Manifesto for Unconventional Art

The Quay Brothers on the set of Street of Crocodiles (1986?).

Last Sunday night, when I was at the Museum of Modern Art to see Silver Linings Playbook, I was really very early for the screening so I had time to walk around a bit. For the past few months I had been only vaguely aware of the Quay Brothers installations near MoMA’s Theater 1 and for whatever reason I had never bothered to look at any part of the exhibit. I had heard of the Quay Brothers, though all I really knew was that they’re identical twin brothers who make experimental stop-motion animated movies and that they filmed an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s novel The Street of Crocodiles back in the mid-80s.

When I actually walked around the room and looked at the exhibit, I was completely engrossed in what I saw. The Quay Brothers’ creations were unlike anything else I had ever seen. In the same way that Tim Burton’s style of animation and artwork is unique to him, so is the Quay Brothers’ art unique to them.

Quay Brothers, “Tailor’s Shop,” decor for the film Street of Crocodiles (1986). Wood, glass, plaster, and fabric, 35 7⁄16 × 26 × 30 5⁄16 inches.

The next day, a friend of mine posted a Facebook status indicating that she was at MoMA and that “the Quay Brothers’ exhibit is spooky.” Two of her friends “liked” the status and one person commented, “omg it’s the scariest thing.” I immediately felt that I needed to defend the installation’s originality and artistic merit (especially the Street of Crocodiles artwork), to which my friend replied that the figurines were indeed “amazing” but also “scary.” She could not accept the artwork’s high quality; she could only see its grotesqueness as a fearful aberration, deviating from the norm. (What’s the norm for modern art, anyway?) In a realm where my friend was repulsed, I was attracted. I said to myself: I want to see more.

Blue Velvet (1986, dir. David Lynch)

Such is the nature of cinema which does not conform to mainstream ideals. A film like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which I don’t love, is a film I can appreciate on certain levels because it dares to venture into the domain of the “bizarre.” It delves into the dark underbelly of small-town America and combines sex and violence in ways that undoubtedly make some viewers uncomfortable. The structural opposition of repulsion/attraction gets under your skin.

Play Time (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)

Jacques Tati, who influenced Lynch, made Play Time, a delightful comedy which is eccentric rather than bizarre. It challenges the viewer’s basic notions of how to structure a cinematic narrative. Telling the story through multiple perspectives is part of Jacques Tati’s overall talent for depth and nuance; the viewer’s eye is constantly roving, searching for all the little details which Tati was a master at creating.

Fallen Angels (1995, dir. Wong Kar Wai)

Getting back to the theme of discomfort: sometimes it is necessary to show images or themes which are shocking in order to create a newer, more innovative kind of art. Once in a college film class my professor made a point of showing a scene from Fallen Angels, intended to break the ice for sex scenes shown in class. I suppose there must have been people in class who were uncomfortable with watching a performance of female masturbation, but the combination of camera angles, colors and music was so fascinating that I didn’t stop to worry about being surrounded by embarrassed students. What may seem like deviant displays of sexuality to some may not seem deviant to others – depending on the degree to which the viewer is judgmental of the material.

Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese)

In my current film class, we recently watched a clip from Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. I’ve seen both the original and the remake; the remake pales in comparison, but that’s not actually my point. My point is that after watching the clip in question – when Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange are having sex and Lange image switches from “positive” to literal film negative – my professor described Nolte’s naked back as “gross.” My professor often uses adjectives like “gross,” “disgusting” and “bizarre” to describe atypical imagery in cinema. In this case, however, my professor made no sense. Arguably I am biased since I find Nolte attractive (well, from twenty years ago, anyway), but I honestly have no idea why my professor would see Nolte in such a poor aesthetic light. I think my professor found the scene disturbing on a deeper psychological level but the only way he could articulate his feelings was to attack the scene’s masculine figure. My professor’s statement is especially amusing given the fact that People magazine named Nolte the Sexiest Man Alive only a year after Cape Fear was released.

Don’t fear art simply because it does not adhere to a previously known standard. Get rid of your preconceived notions of normalcy. Instead, try to understand the art from the viewpoint of those who created it or, in the case of film, from the mindset of characters who express themselves in that particular different way.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Think of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, wherein characters find pleasure and meanings for existence through unconventional methods. Don’t constrain yourself by bourgeois, expected limitations for art and cinema. Explore the weird, the unusual, the uniquely different. Embrace the unconventional!

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6 thoughts on “Manifesto for Unconventional Art

  1. This post reminded me of something you said two years ago. I’ll try to remain as faithful as I can to the actual words. I think you said something along the lines of when we (as spectators) are confronted something unusual, or atypical horror or anything that challenges our usual (cinematic) experience we don’t know how to react but to laugh. Another reaction can be disgust or simple rejection of its artistic worth.

    I will always love the day my film history II class watched Videodrome. For me, Cronenberg exemplifies the unconventional: he takes body horror cinema and elevates it far beyond the constraints of the B-movie. Even for seasoned cinephiles, Videodrome forces us to grapple with issues we simply find difficult. Those who are unable to deal with the subject matter laugh it off or simply reject it for the grotesque treatment of societal issues.

    (The post also reminded me of Picasso!)

    • Picasso! I’m humbled.
      Even a movie as awesome yet non-weird (more or less) as North by Northwest elicited the wrong kind of laughter from my class earlier tonight. People just couldn’t handle the love scene on the train. They couldn’t deal with eroticism – instead of accepting and appreciating the sexiness of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, my class just giggled and laughed in such a way that I knew a lot of people were rolling their eyes. (Especially when Saint says she’s a big girl and Grant says yes, “in all the right places, too.”)
      By the way I think I may have added some extra lines somewhere in the manifesto – not that it was anything much, though.

  2. Wow, this is a really interesting and great post. I love what you said about Blue Velvet, and I feel exactly the same way. I don’t particularly like the film, but appreciate so much of it. I think the opening shot of the hyper-suburbia where the film takes place, is on of my favourites in all of cinema.

    • I agree, that opening is terrific. When I saw first saw Blue Velvet (some months ago at a museum theater screening), it was with a friend who loves the movie and pretty much everyone else there was a longtime fan as well. So all these people were laughing at their favorite lines while I was sitting there thinking, Hmmmm, I don’t know if I would have found that funny if I were watching this by myself at home.

      On the other hand, I was rewatching the “In Dreams” Dean Stockwell scene yesterday and really enjoyed it, maybe more so than when I actually saw the movie. At some point I may watch Blue Velvet again and like it more, knowing what to expect but also being able to appreciate those interesting quirks and technical details. (And Laura Dern’s ever-expanding mouth.)

      • The film does seem to inspire a level of obsession in people. Actually Lynch is one of those directors (sorta like Cronenberg) who have carved out a legion of hardcore fans who seem to absolutely love everything they do.

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