Art Film + Science Fiction film

First, from a post on the Groovy Age of Horror blog. I was struck by this quote from Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster:

We are all like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story. Some of us want to know nothing else–there is nothing in us but primeval curiosity, and consequently our other literary judgments are ludicrous. And now the story can be defined. It is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence–dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on. Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story. It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms.

More recently, on the Observations on film art blog, a post titled How to watch an art movie, reel 1.

Art-cinema narration is a lot like what we find in a mystery film, but we’re teased with clues about basic story action. Instead of who done it? we ask what are they doing?


I once wrote that “every film trains its spectator”–an idea that Jim Emerson put more pungently as “Any good movie–heck, even the occasional bad one–teaches you how to watch it.” Up to a point, we figure out the film’s characteristic stylistic and narrative strategies as it unrolls.

And two science fiction films I’ve recently watched. Prometheus and Beyond the Black Rainbow.

That should probably do for context of what I’m discussing.

My first proposal is: I think we have “primeval curiosity” not just about what happens next.

Suppose your hypothetical tribe of cavemen are gathered around the fire while Oog is talking about being chased by a tiger. Suppose Oog says he ran away and climbed a tree, and the tiger came to the base of the tree. Then it suddenly dropped dead. The “primeval curiosity” of those other cavemen is going to ask, “Why?” Why did the tiger suddenly die? That’s not a “what happened next?” question, but I think it is just as deeply ingrained. In stories, this is exemplified through the mystery.

Another curiosity, though this may be a less prominent one, is the drive to understand more about the world. Some part of your brain is going to be examining the tiger story for advice that will help you if you are chased by a tiger. But also, does it teach you something about tigers you didn’t know before, or about trees?

Science fiction plays on this last curiosity. A science fiction story can invent an entire world and then slowly reveal information about it. This is why Lord of the Rings, (Okay, I’ll blur science fiction and fantasy for the time being. Just roll with it.) comes with a map inside the front cover, and why they sell technical diagrams of all the Enterprise ships. Because the audience gains some pleasure from simply learning more about the world described in the stories, even when the presentation is shorn of all, “What happens next?”

I’ll return to How to watch an art movie:

But before we even get to these motifs, we notice that the filmmaker isn’t telling us who these characters are, or what their connection is to the woman we saw in the previous shot. We might assume that they’re a family, but a Hollywood film would tell us clearly and quickly (“Hi, Mom!” “Hi, honey. What are you and Dad reading?”). Here we have merely a possibility. A new guideline: A lot of exposition can be left to the imagination.

Those that complain about art film will say that, “nothing happens.” What this is, I think, is that the art film has given greater importance to the Understanding curiosity than to the What Happens Next curiosity.

So see here that science fiction and art film can both emphasize very similar storytelling mechanisms, even if the subject of that mechanism can in one case be, “What is the relationship of these people?” and in the other is, “What is the matrix?”

At least in theory they should have a lot in common. And literary science fiction often holds up to these standards. In practice, science fiction films often reign in this aspect. They reign it in too far, in my opinion.

Consider the opening scroll. You almost never see an opening scroll on any film other than science fiction and fantasy. (The one exception is historical fiction or non-fiction.) And often the things in the opening scroll are things that will be explained again in the film itself. I think the opening scroll almost never improves the film. Consider The Matrix. Would that have been a better movie if there had been an opening scroll that explained what the Matrix is? Of course not. Part of the pleasure of that movie is learning about the Matrix along with Neo.

Some people have complained about the amount of exposition in Inception. But I think because of this emphasis in science fiction, learning about the world is as much a part of the story as learning what happens next.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a film I recently saw that tries to combine the art film with the science fiction film. It is sparse and late-coming with the explanations, no opening scroll. ( It opens with a video talking about the Arboria institute, but it’s not immediately apparent how the institute relates with the other action that follows. )

I also saw Prometheus. That begins in a way that lets the viewer determine the meaning of it. Later, it has a couple find star maps in a cave, and immediately cuts to a space ship. Okay, a straight-forward hook, they are obviously going where the maps lead them. But as quoted above, “every film trains its spectator.” And the film transforms into doing these much more conventional, spoon-feeding type of exposition and character introduction for all the people on the ship. Perhaps if it had retained the art film attitude throughout the film, it wouldn’t have been as problematic. Or maybe it was doomed by the extrinsic training of the entire science fiction film genre, which has shied away from the art film conventions because of the financial risk.

This might be why I love FLCL as much as I do. It does combine science fiction elements that it does not spoon-feed you, plus it handles the character relationships with the circumspection of an art film. ( With a dose of absurdist humour. )

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