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I have been writing a series of essays in the hope of directing screenwriters to films that use alternative ways of structuring or telling their stories. My goal is to try to open writers up to a wider array of ways to create their vision.
I mean, it really amazes me sometimes when I realize just what has been done out there over the years in screenwriting, what can and has been achieved.
And film is an incredible medium whose possibilities simply seem boundless.
But what drove me to write these essays is that in the last five or six years of reading screenplays for contests and a production company, I have found scripts to be fewer and farther between that really take chances; try to do something different; that have a unique vision.
Instead, for me, there has been an increasing sameness to what I’ve been coming across.
Whatever the reason for that (and I, and others better than I, have discussed some of the reasons in other essays), I really want screenwriters to expand their horizons, treat their writing like an art form, and further that art form by trying something new.
As Bette Davis’ Charlotte Vale said in Now Voyager, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars”. I agree. So you writers, start reaching for them.
For the third part of my essay on this subject, I’m going to list movies that use surrealism, impressionism and other departures from reality in telling their stories.
You may feel that some of my choices don’t really depart from reality that strongly, and you may be right. But I wanted to try to include any and all possibilities that I could. I find it more useful to be as inclusive as possible rather than exclusive.
I’ve also downplayed horror and sci-fi. Almost all horror and sci-fi inherently employ non-realistic aspects, it’s in their DNA bones. So unless I felt a movie in those genres really brought something different to the equation, I would usually pass on them.
Fantasy, however, is a different colored horse. It’s in this genre that surrealism and non-realistic approaches really take flight and to ignore them is almost impossible.
But back to the topic at hand, one of the advantages to using non-realistic methods of storytelling is that you don’t always have to follow the normal rules of logic and cause and effect in developing a plot and character.
At the same time, that’s not exactly correct, though. Movies that use surrealism and similar styles of storytelling do follow a logic, but it’s usually not, as I said, normal logic. Such films often create their own rules to their own game and, therefore, create their own logic.
One way to look at it is to read Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky. Many of the words are completely made up and the story is set in a fantasy world, but the sentences use the normal syntax that all sentences use, and because of that, the poem is incredibly easy to understand.
So because of this, you can often get away with things you might not be able to in screenplays that are basically realistic.
And you also can avail yourself of an opportunity to have your audience see life and existence in a way they never have before. By looking at something from a different angle, especially a somewhat warped one, it can give one insight into a subject that a realistic approach might not give you. Ironically, it might even give you a deeper truth of reality.
As a friend of mine once said, in some ways Waiting for Godot is more truthful about life than, say, The Godfather.
On the downside, it’s not unusual that the farther and farther writers get away from realism, the harder it is for them to control what is going on and the screenplay sometimes flounders as the lack of realism overpowers it.
But, hey, nothing’s perfect and every approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
So once more, before getting to the list, and with full disclosure that I know I am being redundant, I would like to quote some paragraphs from the first essay in this series:
“Now, I know that many of you will find a way to take each example and demonstrate how it really fits into the traditional structure that is often taught, if not enforced, by many in today’s writing environment.
Well, here I’m going to be perfectly frank, or speak the truth and shame the devil as they say where I am from.
To quote Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, ‘I don’t care’.
I don’t. I don’t really care whether in the end you come to the conclusion that there are alternative structures to be used in creating films that go against prevailing wisdom in the literature, or whether you come to the conclusion that the traditional structure…is really much more malleable that one might have thought at first and that there are numerous variations to the original.
Either way is fine. I’m not going to argue it.
My point is that I think it’s time for writers to start thinking outside the box. And however you have to justify it to yourself in order to do it is fine….as long as, for god’s sakes, you do it.”
So with all that being finally said and done, following are a selection films that employ surrealism and other alternative approaches to reality to tell their stories.
UN CHIEN ADALOU/THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN: These two short films, made as the silent era was coming to a close, are almost the definition of surrealism in film. They may have a plot of some sort but hell if I could tell you what it is. Instead, like abstract art, they are more a series of images whose meaning may only be those images and how they relate to each other.
In Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Adalou (An Andalusian Dog), the filmmakers create a series of shocking and striking images including ants that come out of a wound, a piano being pulled along a street with a horse on it, and, most famous of all, a woman’s eyeball being slit with a razor (don’t worry, they don’t really slice her eyeball, you can tell how it’s done—though how it’s done may not make you feel any better about it).
Meanwhile, Antonin Artaud and Germaine Dulac’s film The Seashell… is described as being about a clergyman who has odd dreams because of his lust for a woman.
Sure, whatever. Let’s just say that both films are a bit on the weird side.
ERASERHEAD: God, what to say about this fever dream of a movie about a young man with a great, but odd, head of hair, stuck in an industrial nightmare of an existence, and who fathers a monstrous child? Well, I think that may have said it all. Has to be seen to be believed, and maybe won’t be believed then.
David Lynch’s first feature film is nothing but surrealism. It is an example of a movie that doesn’t try to justify its style or give it a context. This world on the screen is just the way it is.
It’s different from more abstract films like Un Chien Andalou in that there is a recognizable story and it’s not simply a series of images.
Other films that are also this extreme in their vision of reality, so extreme that they, also, are difficult to define or put into any one category, could include Daisies (made in 1966 in Czechoslovakia, it was considered so subversive that the director Vera Chytilova was forbidden to work in her homeland until 1975); The Holy Mountain; and El Topo (what list like this would be complete with films by Alejandro Jodorowsky).
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD: Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking film, like Eraserhead, deserves its own entry. Exactly what it is about is debatable, but it takes place at a hotel, is not told in chronological order, and may be about a man and a woman who may or may not have met at Marienbad the year before. One can make a case that it is a retelling of the Orpheus legend, but what happens is highly ambiguous.
But it was extremely influential and a much talked about film upon release (one of the great pieces of black and white cinematography at the time, it also has the dubious distinction of being one of the biggest influences on how commercials were shot in the 1960’s).
ALL THAT JAZZ/IMAGES: These are movies that exploit aspects of surrealism, but the images that result have a physical cause. In Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, a dying man (inspired by Fosse himself) imagines interactions with death, and relives his past life in both realistic and surrealistic styles, especially a big Broadway song and dance send off as his heart finally stops. But the reason he has these visions is because he is ill and dying.
In Robert Altman’s Images, a housewife (played by Susannah York, who wrote the book the movie is based on) suddenly becomes schizophrenic and starts seeing and experiencing very odd things.
Other films like this could include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (revealed to be the imaginings of a madman in a mental hospital—though I understand the filmmakers didn’t want to add that final scene); Jacob’s Ladder (a man in a coma); Alice in Wonderland (who wakes up from a dream at the end of her story); Wristcutters: A Love Story (a man’s vision of the afterlife as he is in a coma after trying to kill himself; Repulsion (again, a young woman’s schizophrenic nightmares).
WILD STRAWBERRIES/ DECONSTRUCTING HARRY: These two movies use surrealism, but there is no physical reason that is the cause for the characters to experience what is happening (like they have developed a mental illness or they are in a coma, etc.). Both movies are both about a character returning to someplace in their past and along the way, they imagine various scenes from their earlier life.
In Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a professor traveling to visit his son experiences exaggerated and impressionistic scenes from his youth as he visits the place where he grew up.
Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry is even more complicated. A writer, traveling to receive an award, remembers moments not just from his life, but also from his stories, and the surrealism explodes off the screen. What is perhaps most interesting here is that the same character, played by different actors at times, are dramatized both realistically and as how they appear in the writer’s books—and the writing is so skillful, you can tell that they are the same characters, though one has been fashioned to be part of a fictional story.
JULIET OF THE SPIRITS/8 ½: Both films are directed by Federico Fellini, who had a habit of using surrealism in all its forms. In fact, as his career progressed, he seemed to run from realism as if his life depended on it (and I suppose his artistic life may have). In these two movies, both central characters use visions, dreams and dramatized memories to find a way out of their situation.
In Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini’s vehicle for his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, a housewife has visions and dreams that help her come to terms and make a decision as to what to do about her husband who she discovers is cheating on her.
In 8 ½, Marcello Mastroianni stands in for the director himself, playing a filmmaker who has come down with “writer’s block” as he tries to finish a sci-fi film that is not worthy of his talent. His visions and fantasy moments make him realize he needs to dig into himself and create a more autobiographical work of art for his next film.
BLACK MOON/ WEEKEND: These two films involve characters who run into situations and people that just get less realistic and more mind boggling as the story goes along. However, these situations are just presented as the way the world in the movie works. There is no real explanation for the way things are, it is just assumed. In addition, both films start out somewhat unrealistically and then become more and more unrealistic as they go on.
In Joyce Bunuel and Louis Malle’s sort of sci-fi film, Black Moon, the world is encompassed in a war between men and woman. A young woman runs off and finds herself at a farm where nothing makes a lot of sense and events that happen become more and more surrealistic as the story goes on.
In Jean Luc-Godard’s Weekend, a married couple go away for the weekend, but when their car breaks down, they find themselves caught up in events that become more and more surreal. The movie begins with a style that is more hyper-realistic than realistic; the world is over exaggerated (often for satiric effect) and highly stylized, but it still quite recognizable as our own.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studios could also be included here as a British sound engineer takes a job on an Italian horror film. The early scenes feel a bit Kafkaesque, but as the story goes on, the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. The cause of the hallucinations are never really explained, if they are even supposed to be hallucinations.
And one might also throw in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, as an actress goes through a door during rehearsal and finds herself in an odd world that gets stranger and stranger.
LIKE WATER FROM CHOCOLATE: This film is considered one of the purest examples of magic realism in movies. Magic realism is a style of storytelling in which unrealistic events happen among realistic ones, but no one considers them unrealistic, but as realistic as anything, well, realistic that happens.
In Laura Esquivel and Alfonso Arau’s film about star crossed lovers, you have such aspects as emotions entering food that is being cooked (including a wedding cake baked with tears that causes vomiting and a longing for the true love of whoever eats it); someone entering a catatonic state; and someone swallowing matches and, by doing so, setting a ranch on fire.
Eraserhead might be one of the purest forms of magic realism in American movies as the world that is created is very unrealistic, but everyone acts as if everything is perfectly normal.
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO/BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: These two films are often consider to fall under the category of magic realism. I have to be honest and say I’m not convinced. For me, magic realism means that anything that happens is seen as natural and no one recognizes it as being out of the ordinary, but just a routine way of life. But in both of these examples, everyone recognizes how odd the events are.
But at the same time, the definition of magic realism is becoming a bit more lose and often more inclusive of anything unrealistic that enters an otherwise realistic context.
In Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a character in a movie suddenly decides he doesn’t want to be on screen anymore and enters the real world.
In Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, the characters discover an entranceway that allows people to pass through the head of actor John Malkovich.
Other movies that are often put in this category include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Field of Dreams; Amelie; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Edward Scissorhands; Alice; To Rome with Love (the Alec Baldwin section); and Midnight in Paris (Woody likes his departures from realism).
In Jean Coctaeu’s retelling of the classic de Beaumont fairy tale (probably the greatest movie version of the story), a young woman loses her way and finds herself in a castle with sconces made of human hands; a rose that holds life and death in its petals; and a beast who was once a man.
In the Frank L. Baum story, a young girl finds herself not in Kansas anymore after a tornado takes her to a land with talking trees, singing little people and a wicked witch.
In Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which takes place during the Spanish Civil War, a young girl whose mother is the mistress of a sadistic army officer escapes into a dark and nightmarish world full of strange and scary creatures.
In La Belle…, the palace the heroine goes to is a real place; in The Wizard of Oz, Oz is revealed to be a dream; but in Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether this fantasy world on the young girl’s part actually existed.
Other films like this include The Blue Bird; Alice in Wonderland; Labyrinth; Time Bandits; Celine and Julie Go Boating; Pleasantville; and, of course, the Harry Potter franchise.
ANNIE HALL: In Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman’s subversive rom com about a man incapable of happiness and the woman he meets who likes to say “la-de-da”, the filmmakers use anything and everything in telling their story, including pulling Marshall McLuhan from behind a poster to settle an argument; having elementary school kids reveal what their future selves will be like; having a split screen where two families talk to each other; having a character split into two during sex; and revealing the thoughts of the characters through subtitles.
Steve Martin uses many of the same techniques in telling his L.A. Story.
BORGMAN/THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE: These are films in which there really aren’t any obvious surrealistic elements per se. In fact, there are few uses, if any, of unrealistic elements such as dreams, magic realism or hallucinations. In these movies, it’s the plots that are surrealistic. They don’t proceed on a typical cause and effect unfolding of a story.
In Borgman, Alex van Warmerdam’s nightmare of a movie, a man who is on the run (along with some others) for reasons strange, but unrevealed, makes his way to an upper middle class family and worms his way in as a gardener, only to upend the family’s lives and destroy them even while they don’t realize what is going on.
In Jean-Claude Carriere and Luis Bunuel’s nearly plotless movie, The Discreet Charm…, a group of middle class friends keep trying to have a meal together but are constantly interrupted and never manage to eat one morsel.
Emmanuel Carrere and Jerome Beaujor’s La Moustache could also fall in this category: a man shaves his mustache, and is upset when his wife doesn’t notice—but she doesn’t notice because she claims he never had a mustache in the first place (as do his friends).
In David Loughery, Chuck Russell and Joseph Ruben’s 1984 Dreamscape, a scientific study that is using a person’s ability to enter another’s dreams to help them with psychological problems is called upon by the POTUS to help him understand his nightmares of an apocalyptic wasteland. In Mark Protosevich and Tarsem Singh’s sci-fi thriller The Cell, someone enters the mind of a psychopath to find out where he has hidden a kidnap victim. And in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the head of a business that enters people’s dreams is paid by a businessman to plant an idea in a rival’s mind.
This basic set up allows the filmmakers to really do just about anything they want because dreams have their own wild and often uncontrollable logic and are filled with surrealistic images.
A special mention should be made here of Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound which uses a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. I include this only because I find this to be the most realistic portrayal of a dream in a movie that I have ever seen.
Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind probably deserves special mention here. It’s not dreams that are being dramatized, but memories. However, the principle is the same.
And as a variation of this, Ronald Bass and Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come and Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon and Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven are about people who go to heaven and enter a surrealistic world.
DUCK SOUP: This is a film that I often call theater of anarchy. Like many of the Marx Brothers’ movies, there is a story of some sort. But it’s constantly interrupted by the wild antics of the various number of brothers (depending on the movie) and has a plot that never makes a lot of sense from a logical point of view.
In this satire of war, Rufus T. Firefly is appointed head of Freedonia, but must contend with a mismanaged economy and the country of Sylvania, who goes to battle against his country. It’s the one where Grouch Marx says, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”.
There is a long tradition of this sort of movie in filmdom. After this we get the Road Movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamoure; the Abbot and Costello films; movies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles; the Monty Python movies; and Airplane.
BRAZIL/THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: These are films that I call heightened realism. They are not surrealistic, they don’t quite go that far. There is still too strong a basis in reality for them. But the background (the look of the film) as well as the plots and characters, are exaggerated. One might even call them impressionistic.
In Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi film Brazil, the story takes place in a Kafkaesque future and follows a bureaucrat who normally tries to stay anonymous, but finds himself coming to the aid a young woman who is trying to help some neighbors who were mistakenly arrested.
James Agee and Charle Laughton’s brilliant and hypnotic The Night of the Hunter is far more realistic than Brazil, but it is seen through the eyes of a child and often has a fairy tale like quality in its telling.
Fellini’s Casanova; The Double (2013); The Trial; The Night of the Shooting Stars; Fanny and Alexander and the films of John Woo (before he came to the U.S.) are other examples of heightened realism.
THE BED SITTING ROOM/ DELICATESEN: Both of these films take place in an apocalyptic future, but neither really attempt to create a realistic view of their world. Both are highly surrealistic in their approach to their subject matter.
John Antrobus, Charles Wood and Richard Lester’s view of England after an atomic war that lasted two minutes and twenty eight seconds has such through lines as a young woman who lives with her family in one compartment of an underground train falling in love with a young man who lives in the next; two policemen in a balloon who yell at survivors to keep moving; and Ralph Richardson turning into a, yes, bed sitting room (which, considering that it’s Ralph Richardson, may seem more appropriate that one might think at first).
In Giles Adrien, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, the story focuses on the odd inhabitants of an apartment building and what happens when one tenant mysteriously disappears and a new one arrives—and does the butcher who lives there have anything to do with it.
LOST HIGHWAY/ MULHOLLAND DRIVE: These two movies (the first by Barry Gifford and David Lynch and the second written and directed by David Lynch), both start out as one story, then take a sudden surrealistic turn. In the first, a saxophonist is arrested for the murder of his wife, but in jail, with no explanation, turns into a young mechanic and is released to start a new life (or actually return to the mechanic’s normal life).
In the second, after a long dream filled with odd occurrences, an actress wakes up and finds herself in reality, but not really sure of what is going on anymore.
The more I worked on this essay, the more and more movies that use this approach to storytelling kept coming to me. I couldn’t possibly list them all, but I urge writers to seek them out.
But when it comes to surrealism and departures from reality, there is a very good set of filmmakers to study to see various ways this style of filmmaking has been used:
Federico Fellini: 8 ½; Juliet of the Spirits; Spirits of the Dead (segment “Toby Dammit”); Fellini’s Cassanova; City of Women; And the Ship Sails On.
David Lynch: Eraserhead; Blue Velvet; Wild at Heart; Lost Highway; Mulholland Drive; Inland Empire.
Woody Allen: Annie Hall; Stardust Memories; Zelig; The Purple Rose of Cairo; Another Woman; Mighty Aphrodite; Alice; Shadows and Fog; Deconstructing Harry; To Rome with Love; Midnight in Paris.
Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal; Wild Strawberries; The Magician; The Silence; Persona; The Magic Flute; Face to Face; Fanny and Alexander
Luis Bunuel: Un Chien Andalou, Nazarin, Viridania, Simon of the Desert, The Exterminating Angel, The Milky Way, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, That Obscure Object of Desire
NEXT: Structures that revolve around the use of time