a hard sell.

I believe that extra layer, going beyond just “added extras”, “in jokes” or clever allusion is what separates Art Film from “usual” film. Or I could be talking rubbish. It’s all a matter of perception, after all ; )

Any personal faves of yours? What do you like/not like about Art Film? Over to you…

An excellent short history of Art Film, including a look at notable films decade by decade

Dust Devil – plot synopsis, summary, photos

Angel Heart, including an in-depth look at its more arty and symbolic themes

Trailer For Angel Heart:

Trailer for Dust Devil:

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5 thoughts on “Genre or Die, Pt 8: Art Film – More Than Meets The Eye?”

  1. Fantastic clips, Luce and thanks for posting this. It encapsulates what I really enjoy about art film, that whole play between the literal and the symbolic. Though of course you can’t always guarantee what the audience takes away with it. When you got feedback on ‘Thy Will Be Done’ were there a variety of interpretations on the symbolism?

  2. Oh yes, plenty! My Bluecat reader for example congratulated me on the use of the story of Ruth from the Bible – at the time of writing, I didn’t know the story of Ruth. That’s what I loved about it though: once I looked it up, I could see how they got that from it and it actually gave ME something back, which was fab.

    Obviously there were a couple of readers who felt I maligned interpretations of the Bible etc and that was a shame, since I would never do that. Inevitably too I got a couple of readings where I was like, “WTF? How did they get THAT??” but at the same time I was glad they could read *something* into it even if it wasn’t strictly what I intended. The fact though they saw it in it makes it true though really – Art Film is about personal interpretation, even for those people who reacted negatively to my script.

    Art Film is something lots of people feel uncomfortable discussing however for fear of being “wrong” – a shame. This post for example is getting a lot of individual hits, yet no one much is talking over 24 hours since it went up.

  3. Hellraiser – an art film? That one totally passed me by – how does that work out?

    The definition of “art film” seems to me to be very, well, vague. I wouldn’t have classed any of the films that you used as examples as art films. Films like “Prospero’s Books”, perhaps, or the early Bunuel/Dali collaborations, yes, definitely but Memento and suchlike? Not so much.

    As an aside, Nolan got the Memento gig on the strength of his first film, the ultra low budget “Following” which also used the non-linear narrative drive. Getting to do Memento was more a less of case of “Here’s some money to make another film like that – just better and with proper actors.”

  4. You’re right Tom, Art Film is very hard to classify and open I think to personal interpretation. I would argue an Art film is:

    – Highly symbolic
    – (Nearly always) Independently made
    – Uses an unusual way to look at that LITERAL plot
    – Made for a niche, rather than widespread, “Hollywood” audience
    – May use more of a “word of mouth” approach to its marketing campaign

    Lots of people however think Art Films are ONLY those that are surreal – the Dalis, Lynches, etc. And why not?

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