Friday, 8 May 2015

The Colour Spectrum of Abstract Films

I intend to introduce more to the blog as the year passes. Not a change in its structure or content completely, as that would flippant considering only a year ago this blog replaced my original one. Instead, as the first year anniversary approaching, I want to expand on what I writing already so far. Most of the normal reviews will be what I type for the site Videotape Swapshop1, whilst this blog will almost entirely be about the "abstract" films and motion works2 that I intended the site to be for. To further improve the content of the site, I want to improve the review structures. The reviews will be improved to include more basic information, such as the cast etc., and a more list-like structure to accomplish covering all the necessary details such as my opinion, whether a film is abstract, what creates anything abstract technically, and what abstract things actually take place. Since I've used colour as a metaphor for these improvements in the title of this post, this is a giant lick of paint being used on the blog for its first anniversary.

The following is a new addition amongst these small groups of changes. The "abstract" of the blog's title can encompass many types of films and motion works and I feel I should make distinctions between them by setting up a series of categories to choose between. These categories won't affect the original Abstract Rating and one category is no higher than another in terms of the "abstract". The following are ten classifications, no more to avoid overcomplicating myself and the site. Using artistic, filmic and other terms for naming the categories, this is meant to cover as much of the spectrum of what the "abstract" sensation one feels watching a film or motion work as possible. Obviously, more classifications may have been needed to be completely, technically accurate, but it would lead to too overcomplicated a system for what I want, so I have purposely restricted the number of categories to those I thought were vital. The system is based on two distinctions that affect the types of category:

Commercial <- - - - -> Avant-Garde

The commercial work is a product that is meant to make profit. This does not mean there is no artistic intention behind the work, but that its origin started as a work produced for profit making. In this area of cinema and motion works, it means that stereotypically content and structural styles that may appeal only to a smaller audience are avoided. The avant-garde in complete contrast is said to be "art-for-art's sake" or meant to be created to express an idea first rather than originally produced for profit, usually much more difficult to digest on the first viewing. The two sides aren't meant to be antagonistic to each other in the distinction I have made, and there have been works that blur the sides together. The split is meant to act like an aesthetic compass, as with the entirety of the "Abstract Spectrum" to give it a flashy name, whether a work goes one way or not and by how far.

External <- - - - -> Internal

This distinction could get controversial, but in terms of what is "abstract" in a piece of art, or even in something that isn't meant to be a piece of art yet causes an unexpected feeling of disconnect or distortion of a viewer's familiar mood, there is a clear line for me in the "External" and the "Internal" in anything from Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) to Paul Sharits' experimental short T.O.U.C.H.I.N.G (1968). The obvious question to ask is what I mean as the "Abstract". This word will be brought up as one of the categories in this spectrum but it's worth saying here that the reaction one has to a movie or short or TV programme that knocks you out of complacency and gets an unexpected reaction, even if it was a very weird episode of the Teletubbies, is what the blog is about. Unexpected and emotionally powerful nostalgia, fear of the unknown or a hallucinatory effect. Even the scratching of the head in confusion. As someone who wolfs down this sort of work, not just in film but also music and literature, there's an obvious split that exists even outside of depictions that are meant to represent the subconscious or the psychological states of the characters or the creators and viewers, that which is "External" and needs a literal image or direct sense like a specific sound to effect the viewer, and the "Internal", that just has to suggest something even very vague and not depicted as it would be people in their everyday lives but has a pronounced emotional effect. Even when psychological an abstract, weird, freakish, disturbing etc. moment in a movie or motion work fully relies on the contents of real life to be distorted or effected. A more "internal" work however, even when it relies on external content, uses it for a prop and the subconscious content is prioritised by itself and would still have the same reaction because its directly about the atmosphere and moods that can effect a viewer. Again, I am not pitting one against the other, and films certainly have juggled both sides.

From these two distinctions, the Commercial <- - - - -> Avant-Garde, and the External <- - - - -> Internal, think of a giant circle, one direction left to right one distinction, the other up and down the other, that was created using a cup plate in a cafe my purchase drink figuring out this entire concept to draw said circle. Here is a crude Microsoft Paint diagram to give you an idea of this and of the entire set of categories. This is a work that could easily have mistakes and may drastically change as I learn how to use it properly. The most important thing was, for all the hard work to create it, its meant to increase my enjoyment of strange and abstract films and hopefully even encourage me to learn more about these areas evoked in the categories. Hopefully one day as well a smarter and aesthetically pleasing diagram will take its place:

Copyright Michael Hewis 2015
(Click for a larger image)

The "Abstract" is the zero point, at the top of the diagram because it denotes the moods that I think exists in all the other categories on this diagram, the term I used for the blog to connect all of the rest of it. It is not a contradiction to have it at the top of the circle rather than in the centre because the positions aren't meant to mirror each other on their opposite sides. As the title evokes, imagine this like one would a colour spectrum chart, each category merely a shade of the same concept, the central two the black and white, the "Abstract" the reddish red and each chunk a colour of that same mood that leads to people obsessing over David Lynch films still.

The Outer Categories

1. Abstract:
"1.3. (Of a noun) denoting an idea, quality, or state rather than a concrete object.
2. Relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures[...]" (From

The zero of the categories, so its apt to name it after the term that names the blog too. Pure subconscious, where the content creates images in the viewer's head without clear images even, not create images that are to be absorbed into their heads first. The Abstract is not inherently experimental, and could easily be evoked by watching old home movie footage from a battered videotape with family. The point to it is directly an emotional reaction, all the other categories, outside and inside the circle, connect from. Rather than a tree diagram, a circle emphasises not a lineage but that everything else is in the same course to it.

Example(s): Black Ice (Dir. Stan Brakhage, 1994) / Wavelength (Dir. Michael Snow, 1967)

2. Expressionist:
"Expressionism refers to art in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.

[...]Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical[...]" 

Expressionism for me has always meant the importance of the creator's state of mind first with the work they have created, the world around them changing secondary to the emotions felt that caused the change. To "express" means to communicate and depict, and this doesn't just mean the obvious and easy to depict, but could also mean that which is intangible or difficult to grasp. Even a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the German Expressionist films I have seen, whilst about the visuals as well, were created with the central characters' states of mind as the cause of the environments shifting or changing. Films that try to depict how memories, dreams etc. would be like unless they slip more appropriately into a different category make sense in this one.

Example(s): The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Dir. Robert Weine, 1919) / To The Wonder (Dir. Terence Malick, 2012)

3. Experimental:
"(of a new invention or product) based on untested ideas or artistic techniques involving a radically new and innovative style..." (From The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998))

"Experimental" can be attached to any work that uses subliminal, technical or aesthetic effects or forms which purposely effect how one gauges with it. It is a multi-purpose tool that can be used to manipulate film or a motion work in any direction, from structure to content, to effect its audience. It does not stay an "Experimental" film if the form used, just for that specific case, is very easily to digest without causing a viewer to react to it differently from other works. The two categories above and below this one on the circle's curve obviously are the products of experimental art, although like the rest of the circle, it could connect to the opposite depending on the work in question.

Example(s): WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1971) / Wavelength (Dir. Michael Snow, 1968)

4. Surrealism:
"Surrealism: n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one prefers to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other matter, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupations[...]" (From The Surrealist Manifesto (1924) by Andre Breton)

Controversially, as someone whose love of the art movement has been with me since I was a young teenager, I realised organising this system that Surrealism is more inherently external as a concept then something like Expressionism3. Even though it is about automatism, dreams and the subconscious, it relies on the distortion and influence of these things on one's existing external reality to find the "marvellous". This is not an issue for me to realise as Surrealism is still a glorious concept that is far from dead to me in its potential, and its apt to have before a category where external fantasies play out because the Surrealists were as interested in the joyous and playful as they were about serious ruminations on the mind.

It must be said, as someone who has read up on Surrealism in many a book, that Surrealism is not the same as weird. That term is interconnection to Surrealism but the movement was as much about effects on the mind that weren't "weird" but disrupted complacency and the rational. Think of it this way, whether this works as a good analogue or a terrible one, smearing your nude body with raspberry jam, wearing a frozen chicken on your head and running through a supermarket stark bollock naked quoting Marxism isn't Surrealism. It could only if it wasn't merely to cause a mere strange reaction in others, but playing with the irrational and taboo on a deeper level in a very silly way. Arguing with someone what type of fruit jam to use to complete this task is closer to Surrealism because, even when completely nonsensical, the paintings and other works of art in this movement had their own internal set of rules and depth. Surrealism was as much about the absurd, the arbitrary, the contradictory, the dreamlike etc. in context of them being fleshed out and being made real, the melting clocks in perspective of Salvador Dali's own subconscious, and the shoes made out of bread to actually be worn like regular shoes to go to work in.

Example(s): Chien Andalou, Un (Dirs. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, 1929) / Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Dirs. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, 1975)

5. Fantastique:
"(art, literature) A genre of literature and film that overlaps with science fiction, horror and fantasy; associated chiefly with French literature" (From

In danger of misusing the word, I intend to use "Fantastique" to depict an external abstraction, in that the fantastical (be it horror, sci-fi, fantasy etc.) manipulates the reality of the viewer and changes into something where the ordinary city street is a corridor to a new reality or that the Moon is actually occupied by aliens. Its central on the diagram, at the bottom, as it represents the films and motion works that can be both made for artistry and for commercial reason equally. Also included around this term is phantasmagoria and magic realism, which are very different sides of the coin, but all with the fantastique represent direct (external) interpretations of the abstract, be they hallucinations or literally the fantastic interacting with the real.

Example(s): Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1927) / Celine and Julie Go Boating (Dir. Jacques Rivette, 1974)

6. Pulp:
"pulp /'palp / n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper." (From The American Heritage Dictionary New College Edition)

Pulp in its nature was something churned out for a marketplace, hence why it is differed from the Fantastique, but that doesn't undermine its artistic potential, just present its origins accurately. The definition is being used as it would be cemented by a film like Pulp Fiction (1994) to represent a form of b-movie or paperback, still capable of being very artistically brilliant, but firmly and usually proudly in their own pulpy niche. Unlike Fantastique, this category is decidedly in the area of commercial cinema, and when it does become unconventional, it does so through external content usually. As much of importance is that Pulp evokes non-fantastical genres like crime, westerns, melodrama and even the erotic or pornographic, which if they did spill over into the unconventional, and don't qualify for another category as a result, could lead to very different types of genre cinema, and could be peculiar even when they didn't stretch into other genres. When Pulp is more fantasy based etc, I can't help but think of the likes of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) which have their own prevailing mood unique to them. Inherently they could become dreamlike as well without deliberately doing for the tone, the oneiric, cinema as a dreamlike state, created as much by film critics watching film noir b-pictures from the United States as it was coined for certain art films.

Example(s): Lady In The Lake (Dir. Robert Montgomery, 1947) / Straight On till Morning (Dir. Peter Collinson, 1972)

7. Psychotronic:
Of or relating to a genre of film characterized by bizarre or shocking story lines, often shot on a low budget."(From The Free

This is one of the more recently coined of the names chosen for the categories, its origins connected to a book called The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon, a book that I have always wanted to read but has been long out-of-print. The point of the book, from what information I have combed over is that Weldon had no problem from going from art films to the z-grade, a mantra that deserves respect in its humility to give any film a chance, and that it was as much a celebration for the obscure and the bizarre. The term "Psychtronic" has become through my knowledge of it to represent an area of commercial cinema that is different from Pulp in that it could go from z-grade horror films to softcore loops, industrial training videos to Doris Wishman movies. If Pulp is position as having an external abstraction when they present their content, the Psychotronic covers so many types of film and motion work that it had to be at the far left in the centre representing the commercial entirely, as any film that was produced for a market could easily become something very strange. The category also has the films' technical production and production histories as an inherent part of their DNA. For every great film, there are ones where unused footage from another film was spliced into the current one, and a past actor is replaced by your wife's chiropractor with a cape over his face all the time. I'm also including films that were extremely low budget, or no-budget, and were made out of passion of filmmaking by amateurs, not necessarily produced for commercial reasons, but because these films unless they were avant-garde could still sell or end up in a VHS store in their heyday in to bewilder people. It would seem unfair to the horror movie fans who got video cameras and made a film to plonk them into any other Category, unless they intended to create any of the effects of the others, when Psychotronic would be a badge of honour.

Example(s): Something Weird (Dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1967) / Things (Dir. Andrew Jordan, 1989)

8. Mind Bender:
"a person or thing that radically and suddenly affects one's thinking, perceptions, psyche, etc." (From

The evoking of "Mind Bender" will easily bring up a lot of films to a savvy reader of this blog who watches a lot of movies. Being John Malkovich (1999), Time Crimes (2007), films that disrupt conventional narrative structures like Memento (2000), even critically acclaimed films like Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Many of these films do play with "external" forms of the abstract but the Mind Bender label, whether some of the films mentioned and more would be abstract enough for the blog to cover or not, always denoted for me the type of commercially produced cinema especially from the United States that, unless it fitted more perfectly in any of the other categories, that was as much concerned with effecting their viewers in mood and atmosphere even if it's the sense of the perplexing when you discover you can enter actor John Malkovich's head. Of course some of the examples mentioned might not be appropriate to add to this category, more apt for others, or might cause an undermining of the category positions as I go along, but it seems appropriate that, especially in the current decade when a specific niche of "weird" films are being made, not necessarily Surrealistic, not experimental or avant-garde, not of the Psychotronic or Pulp, and not fantastical in content, this tag does need to exist and exist to the left of the Abstract even if I regret the choice occasionally down the line.

Example(s): Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2009) / Primer (Dir. Shane Carruth, 2004)

The Centre Two Categories
The following and final two Categories can weave between the others, hence why they are in the centre of the diagram. More Categories could've been added to the central ring, but these were the only vital ones that categorised qualities not found in the others.

"1. Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly[...]" (From

That overused word. Originally a word meaning connected to fate, its morphed so far from this origin to something else that the word gets misappropriated and has caused so much grief for amateur fans of this type of unconventional cinema, trying to find great work and not continually finding choices that, to not sound snobbish or elitist, are considerably "sane" compared to works that truly deserve the word "Weird" attached to them. For me, this category denotes the Oxford Dictionaries definition above, the unearthly and entirely about the intangible in films and motion works, not always the tangible. That which, even if an external effect is going to take place in a film, still grips a viewer with a moment of nothingness that chills the spine or throws them into an unknowing mood. The Weird for me would suit a film where you have no idea what could take place.

Example(s): INLAND EMPIRE (Dir. David Lynch, 2006) / Seconds (Dir. John Frankenheimer, 1966)

"a :  a style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature" (From

The corporal, that which is physical and of the body, that which is beast, which is of texture, which is food or which is shit, which is make-up and tattered gowns, that which is sex. Again a term that has drastically changed from its origins when I researched it for this spectrum. While "weird" denotes an intangible quality, the Grotesque can literally mean the body and anything that enters and leaves it, is worn by it, interacts with it or mutates it. It doesn't necessarily mean a negative quality as well, as I believe the Grotesque can also represent the beautiful, but it is a beauty that many might be offended by, especially if we get into the territory of the erotic versus morality. The Japanese Euro-Guro, or Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, along with Body Horror and such corporal obsessed areas, have been amalgamated into this category for simplicity and all will affect the types of films chosen for this category.

Example(s): Blind Beast (Dir. Yasuzo Masumura, 1969) / Grande Bouffe, La (Dir. Marco Ferreri, 1973)

Films and motion works can have multiple categories connected to them. Anything that is unclassifiable in the set choices will be something unique indeed, and of course will bring about questions of where to place them. The spectrum is open to being improved as I learn and educate myself more in my interest in this form of cinema and if any stumbling blacks are discovered or pointed out to me. Aside from this, the only thing left to do is use the spectrum by covering more films for the blog.


2 "Film" is the origins of a medium, tiny and flexible strips of plastic that captured shots and when played one after another create a moving image. The division I've placed is that nowadays, "film" has split into various areas. Television, shorts, music videos, installation pieces for art galleries, all of which is effectively "film" even if it's mostly digitally recorded in the current era. To ignore non-feature film works is ignorance in this era.

3 Expressionism and Surrealism were a pain to place on the diagram, the only apt categories for the right side closer to "Avant-Garde". (Structuralism in connection to cinema was also considered, but proved to be absorbable into Avant-Garde category.) What finally cemented my choices was that Expressionism even if it's based on external reality is based directly on the emotion, whilst Surrealism needs to be linked to external reality to have an effect. If anyone wants to debate this with me, I'd be more than glad to.

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