Category Archives: Essays

DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEPENDENT CINEMA

Consider the difference between Eraserhead (1977) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), The former was produced meticulously on a shoestring budget, with continual setbacks due to the cost of film (the medium) itself. With EMPIRE had the ability to shoot digitally, and he felt completely uninhibited, improvising with his camera, shooting aimlessly for hours on end. He thought of it as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.

Whether other contemporary filmmakers now favor digital shooting technology for its stream-of-consciousness capabilities, or simply because of the convenience and cost-efficiency, there’s no disputing that digital technology has forever changed the production of filmmaking.

Digital media has affected other aspects of independent filmmaking, too. Video streaming sites have opened up new distribution channels for independents (and one that is infinitely cheaper), and social media has given independent filmmakers a new means of promoting their work, and it is, in some measurable way, changing public discourse about film.

Consider ’s independently produced animated feature Sita Sings the Blues (2009), which had a composite narrative featuring story elements from the Ramayana (an epic Hindu tale) and Paley’s personal life. Astoundingly, Paley made the entire 82-minute film right on her laptop. Paley ran into trouble because she had included Annette Hanshaw songs from the twenties in her film—music which was still under copyright protection. Paley didn’t have a distributor, and struggled to secure the money to pay the copyright fees. Ultimately, she decided to alter the film’s Creative Commons license, so it is now in the public domain and could be downloaded at full resolution.

Although the movie saw little distribution in the conventional way, it still managed to make an impact, thanks to mainstream media and digital media alike. Major critics heaped praise upon her, including Roger Ebert, who went as far as to call it one of “best films” of 2009. Data from Viral Heat shows that that popular opinion also echoed what the critics were saying:

Continue reading DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY, SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEPENDENT CINEMA

TASTE BREAKERS

“The author was compensated for writing this article by a third party. Nonetheless, it  was written specifically for 366 Weird Movies, and we believe the  information and opinions contained in this piece will be of interest to our readers.

“Taste Breakers” by Brandon Engel

It was recently announced that independent film production company A24, who have contemporary filmmaker Harmony Korine in their alum roster, has partnered with Direct TV for a new collaborative business model. Direct TV will help finance the production of A24 films, which will then premiere on Direct TV’s Video on Demand service one month prior to being released in theaters. The possible implications of this move for modern independent filmmakers are vast; Korine’s transgressive contemporaries at A24 and elsewhere could stand to benefit from the industry moving in this direction.

Thankfully, the world has always been populated by thoughtful, provocative artists willing to address societal ills and provoke public discourse through their work. The big question for these subversive artists historically has always been: “how do you secure funding for projects (let alone sustain yourself) without having to relinquish creative control of your content?”

Nowadays, as companies like Direct TV use “TV on demand” as a distribution vehicle for independent film and even begin to fund films themselves, and others use the distribution model that sites like Hulu and Netflix are establishing, where films can be streamed instantaneously, independent filmmakers may now be able to reconcile their financial needs with their creative ambitions more simply than ever before. What does all of this mean for contemporary filmmakers and present-day viewers? Here’s a look at three contemporary subversive filmmakers who just might provide some insight on that very question…

Lars Von Trier

Lars von TrierThe Danish filmmaker is reportedly plagued by phobias and anxieties, which isn’t the least bit difficult to believe if you’ve seen any of his films. There’s no disputing the fact that he’s an extremely important, and unique, presence in the world of international cinema. He helped establish the guidelines of the Dogme 95 collective, which are essentially a list of restrictions that filmmakers should abide by based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, while excluding the use of extraneous special effects.

His film Dancer in the Dark (2000) featured Icelandic pop star Bjork in the lead role of Selma. Selma is a blind Czech immigrant working in a factory in the United States in 1964. She is ultimately wrongfully accused of harboring communist sympathies, and perceived as a threat to the United States. The film is perversely celebrated for having one of the most upsetting endings in the history of cinema.

There is also Antichrist (2009), which received mixed responses from critics and audiences. The film tells the story of an unnamed couple ( and ) grieving the loss of their infant son, who Continue reading TASTE BREAKERS

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

BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

Further thoughts on the Certified WeirdUn Chien Andalou” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Buñuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,”  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.

Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. (, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Still from Un Chien Andalou (1929)Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dalí, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

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)

WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING WEIRD FOR WEIRDNESS’ SAKE?

The names of film critics cited in this essay have been redacted to protect them from professional humiliation.

“The filmmakers are stoned on weirdness for its own sake…”—from a negative review of Being John Malkovich

“Soavi’s decision to emphasize weirdness for weirdness’ sake quickly lends the proceedings a distinctly interminable feel, to the extent that it becomes virtually impossible to appreciate the film’s few positive attributes.”—from a one star review of Cemetery Man

“It’s just weirdness for the sake of weirdness…”—from a negative review of ‘s Human Nature (2001)

Have you ever read some film critic’s dismiss a surreal movie with some variation of the stock phrase, “it’s just weird for weirdness’ sake?”

Weird for Weirdness Sake Un Chien AndalouNow, think quick: have you ever heard someone criticize a comedy by complaining that “it’s just funny for funniness’ sake?”

In researching this essay I quite easily came across a dozen critical citations of the phrase “weird for weirdness’ sake” and it’s variants, and I suspect that there are hundreds of examples out there awaiting cataloging. In every case, the reviewer considers the negative connotation of the magical phrase “weird for weirdnesses’ sake” as something so axiomatic that readers will automatically rush to delete the movie from their Netflix queue the second they see that description.

My only problem is that, among the dozens of quotations I uncovered, I never found one that explains what the phrase is actually supposed to mean… that is, what exactly is wrong with a filmmaker being weird for weirdness’ sake?

Since none of the critics who deploy the dictum so casually will tell us what it means, I’ve come up with six possible interpretations, each based on a different unstated premise, to supply some meaning to this persistent but confoundingly content-free phrase:

1. I don’t like weirdness, and I’m betting you don’t either.

The simplest way to decode this cryptic phrase is to assume that what the critic is actually Continue reading WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING WEIRD FOR WEIRDNESS’ SAKE?

CAPSULE: A SERBIAN FILM (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Srdjan Spasojevic

FEATURING: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Slobodan Bestic

PLOT: An ethical and well-intentioned ex porn star collaborates with an Eastern syndicate to Still from A Serbian Film (2010)
produce a series of art-house pornographic films. In the process he is unwittingly ensnared in the dark, serpentine morass of his film executives’ depraved madness.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the colorful controversy surrounding A Serbian Film, including claims that it is torture porn and even child porn, the movie is a straightforward—if transgressive—cross-genre thriller, a skillfully blended mix of mystery, horror and suspense elements.  Adventurous viewers who choose to watch A Serbian Film should seek the uncut version.  The controversial scenes are a crucial part of the plot.

NOTE: Director Srdjan Spasojevic was confronted by the international press and informed that his movie A Serbian Film is nothing more than thinly veiled torture porn, perhaps even child pornography.  He responded by asserting that the movie is in fact “a political allegory,” intentionally resplendent with metaphors for the historical, systematic repression of the Serbian people. For example, Spasojevic tells explains that the shocking baby scene “represents us and everyone else whose innocence and youth have been stolen by those governing our lives for purposes unknown.”

Is he being serious?  Or does he believe the most effective way to point out the absurdity of detractors’ allegations and deliberate misinterpretations is to posit an equally absurd response?  A thorough consideration of this controversy is beyond the scope of this review.  The viewer should watch the movie and judge for himself.  I present my own ideas regarding what I think the film discursively accomplishes in the addendum which follows the review.  Whether Spasojevic intends the film to deliver any of these meanings is a matter of speculation.  Despite what I think are some very good points made in the film, it’s my personal belief that he primarily set out to make an offbeat, tense thriller that was shocking enough to be sure to attract attention.  He succeeded.

COMMENTS: Lurid and grim, suspenseful and exciting, A Serbian Film is a well crafted, taut thriller that doesn’t insult one’s intelligence.  Sporting a chic visual signature and structured with a non-linear, temporally shifting plot, this sensational shocker fires off images that range from Continue reading CAPSULE: A SERBIAN FILM (2010)