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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, September 18, 2021
Austin Wellens

Different films offer different relations

So, lately I’ve been trying to gain an understanding of avant-garde films, seeing that I know basically nothing about them. And in my meandering through these new experiences, I’ve developed a new analogy I guess—a new way of thinking about film, which I will now present for your consideration and entertainment, in honor of the upcoming holiday.

When you think about it, an avant-garde film is a lot like masturbation, both for the audience and the artist, while a full-out feature-length narrative film is something more akin to actual sex between the two. Let me explain.

In any “normal” or “traditional” film, Hollywoods, indies, documentaries, even short films built to follow the conventions set forward by features, there is a built-in give and take between the filmmaker and the people watching the film, meant to create a communication between the two.

Or put another way, every artist puts part of themselves into their work, and for a piece of art that is meant to last, you know, hours, it needs to be a part of the artist that can be shared and explored together with the audience in order to create something meaningful.

This doesn’t mean it’s always successful or even oriented toward the audience’s enjoyment or fun; just that the person behind the film has thrown a lot of their person into the work.

So even a film like “Blue Velvet,” where the judgment of, or any concern for, the audience seems secondary to David Lynch’s presentation, there is a direct link to his subconscious, his neuroses, hangups—basically all the little ticks and creases that make up an intimate and complete look at who he is exactly.

Which brings me back to sex. By putting so much (or so little, depending) of themselves into their films, filmmakers are also asking the audience to give a little of themselves to the film, usually to the degree that they did when the film was being made. Or, basically sex.

Look at it this way. There’s a scale. And at one end of the scale, there are films like “Holy Motors,” like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” films into which the artist has clearly poured everything they have, given themselves completely over to what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re feeling. It’s tantamount to sharing a night with the only person in the world you want to share anything like that.

At the other end of the scale is “The Avengers” and “Bad Boys II.” Films that, for all intents and purposes, are the equivalent of “we’re both drunk at this party, so…” They’re very fun, and that’s exactly what they want; the films are having a good time, the filmmaker is having a good time, and you should too.

Neither end is better than the other. It depends on what you’re looking for at the time. Maybe it’s late Friday night and you just want to have fun. Maybe, in film, you’ve found the thing you need to spend the rest of your life on, and so something like “Holy Motors” takes on the sort of importance that, I don’t know, can lead you to compare films to sex.

Now, I could keep going with this analogy. And it’d probably be a lot of fun. So yeah, I will.

Shifting gears a bit, avant-garde film, in this analogy, is masturbatory. Now before I go further, there is nothing wrong with avant-garde film, nor is there with masturbation. They’re both perfectly healthy. They’re just their own sort of animal(s).

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The thing with avant-garde is, it almost never feels like it’s made with the expectation that the audience put themselves into the film (with the exception of features that tend toward the avant-garde like “Mulholland Drive” or “The Mirror,” which operate under the need to connect that is inherent in their running times), or that the film is being made for the filmmaker’s sake.

Rather, they seem to exist purely because the artist wanted to prove that it could, that they can find new tricks to do with a camera, new ways to recombine images and ideas in order to challenge the audience, force them to adjust to a new perspective, see things in a new way, all the things that the avant-garde sets out to do.

And for the audience’s part, they are being asked to do the work of keeping up with the artist’s work, mainly for the purpose of having done the work, in order to have attained some new sort of idea about film, some new way of viewing, with these achievements serving as their own reward.

So, to reiterate, on the part of both the spectator and the filmmaker, an avant-garde film exists for its own sake, its purpose is its own realization, and the reward for doing the work of participating is having done the work to participate. So it’s masturbation.

Again, I’m not knocking this. I happen to really like avant-garde film. It’s just, you know, a different thing from a feature film. They’re equally valuable, it all just depends on your situation and what you’re looking for at the time. So, uh, happy Valentine’s Day.

Is filmmaking comparable to sex? Email your opinion to Austin at wellens@wisc.edu.

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