Sui Generis Cinema
April 14, 2013 8:49 AM   Subscribe

There are commercial films that have a structure unlike anything else in cinema - radically different than even other other films by the same director or producers. Take for example My Dinner With Andre's real-time documentation of a dinner between two men, the way The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is completely sung, but like an operetta and not a musical, Timecode's real-time quadruple-screen, or the way Incubus used Esperanto. What are some other examples of films that have had a truly unique structure or key formal device?

That said, I'm not looking for innovative films that were the first of their kind but inspired others to use similar devices, experimental films, or successful series of films that use an uncommon device (like the -qatsi or -Up series) - I'm looking for commercial films with structures or formal devices that were really only used once.
posted by eschatfische to Media & Arts (76 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Memento
posted by mkultra at 8:52 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Russian Ark? Distantly prefigured by Rope, I suppose, but really the fullest iteration of the idea.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:55 AM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Russian Ark consists of a single 96-minute shot.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:55 AM on April 14, 2013

Take the Money and Run might have been the fist mockumentary.

The Lady in the Lake was shot entirely in first person point of view. It didn't influence movie making as it was a huge flop but it seems to be a precursor to a style of first person shooter video games.
posted by cazoo at 8:58 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Run Lola Run:
The main part of the film is divided in three "runs". Each run starts from the same situation but develops differently and has a different outcome. Each run contains various flash-forward sequences, showing how the lives of the people that Lola bumps into develop after the encounter. In each run, those people are affected in different ways.
This structure may have been done earlier in Blind Chance, which I have not seen.
posted by Emanuel at 9:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before Sunrise and After Sunset are just extended conversations between two people. Ethan Hawke and an actress whose name I forget. I think they fit what you're looking for...
posted by dfriedman at 9:09 AM on April 14, 2013

Whoops it's Before Sunset. And the actress is Julie Delpy.
posted by dfriedman at 9:10 AM on April 14, 2013

Le Jete is 30 minutes of still photographs with one moving shot.

Don't Tempt Me has the characters speak French in Heaven, English in Hell, and Spanish on Earth.
posted by Garm at 9:12 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rope and the much-lesser Silent House are filmed to appear as one real-time unbroken take. (The edits are hidden.)
posted by The Deej at 9:16 AM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.
Does just what the title says.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 9:17 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

How about sliding doors, which takes place in 2 parallel universes? And The Occurrence At Owlcreek Bridge?
posted by bq at 9:18 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Message was a film dramatizing the founding of Islam. It's difficult to do that without depicting Muhammad.
In accordance with Sunni beliefs regarding depictions of Muhammad, he was not depicted on-screen nor was his voice heard. At the beginning of the film, a statement is displayed, "The makers of this film honour the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the Prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown."

This rule extended to his wives, his daughter, his sons-in-law, and the first caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali). This left Muhammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas) as the central characters. During the battles of Badr and Uhud depicted in the movie, Hamza was in nominal command, even though the actual fighting was led by Muhammad.

Whenever Muhammad was present or very close by, his presence was indicated by light organ music. His words, as he spoke them, were repeated by someone else such as Hamza, Zayd and Bilal. When a scene called for him to be present, the action was filmed from his point of view. Others in the scene nodded to the unheard dialogue.

The closest the film comes to a depiction of Muhammad or his immediate family are the view of Ali's famous two-pronged sword Zulfiqar during the battle scenes, a glimpse of a staff in the scenes at the Kaaba or in Medina, and Muhammad's camel, Qaswa.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:28 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Not sure about 'unlike anything else in cinema' but certainly different than most and a stand-out structural (and visual) style: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
posted by mazola at 9:30 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the same vein as Run Lola Run, there was Sliding Doors, which explored two alternate timelines in parallel.
posted by kindall at 9:41 AM on April 14, 2013

Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad "is famous for its enigmatic narrative structure, in which truth and fiction are difficult to distinguish, and the temporal and spatial relationship of the events is open to question."

Resnais' Smoking/No Smoking is actually two films that explore different outcomes from small decisions taken in life (like deciding to smoke a cigarette). It's unique also because all the female characters are played by one actor and all the male characters are played by another actor.

Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street is a enactment of a rehearsal (including the coffee breaks!) of a translation of Checkov's play Uncle Vanya in a New York theatre. The actors are wearing street clothes and holding the script in their hands.

Agnès Varda's documentary The Gleaners and I is unique in bringing the filmmaker right to the centre of the film, that suddenly, from a exploration of the culture of gleaning, becomes a meditation on Varda's own aging.

Godfrey's Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (and the following films that form the Qatsi trilogy) was perhaps the first nature documentary with no narration and no words at all, even though it still presented a clear narrative.

In Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment, this happens: "In a self-reflexive cameo appearance, Gutiérrez calls the film a 'collage…with a little bit of everything'. Gutiérrez uses a dizzying array of materials and filmic styles in Memories, from documentary-style narrative sequences which use long unbroken shots taken from handheld cameras to agitational montage sequences reminiscent of the films of early Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. Memories makes use of various types of media including direct documentary footage shot, still photos, archive and newreel footage, clips of Hollywood films, and recorded speeches by Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, to create a seemingly disarticulated film language that is in direct contrast to the straightforward Hollywood style."

Everything by Buñuel.

All of those films were screened in commercial theatres and theirs producers aimed at making a good profit out of them. None of them are Hollywood blockbusters, though, so I'm not sure if they would fit a less broad definition of "commercial film".
posted by TheGoodBlood at 9:41 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also not sure if this was only used once, but Rubber comprises both a "movie" (a tire comes to life in the desert and develops a psychokinetic ability to blow up people's heads) and a "meta-movie" (a group of people sit in the desert, watching the action through binoculars, commenting on it, generally exhibiting movie audience jerkwad behavior, and ultimately serving to drive the action of what happens in the movie, although they are unaware of the role they play).
posted by bakerina at 9:43 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jesus Christ Superstar? The setup and presentation is kind of unconventional, though the structure itself really isn't.
posted by mazola at 9:46 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would The Blair Witch Project count? The conceit was that it was it was made from found footage. Wikipedia says this was not unique though.

In The Heart of Glass most of the actors performed under hypnosis.
posted by nangar at 9:52 AM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: Coming Apart (1969) directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg and starring Rip Torn. Ginsberg filmed the entire movie with one static camera setup.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 9:59 AM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: Dogville is filmed on an extremely minimal set where rooms, buildings, and other objects are just demarcated by lines on the floor, often allowing you to see what's going on in other rooms or houses.
posted by Emanuel at 10:06 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Wizard of Oz's use of color was pretty breakthrough
posted by Mchelly at 10:09 AM on April 14, 2013

I'm blanking on the details, but there was a trilogy of French films in the early 2000's, I think, (no, not red/white/blue) all three in different genres, with interlocking characters and even some overlapping scenes from different viewpoints. Each film stood alone, but seen together they explain things in each other ("oh, when this was happening, this other guy was in the house and that's why she looked stressed") and string together a larger story. One was a romantic comedy called something like "a most (adjective) couple", one was a thriller with a terrorist, and I forget what genre the third was in.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:11 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" and "2046" tell overlapping stories. Characters and plot elements are shared between the films, even though "In the Mood for Love" is a contemporary drama, and "2046" is nominally science fiction set in future-Hong Kong.
posted by Alterscape at 10:37 AM on April 14, 2013

rmd1023 -- would this be Lucas Belveaux's Trilogy 1, 2, and 3?
posted by bettafish at 10:38 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sleuth. (The 1972 original, not the remake.)

Explaining why would so completely spoil the film I couldn't even find a description to link to that explains my reason for mentioning it, but a more thorough search would probably find it. I'd be happy to MeMail you if you'd like.

(I'm sorry for the ambiguous answer, and the mods can delete it if it's too wishy-washy, but it's a sincere answer to your question.)
posted by Room 641-A at 10:40 AM on April 14, 2013

Cube uses only one set.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:45 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Conversations with Other Women is filmed entirely in split screen, which isn't unique, but it's the only film I know that does that and has the same two characters on both sides at all times. Sometimes the screen is different angles of the same thing, but other times it's present and past.
posted by dobbs at 10:47 AM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's a difficult and problematic film, but Gaspar Noe's Irreversible tells a brutal story in reverse chronological order.
posted by Ms. Toad at 10:47 AM on April 14, 2013

Zentropa is in black and white but has certain aspects of the screen hand-tinted for emphasis.
posted by dobbs at 10:49 AM on April 14, 2013

Betrayal (1983) is told in reverse order and predates Irreversible by a good chunk of time.
posted by dobbs at 10:51 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Godard's Breathless utilizes jump cuts as a consistent editing choice.
posted by dobbs at 10:53 AM on April 14, 2013

bettafish: Yes! That's it! Thank you.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:55 AM on April 14, 2013

Epidemic has the screenwriter and director on screen discussing the movie you're watching--they're trying to figure out what happens next and at one point paint the structure of the story on a wall and discuss options for the remainder of the film.
posted by dobbs at 10:56 AM on April 14, 2013

L'Avventura has what seems like the major character disappear 20 minutes or so in... and that disappearance does not propel the rest of the story. In fact, it's rarely mentioned more than 5 minutes later.
posted by dobbs at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2013

Mulholland Drive has two parts, the first a dream, the second the character's psyche trying to understand that dream.
posted by dobbs at 11:00 AM on April 14, 2013

Funny Games has a character's actions affect the "reality" of the story. He directly interacts with the timeline and "takes back" something the director has given the audience.
posted by dobbs at 11:05 AM on April 14, 2013

High Noon (the Western starring Gary Cooper) was, I am fairly certain, the original grand Hollywood example of portraying a story in real time.

Also seconding Lady in the Lake.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:09 AM on April 14, 2013

The Thin Red Line has multiple characters provide narration/voiceovers, including one character who is being recalled in another character's voice over, which I can't think of another example of.
posted by dobbs at 11:09 AM on April 14, 2013

Best answer: In the "The Five Obstructions" a filmmaker is challenged to remake a film five times under five different constraints; for more see the wikipedia article.
posted by bfields at 11:09 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'd third Lady in the Lake. Hasn't been done since that I'm aware of. (And for good reason.)

Actually, that's not completely true, I guess. Last of the Red Hot Lovers has a first person segment. However, it's pretty brief.
posted by dobbs at 11:10 AM on April 14, 2013

Annie Hall has subtitles that reveal the true meaning of what characters are saying / thinking.
posted by dobbs at 11:12 AM on April 14, 2013

When Harry Met Sally intersperses documentary-style interviews with characters who aren't a part of the main story.
posted by dobbs at 11:14 AM on April 14, 2013

I'm Not There has several actors playing the same character (Bob Dylan).
posted by mkultra at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2013

Pulp Fiction - fractured chronology being the main feature. I don't know how literally you mean "totally unlike," but that movie stands out for at to me.

Great question, and one I intend to mine for some Netflix ideas. Bored beyond belief with "hero's journey" films and other predictable plot lines and execution - so much so that you can even see "the twists" coming.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2013

Too bad about Lady in the Lake. Modern handheld equipment and a bit better acting could make it work, really.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:16 AM on April 14, 2013

The Limey is a film about memory that tries to capture the idea of memory visually. It does this by having a character recall conversations and actions in multiple locations. For instance, you know you went out with your friend and walked here and here and here and you talked about this and that and the other thing. But you don't remember which happened where. So, when the character recalls things, instead of just cutting to another angle during a conversation, Soderbergh sometimes cuts to another location during the same conversation. I've never seen that in a film before.

It's also the first (only?) film to use another film, completely unrelated and by a different director, as flashback to the main character's past (the same actor is in the other movie).
posted by dobbs at 11:23 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh - Todd Solondz's Palindromes depicts the main character, a young girl wishing to get pregnant, as several different actresses from scene to scene, including adults, a boy, girls of different races, and finally Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Likewise, his film Storytelling consists of what seem to be two separate short films, "Fiction" and "Nonfiction," but that have some kinds of (esoteric) parallels between the two.
posted by Ms. Toad at 11:24 AM on April 14, 2013

Do the Right Thing interrupts its narrative flow by having multiple characters go on racist tirades while looking directly into the camera.
posted by dobbs at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2013

Response by poster: Lots of great answers, thanks!

I haven't seen The Lady in the Lake, but I'm familiar with films that either use first person perspective throughout their running time, such as the aforementioned Russian Ark, or in lengthy segments, as in Halloween or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Possibly hundreds of other films have short first person sequences. While I understand that Lady in the Lake was first with the technique, I'm not clear on how it actually stands apart.
posted by eschatfische at 11:26 AM on April 14, 2013

Blast of Silence has narration in second person. Hasn't been done since.

eschatfische, in Lady in the Lake, the camera is the character. You can see it here. The entire film is done this way.
posted by dobbs at 11:30 AM on April 14, 2013

La Jetee (which later inspired Gilliam's '12 Monkeys') is a post-nuclear time-travel film told entirely with narrarated still's very dream-like and makes you feel ilke you're half-remembering something....
posted by sexyrobot at 11:33 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Slacker has no true main character but follows each character until they run into someone else and then it follows them. Repeat.
posted by dobbs at 11:39 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Something like Trainspotting or Fear and Loathing with lots of drug trips?

Anime movies might get a mention, since they use a lot of conventions and attitudes unique to anime.

Donnie Darko.

I can think of a few movies that use odd languages as the main one- notably, Passion of the Christ and Aramaic. Monty Python and the Holy Grail has an option to subtitle it using a Shakespeare play (for people who don't like the movie)
posted by Jacen at 11:39 AM on April 14, 2013

Almost all of Andre Tarkovsky's films are considered structurally seminal with long takes and long shots and minimal dialogue. Also, perhaps not what you've looking for, but The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Repulsion (1965) both introduced a psychological element used as an alternative structure where the narrative's point of view is uncertain. This probably inspired at least 100 other films such as Jacob's Ladder, Donny Darko and Inception. The novel, Naked Lunch, probably inspired the form, post Caligari.
posted by Brian B. at 11:43 AM on April 14, 2013

The Turin Horse is 2.5 hours and contains only thirty shots.
posted by dobbs at 11:46 AM on April 14, 2013

Jacques Tati's Playtime:
In conventional film narrative, there is always a clearly defined separation between “subject” and “background.” A character moves through a setting, and our attention is focused on the “action” — what the character does; when this setting figures in the action, it becomes a part of the subject. But in PLAYTIME, where every character has the status of an extra, every scene is filmed in long shot, and the surrounding décor is continually relevant to the action, the subject of a typical shot is everything that appears on the screen. Many shots, particularly in the restaurant sequence, become open forums where several potential points of interest compete independently for our attention. Whatever we choose to ignore automatically becomes “background,” but this arranging of priorities is often no more than a reflection of our own preferences, i.e., which movie we want to see this time around.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:52 AM on April 14, 2013

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I'm only looking for films which are truly one of a kind, where a particular structure or technique was used in a single film and then really hasn't been used again. Tarkovsky, Tarr and Tati all have a distinctive and unique directorial style, but that style is used and expanded upon in multiple films that share structural devices and motifs.
posted by eschatfische at 12:01 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Rohmer's L'amie de mon ami has a rather interesting way of arranging the (very few) characters in a modern space and specifically all the clothing in the film is in black and white and bright, primary colors. The characters' outfits are different combinations of colors and simple black and white patterns throughout the film and as I recall sort of harmonize themselves depending on which characters are interacting with each other - friends, couples. The colors/patterns of the clothes and the spaces where it's filmed (a trendy, newly developed exurb) had a way of echoing and harmonizing visually with the plot, is the best I can say it.

What about Jarmusch's Night on Earth? A taxi and a passenger in five cities at once on the same night and there was probably a lot more riffing on characters the actors played in other movies than I picked up on, but I bet every separate segment had them - I mean I caught the references with Esposito, Perez, Béatrice Dalle, maybe Ryder but otherwise not specifically..
posted by citron at 1:25 PM on April 14, 2013

Christian Marclay's The Clock
posted by unknowncommand at 2:14 PM on April 14, 2013

Ah, sorry, missed the "commercial" bit.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2013

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. From Wikipedia: "Edited by Bud Molin, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a collage film incorporating clips from 18 different vintage films. They are combined with more recent footage of Martin and other actors similarly shot in black-and-white, with the result that the original dialogue and acting of the classic films have now become part of a completely different story."

A Scanner Darkly. From Wikipedia: " The movie was filmed digitally and then animated using interpolated rotoscope over the original footage, giving it its distinctive look."

Timecode. From Wikipedia: "The film is constructed from four continuous 90-minute takes that were filmed simultaneously by four cameramen; the screen is divided into quarters and the four shots are shown simultaneously."
posted by Bokmakierie at 3:06 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Charlie Kaufmans Synadoche: New York might fit the critera of what you are looking for.

It's very difficult to explain, so I'll just point you at the wikipedia entry opening:

"Synecdoche, New York is a 2008 American postmodern drama film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It was Kaufman's directorial debut. The plot follows an ailing theatre director (Hoffman) who stages an increasingly elaborate production that blurs boundaries between fiction and fact."

Read the rest of the wikipedia entry if you want more plot details.

I don't want to spoiler it for you. But I will say that it features a non linear narrative, and multiple people playing the same character, and sometimes multiple people playing different versions of the same parts - of characters playing at pretending to play the same veresions of a sngle character.

It also uses metaphor as reality. It is deeply confusing, and unlike anything I have ever seen.

I watchd it with my Boyf and he enjoyed it immensely, I still cannot decide if I enjoyed it, but like some kind of brain worm, my mind keeps returning to nibble away at particular scenes.
posted by Faintdreams at 3:25 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Fight Club, the character played by Edward Norton sees flashes of Tyler Durden, as if Durden had been spliced into the film we are watching (which in turn references Durden's habit of doing that in "real life").
posted by seemoreglass at 5:12 PM on April 14, 2013

Richard Elfman's 'The Forbidden Zone.'

No budget, sets drawn on paper, Herve Villachez as a king, blackface, Kipper Kids. And it's a musical. And Danny Elfman plays Cab Calloway playing Satan.

It's definitely never been repeated.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 5:18 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis is a totally off the wall experimental film that he made to limber himself up before the impressive run of films that began with Out of Sight.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:23 PM on April 14, 2013

How about The Beaver Trilogy.

I won't even try to describe it, Wikipedia can do that. But I will point you to the This American Life episode in which it was featured.
posted by The Deej at 6:54 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's not the structure, although it probably affected the story and structure of the film, but Scent of Mystery was the first and only film to use Smell-O-Vision.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Brainstorm was shot in two different film formats (35mm and Super Panavision 70) and switches between two very different aspect ratios (1.66:1 and 2.2:1) and, largely, sound configurations (mostly mono versus aggressive Dolby surround) depending on whether you're watching the "real" story or experiencing a playback of footage captured to tape with the brainstorm experience-recording device. Don't think that's been done before or since.
posted by Mothlight at 7:36 AM on April 15, 2013

Series 7: The Contenders was presented as a marathon of the reality TV show in which all the action took place, complete with, IIRC, credits and advertising.

Slacker has a camera that kind of drifts from one character to another, taking the action/narrative with it.
posted by mippy at 7:48 AM on April 15, 2013

Also, does The Blair Witch Project count? I'm not a horror expert - so there may have been something before, but there have been many since - but I remember a lot being made of the 'found footage' structure of the film when it came out.
posted by mippy at 7:50 AM on April 15, 2013

Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia.

Caveh Zahedi, In the Bathtub of the World.
posted by Unified Theory at 4:16 PM on April 17, 2013

Also, does The Blair Witch Project count? I'm not a horror expert - so there may have been something before, but there have been many since - but I remember a lot being made of the 'found footage' structure of the film when it came out.

Cannibal Holocaust did it first.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2013

Three Businessmen by Alex Cox. Follows two guys who wander Liverpool, UK chatting over the course of one night. As the night progresses, the setting switches to what is obviously Japan and then Egypt, though this fact is never commented on by the men who behave as if they are still stranded in Liverpool.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:22 AM on April 21, 2013

Way old thread, but Jafar Panahi's documentary-ish 'This Is Not A Film' follows Panahi talking about film-making while being kept under guard and banned from making films by the Iranian government (from what I recall) - it might not follow the brief of innovative structural conceits to a t as in a way its major conceit is its political circumstance, but it's a really wonderful film. and it has an iguana!
posted by lethologues at 1:36 PM on June 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Swimmer
posted by Brian B. at 2:43 PM on June 30, 2013

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