Category Archives: Essays

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)

KARLOFF

After the death of the silent star, , The King of Horror crown was up for grabs.  It was Universal Studios contract actor who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly crowned King.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (1931)Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s greatest vampire in ‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in ‘s Frankenstein (also 1931).  With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.  Lugosi liked to tell the tale of how he turned down the role of Frankenstein’s monster, thus “giving” Karloff his career-making role.  It is merely a story.  Lugosi was not wanted by either the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.).  Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos.  In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role.

In sharp contrast, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969.  Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted revenge (from beyond the grave) on the thespian who stole his crown.  Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff.  This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with Continue reading KARLOFF

IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES

As a teenager coming of age in the 1980s, I became briefly obsessed with progressive space-art-rock band Pink Floyd in general, and their album “The Wall” in particular. The record was mopey, morbid, and self-absorbed, presenting even the simplest personal problems (an absent father, overprotective mother, trouble relating to women) as agents of an acute psychic apocalypse that could be casually compared to the Nazi bombing of London or the summary execution of minorities and misfits at a fascist rally. When I soon discovered there was a feature film version—one that added startling drawings spotlighting grotesque and frightening animated vaginas to the already overwrought mix—my fate was sealed; I rented the VHS tape whenever I could—several times a month, at the peak of my addiction—and forced it on all my friends.

Pretentious still from Pink Floyd the Wall (1982)
Typically subtle symbolism from Pink Floyd: The Wall

Now, my sixteen-year old self recognized that with The Wall I had stumbled across a masterpiece on the order of the collected works of Shakespeare, or even the Beatles. Its emotional impact on me blew away the stuffy literature crammed down our throats in English class: the narrative was more relevant than Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” the poetry more stirring than John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the insights pithier than “Pride and Prejudice.”

I was pleasantly disillusioned to discover that most of my Top Gun-quoting, Pac Man-playing peers weren’t enlightened enough to grasp the profundity of The Wall. Their beer-chugging, party-hearty shallowness threw my depth of feeling into sharp relief. Unlike them, I had insight about the bleak nature of reality, as Continue reading IN DEFENSE OF PRETENSE: THE JOYS OF PRETENTIOUS MOVIES

TED HOOD, JR., AUTEUR OF “GRAVEROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE”

“God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs?”Ion

On September 13, 2010, I received an email that would have changed the course of cinematic history, had misfortune not intervened. The message contained the startling claim that the worst movie ever made—the inimitable Graverobbers from Outer Space (later retitled Plan 9 from Outer Space)—was not the work of incompetent transvestite director Ed Wood, Jr., but in fact an imitation of Wood’s style by the writer’s dead husband, the unrecognized genius of avant-garde filmmaking, Ted Hood, Jr. (1932-1958). Though I was skeptical of her claim, Mrs. Norma Jean Shady-Hood—whose attempts over the years to interest the late Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and TMZ.com in her story had all fallen on deaf ears—invited me to visit her on her deathbed so she could set the record straight about her dead husband’s greatest achievement.

Ted Hood's Plan 9 from Outer Space
Original unaltered credit screen for “Graverobbers from Outer Space”

You will search in vain for a complete (or partial) filmography of Ted Hood, Jr. In fact, you will have difficulty finding mention of the underground auteur anywhere; so ahead of his time that his work was rejected by his contemporaries, his obscurity is ample proof of his importance. Hood had a letter to the editor published in Cahiers du Cinéma arguing that “Dwain Esper‘s orangutan rapists and tea-smoking pianists are fully as dialectical and twice as proletariat as Cocteau’s grasping candelabras and mirror tricks, and the King of the Celluloid Gypsies deserves the Continue reading TED HOOD, JR., AUTEUR OF “GRAVEROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE”

THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

“Even a Man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.

The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t that good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).

The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who, frankly, was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon  Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career. Damn few out of literally hundreds of films. He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was only good when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Still from The Wolf Man (1941)
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment.  Chaney’s performance as Talbot was marginally Continue reading THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

The uncanny—by which I mean the type of horror story that focuses on an encounter with supernatural powers and the existential dread that comes from contemplating the Unknown—was the first style of narrative weirdness storytellers indulged in, but for most people today the term “weird” is almost synonymous with the term “surreal.”  This is a shame, because “surreal” has come to be thrown about loosely and imprecisely as a term for anything that is even mildly unusual.  For evidence of this, just look up movies that have been tagged with the keyword “surrealism” by IMDB users.  Among legitimately Surrealist works, you will find such questionable entries as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Disney’s The Lion King (!)  Until recently, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall also appeared on this constantly evolving list.

Although the word “surreal” is common today, it’s a very new word, less than a century old.  “Surréalisme” was coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), but it was André Breton who redefined the term and gave it its current meaning when he wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 to describe a new artistic and political movement.  The word derives from the French prefix “sur-” (above, beyond) and “realism,” and suggested that this new movement would produce works that transcended realism.  Throughout most of human history, the artist’s dominant concern was realism, the quest to accurately depict or reproduce external reality (e.g., to paint a flower that is instantly recognizable as a flower to any viewer; to tell a story that “really could happen”).  Deeply affected by Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, Breton was concerned that art was unfairly limiting itself to only a part of the human experience, the rational, waking world, and ignoring the separate language of dreams and myth.  He also believed that with the rise of science and the attempt to apply scientific principles to all realms of life, things were only getting worse: “The absolute rationalism which remains in fashion allows for the consideration of only those facts narrowly relevant to our experience…  In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention.”  He defined Surrealism, his counterpoint to this Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL

WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY

“What is weird?” is a question I’m sometimes asked. I don’t like to answer the question, because I think we’re all familiar with that “weird” feeling, and I’m more interested in seeing what other people think is weird than in defining it myself. In some ways, the problem we have identifying a weird movie is like the problem Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had identifying obscenity: “it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The weird is what makes you feel… well, weird.

Still, we can see trends of movies that tend to be recurrently weird. Of these, the one species that comes to mind is the horror film.  Of all the popular film genres, horror films are the ones that most consistently give us that “weird” feeling.  If we’re looking for a word to describe the subclass of the weird that horror films exploit, I suggest the term “uncanny.”

The Wikipedia dictionary defines uncanny as “strange, and mysteriously unsettling (as if supernatural); weird,” which perfectly describes the feeling that the best horror movies seek to evoke.  I believe “uncanny” has more of a strict supernatural connotation than “weird,” which is often used simply to describe anything that deviates from the norm. You might speak of a boy as being a “weird kid” if he insisted on wearing a tie to school and was obsessed with Bigfoot, but you probably wouldn’t call him an “uncanny kid” unless his eyes glowed like one of the tykes from Village of the Damned (1960).

For a long time, “weird” and “supernatural horror” were almost synonyms.  The pulp magazine “Weird Tales” was founded in 1923, focusing mostly on horror but also including fantasy fiction (such as Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories).  In 1938 H.P. Lovecraft wrote Supernatural Horror in Literature and used “weird” essentially as a synonym for “supernatural horror,” devoting chapters to “The Weird Tradition in America” and “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles.”  In his Introduction, Lovecraft wrote, “[t]he one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES I: THE UNCANNY