We’ve all been there. You see the critically acclaimed film, perhaps it’s called an “art house film,” and you admit to yourself you really don’t know what just happened. Perhaps afterwards, over drinks, you and your friends collaboratively bluff each other, talking about the mise-en-scène or the performances avoiding the topic of “what the hell?” or perhaps you spiral up into stark honesty and talk about how you really don’t know what happened.
But you still liked the movie.
I call these “cryptic” movies (and TV shows) since it’s the most descriptive word. They are usually what I call classical surrealism, which is really just surrealism, but since people use that word to describe anything weird, I modify the noun. Actually, the dictionary definition of surrealism is wide enough to include anything weird, as it is used, but “cryptic” films have a special attribute. It feels like there is a rational explanation for everything happening. The audience feels like they could understand the surface-level, nonsensical story if they understood the reality underneath. Most cryptic films either have an underlying symbolism that “rationalizes” the film, or, as I stated, it feels like it does.
In the case of the former, I will explain the film. While there is much to say about these films as they typically are innovative in lighting, composition, editing, acting, visual effects and all the other aspects of film-making, other people are already writing about these things. Very few people are answering the question that audiences don’t want to admit that they want to ask, “what just happened?”
Most of these films are oneiric in that they invoke dreams and seem to operate according to dream logic. I think that this alone is a cinematic triumph. Dreams are very specific, like artistic surrealism, there are rules—“dream logic.” Copying that emotional state demonstrates a mastery of film-making prowess. However, to say that a film is dream-like is usually insufficient. In spite of popular pseudo-psychology, dreams actually are meaningless and random. A cryptic film is not.
There is a position that explaining a cryptic film ruins it. Either there is no explanation or explaining it destroys the unique emotional experience of being lost in the madness. I think that this is nonsense. Anything that you love will be appreciated more not less when you understand it. Rather than argue my position, I invite you to read my work and then decide if you think that what I am doing is worthwhile.
Then there is the question of being “right.” Oftentimes, in interpreting art, it is said that there are no wrong answers. After reading and viewing essayists and video producers attempt to explain cryptic films, 99% of the time I am convinced that, indeed, there are wrong answers. I harbor no ill will against these people, but they must admit to themselves and their fans that they are writing fan fiction and not doing what they claim to be doing.
So, do I offer myself as a sort of seer, someone who can read the minds of David Lynch, Maya Deren or Satoshi Kon? No. Like all good analysis, I base my conclusions on the text of the film. I will sometimes refer to outside sources, but I will also be wary falling down a rabbit hole. Explaining a film means taking things out of it and not putting things into it.
I will not claim to have intuited the intentions of the film-makers. If I do my job, my explanation is either what the author intended, or it’s better. This is the advantage of sticking to the text. It’s possible that an internally coherent explanation can exist without the author’s intention, but this is so implausible as to be effectively impossible.
I will talk a great deal about film theory, but that will be secondary to explaining these films. If you are studying film and hoping to be a film-maker do not assume that I am offering practical career advice. There is practically no market for cryptic films. However, if you set out to be the next great surrealist film-maker, you will have support and admiration.
So, if you like what I am saying, then please read on. I think that you will be delighted. If you find my theories naïve and insulting and they fill you with rage, you can stop reading them. If you insist on torturing yourself and writing me nasty e-mails about how wrong I am, then you are demonstrating a behavior so cryptic that even I can’t explain it.
Los Angeles, CA 2021