All posts by Jesse Miksic

LIST CANDIDATE: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley

PLOT: During the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field while searching for an ale-house. In that field, they unearth (oddly literally) a fifth companion, who turns out to be a domineering alchemist. He manipulates the four deserters into hunting for a buried treasure, leading them on a journey of dubious magic, self-discovery, and psychedelia.

Still from A Field in England (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The last Ben Wheatley film I saw–Kill List–ended on a weird, brutally discordant note and it had its dark inexplicable moments, but I didn’t recommend it for the List because it felt too calculated and purposeful. A Field in England, on the other hand, is fully spontaneous, right up to the vaguely cyclical ending, and weirdness is its baseline. Those palatable touches of order and familiarity, like the vaguely heroic character arc and melodramatic villain, seem to spring wholesale out of the film’s twisted substrate; they serve, if anything, to orient and emphasize the weirdness, rather than undermining it. Because it is both random, and confident in its randomness, I submit A Field in England for consideration.

COMMENTS: A Field in England is a grimy, trippy gonzo costume adventure, one of the least heroic and most eccentric swashbuckler narratives I’ve been privy to. The story is so constrained, it’s almost cute: during the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field where they are manipulated into hunting for a buried treasure. Matters of friendship, power, fear, life, and death ensue, and a loose, quirky hero’s story takes shape, though it’s driven more by suggestive leaps of happenstance than by fate or necessity.

Like Wheatley’s previous Kill List, A Field in England benefits from being a pastiche. It wears the heritage of historical adventure films on its sleeve, but it also has buddy-comedy and art-film elements, and it brings it disparate tones together admirably. One of its special accomplishments is to operate as an art-film while exhibiting a British comedy’s sense of humor. The dialogue and situational gags are dry and crass, and they serve to establish the five characters in a way that makes them genuinely endearing, even as we puzzle over what the hell is actually happening to them.

The five main characters have names, Wikipedia informs me, but I didn’t really pick up on them during the film. To me, they represented archetypes: the coward (Whitehead), the soldier (Jacob), the fool (Friend), the lackey (Cutler), and the evil mastermind (O’Neill). Of these five, Whitehead got all the most pivotal roles, and Field ends up being his story. His character arc provided a framework for all the other relationships and interactions, and though he didn’t have the funniest or most endearing moments, he drove all the key developments in the non sequiturish plot. Without Whitehead and his four boorish cohorts, the movie might have been almost unwatchable, but it actually went down pretty smooth.

As I said before, the reason this is an accomplishment is that the narrative logic of the film is genuinely random, driven by a sort of weird intuition with no respect for cause and effect. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the film’s hallucinogenic drug subtext, which led to some trippy, seizure-inducing sequences accompanying the major plot points. It only worked because the whole film had a foggy, disorienting quality, disconnected from its own reality, with an unstable relationship between dreamy detachment and visceral sensory amplification. The swing from one extreme to the other is epitomized in Whitehead’s psychedelic character climax, where he shifts from a sort of bleary, stupefied slow-motion degenerate into a potent force of nature, a raging hurricane-god rising up from the swaying of the wheat fields.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo… a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

PHANTASM: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY

WARNING: This essay contains spoilers for Phantasm.

Phantasm is weird and fascinating, a chunky mix of delightfully sinister and distractingly campy, but its style and aesthetic do not suggest subtlety or invite a deeply penetrating reading. The best way to come to grips with it on the first watch-through is just to ride along like you’re on a bumpy, gruesome roller coaster, enjoying the earnestness and strange excess as it passes by. Like any good coaster, it’s jerky and unpredictable, and you should step off at the end with your head a bit mixed up.

There are further ways to think about the film, though, and I’m here to present one of them: a broad, selective analysis that should at least provide a greater appreciation of the film’s unifying neuroses. Think of it as sort of a loose analytical tribute, rather than a rigorous close reading, a love letter to a film that deserves to be thought about, but doesn’t seem designed to facilitate it.

My angle here: that the little suburban universe of Phantasm reflects a state of mind… particularly, that of main character Michael, the thirteen-year old boy who has recently lost his parents and is in constant fear of abandonment by his older brother. While I don’t think the events of the plot are meant to fit together neatly, and I don’t think they’re engineered for closure or explanation (the ghouls are short because of a gravitational difference? Really?), I do think the film makes a lot of sense when mapped to a certain terrain of terrified adolescent psychology.

The question naturally arises, especially in light of the film’s final scene: does the whole film literally take place inside Michael’s head? Is this suburb explicitly his imaginary dreamscape, a la Inception or The Cell? I would say it’s defensible to read it that way. However, it’s complicated by the nature of the villain, the Tall Man, who manifests at every level of the movie’s reality: Michael and Jody’s dreams, the general landscape of the town, and then the outer realm that we only see at the very end of the film. This suggests, at least to me, that even though most of the film takes place in a dream, The Tall Man is not strictly a psychological projection or a dream-villain… he is some sort of evil entity that exists outside all these psychological spaces, who’s managed to infiltrate them and break down the barriers between objective and subjective realities. It may be Michael’s dreamscape, but the Tall Man is at least partly in control.

Phantasm Map
Click for a larger view

We are given a few distinct hints that “psychogeography” is a fruitful way of looking at Phantasm. After the first funeral scene, there’s a moment with a weirdly-tanned side character who never appears again in the film. He questions Jody on his decision to stay in this crappy town. Jody suggests that he’s there because of Michael, but yes, he hates it… thus, we get an explicit connection between the town and Michael, and an emotional baseline—paralysis and trauma—is established. Jody even says he’s planning to leave, which invokes the contradictory possibilities of escape and abandonment.

This conversation is repeated, in certain respects, at the end of the film, when a suddenly-reincarnated Reggie suggests they go “on the road.” Thus, the film is bookended with indications that the town is a gestation chamber for Michael’s psychological trauma, from which escape is a distant but promising possibility.

Whether you see this town as a hermetically-sealed psychic universe, or just think of it as a normal municipality in some remote corner of suburbia, it’s nice to have a big picture. I’ve undertaken a quick cartography exercise and drawn a map of what I think it might look like, taking into account some of the details: the Continue reading PHANTASM: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY

CAPSULE: LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (2012)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tadashi Okuno, Rin Takanashi,

PLOT: Akiko is a young female student moonlighting as a call girl; her pimp sends her on an assignment in the suburbs, where her client, Takashi, is an elderly professor who doesn’t seem terribly interested in her carnal services. When he deigns to drive her back to the city the next day, he begins to take on an unexpectedly intimate role in her life, becoming personally involved in her troubled relationship with Noriaki, her possessive boyfriend.

Still from Like Someone in Love (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdest thing about Like Someone in Love is that it eschews the most predictable filmmaking conventions: a traditional narrative arc, gratifying resolution, and explanatory coherence. This results in a powerful film, but not one that breaks dramatically with film language or narrative logic. It’s a moody, sensitive character study with the rhythms of an art film, not a groundbreaking work of cinematic weirdness.

COMMENTS: Like Someone in Love doesn’t have much of a traditional narrative arc, and it doesn’t play much with our expectations… as a result, there’s a pronounced lack of suspense and release, a tendency to eschew those kinds of narrative pleasures that normally attend these things we call “movies.” In a way, it feels more like a self-contained art object, a constellation of characters and relationships that’s designed to intrigue the active mind.

There’s nothing so radical about the film that it should de facto qualify for the Weird Movies list. Its organic rhythms and intentional ambiguity should be familiar to anyone who’s seen some art films. On its own merits, though, it’s a masterful work of cinema, an ideal case study in style, technical proficiency, and unified vision.

One of the great things about Like Someone in Love is how it demonstrates the strength of this kind of ambiguous, minimalist filmmaking: within its naturalistic treatment of its subjects, it creates huge fertile spaces for the proliferation of symbolic meanings and psychological resonance. It’s shot painstakingly, with the camera always intensely aware of its space. Doorways, reflections, confined interiors, obstructions, and the space outside the frame: all these become Kiarostami’s playthings. In his control of objects and the camera’s eye, he is reminiscent of , whose style was similarly deliberate, ostensibly naturalistic, but profoundly self-aware.

The result of this high level of control is that many objects take on cosmic symbolic (or psychological) significance. Windows and glass are especially important to this story, protecting various characters from outside forces, allowing them to maintain their distance and their illusions. Telephones are also rich in meaning, providing vectors and blind spots where each character’s defenses can be penetrated. Cars? Another symbol with apparently endless significance: Takashi’s car is one of his domains of safety and control, and Noriaki seems to have an unusual power over cars, being a mechanic himself.

As an “art object,” Like Someone in Love is not merely an assemblage of these kinds of thematic adornments. It also has weight and substance to it, especially in its complex characters and their occasional poignant moments. One of the earliest scenes is an extended car ride to the suburbs, as Akiko watches the city lights slide by and listens to a series of phone messages from her grandmother. The power in this lengthy scene is tremendous, and I can’t hope to describe its emotional effect. It has the touch of a genuinely brilliant filmmaker.

A great deal of the film concerns the difference between the young and the elderly, which Takashi evokes when he talks about “experience.” The young people in the film—Akiko and Noriaki—are swallowed up by ambitions and pretenses and delusions, and their attitudes contrast sharply with that of Takashi, who faces the world with a wealth of patience and composure. These characters are rendered richly in gestures and pauses and hesitations, and in this regard, Kiarostami recalls the work of Ozu, who often addressed this theme, and did it with many of the same tools.

These characters are drawn into mysterious constellations of authenticity and deception and mistaken identity. In this regard, Someone in Love feels like Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s last film. Both films dealt with the fluidity of identity and the shifting of roles, and even as both films hinged on a broad self-imposed deception, both seemed to find a deeper truth in the lie. Regarding Like Someone in Love, this prompted Richard Brody of The New Yorker to suggest the following thesis: “Love is a lie, but it’s one that’s best not to ask questions about.”

Brody’s attempted thesis statement is one excellent way of reading the film, but it’s certainly not the only one. One of the best things about this curious, multifaceted cinematic work is that it’s about many things at once, even as it seems to be a simple, if oblique, story fragment about love and mistaken identity. It may not be among the weirdest films, but I would certainly count it among the best.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s odd in a film when you can’t imagine what the next shot is going to be, where a character’s ‘arc’ is going to leave him or her, whether you’re watching a drama or a tragedy.”—David Edelstein, Vulture (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KILL LIST (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ben Wheatley

FEATURING: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Harry Simpson, Emma Fryer

PLOT: Jay the hitman, out of the game and down on his luck, takes up a new contract with his

Still from Kill List (2011)

partner Gal to help support his wife and young son. As they start knocking people off a “Kill List,” Jay finds the targets challenging his principles, his relationships, and eventually, his grip on reality.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it will be of great interest to art-house audiences and fans of weird movies, the film doesn’t take as many risks as it would like to claim. It’s full of symbolic echoes and studied ambiguity, but there are no outright challenges to our expectations or sensibilities.

COMMENTS: Kill List is an excellent genre-hopping horror thriller, full of smart directorial choices and technical chops. The atmosphere is both sanitized and gritty, in that special way you find in cinema verite, and the sense of dread and instability is overpowering. Jay is sometimes sympathetic and sometimes terrifying, and Neil Maskell nails the role in all its variation. When the violence comes, it’s brutal and unflinching, with no glorification, and in this violence, you get the most striking indication that Neil is dangerously damaged.

The film shows its technical merit early, with a succession of domestic scenes that allow us a rich sense of the main characters and their relationships. Jay is stuck in the inertia of unemployment after a bad experience in the army and a job that apparently went south in Kiev. His relationship with his wife is rocky, but not doomed, and if you were coming into Kill List with no expectations whatsoever, you could be forgiven for expecting Jay to go through a dramedy-style self-discovery that ends with the renewal of his marriage. During these opening scenes, you get moments of genuine tenderness, especially between Jay and his son. Jay becomes a great father when he spends time with Sam; furthermore, his friendship with Gal Continue reading CAPSULE: KILL LIST (2011)

THE POISONOUS IMAGE IN WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999)

A note about the following essay, from the author.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1999 film directed by James Marsh, an oddball, morbid documentary inspired by a 1973 nonfiction book of the same title. The film is structured as a chain of anecdotes and vignettes about life in small-town Wisconsin in the late 1800’s. This was a period of depression and hardship, and the psychological toll it took on the populace is apparent: most of the anecdotes are about murder, suicide, and madness, provided with a total lack of context that makes them seem uncanny and inexplicable. The visuals are a combination of period black-and-white photographs and stylized reenactments, and all the accompanying narration is drawn from actual newspaper reports of the time.

The film is a dreamy, dissociative experience, the ramblings of a ghost walking through a funhouse of bad mojo. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend going in fresh, and then reading this essay afterward. As an analysis of the structure and subtexts of the film, this essay is intended to augment and heighten that pure experience, rather than preview it or assess it. It’s a beautiful, stark, unapologetically eccentric documentary, definitely worth a couple hours of your time. If it intrigues you as much as it did me, come on back, and hopefully you’ll get something out of the critical observations to follow.

The Poisonous Image in Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Still from Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)From the photographs and newspaper reports, the last decade of the 19th century was a tough time in rural Wisconsin. In the sick sunlight of a national and regional depression and a hard winter, a garden of small disasters sprung up, blossoming with incidents of suicide, murder, and delusion; this was where you could see the fragility of civil society and stoic reason, the hard ground of rationality cracking over the pressure of the uncanny. Wisconsin Death Trip–a 1999 Continue reading THE POISONOUS IMAGE IN WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (1999)

THE THREE FETISHES: TRANSFORMATION AND ETHICAL ENGAGEMENT IN WALTER MURCH’S RETURN TO OZ (1985)

Guest essay by Jesse Miksic. Warning: this analysis contains spoilers for Return to Oz (1985).

The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985)

There is a vast mythology out there, deeper and wider than Middle Earth or Hogwarts, and yet more intimate, more rooted in the flights of fancy and weirdness that writhe in the dirt of our collective childhood. This is the mythology of Oz, created by L. Frank Baum and articulated in his fourteen novels about Dorothy and her various companions. For over 100 years, it’s been dormant, waiting patiently to be mined for spectacles and narratives; unfortunately, most of us only know it by a single film, the celebrated 1939 adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The whole thing is tragic case of untapped potential.

There was one other notable film drawn from this mythology, however, and it vibrates with richness and rabid weirdness. This is director Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz, a film sentenced by the cruel hand of circumstance to obscurity and cult status. Murch was a first-time director, and the film was generally considered too harsh and frightening for the children that would presumably make up its primary audience. It’s a sad outcome, because locked within this Labyrinthian orgy of a pseudo-children’s horror moviemare some mind-bending subtexts, glimpses of some interesting ideas about transformation, childhood, and ethical agency.

In this essay, I’ll be breaking some of those ideas down. Using three potent symbols – the ECT machine, the Magic Powder, and the egg – as guideposts, I’ll unpack some of the paradoxes and explorations of identity and transformation that underlie the film’s pixie-dust grotesqueries. I’ll show how these subtexts connect with ideas of ethics and responsibility, allowing humble little Dorothy to be the savior of a whole imaginary universe. Don’t expect too much… the film resolutely refuses to make sense, or behave in any linear or predictable way… but as with any genuinely eccentric film, this shouldn’t stop us from looking for the deeper ideas locked away within all the weirdness.

And so, without further ado – the first of the three fetishes of Oz:

I. The Electrotherapy Machine

“Now this fellow here has a face. Do you see it? There are his eyes, and this must be his nose, Continue reading THE THREE FETISHES: TRANSFORMATION AND ETHICAL ENGAGEMENT IN WALTER MURCH’S RETURN TO OZ (1985)