On seeing Alexander Sokurov's FAUST, after I was finished marveling at its sensual and near-decadent cinematography, my first thought was an odd one, tautological in fact: this film could not have been made in America. When I tried to figure out why the non-American-ness had struck me, the answer I came to was a simple one: American filmmakers (and reviewers) often fear surrealism.
But let's back up, a bit: surrealism, after all, is an impossibly broad term. And if we define the word as simply "that which could not happen in real life," the statement is patently untrue. American audiences, after all, love their horror films: films such as The Exorcist, Halloween, and others have made their way into the canon with great ease. And what about science fiction? Our Alien, our Star Wars, and our E.T. are all proud American possessions which aesthetes and non-aesthetes alike are able to agree upon as classics. And what about the goofy-surrealism in movies from It's a Wonderful Life to Splash to Groundhog Day? And what about the grand history of American animation? Pinocchio? Snow White? Fantasia?
Their rules are different. In the movies above, the improbability is set up, as if in a display case, made the centerpiece of the film: look, kids, it's an alien! Visiting! From outer space! That would never happen! Or: is that girl really possessed by a demon? Really? That's just... unbelievable. Or: hold on, now: a man experiences the same day? Over and over? Not possible. The wonderment of the filmmaker at the idea itself is foregrounded, so the viewers are somehow made safe: we know we're not supposed to believe, which is why we go ahead and believe. But what if a surreal element—such as, for instance, the selling of one's soul in exchange for one night of sex—is merely dropped into a story, as a plot element, and treated as such, among other elements, such as poverty, illness, human anatomy, urban filth? This is what Faust does, and what Sokurov's colleagues on the continent (from Sweden to France to Italy) did for a large part of the twentieth century. The earliest examples to dent American consciousness with any force were bold, and unforgettable. Bergman had a knight play chess with Death; Fellini had a middle-aged cinematographer travel through his own nightmares; Bunuel had... well, what didn't he have? And the tradition continued--in Europe. In America, the idea that one might simply insert a magical element into a film and then keep going, not allowing the suspension of disbelief to dwarf the rest of the story, has never taken hold.
This is not to say that it has not been attempted: after all, Maya Deren made many heavily European-influenced surrealist films, most famously Meshes in the Afternoon. And: America can boast one decidedly unreal American filmmaker in David Lynch, whose films, from Eraserhead through Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. or Inland Empire, have become progressively more surreal. And, of course, there are other small flukes, such as Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. But more widely glorified American films always have a firm grounding in the real, in the everyday, the problems of our lives as we experience them, from the private agonies of a newspaper magnate to the attraction between a New Orleans bruiser and his damaged sister-in-law to the violence and intrigue at the heart of an American crime family.
There are experiments, of course, but always within reason. Favorites Joel and Ethan Coen mess around a little: their Barton Fink ended with a wholly unbelievable but thematically appropriate inferno--and elsewhere, the slant they take on places such as Hollywood, CA, or Fargo, MN are so off-kilter as to give us that small, dizzy feeling we get when an artist of any stripe has raised us, however slightly, off the planet. John Cassavetes could be said to have taken the real and made it into something other-worldly, free-associative and dreamlike as such films as A Woman Under the Influence or Faces are. Wes Anderson gives us movies with scenarios and plots that are highly improbable, as in Moonrise Kingdom--though it would be more accurate to say he makes jazzlike riffs on stories we have known all our lives (love stories, growing up stories, Freudian family dramas), rather than surreal gestures. We have, as well, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman—but in films such as Where the Wild Things Are, or Adaptation, or Synecdoche, New York, the surreal concept engulfs the movie, as if it needed to be made painfully obvious in order to be presentable to American audiences.
Lest the above seem too simplistic, perhaps a better way of expressing the sentiment would be to say that Faust is a powerful reminder of the difference between European and American filmmaking, in that the film's comfort with the unreal, such as a cloth falling from a mirror which is swinging from the sky, one of the film's opening shots, doesn't allow us to ruminate over such details for too long, or to ponder their meaning: we simply accept them, almost without realizing it. The film provides transport in plenty of other ways: the rather edgy, overly physical way the characters interact with each other, a mixture of dance, pantomime, and basketball; the distorted distances between the viewer and the subject, such as the up-close view of a dead man's genitals or the convex lens applied sometimes to characters' faces; or the unorthodox use of a grandiose soundtrack in conjunction with, say, the intense dirtiness of 19th century city streets. All of these elements combine to create an experience which is un-American, in the best possible sense.
My interest in this film is nostalgic: among the first films I saw that I was told to view as films were those of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bunuel, and others. Because I saw them at a very young age, they became a sort of standard by which I judged other films and, eventually, music, literature, paintings... Not so many years ago, I was a graduate student in writing, and when the surreal crept into my work, the most common response was that it was "unearned" or "easy" or "tricky" or, oddly enough, "not believable." So: Faust roused, in this viewer, memories of a distant past, of the moment when, in Wild Strawberries, I first saw a coach move down an empty street while tilted on two wheels, as well as being a reminder that, in many ways, our culture has quite a bit of conservatism--ingrained conservatism--to shake off.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.