20 Abstract Movies for Liberal Students of Film and Literature
This is simply a list of predominantly independent and foreign films that communicate ideas in unique ways, most often through the heavy use of symbolism. Not all of these can technically be referred to as “abstract,” but there should be something unique in each one. The idea is to create interest in these films by discussing their meaning and the way that it’s created. I’m a liberal, and my favorite schools of thought are existentialism and transcendentalism, so those ideas will appear often.
As I Lay Dying (2013)
Director: James Franco
This is James Franco’s attempt to translate William Faulkner’s novel to film. The novel is written in stream of consciousness style, and each chapter switches to a different character’s point of view. It’s basically impossible to communicate everything that’s going on in the novel without repeating the story over and over ala Arrested Development, but Franco does an admirable job of incorporating the basic idea into his film. Early on, he uses a split screen to communicate two points of view: one is that of the currently active character, while the other shows how others see that character. That is essentially what Faulkner accomplished in his novel; we learn how each character views the world as well as how everyone else views that character. The technique isn’t nearly as informative on film because we can only infer what characters are thinking, but it’s still an interesting attempt. Franco drops the split screen as soon as the barn burns down, which seems appropriate as the story takes off at that point and the split screen would simply serve as a distraction. On the other side of the camera, Franco is perfect as Darl, and if more than five people had seen this movie Tim Blake Nelson could have received consideration for several awards for his performance as Anse.
Director: Spike Lee
Bamboozled is brilliant, aggressive satire from Spike Lee. Symbolism always has a place in his films, but Bamboozled is built around it. An African American television producer, appropriately frustrated with how African Americans are portrayed on television, decides to take things to a hyperbolic level by having black actors wear black face and act out all of the worst stereotypes of African American culture in the same way that white performers in super racist minstrel shows and early television shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy did in the past. The show becomes hugely popular across every racial demographic, and the actions and stereotypes presented are emulated by the shows fans. No one is spared their share of blame; even the actors are criticized for allowing themselves to be exploited in that way to gain popularity. The film also serves as a history lesson of sorts for younger people who may not be aware of that disturbing aspect of pop culture history.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni’s absurd masterpiece Blow-Up follows a fashion photographer that finds a dead body hidden in a blow up of a picture he has taken in a public park. The most interesting aspect of the film- and, of course, the entire point- is the main character’s obvious disinterest in the plot. The character has no intrinsic motivation; his values and interest are dictated entirely by popular culture and the people around him. In one of my all time favorite absurd scenes, at one point it seems as though he may actually do something about his discovery, but he finds himself at a concert and gets caught up in what everyone else is doing. He fights his way to the front, and, when Jeff Beck does his best Pete Townshend impression, grabs the broken guitar and runs out. He discards the guitar moments later when there is no one around him that cares about it anymore. The main character is the polar opposite of an existential absurd hero, and the film works as its own form of transcendental societal criticism. Blow-Up is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Brazil is Terry Gilliam’s quirky updated version of Orwell’s 1984 (updated to 1985’s future, at any rate); in this case, the story focuses more on the love story than the Machiavellian government, but there is plenty of Orwell’s dystopia still here, and there are quirky characters and symbolic dream sequences throughout to help keep things interesting. Brazil is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Castaway on the Moon (2009)
Director: Hae-jun Lee
Castaway on the Moon is an existential romantic dark comedy featuring a love story between a castaway and a shut in. The male castaway is living out an existence straight out of Emerson’s Nature; after an unsuccessful attempt at suicide precipitated by economic and romantic failures, he must become self-sufficient and re-acquire his transparent eyeball. The shut in hasn’t been outside her room for years, and must overcome her fear of, well, everything to find meaning in her life. I somehow identify with both characters.
Director: David Lynch
The early David Lynch film Eraserhead is about a man that is constantly imprisoned and destroyed by his own libido. While it seems as though he would learn from his mistakes, he quickly “erases” those lessons every time a new opportunity presents itself. What is most interesting here is that most of what is on the screen is symbolic rather than literal; where Lynch’s more recent films require deconstructing and reassembling a convoluted timeline to discover meaning, the events here are chronological, but most of what is presented requires interpretation. At one point, when the main character decides to cheat on his wife with an attractive neighbor while his infant child is in the room, his head pops off, flies out the window, and lands in the street, where it is picked up by a passerby who then saws it open and uses his brain to make erasers for pencils. There’s also a wet dream sequence where symbolic representations of what is wasted during wet dreams fall from the ceiling and are stepped on by the grotesque representation of an objectified woman that is the subject of the dream. It’s all visually and intellectually fascinating, and it’s now available to watch on the Criterion Channel.
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Director: Luis Bunuel
The Exterminating Angel begins as a social satire of the rules governing upper class behavior. A group of upper class guests at a formal dinner party experience an unexplained mental block that prevents them from leaving. Bunuel uses the device to explore the idea of what might happen if people were forced to stay in a restrictive and artificial social situation so long that it becomes impossible to keep up false public appearances. Through increasingly dark and aggressive imagery and symbolism, he ultimately implies that those situations and structures are a way of controlling people. For anyone that may be easily offended, Bunuel was not one to pull punches; the same questions are later asked of people trapped inside a church. The Exterminating Angel is now available on the Criterion Channel.
Director: Henry Koster
Alright, so the only abstract thing about Harvey is Jimmy Stewart spending the entire movie walking around and talking to his 6 foot 3 ½ inch invisible rabbit friend (he’s a pooka). It’s quite funny, has some great dialogue, and the main character has both retained his transparent eyeball and has clearly decided to disregard societal expectation and define his own existence. He explicitly defines his view of the world: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” He ignores everyone that thinks he’s crazy and is simply nice to everyone; it’s hard to disagree with that philosophy.
Director: Jamin Winans
Ink is a sort of cross between Jacob’s Ladder, The Matrix, and a more recent David Lynch film. There are sci-fi representations of good and evil, in this case aliens that influence people’s dreams, fighting an allegorical battle to determine if a man will be able to overcome his anger, frustration, and embarrassment in order to become a good father and protect his daughter's innocence and sense of hope. Look for an early scene that seems completely out of place; that scene is ultimately what the movie is about. The acting here leaves a lot to be desired, but the narrative structure, special effects, and editing are remarkable, particularly considering the film’s low budget, and the result is a beautiful and well crafted work. Ink is available now on Amazon Prime.
Director: Lucille Hadzihalilovic
Innocence is a dark, surreal film set in an unusual all girls French boarding school where the pupils stay isolated from childhood into adolescence and are taught remarkably little that would allow them to function in the real world. Of interest here is that the school serves as a metaphor for the idea of protecting the innocence and virginity of young girls by keeping them isolated and ignorant to the realities of the world. The film points out how this leaves girls vulnerable to exploitation, as well as how dangerous natural curiosity becomes without knowledge. Nothing explicitly horrific happens on screen, but it is made clear that it definitely could.
Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Jacob’s Ladder follows an existential journey in a man’s mind that allows him to go from miserable and guilt ridden to serenely content at the time of his death. The story is told through three intertwined timelines- one of past memories, one of the present in which the character lies dying, and one of an impossible future. Despite its dark imagery and tone, this is not a horror movie! The scary things aren’t literally happening, although they are, along with several other occurrences, intended to symbolically imply a literal or figurative purgatory. While this is scary at times, the film is ultimately a cathartic and uplifting experience.
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Director: Alain Resnais
Last Year at Marienbad presents the quintessential cinematic example of an unreliable narrator. The entire film is essentially the narrator’s stream of consciousness attempt to remember what happened with a woman that he was obsessed with and may or may not have done something horrible to in his past. While it’s a great deal of fun trying to figure out what really happened, it’s not entirely possible, as the narrator himself isn’t completely sure, although it is fairly clear why he might lie to himself. The film includes a well known symbolic wide shot of an open courtyard where people cast shadows but trees do not. It also includes one of my favorite little details in film; because it is essentially a representation of a man’s memories, only the things that he would have been conscious of are active. While we are normally aware of who is around us, the only people whose actions we are conscious of are the ones we’re actually interacting with or paying attention to; in order to communicate that, everyone that the narrator wasn’t interacting with at the time remains completely silent, and in most cases don’t even move. A word of warning: the first seven minutes are a little hard to watch, as the narrator is simply repeating the same fairly pretentious statement over and over. Last Year at Marienbad is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon
Like Eraserhead, Leolo is a film where not everything is a literal representation of itself. Characters become symbolic representations of their neurosis, and each member of the main character’s family eventually ends up in a mental asylum, which isn’t literally true. The main character remains unaffected by what is happening around him through most of the film, saying that “because I dream, I’m not,” implying an existential understanding of the necessity to have dreams and to keep the world in perspective. The film’s conclusion is equally beautiful and poetic. A brief warning if you’re easily offended; the film is fairly riske, and includes an adolescent male doing adolescent male things and a dirty old man doing dirty old man things.
Director: Gary Ross
Pleasantville has a lot going for it; it’s visually beautiful, quite funny at times, and absolutely loaded with symbolism. There’s also a perfectly suited soundtrack of popular music from the 50’s and 60’s, and there are even some elegant references to classic literature and art. Two high school students are transported into the world of a 1950’s television show- and consequently into the repressed, white, male dominated society that it represents. Existential and transcendental epiphanies abound, as characters gradually let go of the artificial hierarchies that have made them feel less valuable as human beings. Symbolically, the most striking aspect of the film is the change from black and white to color that occurs every time something is enjoyed or appreciated for the first time.
The Rapture (1991)
Director: Michael Tolkin
One of my literature professors perfectly described The Rapture to me as “an existential critique of the Christian apocalypse.” The first half of the film establishes an existential view of the world, and the second half then explores what it might be like if the rapture actually occurred. A word of warning if you’re easily offended: the film’s conclusion is blunt and openly blasphemous.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
This is Kurosawa’s exploration of how perception determines reality. The story of a rape and a murder is told from four different points of view- those of the wife that was raped, the imprisoned rapist/murderer, the ghost of the murdered husband, and a witness not directly involved in the incident. Each account has it’s own idiosyncracies and reflect that character’s world view and motivations. Rashomon is now available for streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Director: Quentin Dupieux
I’m not about to claim that there is anything profound or existential about Rubber; it is, however, clever and quite funny, and it isn’t completely devoid of meaning. The movie is a heavily self-reflexive horror comedy that follows the exploits of a psychopathic tire. The tire doesn’t speak or communicate- it just rolls around and blows things up telekinetically. The plot involving the tire is set up as a film within the film, and there is a fictional audience watching and reacting to what is happening as the story unfolds. The fourth wall becomes an open topic of discussion and a source of humor; even the actors of the film within the film are open about it, often asking one another what it is their character should be doing. Among the more interesting aspects of the film is how little we, as the audience, really require to buy into and follow a narrative. It’s wildly creative in it’s own way, and it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Ruby Sparks takes an impossible premise and manages to create an incredibly genuine and emotional look at relationships. A young novelist discovers that a character that he has created as an ideal love interest has become a physical reality; he subsequently discovers that everything he types about her dictates her behavior. Because Ruby is a creation of his own mind, the film ultimately becomes about the writer’s desire to control everything about a relationship despite not really knowing what he wants, his inability to accept people for who they are, and how he eventually ends up sabotaging any chances for happiness.
Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)
Director: Trey Parker
In case you’ve avoided Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut because you don’t like the original premise of profane animated children or you consider it to be too immature, I hope you’ll reconsider. This is one of the funniest, most aggressive, and best thought out pieces of satire ever produced. In only 81 minutes, the film attacks everything from racism and homophobia to Christianity (not that that’s a good thing) and makes a plea for parents to hold their children responsible for their actions instead of pointing their fingers at everyone else- and it uses parodies of musicals (specifically Les Miserables) and movies (perhaps most notably A Clockwork Orange) to do it. While it is able to encompass all of those ideas simultaneously, it is at its heart a freedom of speech movie that criticizes media that openly endorses violence while attempting to limit ideas and freedom of expression. Southpark: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is currently available to stream on Hulu.
Spirited Away (2001)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
If you’re one of the many that avoid anime, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a complex allegory built around the idea that people have lost their spirit, or sense of self, to all of the temptations of the world. The characters are symbolic representations of the vices they have given into; there are characters representing, among other things, materialism, gluttony, a workaholic, a spoiled child, and addiction. At the heart of it all is a lone romantic hero (romantic in a literary sense- it’s not a traditional love story) that is still in full possession of her transparent eyeball. This is transcendentalism at it’s best; Ralph Waldo Emerson would give this two thumbs up (assuming you could convince him to watch a movie).