Since the dawn of cinema as a popular form of art, storytelling has been ever-present. As in any other art form bound by time, it is inevitable to tell stories; something as simple as a train entering a station already tells a story. This inherent presence of storytelling in cinema has led to several conventions, most of them borrowed from theatre and literature, and they have been exploited commercially and artistically with a certain degree of success, but they ultimately fail to take cinema to its full potential.
One of these conventions lies in structure; a conventional director conforms themselves with telling a coherent story with a beginning in which the characters are presented and the drama insinuated, a development in which the drama unfolds, wreaking havoc in the life of the protagonist, and an ending in which the drama is solved and a new order is reached.
In these types of films, plot plays an important part, being defined as the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story (according to dictionary.com). This means they rely on a framework in which only the story is important and its advancement a priority, something useful in books but not so much in cinema when you consider you are dealing with images, not with words.
Although this way of storytelling is taken for granted, several auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Kim Ki-duk have recognized the lack of an adequate cinematographic language, and have constructed their oeuvre around that absence; while Godard broke the rules and defied the accepted way of doing things with his anarchistic approach (and continues to do so to this day although with less success that in the 60s), Tarkovsky, focused on the expressive beauty of the images, sought to create a poetic cinema that could be appropriated by their spectators, and Kim decided to completely eradicate dialogue from his films, telling his stories only with images.
What I present here is a selection of 10 films in which the necessity of a plot that structures and gives form has been disregarded, producing entrancing and beautiful films that explore the limits of the medium while also creating challenging works that have transcended time.
1. Qatsi trilogy (Godfrey Reggio, 1982 – 2002)
In 1982, New York-born Godfrey Reggio directed “Koyaanisqatsi,” the first installment of what would become a trilogy of gorgeous experimental films that challenge the way we think about narrative and storytelling in cinema. The film is exempt of dialogue, drama, characters and any sort of conventional narrative devices, but still it manages to tell a clear and easy to understand story, though its meaning is completely open for interpretation.
The cinematography by Ron Fricke is stunning and just its sheer beauty and the aesthetic pleasure it conveys makes it something remarkable. That beauty has a purpose as it explores the natural world and the human world, finding points of union and of conflict, similitudes, parallelisms and breaking points, allowing us to draw our own conclusions as to their meaning.
Another thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack, composed by legendary minimalist composer Philip Glass, a magnificent opus of mesmerizing and colorful music that is in perfect harmony with the images, as if they couldn’t exist without the music.
The other two films of the trilogy, 1988’s “Powaqqatsi” and 2002’s “Naqoyqatsi” follow the same line, and while their quality is not as high as “Koyaanisqatsi,” they still are valuable experiences that take to its ultimate expression the idea of a cinema of pure images that has its own rules and mechanisms, separating itself from the cinema that takes its narrative structure from literature or theatre. A truly liberating work of art that allows as many interpretations as it has viewers.
2. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
After he shocked the entire world with the magnificent and nausea-inducing “Irreversible,” Gaspar Noé set out to make a more ambitious film with a much bigger scope. If “Irreversible” broke the rules of storytelling with a wandering camera that goes backwards in time, showing first the consequences and then the acts that sprung them, in “Enter the Void” the camera trespasses the threshold of mortality and shows us what lies beyond life.
Taking the mysterious and quasi-mystical drug DMT as its MacGuffin, the film takes the Bardö-Thodol (the Tibetan book of the dead) as a basis in which to explore what comes after life when Oscar, the film’s ‘protagonist,’ is shot to death by police men in a Tokyo nightclub.
“Enter the Void” is an extremely surreal experience in many ways. It places the viewer in the point of view of the protagonist, making them participants of the life of Oscar as he takes DMT, goes walking at night on the streets of Tokyo while discussing the Tibetan Book of the Dead, gets shot by the police, and then ultimately undertakes the voyage towards reincarnation.
The surreal and LSD-and-DMT-inspired imagery is colorful and vibrant, and it resonates deeply with the metaphysical and spiritual undertones of the film. The camera, masterfully directed by Benoit Debie, wanders around, floating from one place to another insinuating the transit of Oscar’s spirit as it watches the material world and remembers his life before his next reincarnation.
“Enter the Void” excels visually, creating a stunning world paralleled with an interesting metaphysical insight that leaves the viewer thinking about their lives, their possible deaths, and what lies beyond.
3. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Terrence Malick has become one of the most relevant directors working today, and his works have been revered since the early years of his career. His films constantly examine the place of humankind in nature, our relationships with other people, and the huge burden that is individuality and all that it conveys (dreams, memories, fears, and a unique perception of the world that can often provoke abysmal feelings of loneliness).
As his name became more famous and interest in his work became greater, he has been allowed bigger and bigger budgets, resulting in ambitious and utterly beautiful films like “The Thin Red Line” and “Days of Heaven,” both classic films in their own right.
“The Tree of Life” is arguably Malick’s most accomplished opus to date, and it takes the form of an impressionistic poem to tell the story of Jack, who is going back to his childhood trying to comprehend his father and his mother, and to make amends with his past.
The film, with its evocative photography (credited to Emmanuel Lubezki), the ambiguity of the story that is based around emotions rather than events, and the loose structure that leaves place to free association, becomes a personal experience in which the spectators are faced with their own lives, with memories of their own childhoods they thought were lost, with intriguing moments of sudden epiphany sparked from unassuming details of the film that expose their lives with a new light.
In a way that is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s “Mirror,” the magic of “The Tree of Life” lies in the way it transcends the medium, finding a tangible place in the material world.
4. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)
The second film by Terrence Malick on this list, “Knight of Cups” tells the story of Rick, a screenwriter going through an existential crisis. He is painted as a decadent character, for his life is empty and devoid of meaning, his relationships are failing, and he constantly indulges in the excesses of his Hollywood lifestyle. The only things keeping him afloat are his relationships with women. Using several cards from the tarot as though they represent chapters or themes in Rick’s life, Malick focuses on moments and images rather than on the actual storyline.
The film has a loose feel to it, as if it were a daydream we had and forgot about immediately, only to unexplainably remember it later in the day. It flows quietly, without moments of great ardor or passion; it just watches as Rick’s drama unfolds, and does not judge or manipulate. “Knight of Cups” is a challenging film, one that deconstructs the conventional language of cinema and then assembles it back again, turned into something new and innovative.
5. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)
Contemporary art house cinema would not be the same without Carlos Reygadas. Born in Mexico City, he has become a revered figure in national cinema (albeit from those involved in filmmaking) with his spiritual and intellectual films in which the characters go back to nature in order to truly find themselves.
“Post Tenebras Lux” tells the story of an upper-class family living in a house in the country. The film is composed of several vignettes that interlock freely, rejecting a chronological order and favoring an emotional one.
The cinematography is gorgeous, with great composition and color that turn the mundane into something ethereal and magical. The editing is remarkable, and it goes back and forth from childhood to adulthood, from dream to reality, from memories to inventions, creating a mesh of relationships and associations, making the film deliberately vague, allowing the spectator to have the final word as to what it all means.