Editor's Note: Brock Clarke is the author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller, and the just-released The Happiest People in the World. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College. He's also up for talking about the greatest absurdist movies of all time. Read below, and then visit him at his website.
The writer Padgett Powell once said something to the effect that the further the distance between the implausibility of a book's premise and the plausibility of its account, the greater the writer, and the book. Change "book" to "movies." I mean it. And put the adjective "great" in front of "movies." Thank you. Each of these absurd movies is great because there is so much distance between the implausibility of its premise and the plausibility of its account.
"To Be or Not to Be" (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic is about an acting troupe (led by a preening, narcissistic Jack Benny and a preening, narcissistic Carole Lombard) in Nazi-occupied Poland that ends up being part of a complicated attempt to foil the efforts of a German spy. Outside, the war is raging; inside, Benny gets increasingly infuriated when Lombard's lover keeps getting up during the middle of his "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
"Twin Peaks" (1990-1991)
You could put almost any David Lynch movie on this list. So why did I choose his TV show? Because to me, "Twin Peaks" is his ultimate achievement. There's been a murder in a small town. An FBI agent comes to investigate and starts asking a lot of questions about ... the names of the local trees ("Douglas fir" he says in wonder) and where he get can the best piece of pie. Along the way he dreams about a dwarf who speaks in pidgin, slurred English and then dances a little.
"The Big Lebowski" (1998)
This is a wise, wise movie. The wisdom comes by way of a stoner who drinks white Russians, bowls, gets mistaken for a wheelchair-bound tycoon, bowls some more, is drugged by a pornographer, more bowling, is dragooned by the tycoon's arch daughter to be sperm donor, and is haunted by a trio of nihilists (two of whom are played by genuine pop stars). This doesn't sound like a source of wisdom to you? Well, that just means you need to rethink what you're looking for in a prophet.
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985)
An overgrown adolescent in a tight-fitting suit and red bow tie travels across this great land of ours in a heartfelt attempt to retrieve his stolen bike. Along the way, he speaks in perhaps the most aggravating voice imaginable for an hour and a half - and somehow we watch, we listen, we learn, we make our children watch, we try to come up with a rationale for loving a character that is - come on, let's admit it - really creepy.
A white British guy plays an Indian guy who defeats a bunch of white British guys by basically just sitting around, for three hours, for which he's given an Academy Award. Hilarious.
"The Saddest Music in the World" (2003)
This Guy Maddin movie is set in Edmonton, where there is an international Saddest Music in the World competition, and where Isabella Rossellini wears a fake glass leg full of beer. I watched this movie for the first time loaded on pain killers, and then I watched it again, months later, and it felt as though I was still loaded on pain killers. I mean this as the highest praise.
"Straight to Hell" (1986)
Alex Cox makes a Western, hires his rock star buddies (Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Elvis Costello, Zander Schloss) to act in that Western, has them sing a song that includes the lyric "Salsa, y Ketchup," and somehow makes a joke of a movie - that is also worth watching. "Straight to Hell" isn't the best movie in this group of best movies, but a movie that, on the face of it, would be voted least likely to ever end up on a best movie list.