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.

CAPSULE: ELEVATOR MOVIE (2004)

NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.

DIRECTED BY:  Zeb Haradon

FEATURING:  Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard

PLOT:  A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are elevator_movie

trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future.  By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years.  Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability.  The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering. 

COMMENTS:  Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.  The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset.  Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can.  This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas.  This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them.  Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim.  Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off.  Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances. 

The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek.  That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards.  That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie.  Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a champion of ‘Eraserhead’, ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, ‘Naked Lunch’, and ‘Back Against the Wall’, all fine films that downright bask in their toxicity to the homogenized masses, I found Haradon’s film to be unique and fascinating and a most worthy addition to the midnight movie circuit. Just don’t ask me to spend any longer in Haradon’s mind than I have to in any one sitting. It’s very likely I’d never make it out!”–Daniel Wible, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ANNIE HALL (1977)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:  Woody Allen

FEATURING: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

PLOT:  Neurotic NYC comedian Alvy (Allen) falls in love with would-be cabaret singer

Annie Hall still

Annie Hall (Keaton), but his inability to relax and enjoy life ultimately dooms their relationship.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTAnnie Hall isn’t weird, at all.  Some people, however, believe it’s weird, and have even tagged the film as “Surrealism” on IMDB.  I doubt Luis Buñuel would agree.  What people misperceive as weird in Annie Hall are the numerous “breaking the fourth wall” stylistic techniques: speaking directly to the camera, having the adult Alvy visit his own flashbacks and comment on the action, including subtitles explaining what Alvy and Annie are really thinking as they flirt at their first meeting, and including an animated non sequitur explaining that Alvy most identified with the Wicked Queen in Disney’s Snow White.  These techniques, however, are employed in the service of the most conventional plot Allen had conceived up to that time: a true-to-life, impeccably characterized tale of the rise and fall of a romance.  The directorial tools he uses to tell his tale may be unconventional and self-conscious, but they sure ain’t weird.

COMMENTS: Notwithstanding the fact that it’s clearly lodged in the comedy genre, Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s first “serious” movie.  As a dual character study of hapless Alvy and flighty but lively Annie, it shows more depth and ambition than Allen’s previous wacky comedies that had no higher aspirations than too make audiences laugh (and to depict Allen as someone so smart that the audience feels flattered to get his references to Kierkegaard or whomever).  Annie Hall is shamelessly autobiographical (Allen and Keaton really were ex-lovers), and doesn’t try to hide it.  Fortunately, the film’s laden with memorable gags that will stick with you the rest of your life: Alvy’s schoolmates describing their adult interests (one is a methadone addict); Christopher Walken’s brilliant, brief turn as Annie’s unhinged brother; Jeff Goldblum’s even briefer single sentence bit as a trendy Hollywood meathead; and Allen’s classic one-liner regarding masturbation.  Most of the jokes tend towards the witty instead of the sidesplitting, eliciting an appreciative chuckle rather than a hearty belly laugh, but the witticisms come so fast and furious that they keep the audience on edge to see what Allen will come up with next.  They also effectively hide the underlying pain of the tale: Alvy is masochistically self-sabotaging and will never be happy in a relationship, and Annie is too full of life to let Alvy drag her down.  All in all, it’s not quite as relentlessly funny as the comedies that preceded it—BananasSleeper and Love and Death—but Allen’s crafty direction shows a mastery of this particular material that’s hard not to admire.  Allen let the critical praise heaped on him for this serious effort go to his head, turned to directing dramas at the peak of his comic success, and would be only sporadically funny again—a tragic loss for the world of comedy.

The original screenplay was titled “Anhedonia”, a psychological condition describing the inability to experience pleasure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gave a fresh confidence to Woody and a generation of solipsistic stand-up comics and it created a new genre, what we might call ‘the relationship picture’, that dispensed with formal narrative… the actual production was a chaotic affair and the picture only came into focus when its editor Ralph Rosenblum reduced the first cut of 140 minutes to a tight 95 in which the real and the surreal co-exist.”–Phillip French, The Observer(DVD)

CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: EDMOND (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Stuart Gordon

FEATURING: William H. Macy

PLOT:  A latently racist and mentally addled accountant leaves his wife, spends

edmond (2005)

an impossibly long night touring the NYC commercial sex trade and meeting lost souls, and finally ends up in prison.


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEdmond isn’t so much weird as terminally confused.  It’s true foreboding Tarot cards keep popping up in impossible places, that Macy’s wild night out is almost impossibly long so the script can fit in all the necessary episodes, and that it’s extremely odd that the prison wardens would march new meat past inmates’ cells in the buff.  Still, even with these departures from reality, the movie still doesn’t seem in-your-bones weird so much as it feels like the author (playwright David Mamet) is trying to force events into a meaningful symbolic line, but failing to communicate that meaning to his audience. 

COMMENTSEdmond is only for William H. Macy fans and for those who equate vagueness with profundity.  Macy creates some interest, though no sympathy, through his performance as a sad sack salaryman who thinks he’s found a temporary fix for existential bafflement by tapping into his tribal bloodlust.  After whoremongering, assaulting women and minorities, threatening old churchgoing ladies, and other more serious crimes, he finds himself under arrest.  In prison he’s forcibly stripped of his recently adopted macho facade, and spends his time in stammering attempts to articulate some profound philosophy of life (“every fear hides a wish”).  Unfortunately, Macy wanders through a script that doesn’t know what to make of Edmond any more than Edmond himself does.  Those recurring Tarot cards and the closing monologue suggest that it was all just fate anyway, and Edmond’s search for meaning and the choices he made never made a difference.  In the end, all that happens is we passively witness an inexplicable tragedy happen to an unlikeable man.

Although Edmond‘s angry white male sociopath seems like a faded nth-generation variation of Michael Douglas’ D-Fens from Falling Down (1993), Mamet’s original play was actually written during the first term of the Reagan administration.  The concept of the angry white male (who Democrats theorized jumped the fence to get Reagan elected) would have had more resonance in that era.  That theory may also explain why Edmond is named after Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher/statesman who is looked upon as the father of modern conservatism.  Maybe that explains why both the character Edmond and the movie Edmond seem strange and unmotivated to us today, viewing the film in a different political context.  It also demonstrates why writers should not write to their times (or, at least, should not resurrect old pieces without revising them).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal spiritual fable that riffs on a notion voiced by Edmond that every fear hides a wish. Mr. Mamet shows no interest in offering a tidy psychological explanation for Edmond’s behavior. Hurled at you like a knife, the movie is as reasonable as a panic attack.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

17. TIDELAND (2005)

“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird.”–Terry Gilliam

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher,

PLOT:  Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies.  When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices.  She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and a childlike mentally retarded man who also lives in his own fantasy world.

tideland

BACKGROUND:

  • Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
  • Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005).
  • Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.
  • According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage.  But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain.  The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World,” and, though unacknowleged, also from the 1990 film The Reflecting Skin (which had an almost identical look as well as an eerily similarly child protagonist). Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world.  This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gilliam has described the movie as a cross between “Alice in

Original trailer for Tideland

Wonderland” and Psycho, which sounds weird enough on its own terms.  He pushes the envelope of weirdness even further with his trademark visual flair for phantasmagorical set pieces, for example, with a gloriously imaginative sequences of Jeliza-Rose falling down a rabbit hole full of tumbling syringes.  But even if the audience wasn’t planted firmly inside the skull of the 9-year-old heroine, peering out onto this grotesque world through her child’s eyes, the scenario would have been weird, as the world of Tideland is peopled by grossly exaggerated lowlifes who live out their lives on the lonely fringes of plausibility.

COMMENTS: Tideland is a misunderstood film, which is not automatically the same thing Continue reading 17. TIDELAND (2005)

SHORT: やった (2001)

fivestar

DIRECTED BY: Unknown

FEATURING:  Greenl

PLOT:  Six bouncy naked men (whose genitals are tasteful disguised by fig

leaves) experience love and loss in modern Japan, eventually achieving artistic and financial success through music. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: やった is a hallucinogenic barrage of bizarre imagery.  A peppy musical score contrasts ironically with the magical mystery tour taken by the six naked men, whose travels through impossible landscapes consisting of fields of ostriches and giant sushi platters are shown in brief, almost subliminal flashbacks.  The six scantily clad principals appear delusional, and its is possible that the director intended this short film to be an expressionist depiction of a state of paranoid schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, with each member representing a separate Jungian archetype.

COMMENTS:

On the surface the やった seems to be nothing more than shock cinema, weirdness for weirdness’ sake.  Closer examination will reveal it to be one of the saddest stories ever told, an entire universe of bereavement and nihilism encased in a devilishly hummable 4 minute disco montage.  The scene where a fig leaf wearing man brushes past a beautiful woman on a busy Tokyo street, looks back wistfully as she passes, and is immediately consoled by his five naked brothers (who magically emerge from a nearby alley), is perhaps the most melancholy romantic scene put to film since Bernstein told his tale of the girl with the white parasol in Citizen Kane.

Some have claimed that this short film is actually a satirical skit by a comedy troupe meant to poke fun at Japan’s eternal optimism in the face of economic and political woes.  Such reductionist interpretations miss the larger point, however.  やった tells a tale of the existential struggle to survive, forge an identity, and promote a boy band made up of naked middle aged men in an uncaring, absurd universe.  In a shot that seems almost to be a throwaway sequence, but actually is the key to interpreting  やった’s deeper meaning, a fig life springs to life from the crotch of one of the singers and rises in the air, finally transforming into the word “hope.”  American directors would do well to take heed of their Japanese counterparts willingness to express such deep emotional truths without the fear of looking silly.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
“Irrational Exuberance gains its genius from the fact that it effectively translates the concepts in Yatta! to an American audience, who wouldn’t get the Snore! Snore! Pass! Pass! part, but can appreciate the way that commercialism dumbs down their society. Hey, as long as we’re happy, who cares if we’re dancing in our skivvies?”–Sekicho, Everything2.com

16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Herk Harvey

FEATURING: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger

PLOT:  Mary Henry, a church organist, is the lone survivor of an accident when the car she’s riding in plunges over the side of an old wooden bridge.  Looking to start over, she takes a job as an organist at a new church in a town where she knows no one.  She finds herself haunted by the sight of a pale grinning man who appears to her when she is alone, and fascinated by an old abandoned carnival pavilion visible from the window of her boarding house that she senses hold a mysterious significance.

carnival_of_souls
BACKGROUND:

  • Carnival of Souls was made in three weeks for less than $100,000 (figures on the budget vary, but some place it as low as $33,000).  The film was a flop on its initial release, but gained a cult following through late night television showings.  The film was restored and re-released in 1989 to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
  • Director Herk Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford and composer Gene Moore worked together at Centron Corporation, an industrial film company, creating short safety documentaries such as Shake Hands with Danger and high-school propaganda/hygiene films such as What About Juvenile Delinquency? None were ever involved with a feature film again.
  • Mesmerizing star Candace Hilligoss acted in only one other feature film, 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse, before retiring to raise a family.
  • The movie has been very influential on other films, particularly low-budget horror films.  Director George Romero has said that the ghostly figures in Carnival of Souls inspired the look and feel of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Other writers see a Carnival of Souls influence on films such as Eraserhead (in regards to its ability to evoke the nightmarish quality of everyday objects), Repulsion (disintegration of the mind of a sexually repressed woman), and even Apocalypse Now (the shot of Martin Sheen rising from the water mimics a similar scene involving The Man–thanks to Matthew Dessem of “The Criterion Collection” for the catch).
  • Carnival of Souls was “remade” in 1998, although the plot (about a clown killer and rapist) shared nothing with the original except the name and the final twist.  Wes Craven produced.  The remake went direct to DVD and was savaged by critics and audiences alike.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  What else, but the titular carnival?  Ghostly figures waltz to an eerie, deranged organ score on what appears to be an old merry-go-round at the abandoned amusement park.  The tableau recurs twice in the film: once clearly in a dream, and once near the end as a scene that may also be a dream, but may be another state of being entirely.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDCarnival of Souls is set in the ordinary, everyday world, but as seen through the eyes of an alienated, frightened woman.  The world the film depicts is familiar, but made maddeningly strange, and its the subtle, grubby touches rather than ghostly apparitions that allow this creepy low-budget wonder to seep deep under your skin.


8 minute clip from Carnival of Souls (with annotations supplied by a youtube user)

COMMENTS: Carnival of Souls is a minor film miracle.  There was little reason to suspect Continue reading 16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

CAPSULE: THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Pellington

FEATURING: Richard Gere

PLOT:  A Washington Post reporter loses his wife in an automobile accident,

mothman_prophecies

then finds himself spirited away to a West Virgina town where the residents are spotting monsters and undergoing horrifying precognitive hallucinations.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Taking its cues from parapsychology and cryptozoology, and positioning itself as a “true story,” The Mothman Prophecies paranoidly posits a world where omniscient Mothmen are simply a part of the natural order.  I wouldn’t want to dishonor the producer’s sincere “the truth is out there” vision by suggesting there’s something a little weird about it.  On a more serious note, The Mothman Prophecies is an effective chiller with a mildly unique spin on a conventional horror yarn that generates enough unease to make it worth checking out for fans of the eerie side of the weird, but it’s ultimately too lightweight and conventional to be more than a passing diversion.

COMMENTS: Director Mark Pellington, who previously explored themes of conspiracy and paranoia in the thriller Arlington Road, translates his talents to horror well and does a very fine job of pleasantly chilling the viewer’s blood through the early segments of the Mothman Prophecies.  Unexplained occurrences, from an impossible car detour that lands our protagonist on the Ohio border with West Virginia to a yokel who swears he’s been visited by Richard Gere before, pile on top of each other until the viewer is pleasantly on edge and disoriented.  When the antagonist is eventually revealed, his powers verge on the omnipotent and his motives lie firmly in the realm of the inscrutable.  The conclusion ties things up in a nice little bow–sort of, because all the pieces resolved belong to subplots.  The central mystery of  the Mothman is never even touched, which frustrated viewers who crave nothing more than narrative cohesion but shouldn’t bother weirdophiles a bit.  Despite its silly premise, Mothman is a highly effective unease-generating machine, which is (or at least, should have been) its only aspiration. 

The “based on a true story” angle is patently a scam.  Although it’s true that there were “Mothman” sightings in West Virginia in the 1960s and a bridge collapsed soon thereafter, anyone who doesn’t recognize the convenient presence of an attractive romantic foil for Richard Gere and the archetypal visit to the reclusive old wizard for a bit of exposition and dire warnings as the work of a screenwriter rather than a documentarian probably should be permanently ineligible for jury duty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…thriller that purports to be based on true events but operates in that bombastic plane of reality reserved for the apocalyptic horror movie.”–Jan Stuart, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly…”–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf

DIRECTED BY:  Fred Haines

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon.  One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex.  Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a delirious dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door—including, perhaps, his homicidal side.

Still from Steppenwolf (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of it’s perceived revolutionary vision and it’s apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
  • Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup) was offered the chance to direct but turned it down because he thought the book was unfilmable.
  • This was the only film directed by Fred Haines.  He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967).
  • Co-producer and LSD-enthusiast Melvin Abner Fishman declared the Steppenwolf would be “the first Jungian film.”
  • The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others.  The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of Hesse’s

Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)

masterpiece, written while Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind were still novel and revolutionary, present some weird scenarios (such as Harry entering into dream debates with the ghosts of Goethe and Mozart).  When this material is adapted through a 1974 lens, an era when cinematographers hadn’t yet come down from the LSD-inspired visual experimentalism of the late 1960s, it becomes even weirder.  From the Magic Theater sequence on, Steppenwolf is truly trippy stuff.

COMMENTS: There’s a difficulty in reviewing movie adaptations of novels, in that the Continue reading 15. STEPPENWOLF (1974)

CAPSULE: W THE MOVIE (2008)

twostar

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Eaker & Ross St. Just

FEATURING: Alfred Eaker, PinkFreud

PLOT: “W” appears in a meteorite in the Arizona desert, steals the election for

Still from W: The Movie (2008)

the party of No, and becomes a tyrant opposed by liberal reporter BlueMahler.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With half the characters distinguished by facepaint that makes them look like either World Wrestling Federation rejects or members of a failed 70s revival glam band, acting in front of shifting psychedelic computer-generated backdrops, this surrealist satire of George W. Bush’s presidency is definitely weird enough to make the list.  The problem is that, as a polemic against the 43rd President of the United States, it comes with an expiration date.  It’s too particular and too parochial, both in terms of subject matter and target audience, to earn a final place on a list of 366 representative weird movies.

COMMENTS:  Because it is a vehemently partisan mockery of a former President, as opposed to a generic political satire, W the Movie is difficult to review.  Your reaction may depend on your politics; the far left might applaud it as a hilarious send-up of a dangerous political hack, those on the right may be outraged (and personally insulted), or simply dismiss it as liberal piffle.  Moderates and fence-sitters are unlikely to be swayed.  All sides will recognize it as deliberately unfair; Bush’s foibles are exaggerated past the point of absurdity.  W is cruel, crude and stupid, and at his most decisive when he demands his pancakes with “lots of syrup”; his foil, BlueMahler, is brave and righteous, and his only character flaw is neglecting his wife and son as he devotes his life to exposing the truth about the alien demagogue and his infernal war.  W the Movie makes the work of Michael Moore (who himself makes as appearance as a ghostlike, babbling puppet) look fair and balanced.  There’s a place in the film world for narrowly political art and clever character assassination, and in this sense the producers are to be commended for not fearing to enter the fray, take sides, and name names.

But, polarizing political content aside, there’s quite a bit to be admired in the low-budget production.  It’s an excellent example of how a unique, almost mesmerizing visual style can be forged through CGI on the cheap, when artistic effect and atmosphere is placed above the fetish for strict realism.  About 90% of the film was shot in front of a green-screen, and memorable virtual sets include W riding on a missile against a cloudscape (a la Dr. Strangelove), W worshipping at an altar of giant gold coins, and an amusing black and white parody sequence with W in Ford’s Theater.  The effect is a bit like the old studio-bound pictures of the 30s and 40s, where the backgrounds were matte paintings, but modern technology combined with a hallucinogenic vision makes these brightly colored living mattes slip, morph and shift before the viewer’s eye.  Therefore, the film is constantly interesting to the eye, even when the plot gets difficult to follow. Furthermore, Eaker does quite well in multiple roles, including both W and his nemesis BlueMahler. Actors cast in smaller roles range from adequate to distracting.  The humor is also uneven, ranging from the highly effective (the Ford’s Theater scene) to the painfully embarrassing (the 9/11 tragedy is used as an excuse for cheap jokes about W’s pro-life stance and lack of geographical acumen).  More genuine funny and fewer pointed potshots would have made it a happier movie experience.  All in all, W‘s well worth checking out, but if you’re to the right of Obama politically, you may want to check your party of No pin at the door.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is one seriously messed up flick and… I mean that in the best possible way… wild and wonderful, weird and whacked out.”–Richard Propes, The Independent Critic

4/23/09 UPDATE: W the Movie won the “Best Experimental Feature” award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

7/22/10 UPDATE: For a limited time, we are screening “W” for free on YouTube. Enjoy!