I watched this for only the second time last night, and I was amazed, as I hadn’t been on the first viewing. I recorded it off AMC; that’s the only place I could find it. Friend had never seen it; the previews elicited at “WTF” reaction. Said I, “You’ll be saying that a lot.” In fact; so was I. It was amazing how little I’d retained from my first viewing. All I really remembered was Zappa with the cow, and the Austin Powers looking dance number. But I think that’s because this film is truly unique.
I’ve seen plenty of films which have tried to be surreal and failed. This may be one of the few which succeeded. Generally, the ones that fail have a plot, linear and simple, but still a plot, so the action has to be anchored to it in some way. So they don’t have the sense of absolute lack of rhyme or reason. Another common problem is characters who act in a bizarre manner, but are still archetypal, so they’re identifiable characters. Minor characters who appear once or twice don’t make up the difference, because they’re seen from the main characters’ POVs.
I wouldn’t quite count films like Un Chien Andalou as surreal, because they’re completely non-narrative. Bizarre images without the contrast of clearly defined settings, or character interaction, are simply bizarre images, related to each other instead of counter to people and action. These films aren’t bending reality; they just don’t have any.
I don’t think this movie could have been made without the Monkees. (Some may say it didn’t need to be made at all, but I’m sure there are people here who would disagree.) The four main characters are the only constants. They were already known to the audience when the film was released, and even to people unfamiliar with their show, it’s evident that these guys know each other, there’s no friction between them, and their only motivation is to stay together throughout all circumstances.
There’s no need to worry about who any of the other characters are or what they’re doing there. The main characters aren’t concerned, and it soon becomes clear to the audience that neither should they be. The main characters aren’t happy about their situation, but they never fully question it. An alternate reality has to be accepted by all characters; gratutious scenes where the main character(s) demand to know exactly What Is Going On Here destroy the illusion.
I would say that Holy Grail is somewhat surreal, but not on the level of Head.