Difficult Pictures: Art Cinema in the 21st Century

By Gregory Day and Chris Hollingsworth


The preface to Robert Phillip Kolker’s The Altering Eye begins thusly: “Narrative film can set out to please its audience, soothe it, meet and reinforce its expectations. Or it can challenge, question, and probe, inquire about itself, its audience, and the world that both inhabit and reflect. This is the kind of film that is my subject: film made in a spirit of resistance, rebellion, and refusal; made with desire.”

The Authors & Auteurs Bookclub recently met to discuss Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin and the motion picture of the same name, directed by Jonathan Glazer. Faber’s novel is very straightforward in its subject matter and its criticisms of the meat industry. Glazer’s picture however, never reveals its intentions to the audience. Arguably, Glazer seems to be interested in exploring identity, but this is just one interpretation of the picture. Under the Skin resides solely in its images and never approaches the audience, making it a difficult picture. Now, I say difficult with sincerity. Difficult pictures invoke active viewers; they challenge audiences to not take cinema at face value and to subjectively interpret the images on the screen. Difficult pictures often frustrate audiences who are accustomed to the narrative-focused offerings of Hollywood productions where the three-act structure and conventional film language are the norm.

Today with Hollywood studios muscling their way into buying mass quantities of screens across the nation and virtually killing the medium-size budgeted picture, art cinema is having a pivotal moment. Compared to fifty years ago, art cinema is struggling to be financed and to find audiences. So, in celebration of Under the Skin and to spotlight 21st art cinema, The Authors & Auteurs Bookclub spotlights our favorite difficult pictures.

Some spoilers do follow.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir. Panos Cosmatos)


Although it resides in the synthetic aesthetics of the early 1980s, Beyond the Black Rainbow is no nostalgia trip. The story concerns a young telekinetic attempting to escape imprisonment from the science facility that is experimenting on her.

Most that follows is pure expressionism. Lights, liquids, and smoke embellish bad trips, horrific experiments, and character emotions. BtBR does not invite but entices audiences to explore and to go further than the beautiful mise en scene.

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)


Ambiguity on film is almost guaranteed to make us uncomfortable, and if you can’t surrender to its delights or vexations, The Master will incense you like few things ever could. When establishing a conflict or a relationship, the inherent expectation is for resolution at drama’s end. P.T. Anderson instead gives us a near miss. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd spend two hours dancing around each other, neither able to make a break from themselves that could sustain their camaraderie and – at least in Dodd’s case – seeming interdependence. There is no easily discernible reason; we are given an intimate portrayal and study of each man in their time and place without judgment. The Master isn’t interested in terra firma, preferring the humors of languidness, misconnection, and emotion felt but not fully understood, which may not be a fun day at the beach for all.

Mulholland Dr. (2001, dir. David Lynch)


Most pictures subsist in a reality audiences can identify. David Lynch, however, has always felt our reality is superficial and that we exist in the latent parts of our psyches. Mulholland Dr. is a picture that requires audiences to cast out simple notions of realities as well as narrative storytelling. Seemingly the story about a Hollywood-hopeful helping her amnesiac friend recover her identity, the first half of the picture floats like a dream with exuberant happiness and successes. However, as the characters move closer to solving the mystery of identity, darkness slinks in. The picture plunges into the unknown, the plot evaporates, and the tone grows dour. Audiences must now decipher what is reality and what is dream. We are shown similar scenes in the latter half of the picture that reflect earlier scenes, but character identities and relationships have diverged. Lynch even goes as far to consistently show the audience a blue key, seemingly the answer to unlocking the picture’s mysteries. When one character asks, “What’s it unlock?” another character laughs at the question. Why should we be privy to the answers to all of life’s mysteries? Even if those mysteries are within us.

Hunger (2008, dir. Steve McQueen)


There are some particular movies that ask for your endurance as well as your good faith; such is Hunger. Rather than focus on the charred history between the IRA and the U.K. government and citizenry, the film concentrates on the months leading into the 1981 Hunger Strike at Maze Prison, the very physical reality and suffering inflicted upon its inmates and sometimes its guards. That focus is achieved by stripping away dialogue, by prolonging images of pain and despair, and by hardly ever leaving the prison. The cumulative effect extends no refuge, not even in the middle when the prisoners’ leader Bobby Sands confides in his priest plans to protest and their philosophies spar, most of which happens in one seventeen minute uninterrupted two-shot with nowhere to hide. The sum total of Hunger asks you linger in one position and reflect upon agony, which is anything but easy.

Cache (2005, dir. Michael Haneke)


We can not discuss difficult pictures without Michael Haneke. He’s been cinematically upsetting the applecart for more than thirty years, with pictures like The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, and The White Ribbon. In Cache, Georges and Anne receive a series of video surveillance tapes of their home’s exterior, creating a wedge between them as Georges may or may not know the purposes behind the tapes. And with each tape that arrives, the broader the ambiguity becomes around Georges and marital their trust becomes tenuous. Reaching back to The Master, where ambiguity illustrates a lost connection, Cache evades resolution at every turn. Georges and Anne are seemingly living an intrusive nightmare without the hope of veracity. Even when an Algerian family that once lived with Georges during his childhood becomes the suspects behind the tapes, their motivations are dubious. This picture is sure to infuriate the pedestrian moviegoer, with even the last shot of the picture only raising more questions. Cache examines our yearning for resolution and makes us ask, just what is the truth worth.

We hope to be able to explore further difficult pictures in the future. Pictures of this type along with their literary source materials create a wealth of discussion for the bookclub and help us determine what separates the mediums and why we like or dislike the adaptations. Do you have a favorite difficult picture? Do you like or dislike abstract adaptations of a novels? Let us know in the comments and you can always join us at our meetings on the first Sunday of every month at BookPeople and on our Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/423373174515581/

3 thoughts on “Difficult Pictures: Art Cinema in the 21st Century

    1. Naked Lunch would be awesome. But the book is problematic and lacks a narrative structure. That said, I’m open to almost any Peter Weller flick. 😉

  1. We’d love to do Naked Lunch. However, it wasn’t too long ago that we hosted a David Cronenberg adaptation of a novel, so we’d like to give some distance before tackling another one from him. Naked Lunch would make for great conversations though!

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