INSTANT 3: Genre Defying Film - The Avant-Garde on Netflix

I can see myself 15 years ago in Carbondale, IL, searching the back room of rare VHS rentals in an indie shop called Rosetta Bookstore, or flipping through the bootleg-heavy bins of Plaza Records, digging up a bizarre array of selections, tipped off by a variety of sources, ranging from Videoscope magazine (The Phantom of the Movies!) to the excellent "Experimental Film" course I was taking at SIU with a guru professor of the avant-garde, Lilly Boruszkowski.  I miss those days of the independent record and book stores, the musty smells of immovable bargain records and cds mixed with the herb and incense wafting in from the backrooms.  Nowadays, I can watch the Brothers Quay on my laptop from any Starbucks, and although the films themselves still inspire sweet delirium, the overall experience lacks a certain something.

The Brothers Quay - Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988)

But, hey! - we have some great access in the internet age to films that, back in the day, would be lucky to get distributed in a decent VHS format.  I can recall taking a Fillm/Philosphy course in my grad days just to get access to some of Bresson's films (particularly, Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket) and then skipping the second half of the course, which was on Yasujiro Ozu (not that I didn't love Ozu, but I'd already seen those films!  It was just that difficult to see Bresson!)  Of course, we should celebrate the ease of venturing more easily into art house and avant-garde territory these days, although it is still difficult to know what you're getting into, and just how to situate your ass in the cushion, so to speak.  Here are some essential experimental offerings available with the mere click of a button in the "Watch Instantly" section of Netflix:

Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg
1.  My Winnipeg (2007) - Guy Maddin's aesthetic is one of the most recognizable and uncompromising in modern cinema, and although he has numerous past shorts and features that I could recommend just as highly--the top of my list including ArchangelThe Heart of the World, Cowards Bend the Knee, and Brand Upon the Brain!--I have to say that My Winnipeg is as good a gateway as any to Maddin.  My Winnipeg seems to be the perfect confluence of Maddin's silent film sensibility, warehouse set design, and autobiographical fantasia.  Also, the film features the greatest of Film Noir femme fatales, most remembered for Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 classic DetourAnn Savage...who Maddin somehow convinced to play his Mother.  Maddin has a tremendous ability for balancing his sense of humor with an unsettling and poetic film style that will not soon leave your memory.

Christos Stergioglou in Dogtooth
2.  Dogtooth (2009) - An unlikely candidate for the Academy Awards, Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth was nominated in 2011 for the Foreign Language Film category (losing out to the Danish production In a Better World, which I haven't seen, but from the looks of the trailer it seems like more typically Academy-friendly material).  Still, Dogtooth is one of the most wonderfully surreal modern satires I have seen in a long time, connecting it's ideas through imagery that is often violent, tempered by an absurdist humor that builds gradually in it's impact.  Lanthimos' work has been highly anticipated after Dogtooth (check out my brief report on his recent Toronto International Film Fest entry here), which tells the story of an uncommonly isolated family, the patriarch of which is working very hard to maintain his family's perceptions of the world, language, sexuality, and everything, really.  Recalling the touchstone of Absurdism in the American theatre, Edward Albee's early sixties play "The American Dream," through the way in which Albee similarly combines gruesome imagery with musical, comedic language and archetypal characters, the tension in Dogtooth between what is horrifying, hilarious, and true might tend to confuse your sensiblities at times, but it's Lanthimos' ability to create these tensions that makes the film one of the year's best, avant-garde or otherwise.

Jan Svankmajer's Virile Games
3.  The Ossuary, and Other Tales (2006) - Getting back to those independent book and record store moments of triumph, one of my favorite finds in those days was the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Czech born film maker/animator who is commonly cited as an influence on Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and the aforementioned Brothers Quay.  An entire collection of Svankmajer shorts, The Ossuary, and Other Tales is available for instant viewing, bringing together a great overview of the stop-action genius's work from the mid 60's to the late 80's.  I am partial to the two films from the 80's collected here, Virile Games (aka Manly Games) and Darkness-Light-Darkness, films that I dubbed and screened repeatedly upon discovering them the first time (even appropriating images from Virile Games for an original multi-media performance piece on Free-Speech issues a few years back).  If Svankmajer's shorts appeal to you, his excellent feature length take on "Alice in Wonderland," Alice (1988), and his tale of child rearing gone awry, Little Otik (aka, Greedy Guts - my particular title preference) are equally wild tales that utilize his signature animation style.

(Then, if you're still hungry for more weirdness from that area of Europe, you can start hunting down Walerian Borowczyk's Goto, The Island of Love...)

And, don't forget to make the occasional detour through your local bins and backrooms--enjoy them while we still have them!


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