Head trips

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


In expressionist films, the filmmaker wears his art on his sleeve. All films "express" a world view of some kind, but a film is expressionist when form is valued over function, ambiguity over clarity, self-revelation over objectivity and image over meaning.

Sometimes expressionism is junk and there is no shortage of dreary and pretentious European art films. Most expressionistic films are European--not necessarily because Europeans have a more developed aesthetic sensibility but because European filmmakers operate out of a different tradition than American filmmakers. For better or worse, more Americans, especially independent filmmakers, are now bending the form to their own artistic visions. Here are the great expressionist films.

"L'Age d'Or" (1930), directed by Luis Bunuel in tandem with fellow provocateur Salvador Dali, is a landmark in surrealism replete with startling images and disturbing juxtapositions. Here is where it starts.

"Rashomon" (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa, exposes the slipperyness of objective reality by depicting a brutal crime in four different ways as perceived from four different perspectives. In the uncertainty over truth there is true terror.

"The Trial" (1963), directed by Orson Welles, casts Anthony Perkins as the befuddled protagonist of Franz Kafka's novel who resents--but nevertheless on some level seems to accept as deserved--his persecution. Always keep in mind that Kafka and his friends laughed out loud when the author read from his books.

"8 1/2" (1963), directed by Federico Fellini, is a peek inside Fellini's mind as he tries to cope with ennui and indolence in the midst of a big movie project. This how the "real world" looks to an artist.

"Woman in the Dunes" (1964), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, is a bona fide allegory in which a man and a woman trapped in a deep sandpit have no choice but to cooperate in order to survive. The shoveling of sand, as depicted here, is one of film's most famous metaphors.

"Persona" (1966), directed by Ingmar Bergman, is a film of such studied nuance and stately grace that it comes close to artificiality for its own sake. An actress, suddenly struck mute for unexplained reasons, begins trading personalities with the nurse who is caring for her.

"Blowup" (1966), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, has a photographer falling into the trap of believing he can capture elusive truths on film. Perhaps the "meaning" of a photograph depends on who's taking the picture.

"Weekend" (1967), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, uses a literal traffic jam as a metaphor for existence. The highway is littered with the debris of Western civilization and the woods are full of revolutionaries. Dig it.

"A Clockwork Orange" (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick, brings out the most prescient elements of Anthony Burgess' satire of a decaying future society overrun by rival youth gangs. If there is a pathology in Britishness, this is it.

"3 Women" (1977), directed by Robert Altman, depicts the unsettling relationship between two rather ditsy women, one a gadfly and the other a wallflower. Around them, in a sun-blasted desert landscape, are constant hints of impending danger.

"Eraserhead" (1978), directed by David Lynch, has the power to shock audiences because its disturbing, inexplicable content unfolds in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way. The beauty of this movie is that surrealism is restrained instead of indulged, the way it happens in real dreams.

"Brazil" (1985), directed by Terry Gilliam, suggests adjectives like Kafkaesque and Orwellian in a tale of a mousy clerk who becomes persecuted as a dangerous subversive because of a computer mix-up. The suffering, as in all Gilliam movies, is baroque.

"Blue Velvet" (1986), directed by David Lynch, achieves some startling effects by juxtaposing the utterly square with the utterly depraved. Clean cut teenage boy sets out to discover who belongs to a severed ear he finds in a vacant lot.

"Santa Sangre" (1989), directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, follows some circus characters around, especially an armless woman who uses her son's arms in her act. The in-your-face bizarre sequences include an elephant funeral that has to be seen to be believed.

"Edward Scissorhands" (1990), directed by Tim Burton, weaves a fairy tale spell and artfully maintains its winsome spirit to the very end. Rarely does so thoroughly satisfying and fully realized an artistic vision come out of Hollywood.


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