While people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.
Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.
Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.
The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.