Question – In what ways do Surrealist and Fantasy films challenge our usual expectations of conventional narrative cinema?
There are many ways that Surrealist and Fantasy cinema are able to challenge our expectations of conventional narratives. Things such as Sub-Plots, plot twists and unusual endings convince us that these are now the norm for cinema narratives. The different techniques of confusion and surrealism challenge what we would describe as a ‘normal’ Narrative. A normal Narrative often consists of a straight cut, easy to follow plot, with a few sub plots. It also has a clear beginning, middle and end and is expected to be approximately 1 Hour 30 Minutes in length. They have clear character types, often conforming to the genre’s character’s conventions.
For Example, in films such as Eraserhead (1977) by David Lynch, the narrative is very much an ‘ordinary’ film’s narrative. It starts with a man finding out that his girlfriend is pregnant, and then she has a baby, and the man starts to have a breakdown throughout the movie. This sounds like an ordinary film, but its only when you watch the film when you realize that it isn’t. Nothing is clearly explained in Eraserhead, it is all shown through mystery and representation, which can really confuse an audience that were expecting a normal narrative. Things such as the ‘sex scene’ in the film, was shown by the main character Henry’s head floating in front of the moon, then a small ‘worm like’ creature comes out of his mouth and dives into a pool. You will only be able to realize what this scene meant if you actually read into the film and tried to make meaning of it, because otherwise it would just look as if it was nonsense. But if you close read the film, you can see that the ‘worm like’ creature coming from Henry’s mouth is in-fact a sperm, and the pool of water that it goes into is representing Henry’s girlfriend, Mary X’s Vagina. The whole of the film requires close reading such as this, which is why it makes Eraserhead a Surrealist film.
Another simple scene in the film that is made really complex is when Henry goes to Mary X’s house for dinner with her family. Her family are shown to be strange and deranged, with the mother who seems like she is looking out for her Daughter when she asks Henry if they have had Sexual Intercourse, but then promptly starts to kiss Henry on the neck for unknown reasons, To the eccentric father who created some small man-made chickens, and asks Henry to carve them. When Henry agrees and starts to cut, the Chickens start to move and bleed. When reading into this, it could foreshadow what happens in the end of the film, where Henry stabs the mutant baby, and its innards spill everywhere.
This shows that films such as Eraserhead do challenge what kind of Narrative that we would expect from a film, as it is so unlike any other film’s Narrative. David Lynch has also created many surrealist films, one of which being ‘The Lost Highway’ (1997).
The Lost Highway was created using Hollywood stars (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette), which is unusual for Surrealist films as they were often low budget and used alot of lesser known actors. The Lost Highway also goes against the Narrative conventions set by other films. It is seen as a ‘Noir Horror’, as described by Lynch himself. Unlike Eraserhead, the shots themselves are not the main surreal parts of this film, but rather the Narrative and plot are. The fact that there are two main characters, that are really just one person with a split personality and a mental condition, is what gives this film its Surrealist label. There are points in the Narrative when Fred Madison turns into Pete Dayton, but the audience are not shown how, and why this is happening to him. There is also some surrealistic dialogue, shown in the scene when he is at the party, and he is approached by a mystery man who appearance resembles a clown. The man says ‘We’ve met before, haven’t we? We met at your house… as a matter of fact I am there right now.’ This is obviously designed to confuse the audience, as what the man says makes no sense, ‘How can he be here at the party talking to Fred, when he is at his house at the same time?’ From this point on in the film, nothing makes sense and it totally breaks the conventions of normal Narratives.
Also, most ‘mystery’ films are ended with all of the mysteries being solved, and leaving no questions answered. A film such as ‘The Usual Suspects’ for example, has a mystery all along, and in the last few minutes of the film it is all revealed and all of the questions have been answered. But in the Lost Highway, the audience is left searching for answers after the film ends, when he is driving away from the police and he starts to shake and throw his body around. Why was he changing into another person? Why was the Patricia Arquette character in the picture standing next to herself, one with blonde and one with brunette hair, but when the man looked at the picture at the end of the film, there was only the one person there? Surrealism is made to make the audience question what the narrative was about, and to make you think up what the possibilities were to answer those questions. It makes you think of answers to the un-answered questions, rather than simply answering everything at the end of the film.
The different conventions of film are now constantly being challenged, with lots of new film makers and script writers who do not want to conform to the restrictions and boundaries that everyone else has set, and they create films to challenge what an audience would expect to see in a film and its Narrative. But, while more and more people are challenging conventions, more and more surrealistic and fantasy ideas are infact, becoming conventions themselves. For example, the fore mentioned ‘Usual Suspects’ uses a few surreal conventions, as the whole of the film was a lie and made up, you only saw the true parts of the film for about 20 minutes. This is a very surrealistic narrative, which has now been adopted into mainstream Hollywood cinema.
The main thing that Surrealism want us to do is to question what we think is right and wrong. It questions peoples morality, understanding, knowledge and what they would expect to see from a film. It totally changes what people expect to see in a film, which is a good thing for the film industry, as it makes sure that many new, original and exciting ideas will be coming to our screens alot more often.