All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

300. THE TENANT (1976)

Le Locataire

“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Melvyn Douglas, , Jo Van Fleet

PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.

Still from The Tenant (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member . Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
  • Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
  • The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
  • Lensed by Sven Nykvist, ‘s favorite cinematographer.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even ) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.


Original trailer for The Tenant

COMMENTS: Trelkovsky—no first name—is an improbably quiet Continue reading 300. THE TENANT (1976)

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOSSAL (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

PLOT: An alcoholic woman discovers that she unwittingly controls a giant monster who is attacking Seoul.

Still from Colossal (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The premise is strange, but the execution is not as bizarre as it might have been, tending more to light psychological drama.

COMMENTS: The two opening scenes of Colossal are well-matched. In the first, a Korean girl loses her doll in a park, only to find a giant gray monster looming over the skyscrapers of distant Seoul. 25 years later, a tipsy Gloria (Hathaway) meets her own personal disaster among the skyscrapers of New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment and onto the streets after she shows up drunk again.

Two women, facing two monsters, which, the movie suggests, may really be the same thing: the Seoul-stomper is somehow connected to Gloria’s screwed-up life. After her world falls apart and she moves back to her quiet hometown, things go to hell as she takes a job in a bar run by old friend and would-be lover Oscar (Sudeikis). That Korean monster, spotted one night 25 years ago, starts appearing again in Seoul almost nightly, although it usually does little more than scratch its head and stumble around aimlessly. These appearances, which naturally go viral on CNN and social media, all seem to happen while Gloria is blacked out. Meanwhile, Gloria ups her drinking and finds herself a boy toy, a handsome younger man without much backbone. That development doesn’t please Oscar, who’s given her a job, TV, and a new suite of furniture in hopes of finally winning his childhood sweetheart.

After this setup, we expect the movie dive into a wacky kaiju/romantic comedy mashup, but things get darker, as the metaphor extends from the monster merely representing Gloria’s alcoholism to embrace co-dependency and abuse—it a conflation of all of her bad choices, along with some misfortunes that befall her through no fault of her own. The script lets the symbolism get away from it a little bit, and neither the mechanism through which the monster manifests itself, nor its origin story, nor its final disposition, quite live up to the cleverness of the original conceit. The movie has serious (if not colossal) tone problems: too many innocent Koreans are killed for it to be an effective comedy, but the premise is too ridiculous to generate the tension needed for action/horror thrills. Colossal does find a way forward, by staying so committed to its allegory that you keep watching just to figure out how it will all be resolved. Sudeikis provides another reason to tune in, as he turns out to be a powder keg with a secret of his own. Colossal had the potential to level much more real estate than it did—lover’s spats and millennial introspections outnumber kaiju battles by at least two-to-one—but you should still find a lot to enjoy lying about in the rubble.

Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the indie scene with the tightly-wound time travel bibelot Timecrimes. Since then, he’s been continuing to make smart movies with sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and someday may produce an oddity ready-make for the List of the Weirdest Films Ever Made. This isn’t it, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique and bizarre and surprising and original piece of filmmaking… From its weird little prologue to a nearly perfect ending, ‘Colossal’ is a trip in multiple meanings of that word.”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

299. INNOCENCE (2004)

“A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent…”–William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, , Helene de Fougerolles

PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.

Still from Innocence (2004)

BACKGROUND:

    • “Inspired by” German writer Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella “Mine-Haha: or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls”. The novella was made again in 2005 as The Fine Art of Love: Mine Ha-Ha.
    • Director Hadzihalilovic is the wife (and former editor/producer) of Gaspar Noé, to whom the film is dedicated. (Hadzihalilovic also collaborated with Noé on the screenplay to the Certified Weird Enter the Void).
    • In 2015 Hadzihalilovic completed Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.


Clip from Innocence

COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s notion of Innocence is an odd Continue reading 299. INNOCENCE (2004)

CAPSULE: EVOLUTION (2015)

Also see ‘s “Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantasia Fest 2015” (where Evolution scored an honorable mention).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

PLOT: A boy grows up on a strange island where all the adults are female and all the children are males; he is told he is sick and is sent to a hospital where he bonds with one of the nurses.

Still from Evolution (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Evolution is a very good, very weird film that won’t get a shot at making the List of the weirdest films of all time for one simple, rather technical reason: it’s thematically similar to, and perhaps slightly inferior to, a previous movie by the same director. Evolution and Innocence are linked, yin-yang movies; you might consider them for a single spot on the List, 1a and 1b.

COMMENTS: Filmed on the rocky beaches of the Canary Islands (standing in for a settlement in a dystopic future or some fairy tale netherworld), Evolution is a stunningly beautiful film. The underwater photography in the opening, capped with a shot from the sea floor of a boy’s lithe body floating in the water framed by a wavery halo of sun, is a skin diver’s dream of paradise. The film knows it’s beautiful, too, and that may be why it takes so much time getting to where it’s going: it’s letting you soak in the sights.

Early in the story, playmates stage a funeral for a dead lobster whose corpse, seen belly-up, looking strikingly vaginal; our boy hero touches it, just to show that he isn’t afraid. Of death, or sex? Is there much difference here? He lives in a village where each “mother” has exactly one boy child in her care. While the boys sleep, the women—all pale and slim, with albino eyebrows—gather at night on the beach for secret rites, performing frightening acts that boys (and audiences) can’t quite wrap their heads around (though a horny might approve). Later, the boy is diagnosed as “sick”—as are all the boys when they reach the cusp of puberty—and transferred to a hospital, where he, along with the others, undergo a series of operations. He also strikes up an (implicitly frowned-upon) friendship with one of the nurses, who is impressed by his drawing abilities.

Evolution is slow-paced, but comes in at a brief 80 minutes—although even so, the overly long silences make it feel a little stretched out. Besides the dreadful atmosphere, it does have some genuine body horror frights, including creepy fetuses. Like Innocence, it ends with a return to the “real world.” The limbo Hadzihalilovic explores in these companion films is pre-pubescent gender, the weirdness of being a male or a female inhabiting a body that’s not yet equipped to carry out its biological role. A very strange situation to be in, when you think about it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird stingless jellyfish of a film. It drifts through an amphibious world of its own, somewhere between nightmare and reverie: intriguing, but never quite arriving at that pure jab of fear or eroticism or body horror that it appears to be swimming towards.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

REPRINT: NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

Alfred Eaker has the week off, but here is a reprint of a classic column originally published October 29, 2009.

On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies.”

The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror. Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.

Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites. Quite a few of the RKO featuress were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favorite was ‘s The Black Catwith and  battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.

In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4. Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.

If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets) Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.” You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.

There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject. Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV stations.

Local WTTV cartoon hosts Janie, Peggy and Cowboy Bob excited too (especially Peggy, whose mini-skirts aroused the young boys and annoyed Mom. Whatever happened to Peggy?), but it simply got no cooler than Sammy, at least to the boys (most of those silly Janie-loving girls just could not appreciate the Nightmare Theater atmosphere, and they were more than a tad jealous of Peggy).

When color TV finally did grace our homes, we had to adjust to Sammy Terry in color, just as we did seeing George Reeves’ Superman in red and blue rather than black and white. The magic was Continue reading REPRINT: NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

CAPSULE: THE EVIL WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Getty

FEATURING: Frederick Koehler, ,

PLOT: A demon who appears in a mirror tries to turn a mentally handicapped man into a serial killer by threatening him with nightmares.

Still from The Evil Within (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Evil Within is an interesting curiosity, with parts that are authentically creepy bumping up against parts that are genuinely scatterbrained. It doesn’t go quite far enough into dementia to earn a spot on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever—maybe it would have if its director had lived to fiddle with it for another fifteen years—but fans of fruitcake horror films won’t be disappointed.

COMMENTS: “I could never know for sure what was a dream and what wasn’t,” says our protagonist at one point. The Evil Within is as disjointed as a bad dream, but there are also dreams within dreams, including a remarkable and long-extended opening sequence that lectures us on the differences between dreams and stories while showing us surreal visions of a burning key in a light switch, a woman with lips for eyeballs, and Michael Berryman unzipping a boy’s body.

It gets weirder from there, in ways that are sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional. It turns out that in the waking world our protagonist, Dennis, is mentally handicapped, despite the fact that in the opening narration he described a haunted house ride as “the snow-capped summit in the topography of juvenile taste.” Frederick Koehler’s performance as Dennis isn’t terrible, although at times it does uncomfortably approach Donald Trump playing a disabled reporter. The plot is set into motion when Dennis’ reflection begins talking back to him, and gradually talks him into becoming a serial killer. The steps by which the alter ego accomplishes this—by convincing poor, slow Dennis that people will respect his newfound intelligence if he follows his increasingly horrifying instructions—are legitimately chilling. Meanwhile, Dennis suffers more Michael Berryman boogeyman nightmares, which are what the film does best, until a final “reveal” that explains (to some degree) his condition. The conclusion is also fairly bonkers, with animatronic monsters deployed as study aids to help decode the plot.

in many ways The Evil Within is a standard horror film, with serial killer tropes and impressive hallucinatory monsters. It also at times seems like the work of an outsider, one who doesn’t always grasp normal human motivations (why is the social worker so hell-bound on rescuing Dennis from his loving family? Why does the outrageously hot ice cream girl say “Of course it’s nice to see me, I’m outrageously hot?”) Overall, it’s an interesting and brutal, if raw, trip through the mirror: a unique blend of Nightmare on Elm Street, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Rainman. It shows a promise that suggests that, had he lived, Andrew Getty might have developed into a distinctive horror voice; if he’d been able to tame his own demons and channel his weird impulses, he might have become a genre maverick like .

The story behind The Evil Within is actually odder than the movie itself. The writer/director, who was a grandson of J. Paul Getty and heir to his oil fortune, self-financed the project, spending an estimated $5 million of his inheritance and endlessly tinkering with it in post-production for 13 years, all while battling a methamphetamine addiction. He died in 2015 at 47 years of age, before completing his work. His editor finally compiled the version we now see before us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s already garnering a reputation as one of most singularly strange films to come along in a good while. And rightly so.”–Travis Johnson, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Russ,” who called it “A flawed film, to be sure, but even moreso: an absolutely fascinating film, a grand example of uncomfortable, outsider art.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GINGER AND FRED (1986)

Ginger e Fred

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Giulietta Masina,

PLOT: Retired Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers impersonators return for a guest spot on a television spectacular.

Still from Ginger and Fred (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One ten-teated cow does not a weird movie make. In Ginger and Fred, Fellini’s once-aggressive surrealism mellows into bemused quirkiness. Fans will find plenty to appreciate in the colorful, chaotic oddity on display, but this is a conventional comedy, by the maestro’s standards.

COMMENTS: Ginger and Fred is not a “Felliniesque” movie per se. It’s more of a roadmap for how Fellini’s vision might be channeled into something nostalgic and whimsical: Fellini for grandpas and grandmas. It’s a pleasing elegy for grand old entertainment, mixed with an unsubtle but effective satire of television. It features Fellini’s muse (Masina) and alter-ego (Mastroianni) working together for the first and only time, a pairing that in and of itself would make Ginger and Fred noteworthy. Fortunately, it’s also a good movie, with excellent performances from both stars. Masina’s Ginger is likeable and dignified, bemused by modernity without being overwhelmed or embittered. Mastroianni’s Fred hides his growing feebleness under a mask of rakishness, quick with a wolf whistle and a drink order. The scene where Fred repeatedly lifts Ginger while her eyes cross and they both start breathing heavily is as amusing a proxy for geriatric intercourse as I ever want to see on film.

Ginger and Fred‘s unseen network executives assemble a collection of human oddities for their Christmas spectacular variety show, with whom the elegant and put-upon Ginger is forced to share a hotel and a stage. There’s a transvestite with a divine calling to visit prisoners, Kafka and Proust impersonators (!), a troupe of bolero-dancing dwarfs, a mutant cow, a couple who tape-record ghost voices, and a throng of supplemental weirdos: extras wander around dressed like video game characters and decapitated geishas. There is some inherent irony in the way Ginger and Fred trots out its freakshow parade as a criticism of television, given the fact that Fellini himself was famous and celebrated for populating his films with odd-looking people and carnivalesque performers. The distinction, of course, is that Fellini isn’t criticizing television’s reliance on the grotesque, but the shallowness of its fascination, of the spectacle format in which every story is cut to fit in as short a slot as possible and not explored beyond its surface. His satirical circus is something stranger and more curious than television could ever accomplish (except, of course, when Fellini worked in the medium). He spends time exploring Ginger and Fred in-depth, making them three-dimensional characters inhabiting a two-dimensional world.

Some of the best bits are the brief parodies of television programming. There’s an absurd puppet show version of Dante’s “Inferno,” spot-on recreations of MTV music videos, a commercial with sexy French maid pouring olive oil on a huge lobster, a game show where housewives shovel pasta into their mouths from sinks, with the sauce delivered from the faucet. Televisions are everywhere in Ginger and Fred; in the hotel lobby, on the studio’s buses. Modern audiences will identify with the way the characters are always looking at screens rather than people—only back then, it was television that was the distraction. The screen has changed, but the message is the same.

In a strange footnote, Ginger Rogers unsuccessfully (and foolishly) sued Ginger and Fred‘s producers for trademark infringement and defamation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hysterical send-up of Italian television, which looks like an LSD-induced vision of ours 30 years ago – a combination of Morey Amsterdam’s ‘Broadway Open House,’ ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ Alistair Cooke’s ‘Omnibus’ and the Irv Kupcinet show… One longs for fewer midgets and bizarre misfits and for more of Miss Masina and Mr. Mastroianni.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

“One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that what one dreams just before waking structures the following day. That dream material is gathered from the previous day, and therefore is a gathering of all previous days, ergo contains the structure of all history, of all Man… I wanted PRELUDE to be a created dream for the work that follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from dream; I stayed close to practical usage of dream material, in terms of learning and studying, for a while before editing. At this time I left strict myth considerations out of my study process as much as possible..”–Stan Brakhage speaking on Dog Star Man in “Metaphors on Vision

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage

PLOT: This silent non-narrative film is presented in four parts: a 20-minute “Prelude” introduces many of the visual motifs that will show up in later installments, followed by “Part One,” which focuses on a man  climbing a mountain with his dog. The man continues his climb in the seven-minute “Part Two,” but the picture now focuses on a baby boy, with abstract figures superimposed directly on the film. “Part Three” is a “sexual daydream” of a nude woman, with even more layered images, and “Part Four” is an even more abstract culmination of all that has come before.

Still from Dog Star Man (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage completed almost 400 films during his life (some of which run for less than a minute).
  • Dog Star Man is the final compilation of five short films Brakhage produced between 1961 and 1964. They are almost never screened separately, although the Prelude could stand alone.
  • While making Dog Star Man, Brakhage was unemployed and living with his wife and her parents in their Colorado cabin; to earn his keep, he chopped wood for the family.
  • Brakhage named his movie after a pulp novel he picked up as a boy, because he thought it a shame that such a great title would be forever wasted on a tawdry paperback.
  • The film is structured with increasing visual complexity. Brakhage shot one layer of film for part one, two for part 2 (and also for the prelude), three for part 3, and four for part 4. The layers of film were then superimposed on top of each other.
  • Brakhage later produced a four-and-a-half hour cut of this material called The Art of Vision, which rearranged every layer of film Brakhage shot for the project into every possible combination of superimpositions (within each part).
  • Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most of the amazing visual effects Brakhage achieves with his complex superimpositions fly by too quickly for us to consciously register—some can be seen for only a single frame or two. The most important repeated symbol in the film, however, may be the most mundane: the woodcutter struggling up the snowy mountain with his axe, stumbling and falling, while his dog happily bounds at his side.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Phosphenes on film; baby with snowflakes; sex and beating hearts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Meticulous and intentionally unentertaining, Dog Star Man is a masterwork of consciously constructed dream cinema.


Excerpt from Dog Star Man (Prelude)

COMMENTS: When ordinary people think about experimental Continue reading 296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

CAPSULE: THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anonymous corpses

PLOT: Footage of autopsies performed at the Pittsburgh morgue, delivered without commentary.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At first I didn’t find Act at all “weird,” but the next day I found myself spontaneously describing it to another person thusly: “I saw the strangest documentary last night…” Both thoughts were true, based on different meanings of the words “weird” and “strange.” Act is strange in the sense of rare, uncommon, seldom-seen; it’s also disturbing and unsettling. But it’s deliberately rooted in reality, and not “weird” in the sense we use the term on this site: surreal, mysterious, hinting at the irrational.

COMMENTS: Society hides corpses from view—not from shame, but from unease. We seek to hide the evidence of a crime that has been committed against us. The title of Stan Brakhage’s charnel house poem (a somewhat literal translation of the Greek “autopsis”) suggests that here we will see death, and do so authentically: with our “own eyes,” not secondhand. The “act” of the title further suggests that this will not be a passive experience, but something we deliberately undertake to do.

Be prepared. Male and female, young and old, they all eventually arrive on the slab. Brakhage’s camera does not focus on any faces (a condition of his being allowed to shoot in the morgue). The anonymity of the bodies makes them more universal. He engages in little experimental camerawork (there are a few moments with strange zooms, or with abstract closeups). Bodies are clinically hacked apart and disemboweled, internal organs scooped out and placed in bins. In the most disturbing segment, the skin on the back of a man’s head is peeled upward to expose his skull, with the folds of flesh eventually bunching up around his eyes. There are closeups of meat sticking to ribs. Brakhage could have inserted footage from a butcher shop at some points, and you would not know the difference. The film runs for thirty minutes, although he could have stopped the camera after ten minutes or kept it running for another hour and a half. The end result is the same.

You might be disgusted. After a while, you might become numb, or even bored. You may be fascinated by the machinery of the body; your thoughts will likely turn to your own mortality. It’s grisly, but not exploitative. The camera does not tell you what to think or feel. The take home message of Brakhage’s audacious documentary seems to be, “look: this is what you are.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perhaps the longest uncomfortable silence in the history of cinema, Stan Brakhage’s documentary short The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a harrowing, unshakable, but fundamentally fascinating, viewing experience.”–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

(This movie was nominated for review by “Regicide.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)