Before the Academy Awards I heard a lot of doomsaying from critics about the tedium of Best Picture nominees. “The form is dying!” someone is always bound to say at moments like this, because declaring the premature death of a genre is a way to get a lot of hits on a webpage. This post is all about fresh, innovative films I can’t stop thinking about.
Now, I love a good story — the kind of story told in, say, in such enjoyable but unchallenging films as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech — but just lately I’ve seen three more experimental films that mess with the genre altogether. They take on different modes of storytelling and camerawork, cross over into stage and formal painting, and sometimes eschew words altogether. The risks they take, and the things they achieve, give me new hope for the genre and make me wonder what film might do next: these films feel exciting, fresh, and wildly successful if not popular. The Arbor, The Mill and the Cross, and Le Quattro Volte are films for pushing out from the form’s limits.

1. The Arbor (dir. Cleo Barnard, 94 mins.): film, theater, biography, legacy

I’ve already raved about The Arbor, pronouncing it to be one of two winners of my own La Jefita awards for the best female-directed film of 2011.  So you’ll excuse me for puffing this one again — it’s just so good. It’s ostensibly a biography of Andrea Dunbar, a precociously gifted young playwright who emerged from a miserable housing estate in Yorkshire rife with the diseases that often accompany poverty — racism, alcoholism, mutual misery. Her plays re-created those voices and conflicts, and was called “a genius straight from the slums.” Meanwhile, Dunbar never escaped that world: she died at age 29 in a pub after a hard life of drinking, bad relationships, with three children born to three different men.

What I love so much about this film is the way it folds many layers of theater — specifically Dunbar’s own theatrical style — into the film. In some scenes actors sit in the middle of Dunbar’s own housing estate and re-create snarling, spitting scenes from her first play The Arbor, as current residents stand around the edges watching awkwardly. In others, we see those scenes re-created more intimately, as if they’ve been done for a film version of the play. Best of all, still other actors lip-synch the recorded interviews done with Dunbar’s family and especially her two daughters, girls left with the legacy of their mother’s gifts and weaknesses.

I’ve always preferred film to theater, mainly because I’ve had only stunningly limited access to good theater, and I’m one of those people who complains when a film feels overly stage-y or when an actor performs too theatrically. I can honestly say that only once before, in watching Vanya on 42nd Street, did it occur to me there might be so much to be gained by an overlap between the two media. Thanks to The Arbor, I’m converted.

2. The Mill and the Cross (dir. Lech Majewski, 96 minutes): film, art, vast historical sweep and everyday life

Isn’t this how it goes? I make a bowl of popcorn (popped in a pot on the stove with olive oil and butter so you can taste a few burned bits); I adjust all the shades in the living room so the light is just right; and I pop my head into the room where my partner is working.

“Wanna watch a film based on the 16th-century Bruegel painting, The Procession to Calvary?”

Blank stare and a flat “no.” And with that, I realize this is going to become joke fodder: Unbelievably Bizarre Films Didion Thinks She Can Make Me Watch.

I watch 15 minutes and cannot take my eyes off the screen. After 30 minutes I press pause and send a frantic email to my Dear Friend, the scholar who knows a very great deal about early modern Europe, insisting that she stop whatever she’s doing and watch this film. (She doesn’t obey, but that’s because she has a job and a life, and because when considering the triage of that job my email falls way down on the list.)

When I took Intro to Art History as an 18 year old undergrad, it was Bruegel above all whose work I found riveting. He loved to lavish attention to the mundane bits of everyday life: the country dances and bread baking and field workers that passed his eye every day — and he rendered those figures with a kind of affection that seemed rare for that era (to an 18-yr-old undergrad, anyway). He loved to see children at play and portrayed the hunch of a workman’s back, bent over his plough, with love.

But Bruegel’s attention to the quotidian could also carry deep political statements. So when I say that The Mill and the Cross simultaneously re-creates Bruegel’s painting and pries it open, you’ll forgive me if I skip all the spoiler details so you’ll experience the same sense of wonder. Just wait till you see the inside of that crazy mill at the top of the painting or the scene of a pile of children tumbling out of bed in the morning — and just wait till it ends.

Just like Bruegel, Majewski occasionally indulges in fantasy — and just like Bruegel, he shocks you with sudden bursts of violence, laced with hints of political significance. This painting was created during a period of Dutch lay opposition to the Inquisition as it had been implemented in part by the state. Spanish soldiers circle around this film, but the film demands that you do the work of figuring out what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.

But the most amazing thing about this film is that at the same time it teaches you something about art history, it ultimately shows you that we are always blind. At the same time that your eye keeps lapping up detail (JB over at The Fantom Country described it nicely as “the canvas moves”), you start to realize you’ve missed something important. The film has the same deeply humane and reformist vision as The Procession to Calvary, and this is a remarkable thing. There have been a lot of films that purport to show you artists at work. After seeing The Mill and the Cross you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of them.

3. Le Quattro Volte (dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, 88 minutes): mineral, vegetable, animal, human

Where do I even begin?

Let’s begin with Pythagoras, who lived in Calabria in the 6th century BC and spoke of each of us having four lives within us – the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human. “Thus we must know ourselves four times,” he explained. What kind of a crazy person decides this is the fodder for a film? Yet that’s what Michelangelo Frammartino does: he returns us to a tiny Calabrian village to tell of those four times (quattro volte) in an film utterly free of dialogue.

Maybe this already sounds pretentious. I can assure you it’s so unpretentious as to almost be a secret. 

Frammartino uses abrupt cuts and surprising vantage points — one minute a bird’s eye view of the village, the next a goat kid being born — and prevents you from feeling comfortable all the while. You’re never quite sure what’s going on, and the lack of dialogue forces you to scrutinize the scenes all the more closely. A long, long shot of a mountaintop or a tree makes you wonder — what am I supposed to see here?

Did I mention the film contains moments of humor that are almost as silly as a Buster Keaton film?

You’ll also be surprised that Frammartino can tell stories of vegetable and mineral just as effectively as those of human and animal. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see how he segues from one to the next, and how you can find yourself so weirdly involved in each of the film’s four movements.

Way back when I started this blog and wanted to create lists of my favorite films, I created a category called “films about existence” — a category that seems eminently problematic, yet still encompasses what these three films are doing. Each of them stopped me in my tracks as much for their innovative narrative styles and intersection with other art forms as for the extraordinary places they took me in considering the metaphysical. I’m going to keep my eyes on the field for similarly innovative, risky films. Let me know what you think I should see.