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.