There would appear to be a natural similarity between avant-garde films and horror films. This link manifests in the actual act of creating something experimental. In creating something experimental, often the reason it is considered experimental is because it challenges either conventional parameters of moviemaking or it challenges imbedded notions of normalcy and decency in society. In the latter sense, that would lend to avant-garde films. In essence, the point of the horror film is to shock. Arguably, the point of an avant-garde film is to open the viewer’s eyes to a darkened component of society and in doing so, shock us in that enlightening.
Groundbreaking films are not the purview of Hollywood’s conceptualized commerciality. Obviously, there are segments of Hollywood that are intrigued by the prospect of making interesting, but commercially viable films. Pixar Studios would epitomize the collusion of intellect and commerciality. Likewise, Warner Brothers Studios recently gave great latitude to director Christopher Nolan to create his ten-year-in-the-making, mind-bending film Inception. Furthermore, it is obvious that foreign films are willing to push the boundaries in violence and sex on film far more than Hollywood (the New French Extremity movement is a great example). Nevertheless, even Pixar and Inception do not approach the taboo grounds that directors such as David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, and Lars von Trier regularly do. This is odd too because I think Hollywood underestimates the mass public’s willingness to see these types of films. If Darren Arronfsky’s latest film, Black Swan, is any indication, the public is definitely interested in dark, avant-garde films.
In any event, the parallel between avant-garde films and horror films is further strengthened by the core purpose of both genres: to comment or begin a discourse, on some aspect of the human condition. Of course, in avant-garde films and horror films, those aspects of the human condition include the darker elements of human beings; things such as fetishism and perversion. There is an interesting film that is both avant-garde in nature, but has elements of the horror film. Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible takes Nolan’s nonlinear backwards gimmick in Memento and turns it ugly. The film begins with a brutally violent (and shockingly realistic) head stomp and eventually moves to one of the longest (and again, realistic) rape scenes ever shot on film. Interestingly, at the turn of the twenty-first century with such films as Saw and Hostel, the horror film has taken a more gory tone to lure viewers in and shock them; Irréversible ups the ante on the shock.
Another interesting film is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Its unconventional cinematography is equal parts beautifully artistic and disturbingly shocking. Perhaps even more shocking is that a mainstream actor like Willem Dafoe was the lead actor in the film. Then again, he was the title character in The Last Temptation of Christ. Nonetheless, his performance was brilliant as the detached psychiatrist husband to his depressed wife, who becomes more and more sexually deviant in the film. However, what makes the film more interesting is the unstable nature of the director himself, which is reflected in his work.
There is no easy way to define the line between high art and low art and in some cases; people (rightly or wrongly) call high art low art because of the elements within the film. For instance, a case could be made that Antichrist is indeed high art because of how beautiful it is and the potent performances therein, but at the same time, the gratuitous violence and sex would make one consider it low art filth. Nevertheless, I do think sans semantic labeling, these films do have worth in terms of their meditations on the human condition.