Before one actually enrolls in film school or in a film major at a liberal arts university, there is a predominant narrative about “artsy” films. Often represented by parody sketches or carried along in folk lore, there is allegedly a genre of avant-garde films that chuck narrative to the wayside and indulge in naked bodies, gratuitous literary allusion, and stylized acting.
Supposedly, a covert army of turtleneck-clad, sex-fascinated, mad men is somewhere making experimental films, later to be shown in smoky chambers to intellectual elites wearing ascots. These films have erratic, mad-lib-esque titles such as “Intercourse is a Puppy”, “The Gargoyle Eats Oranges”, “Capitalist Girl, Whore Girl”.
However, soon after attending a semester or two of classes, you discover that such films do not really exist. Sure, Dali and Buñuel made Un Chien Andalou, Daisies vaguely fits the imaginary “art” film model, and anything Eisenstein, Vertov, or Dovzhenko made was probably overly political. But even these classic avant-garde films seem disappointingly sane.
Slicing up eyeballs is off-kilter and all, but where are the writhing bodies in paint with cats walking on them? Aggressive Russian montage is certainly jarring, but where is the nonsensical dialogue and inexplicable fornication? Where are our really artsy films?
Well, fear not. It is not that these pieces do not exist. Apparently, they just get weeded out before they ever make it into the avant-garde canon. Yes, even art cinema needs to be somewhat relevant to be remembered.
The Films of Lech Majewski are just those: really artsy films that anyone who has ever wanted to parody experimental cinema has been waiting for. Shot largely on video, throwing coherent story to the wind, and replete with awkwardly inexplicable erotic imagery, this four-disc set is archetypal.
The first film of the set is The Gospel According to Harry. This piece features the conventional story of an unhappy couple living a mundane suburban life, the husband played by a young Viggo Mortensen. However, the story takes place in the middle of the desert and their home has neither walls nor floor nor ceiling. Appliances and furniture simply sit in the sand. Neighbors walk over dunes and the whole, “We live in sand” fact generally goes unrecognized by the players. Harry, the husband, has no health insurance and runs into heart issues, a random black man is crucified outside the “house” and a whole host of other depressing things happen.
The next movie is by far the stand out piece in the collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is shot entirely by the hand-cam of the main character who is obsessed with documenting his life on camera. Garden relates the love story of two PhD students who live out an idyllic romance. The woman of the relationship, Claudine, is a Bosch scholar and their courting intentionally takes the shape of Bosch’s painting of the same name as the film.
Claudine eventually develops throat cancer and the movie becomes a meditation on love in the face of death. “Earth is the only paradise we can achieve,” the theme of Bosch’s triptych becomes the mantra of this heart-breaking tour-de-force. Rarely, do films live up to their sleeves when they are proclaimed, “The most romantic film ever”, but Garden surely presses me to find a superior.
Finally, The Roe’s Room and Glass Lips mark this collection’s sharp turn into foaming-at-the-mouth insanity. The former is an autobiographical fever dream opera of Majewski’s young life. As voices sing in Italian, subtitles inform the viewer that the libretto is describing the quotidian occurrences of young Lech’s childhood and maturation. The latter is a mash-up of 33 short films about God-knows-what. Motifs include men eating dog food out of bowls, crucifixion, and women in wet dresses. Neither has a word of dialogue and this is most assuredly a blessing.
All of these films are so well shot that their near-flawless composition quickly becomes un-noteworthy. Is this an unfair criticism? Surely it is. However, I cannot think of any other way of describing the unnerving experience of being desensitized to well-crafted art. Perhaps, there’s something about the rough edges of art that makes its bursts of brilliance so pleasing.
Indeed, this is the issue with these films writ large: everything feels so precisely constructed that, although attractive and undeniably “art-worthy”, the humanity of spontaneity is lost. With the exception of Garden whose hand-cam, noisy aesthetic is its salvation, Majewski’s films struggle to get past pretty disconnected pictures. Maybe its alienation that he wants?
Special features are mostly just Lech justifying the artistic choices he has made. There are little less rewarding experiences than the explication of art which is allegedly open for interpretation.