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Stranger than Fiction?

May 21, 2013

It would be foolish and downright unreasonable of me to insist on total reality when watching a film. One of the things I enjoy about fiction is its ability to be, you know, not real. One of my biggest frustrations is when people read my fiction and automatically assume it’s a Personal Story – I can’t help but feel a little insulted by the implication that I lack the imagination to make something up off the top of my head.

That is a problem not faced by writers of that literature in the more bizarre end of the spectrum. Bizarre literature can come in a variety of forms and in order to examine them I think it would be best to at least attempt to separate them out. It is a way of deciding how must strange one can stomach and how much is too much. The lines will get blurred along the way because we have different things that we can understand and others that we cannot.

The first kind of bizarre film is the classic What The Hell Is Going On film. The WTHIGO (“with-igo”) film, in all likelihood, is an arthouse, non-linear experimental film that may or may not have gone wrong, depending on what you look for in entertainment. I hesitate to suggest that, if a film is hard to follow, it is not good; but personally, I find it wearing when I cannot find anything solid to keep a hold of. I don’t ask for much, just enough tangible elements in either the story or the characters to stay interested. Really, as long as I know and like the characters, I’m easy like Sunday morning.

This was my biggest problem with Mulholland Drive. It watched like a bunch of completely separate stories strung together. I later found out that this was exactly what it was – David Lynch had intended for it to be a television series, but could not find any backing for that idea. While the segments were interesting, I found it frustrating that I was unable to link them together in any way, or see how the story was progressing. I was also completely lost by some of the scenes, most notably an uncomfortably long one with a woman on stage pretending to sing, which gets the main characters all teary eyed. Call me unromantic, if you like, but I felt like that added bugger all to the viewing experience. On second watching of Mulholland Drive, I was a bit more relaxed. I attribute my initial dislike of it to the characters.

While I am well aware that all the characters as inventions of the main character’s mind, we did not find this out until late in the film and were not exposed to the “real” characters. Therefore, we were stuck with these rather insipid one-dimensional women the whole way through. The problem with that is, if you are not invested in the characters, why should you care what happens to them? My preference of film takes me to those films with interesting characters, not those with unique plot points. It’s all about delivery.

Some call Mulholland Drive a masterpiece; I call it a film that was made as a result of the director trying to make to the best of things, massaging what might have been a masterpiece of a television series into an incoherent feature film. The minor characters were more like black comedy skit characters – I liked this and it would have been a better film if it had been constructed entirely of short skits by lots of different, unique characters, rather than an attempt to weave together a narrative of some sort. You will never convince me that Lynch had a clear idea of what he was doing when he made this film, especially as he has declined to enlighten us about what story Mulholland Drive is really giving. There are plenty of overlapping themes in relation to dreams and reality, but no overwhelming message.

Next up is the See If You Can Keep Up, Fool – or SIYCKUF (“sai-kewf”). These films are any films which run backwards, play with your perception of what is real or false or skip between times, places and characters without warning. I typically find these perfectly easy to keep track of – films like Inception and Memento have never posed a problem for me, though I am aware that other people have not had the patience to follow them. I generally have a good memory for details in fiction, so it is no overly difficult for me to trace to story backwards and unlike other people, I enjoy the challenge, thinking of it like a puzzle. I would advise perseverance and paying close attention – I would also recommend watching each film more than once. The two examples above have plenty of depth that you don’t want to miss.

Charlie Kaufman is the master of the SIYCKUF film, responsible as he is for Being John Malkovitch and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which both included being inside somebody else’s head – and all the strange things that come with it. What’s charming about a Kaufman film is that they are conceptually interesting but built firmly in the foundations of touching human drama, where love, death and heartbreak all take precedence over the weirdness. The weirdness is an aid to the drama because, let’s face it, life is weird. I like his films because they do not forget that, whatever bizarre stuff you’re putting in your film, it is people that are being affected by it and the way people react to strange things is vastly more interesting than the strange things themselves.

Kaufman has also been responsible for the best example of the next category: the I’ve Got This – Oh Wait No I Don’t aka IGTOWNID (“ai-got-own-id”).  IGTOWNID films are those cunning little worms that make you think you’ve figured it all out, but keeps flipping you very slight curve balls that make you have to figure out the whole thing all over again. Synecdoche, New York is one of my favourite films, but it’s a tough cookie.

Synecdoche plays with the idea of meta-reference, 4th wall breaking and doppelgangers, where the characters are played by actors and more actors are hired to play the actors. At any given moment in time, you are not exactly sure whether you are watching the play within the film, a play within the play within the film or “reality” (that is, reality within the film). What works for me about Synecdoche is the fact that is doesn’t string you out for too long – it lets you take a guess then jumps up and yells “WRONG!” This might not be your cup of tea, but it’s preferable to that sort of faux-mystery typical to IGTOWNID  – the kind that nobody from planet Earth could possibly crack because it purposefully doesn’t follow any strand of known logic.

Synecdoche, New York is a polarising film, presumably for the same reason that I don’t like Mulholland Drive – people find it self-indulgent and hard to follow. Drive is generally considered the better film, but I prefer Kaufman’s style, particularly his black comedy (watch out for the fantastic relationship councillor) and Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth watching any day. Generally, I felt that Synecdoche dealt with more interesting films in a more emotionally involving way, but nonetheless it is a true IGTOWNID film.

Next up is the I Have No Idea Whether Or Not This Is Supposed To Be Realistic, or IHNIWONTISTBR (“ee-neewon-tis-ti-bur”) film. These come in two forms; the ones which fall just short of realism for various reasons (perhaps one of the characters is just too nutty to be plausible) and the ones that seem plausible, but you get this odd feeling that, come the climax, everything’s going to kick off something rotten.

Slotting into the former category is a little-known (and recently rediscovered at time of writing) 1970s British film called Deep End about a young pool attendant who falls in obsessive love with an older co-worker. By and large, this drama seems quite normal, but the occasional scene is just a little far beyond real human experience.

In one scene, our young main character is grabbed lustfully by an older woman and has his hair forcibly fondled while she chatters on and on about football. He also buys about 6 million hotdogs throughout the course of the film. It feels silly for me to ask why, as the obvious answer should be that he’s hungry and he likes hotdogs. Your next question might be why we are watching a boy buy a hotdog over and over again. I… Can’t really answer that, but at the same time, the fact that I remember must mean that it did what it intended to do; it left an impression on its audience. Indeed, I think I shall remember that more than the actual climax.

In the latter category is a newer British film called Hallam Foe (Mister Foe in America). Hallam Foe is a slightly oedipal teenager who runs away from home after sleeping with his stepmother to go and live in a broken clock tower while using binoculars to spy on a woman who is the spitting image of his dead mother. Now, when I wrote that it “seems plausible”, I wasn’t suggesting that the setup was not weird. It is. It could easily not have been, but in this case, it is.

However, while there was no real indication that anything dramatic would necessarily happen, it felt very much as though it would all inevitably spiral out of all recognition of reality. It needn’t have; it could have just continued on that vein until the woman in question finally found out and gave him a clip round the ear. That more-or-less did happen, but in addition, dear Hallam also got it into his head that his stepmother was responsible for his real mother’s death and tried to drown her. Actually, he did drown her, but he resuscitated her soon after coming to his senses and she lived. That’s about as happy an ending as you could expect, really.

In the opposite camp to the above, I’m A Normal Film… AHA, GOTCHA! or IANFAHAG (“eye-an-fa-hag”) films are all those that you really don’t expect to turn strange. Again, the lines get blurred here as Single White Female is the kind of thriller where you know things are going to happen. However, what you might not expect is such a long, silly, unrealistic ending to what was mostly a well-played film.

I could accept that there was a woman who developed an obsession with her flatmate and followed her around creepily, but it disappoints me when films documenting the dangers of obsession always end in the death of either the obsessed or the object of obsession – plus a fair smattering of innocent bystanders. I am even more disappointed when people who appear to be dead spring up from the grave to save the day (or to have another pop at our victim) against the considerable odds.

I also pity a member of any law enforcement team who might have watched this film, as they are bound to think to themselves: “Hang on a minute, what are the police doing? We’re not a bunch of useless morons; we would smell a rat if we were standing right next to someone who had kidnapped their roommate and locked them up.” Alas, that’s not how it works in films. The victim has to deal with it herself, in the strangest most cack-handed way imaginable.

So, those are my personal categories for bizarre films. There’s plenty of overlap but I’m hoping that having some different terms for them will help me decide when to persevere with a weird movie. Though I am all for creativity and imaginativeness, I am concerned at the direction we are being taken in with thrillers and dramas of the unusual variety – in small quantities, anything can be involving or interesting, but when the oh-no-we’re-spiralling-out-of-control plotline starts popping up, I’ll be popping up out of my seat to switch the telly off.

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