All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

366 UNDERGROUND: WINNERS TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Channell

FEATURING: Zane Crosby, Joshua Lively, and Chris LaMartina

PLOT: The exploits of a hyper-low-budget ’80s horror duo are chronicled in the form of a public access television “documentary”.

Still from Winners Tape All (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Winners Tape All is a cheeky dissection of the various failings (and unlikely successes) of the straight-to-VHS horror phenomenon that gripped (?) the nation back in the 1980s. While some of the fake movies “discussed” in this mockumentary would easily be Certifiable contenders, Channell’s homage to one of the stranger pop-genres stands as a straightforward, well-made, and very funny bit of fare.

COMMENTS: Today’s big-name directors would do well to learn a lesson from some of the novices that have sprung up in recent years: your movie should only be as long as it has to be. Winners Tape All stands as a testament to the fact that a movie less than an hour and a half long isn’t less of a movie for its efforts, but can be much more. This breezy mockumentary clocks in at a sweet sixty-seven minutes. It is brief, but uses every moment well, exploring the fictional history of two crummy film-makers from West Virginia in a manner that is both hilarious and, somehow, a little touching.

Within the framework of an “Eye on the Cinema” public access TV episode, Channell tells us about the Henderson brothers. These step-brothers are a lens through which Channell explores the genre. With only two movies to their credit (Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club), they represent what cinephiles regard as all that’s wrong with amateur auteurs. The narrative, however, makes clear that guys like these were instrumental in propping up a genre that, though lacking perhaps in quality, made up for it in mind-numbing quantity. That distributors can’t be bothered to transfer so many of those shot-on-video rental horror movies with titles like Scream Dream and Mad Mutilator to cheap-o DVDs suggests that those “50 Classics of Horror” compilations out there barely scratch the surface.

Zipping back and forth between interviews with Richard Henderson (Joshua Lively), a laid-back surfer of a movie maker, and Michael Henderson (Zane Crosby), a pony-tailed gore fan with a hick accent, we also get to see snippets of the two awful horror movies that made them “rich” (Curse of Stabberman‘s popularity on the rental circuit was unexpected) and then bankrupted their distribution label (Cannibal Swim Club was more of the same coming out a little too late). Scattered throughout are interludes with perhaps the most die-hard fan ever made, Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina). While part of me feels Jacoby’s awkward zeal compromises the movie somewhat, another part acknowledges that he is in all likelihood an accurate representative of militant bad-horror enthusiasts.

Little jokes and asides come and go, sometimes stacking on each other. Michael addresses the phenomenon of “walk time” for Curse of Stabberman (used to fill out a movie’s time clock when plot and dialogue are wanting); later, Richard echoes the idea with “swim time” when discussing Cannibal Swim Club, giving a “see what we did there?” kind of look to the camera. I’m no expert in the genre being ribbed here, but I’ve seen enough to know that Channell’s distilled all the very worst parts of it into these guys and the two movies they made. While I’d be loath to watch either of the films from the Henderson’s oeuvre, it was a very enjoyable experience to see those two brothers done justice (of sorts)—or, more accurately, to see justice done for all those amateur directors, writers, and actors who, despite the theme of their chosen genre, were never ones to say die.

Winners Tape All is available exclusively from IWC Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s always fun to see straight-faced depictions of made-up things which are just plain ridiculous.”–Jesse Skeen, DVD Talk (DVD)

CAPSULE: THEORY OF OBSCURITY: A FILM ABOUT THE RESIDENTS (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.

FEATURING: Assorted

PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.

Still from Theory of Obscurity (215)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.

COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.

Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.

Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen to (and watch) the source material.

I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SCHRAMM (1993)

Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florian Koerner von Gustorf,

PLOT: Life ebbs from the body of Lothar Schramm after a fatal fall from a ladder. Memories of murders, self-loathing, hallucinations, and his love for his next door neighbor blink on and off the screen. What starts with the death of a murderer becomes a portrait of a grisly, nuanced soul.

Still from Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As with his previous film, Der Todesking, Buttgereit somehow manages to ride the crest between gore and philosophy, making Schramm considerably more meditative than would be expected. Its (now) familiar “mind of a serial killer” theorizing does result in the occasional shock, but it certainly isn’t the weirdest thing you could see before breakfast.

COMMENTS: There is something to be said for efficient film-making. So often it seems the case that a director wants his or her film to go on for as long as it takes to say everything about its subject. Sprawling movies abound; some peter out, some take forever to find their target, and the worst neither gain momentum nor really tell much of a story. Such a curse is not suffered by Jörg Buttgereit, the affable German behind the underground horror hits Nekromantik (1 and 2), Der Todesking, and, the last feature of his early career, Schramm. In a tight sixty-five minutes, Buttergereit explores the final thoughts and days of the titular serial killer.

Schramm’s chronology is only slowly revealed, beginning, effectively, at the end of the story. Suffering a fall while painting a blood-spattered door frame, Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf) collapses in the spilt paint, and time slowly rewinds. Our first living encounter with him shows him dispatching two altogether wholesome evangelizers. An impatient woman knocks on the door. Eventually things sift back further and we see what are likely childhood memories, interspersed with the scenes from the days immediately preceding the fall. Schramm’s manner and actions may now seem typical, but in 1992 (the year Schramm was filmed), the precarious mental state of a rather off-kilter man was quite a bit fresher. (As Buttgereit remarks in his charmingly cute introduction, the reason he made this film was he was tired of watching “chain-smoking detectives pursuing the serial killer”, instead of seeing things from the other side.)

As I mentioned, the film is brief. However, it gets everything done that it needs to in the run-time. In what has become almost standard in the genre, Schramm is a generally low-key, pleasant guy who enjoys jogging and chatting with his next-door neighbor (Monika M.), a prostitute who relies on him for company and, later, protection. Stylized flashbacks of murders, a kitchen drawer full of lipstick, and unsettling hallucinations of his own physical deterioration hint at his mental imbalance. (Taking a cat-nap in his taxi, he dreams about a dental appointment for a tooth removal that quickly escalates into an eye removal). While he’s keeping busy with loneliness and killing prostitutes, his neighbor gets herself involved with some rather demanding and unsavory older clients.

There is certainly a fair share of repellent material in Schramm, but anyone familiar Buttgereit’s work should be unsurprised. However, unlike the gross-out tours-de-force of his Nekromantik films, Schramm is more the sibling of his pensive work, Der Todesking. The violent scenes in Schramm are sparingly scattered, and all the more troubling for so being. With this release (and the upcoming über Buttgereit set), the people at Cult Epics have made available a neat little treasure that not only illustrates why this director deserves (a little) greater fame, but also that underground cinema has more to offer the public than just cheap thrills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has ‘fans only’ written all over it… Using out-of-date experimental means (repetition and color distortion), Buttgereit tries to put the audience into the killer’s mind, and probably gets as close as a director with limited means can.”–Eric Hansen, Variety (contemporaneous)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister consider the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

231. ORPHEUS (1950)

Orphée

“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Marie Déa,

PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.

Still from Orpheus (1950)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
  • Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
  • The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
  • Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
  • The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.


Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus

COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)

CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Various

PLOT: The collection of short films on this disc range from people-puppet tellings of classic opera to unconventional documentaries, as well as examples of what Svankmajer is most known for: stop motion animation with a decidedly macabre aura of cheekiness.

Still from The Ossuary and Other Tales
“The Last Trick”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would be easy to argue that these short films are all very well done, and easier still to contend that a handful of them are disorientingly bizarre. However, the overall degree of weirdness fluctuates greatly, and seeing as this is a compilation of shorts anyway, Mr. Svankmajer will have to make do with his feature-length Certifications.

COMMENTS: Jan Svankmajer’s influence is well known to the visitors of this website. His body of work, beginning in 1964 with “The Last Trick,” has inspired everyone from ‘s to the Pennsylvanian duo, the . The Ossuary and Other Tales is something of a scatter-shot collection of his short films from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, and is intriguing both for its content and its omissions. Over the course of two hours, the viewer gets to marvel at increasingly surreal sleight-of-hand from a pair of competing magicians (“The Last Trick”), watch a summary of the earth’s life forms put to classic dance riffs (“Historia Naturae [Suita]”), see ominous social commentary (“The Garden”), and even catch up on some classic opera (sans opera) with “Don Juan.” The overall result is a nice showcase of Svankmajer’s scope and talent, but it leaves one feeling that there are some gaps.

Two of the highlights of the anthology are “The Ossuary” (1970) and “Castle of Otranto” (1979). Both are documentaries. The former is made up entirely of shots of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, home to the remains of forty to seventy thousand people whose bones are arranged in intricate formations. Most notable are an enormous bone chandelier and the coat of arms of the royal house that funded the project. The voice-over from the never-seen tour guide provides commentary, challenging the school children the guide is ostensibly lecturing to contemplate what they could hope to make with all this human material, and constantly reminding them that there is a 50 crown fine (“to be paid immediately!”) for touching the remains.

“Castle of Otranto” is more conventional in that it features an interviewer speaking with an amateur archaeologist who is convinced the fabled story from Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale is based on an actual castle, the Otrhany ruins found in (then) Czechoslovakia. The documentary bits are interspersed with Gilliam-esque (Svankmajer-esque?) animations of Walpole’s story, one that involves love, betrayal, and a truly massive knight. The amateur archaeologist contends that the Otrhany ruins show evidence of both the existence and gargantuan size of said knight as described in the book; the interviewer is skeptical, providing some mundane explanations for the archaeologist’s circumstantial evidence. In a nice twist, the words of doubt prompt a tumbling of rocks and debris on the pair and the camera pans up to a massive gauntlet smashing through the tower above them.

There is too little space to cover everything included here, but at the same time I was left wanting more material. Those who enjoyed the “uncanny valley” effect of the Certified Weird Marquis will revel in Svankmajer’s “Don Juan,” with its people dressed as marionettes. The dangers of solitary drinking and soccer obsession are explored in “Virile Games,” which features a man slowly getting hammered while watching a match on TV, and combines live-action, cut-out animation, and stop motion (the last of which showcases the offing of the soccer players in various clever ways). So there is a wealth of material here: but not nearly all of it. Looking over a list of Svankmajer’s shorts, it appears that maybe just half show up in The Ossuary. Hopefully a truly comprehensive Blu Ray disc will come along to put things right; until then, I advise completists to pick up what they can where they can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a great compilation of truly odd little films.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk

(This movie was nominated for review by “hazebass7,” who said “This movie is teeming with weird imagery and a great avant-garde feel. I was greatly entertained by this collection’s weirdness and I think that it would be a great addition to the list!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

CAPSULE: THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011)

On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.

Still from Through the Weeping Glass (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.

COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”

By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.

The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”

By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMB (1990)

AKA The Comb: From the Museums of Sleep

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joy Constaninides, Witold Scheybal

PLOT: A mysterious faceless figure thwarts a man’s efforts to reach a sleeping woman within her dream.

Still from "The Comb" (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Cleverly combining live-action film with their signature superpowered stop-motion animation, the constructed this cheerfully cryptic little vignette. Using skillful in-camera effects, the viewer travels from the outer world into the inner one with ease, shifting from blurry black-and-white to pixie-ish color. Dream logic prevails, but in this movie the Quay brothers temper any bleakness with a refreshing sense of wonder.

COMMENTS: Inside the dreams of a slumbering woman, a lively little hero pursues a sleeping heroine, maneuvering through narrow passages, a stylized woodland, and inside (perhaps?) an impossibly high passageway tucked into an improbably small cottage. Outside the dream, the woman on the bed tosses and turns as she sleeps. The intermittent twiching of her fingers is doubled by the blurry twitchings of the dream’s antagonist—or is that cloaked figure the antagonist? Could he be the protector of the sleeping woman within her dream? A few intertitles give the place and time (“edge of the forest” and “Autumn”) and then set off the starting gun: “…suddenly the air grew hard.” What exactly is happening in “The Comb,” however, is probably impossible to know.

Of course, that is neither a hindrance to its quiet grandeur nor a disappointment to the open-minded viewer. Half a decade after “Street of Crocodiles,” the Quay brothers had broadened their horizons (becoming involved in a documentary as well as some music videos). Their creativity is undulled, however, and in many ways “The Comb” is harder to probe than any of their work that had come before. There is a rough flow of events, and a fairy-tale mood set up in the opening credits. Indeed, the dream is full of fairy-tale tropes: Autumn, “the woods”, an inaccessible heroine, ladders, mysterious menace. It’s all there, put together with a logic that, though consistent within itself, is some levels removed from our own workaday thinking.

The cinematic tricks in “The Comb” stand as the brothers’ greatest achievements up to that point. While I was trying to figure out a sense of scale as the camera moved from the forest backwards into the cottage, my efforts were disrupted when the camera dropped through an opening in the floor. The visual sleight-of-hand involved to compact a larger area into the smaller one is amazing, and there are several shots where one sees ever-climbing ladders, arranged in dreamy haphazardry. Driving the point home, the Quays even had a little traveling ladder in the background of this runged chasm. Suffice it to say, the brothers captured the dream milieu very handily, leaving the Comb‘s poor protagonist with plenty of space to cross before he could find the sleeping woman.

The most satisfying artifice of the Comb is how the (blurred) real-world is combined with the (sharp) dream-world. During the course of the movie, the camera travels between them, seemingly through a mirror (or shadow-box?) above the woman’s bed. The swaying objects within the dream are used by its figures to calm the dreamer when she is fitful in her real-world sleep. Finishing off the piece, the woman wakes up and does the normal stretching that is so enjoyable after a little sleep. Reaching to her nightstand, she shakes off the final vestiges of sleep, with close-up shots interspersed with shimmers of the dream. She pauses while combing her hair, and clicks her thumbnail down the comb’s teeth. The clicking resurrects, oh-so-briefly, the little hero from before. She remembers and smiles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I would endorse the verdict of Slarek, whose DVD Outsider website, reviewing the Quays’ short films DVD, sums up the film as ‘divinely baffling.’”–Claire Kitson, Close-up Film Centre (DVD)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)