July 19, 2014

How weird is too weird? Degrees of unfamiliarty among fantasy, surrealism, and psychedelia

A post at Uncouth Reflections on the surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky got me thinking about why some types of "weird" or cult classic movies work better than others.

I can't speak about his movies since I haven't seen them, although I did look through tons of stills of his most acclaimed ones. What follows is just some off-the-cuff thoughts on why movies like Jodorowsky's have remained more cult than classic, compared to The Shining, Videodrome, or Blue Velvet, for example.

It seems to come down to a form of sensory overload, or weirdness overload. Perhaps a typology will help.

In trying to present something weird, unusual, etc. to the audience, or to work them into a disoriented, unnerved, altered state of consciousness, there are two classes that the artist can target to weird-ify: 1) people, places / settings, and things (the "elements"); and 2) the rules that govern the behavior of those elements, both by themselves and interacting with each other (the "laws").

We can make one of those nifty 2-by-2 tables to categorize the four different types possible.

1. Neither the elements nor the rules are weird. Nothing to see here in terms of the unusual, then. Call this pure naturalism.

2. The elements are clearly unfamiliar -- an ice planet, a half-man half-wolf, artifacts unknown to us -- although the laws governing how they all interact seem familiar enough. Call this fantasy.

3. The elements seem familiar, but both on their own and especially as they relate to each other, they just seem to be following a slightly unfamiliar set of natural laws. But following a set of laws nonetheless -- not behaving randomly. Call this surrealism.

4. The elements are distorted, not-too-recognizable, or just plain weird, and the laws of behavior (alone and interacting) appear to have come from another planet as well. Call this psychedelia.

The easiest to achieve is fantasy -- Star Wars being the most famous example of a movie whose "laws" are as old as time, albeit involving creatures, environments, and technology that we've never seen before. Our minds know that we haven't seen everything under the sun, so we don't get so shocked or disoriented by encountering new, even weird elements, as long as they behave as they should according to what kind of thing they are.

Surrealism is much more difficult to pull off. You have to walk a thin line between making the laws governing the elements seem weird enough, but still following some logic. Otherwise it just looks like a tornado is tossing the elements around randomly. The performers are also tempted to make the familiar elements behave, well, in their familiar way.

Which is harder for an actor -- to play a typical avenger role while wearing a wolfman costume in an ice planet setting, or playing a normal-looking person who shows a disturbingly odd reaction to what you'd think would elicit a revenge motive in a normal person? And again, not just some randomly different reaction -- something that seemed to be following a logic, only one that you can't immediately understand.

The human mind expects natural laws to apply everywhere and every time, whether the elements that they govern be familiar, exotic, or fantastic. But for those laws to be replaced by a different set? That disrupts our sense of laws being permanent, unlike the elements, which are regularly coming into and going out of existence.

Surrealism may be hard, but when the director and performers get to psychedelia, it's just too weird for the human mind. Our brain needs to ground itself somewhere, and if both the elements and the laws are from outer space, we can't get hooked, can't get into it. Most folks will just tune out or shut off the movie, while others will attempt to study the weirdness at a formal distance. Perhaps tripping on hallucinogens would help the viewer get into a psychedelic movie for the whole ride, and audiences after the early '70s just don't know what they're missing.

Perhaps, but I'm not going to risk psychosis to find out.

Artists whose formal or thematic focus includes altered states of consciousness are usually interested in the brain and psychology. The psychedelics ought to have foreseen that their approach would result in a kind of sensory overload, with little that was familiar to anchor the mind. Or maybe this would have been hard for us to predict as well, if we had been in their place, and we're just enjoying hindsight.

In that case, their experiments in art proved valuable in figuring out how the human mind works: there is such a thing as too weird, and we can even pinpoint which variable is more tolerant of being made unfamiliar, and which takes much greater intuition and skill to make weird.


  1. Agnostic, BBC Three, "Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents". 18 year old. British kids take their first independent holiday, helicopter British parents crash their party. Cringe worthy. Please review.

  2. Curtis6:37 PM

    When the crime rate begins rising rapidly, there is a lot of experimentation and people doing weird things. Afterall, everybody had been cocooned, so they have to figure things out. But by the time the crime plateaus, which happened in the 80s, the experimentation stops, because everyone has found their sea legs and gotten used to a more outgoing society.

    You see weird art m in rapid crime rising from 1900-1920, before it leveled off in the Jazz Age. This was the period when abstract art first rose.

  3. In most cases, cultural change moves in one direction for the whole outgoing / rising-crime phase, then in another during the cocooning / falling-crime phase. To take an objective example, instrumentation in '60s rock and pop music was still pretty simple, and wouldn't reach a peak in variety until the '80s (saxophones, flutes, french horns, pennywhistles, synths, and so on).

    But there are examples where the beginning of one phase shows an over-shooting pattern, not a steadily upward (or downward) trend. Radical experimentation when the outgoing phase begins, which corrects toward a more balanced risk/reward trade-off by the peak of the outgoing / rising-crime phase. It's the naive honeymoon phase of a more outgoing culture.

    And then there's the acrimonious breakup at the beginning of the cocooning phase. The date rape hysteria of the early-mid 1990s was the counterpart to the free love phenomenon of the '60s. Both over-shot and settled down.

    When a cocooning culture is trying to pump itself up into getting out and interacting with others, they need an extra "oomph" to get them out the door. Then when outgoing people feel like retiring from social life, they psych themselves into quitting cold turkey, "I'm not coming out of my room ever again."

    Once this over-shooting oomph has gotten them past a barrier that they're not sure they can clear, they breathe a sigh of relief and walk backward a bit toward the middle area.

  4. Not only did the early 1900s have abstract art, they had Art Nouveau, which looks a lot like the psychedelic style of the '60s.

  5. I like fantastical stories by bestselling authors who feature advanced scientific ideas but extraordinarily bland characters, like the late Michael Crichton and Arthur C. Clarke. They don't write those kinds of stories anymore, unfortunately.
    In fact the characters' blank averageness, while actually unlikely, balances the extreme story, and allows readers to imagine themselves in their place.


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