Category Archives: Certified Weird (The List)



“Be pleased then, you living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”–Goethe, Roman Elegies, the quote that begins You, the Living

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: A large cast of unknowns, who are given approximately equal weight in the story

PLOT: A man napping on a couch awakes, looks into the camera, and tells us that he had a nightmare that bombers were coming.  The movie then shows us fifty or so dryly absurd scenes involving many unhappy characters in a nameless Swedish city, some of whom relate their dreams to us.  Memorable sketches include a musician who tells us of his mutual fund performance while making love and a young girl spurned by a rock musician who dreams that they get married.

Still from You, the Living (Du Levande) (2007)


  • Director Roy Andersson made short films beginning in 1967.  After his first two features, En kärlekshistoria (1970) and Giliap (1975), he began directing commercials and did not return to movies until the critically acclaimed (and Certified Weird) Songs from the Second Floor (2000).  This, only his fourth feature film, was completed when he was 64 years old.
  • You, the Living was refused funding by the Swedish Film Institute; Andersson reportedly accused the body of nepotism after the requested funding was instead granted to a relative of a member of the Institute.   The movie was eventually completed with funding from five different countries, and is officially listed as a Swedish-French-German-Danish-Norwegian co-production.
  • The actors in the film are mostly amateurs with no previous feature film credits.  The musician is played by Eric Bäckman, a member of the Swedish gothic metal band “Deathstars.”
  • All of the scenes (except one exterior) were shot on soundstages created in Andersson’s own studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Everyone talks about the bittersweet wedding fantasy, although the nude heavyset woman riding a skinny man while wearing his spiked military band helmet is also fairly indelible, perhaps for the wrong reasons.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Disorientingly constructed as a series of sketches with common

English language trailer for You, the Living

characters, some completely naturalistic and some totally absurd, united by uneasy, melancholy comedy, You, the Living feels like a series of dreams trapped inside a larger dream.

COMMENTS: An enigmatic movie deserves an enigmatic title, and You, the Living gives Continue reading 54. YOU, THE LIVING [DU LEVANDE] (2007)

53. BRONSON (2008)

Must See

“I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.”–Director Refn on Bronson

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn


PLOT: Narrated from a theater inside his own mind by Michael Peterson (later to rechristen himself Charles Bronson, his “fighting name” ), the movie is an aggressively stylized account of the true story of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who spent 30 years of his 34 year sentence in solitary confinement for his violent behavior.  Peterson knocks over a post office with a sawed-off shotgun and receives a seven year penitentiary sentence; inside, he finds he has a natural affinity for institutional life as he nurtures a burgeoning passion for taking hostages and picking fights with prison guards.  Shuffled from prison to prison, and serving a brief stint in a hospital for the criminally insane, Peterson is furloughed, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and adopts the name Bronson, and lasts a few months in the outside world before finding himself reincarcerated, at home once more.

Still from Bronson (2008)


  • The movie stays true to the spirit of the real life Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson, while omitting many facts and inventing others.  The real Charlie Bronson has won several awards in prison-sponsored contests for his artwork and poetry and has published several books, including a fitness guide and an autobiography titled “Loonyology.”  In one of his hostage-taking escapades, he demanded an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea as ransom.
  • Before incarceration Michael Peterson actually worked as a circus strongman, which may be where he developed his distinctive trademark handlebar mustache and shaved pate.
  • Danish director Refn was previously best known for the gritty, documentary style Pusher trilogy, a look at the criminal drug dealing subculture in Copenhagen.
  • Some of the paintings appearing in the film and in the animated sequences are actual drawings by the real life Bronson.  Examples of Bronson’s artwork can be found here.
  • Actor Tom Hardy put on about 40 pounds of muscle for the role.  Previously best known as “Handsome Bob” in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla, Hardy is poised to become a breakout star, slated to replace Mel Gibson in the new “Mad Max” series.
  • Cinematographer Larry Smith began his career with Stanley Kubrick, working as an electrician on Barry Lyndon and a gaffer on The Shining before graduating to  assistant cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.
  • At the film’s London premiere, a tape recording of Bronson’s voice was played, stating, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on.  As long as my mother enjoys the film, I’m happy… I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either, because every punch I’ve ever flung in my life I’ve taken 21 back.”  This incident caused the Prison Officers’ Association to complain, because it is illegal to record a prisoner in a British prison without authorization.  The Association also accused the film of “glorifying violence.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bronson turning himself and his art teacher into living paintings in the very strange finale.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hyperstylized to the point of surreality, Bronson is biopic as

Original trailer for Bronson

mythology, an appropriate tack when dealing with a self-deluded, self-promoting subject.  The portrait that emerges is not so much of a fascinating but essentially unknowable real-life sociopath as it is a portrait of Bronson’s pseudo-artistic attempt to create a public image as an antihero, with notes of humanizing sympathy but also with plenty of knowing irony added to deglamorize its subject.

COMMENTS:  Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson undercuts my theory of acting.  I Continue reading 53. BRONSON (2008)

52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

AKA Holy Blood (literal translation)

“My mother is dead.  I had a terrible relationship with her.  She had many problems with my father, and she never caressed me.  So I didn’t have a mother who touched me.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky in La Constellation Jodorowsky


DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Jodorowsky

FEATURING: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, , Sabrina Dennison, Guy Stockwell

PLOT:  Fenix, a young carnival boy is understandably traumatized when he sees his knife-thrower father cut off his mother’s arms in a domestic melee.  Years later, he lives an animalistic existence in a mental asylum, until one day he escapes when his armless mother calls to him from outside his cell window.  The two perform a stage act where the son serves as the arms of his mother; she dominates his every move offstage, makes him serve as her arms, and orders him to kill, repeatedly.

Still from Santa Sangre (1989)


  • After completing The Holy Mountain in 1973, Jodorowsky planned to make an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune,” which fell through.  He did not direct again until 1980’s poorly regarded Tusk, a film over which he had little creative control and which he has since disowned.
  • Santa Sangre is supposedly inspired by the story of a real life Mexican serial killer (whose name is variously given as Gregorio Cárdenas or Gojo Cardinas).
  • Young Fenix and adult Fenix are played by Adan and Axel, Jodorowsky’s sons.
  • The MPAA originally rated Santa Sangre R for “bizarre, graphic violence;” when the NC-17 designation began in 1990, the film was reclassified to the more restictive rating for “extremely explicit violence.”
  • Empire Magazine’s combined readers/critics poll voted Santa Sangre the 476th best movie of all time.
  • Before making this film Jodorowsky had founded an unofficial school of psychotherapy called “psycho-magic”; one of the basic tenets of the theory is a belief in a “family unconscious.”
  • The mother’s given name—“Concha”—is slang for “vagina” in many Latin American countries, including Jodorowsky’s native Chile.
  • The movie is an Italian/Mexican co-production, and was co-written and co-produced by Claudio (brother of horror maestro Dario) Argento.
  • OBSCURE CONNECTION: Producer Rene Cardona, Jr., himself a prolific B-movie director, was the son of the Rene Cardona who directed El Santo movies and appeared in Brainiac.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The most representative images are any of the moments where Fenix stands behind his mother and acts as her hands, especially when he is wearing his long red plastic nails.  The most affecting sight, however, may be a dying elephant with blood trickling out of his trunk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  You could argue that Santa Sangre isn’t that weird, but that

Original trailer for Santa Sangre (German)

would only be in comparison to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous films.  Although he does deliver Felliniesque carnivals, an elephant funeral, a cult that worships an armless girl, a hermaphrodite wrestler, and graveside hallucinations featuring zombie brides, the obscure auteur actually scales back his mystical obtuseness a tad in this psychedelic slasher movie.  The result is his most popular and accessible film—if anything by Jodorowsky can be considered accessible.

COMMENTS: In a way, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky lite.  Compared to his hippie-era Continue reading 52. SANTA SANGRE (1989)

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See


FEATURING: , , Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)


  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)

50. GOTHIC (1986)

“I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.  The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.”–Mary Shelley, preface to Frankenstein

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall

PLOT: Romantic poet Percy Shelley takes his lover, Mary, and her stepsister Claire to visit Lord Byron and his biographer, Dr. Polidori, at the poet’s sprawling Swiss estate.  The fivesome spend the evening playing games and drinking laudanum, until the topic of conversation turns to ghost stories.  They decide to hold a seance to materialize their worst fear, with unanticipated success: or, are they just having a group hallucination?

Still from Gothic (1986)


  • The meeting in the film between Percy Shelley, Byron, Mary Godwin Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Claire Clairmont did take place, though the party actually spent the entire summer of 1816 together, not just a single night. Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) did conceive the idea for her novel “Frankenstein there, after Byron suggested that each member of the party write their own supernatural tale. Many other details of the character’s backstories are accurate: Byron did impregnate Claire, and Mary did bear a stillborn child by Percy.
  • The story of “Frankenstein”‘s genesis was mentioned in the prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein, and similar stories of the meeting between Byron and the Shelleys were told in the movies The Haunted Summer (1988) and Rowing in the Wind (1988).
  • The painting which hangs over the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom, which is recreated in live action in a dream sequence, in is based on John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
  • The movie was the first major feature produced by a division of Virgin Media (known for producing and distributing their pop music). Many of the technical crew had a music video background. Virgin shut down its motion picture production and distribution operations after 1990.
  • Julian Sands came to Gothic fresh off a prominent role in Merchant-Ivory’s Oscar-winning A Room with a View. After this role he wound up specializing in horror films like Warlock (1989) and its sequels.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Breasts with eyes.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  After setting up its premise, Gothic becomes a series of phantasmagorical set pieces that allow Ken Russell to indulge his penchant for perverse visuals and excessive Freudian symbolism.

Trailer for Gothic

COMMENTS: For better and worse, Gothic‘s hallucinatory structure allows director Ken Continue reading 50. GOTHIC (1986)

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe.  In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.  Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)


  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned.  As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale.  The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a

Official trailer for A Serious Man

few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)


“My response to viewers who are puzzled by the plots is, I don’t think you’re so puzzled as you may think.  We all have a certain amount of intuition, and that is something that can be trusted and should be trusted… And so when you see something that’s abstract in a film, and you seem to be getting lost, the thing to do is to start talking to your friends, and they’ll say something and you’ll find yourself disagreeing with that, and realize that you really had formed opinions, and you had a scenario that made sense in your mind, and that’s valid.  We know more than we think.”—direct advice from David Lynch on understanding his films

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch


PLOT: INLAND EMPIRE shifts around on a dozen tectonic plates of varying levels of surreality, but the unstable base layer involves Laura Dern as actress Nikki Grace cast in a melodrama based on an unproduced Polish screenplay which was abandoned as cursed after its two leads were murdered.  As she acts out the adulterous scenario, Grace becomes confused, coming to believe at times that she is the character in the screenplay.  After consummating a relationship with her handsome co-star, that reality slips away and Dern is seen playing several different characters, wandering around in a series of loosely interconnected sketches that involve (among other stories) an abused woman confessing her hatred of men to a psychiatrist, the lives of a gaggle of lip-syncing prostitutes, infidelity dramas, and a sobbing woman watching a room full of bunnies in an absurdist television sitcom.

Still from Inland Empire (2006)


  • The film began as a series of individual short films shot on digital video, as Lynch was exploring the new format.  After Laura Dern suggested working on a project with the director, Lynch later noticed recurring themes in the shorts he was shooting, and decided to put them together into a feature film.
  • In his announcement for the movie and in interviews afterward, Lynch has said that he is done shooting on film and will work exclusively with digital video from now on, citing the greater freedom afforded by the format and going so far as to say that the idea of going back to film makes him feel “sick and weak.”
  • Lynch reported that he wrote the film scene by scene, working without a finished script and trusting that connections would appear.
  • The footage of the rabbits is recycled from a series of short films called “Rabbits” that was exclusively screened on
  • Lynch has said he decided to title the movie INLAND EMPIRE after hearing Dern say that her husband hailed from that Southern California enclave, simply because he liked the sound of the words.
  • Lynch invested his own money to get the film made.  He also distributed the film himself, thus facing no pressure to make cuts to the finished product.
  • David Lynch himself sings on the soundtrack.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The nattily-dressed, stiff and deliberately posed bunny-people from the series of short “Rabbit” films, who were so evocative that Lynch decided to give them a new home in INLAND EMPIRE.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDINLAND EMPIRE is David Lynch at his most deliberately


unhinged, experimenting with how far he can stray from linear narrative while still producing a work that feels thematically whole, searching for the minimum number of recurring images and themes needed to stitch a piece together so that it tantalizingly approaches coherence without ever actually resolving.

COMMENTSINLAND EMPIRE is a frustrating movie, or, more charitably put, a Continue reading 48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)


“Nothing fixes a thing so intently in the memory as the wish to forget it.”-Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d …”–Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard

Must See


FEATURING: , , , Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson

PLOT: A shy introvert named Joel and a kooky gal named Clementine with ever-changing hair colors meet and fall in love.  After a fight Joel tries to reconcile, but discovers Clementine has availed herself of a strange and anachronistic mind-erasing technique to remove all memories of him; in a fit of pique and pain, he decides to undergo the same procedure.  But as Joel begins the erasure process, he realizes he doesn’t want to go through with it, and he travels through the landscapes of his memories to find and hold on to the rapidly vanishing Clementine.

Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


  • Charlie Kaufman came up with the idea for this fascinating tale and co-wrote the script with the help of director Michel Gondry and obscure Parisian performance artist Pierre Bismuth.
  • The title is taken from the classic Alexander Pope poem Eloisa to Abelard, which reflects a number of philosophical and emotional touchstones of the film.
  • Before Jim Carrey expressed a desire to play Joel, the likeliest candidate for the part was Nicolas Cage (!)
  • The scene where Mark Ruffalo scares Kirsten Dunst is completely genuine: director Gondry asked that before each take that Ruffalo hide in a different spot to really scare the pants off her!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This bold and invigorating trip into the subconscious has a myriad of off-the-wall images that are sure to stick in your head. From faceless creatures to over-sized environments to entire train stations being drained of its inhabitants due to memory loss, there is a lot of weirdness going on here.  But as far as an indelible image, the one I pick is the simple scene in which Joel remembers when he and Clementine snuggle beneath an old ratty blanket and he consoles her after she recounts an intimate and revealing story about a doll she named after herself as a child.  As the memory seeps out of his head and Clementine’s body disappears, Joel crawls through the ratty blanket of his imagination begging to be able to hold on to this particular memory.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Any film birthed from the madcap imagination of Charlie

Original trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Kaufman and surreal visualist Michel Gondry has at least a pretty good shot of being kind of different.  But this movie in particular, a film about memories literally being erased from people like they were organic hard drives, really takes Kaufman’s dry strangeness and Gondry’s unhinged wild-eyed wonderment and melds it to a delightful perfection that muses on life while simultaneously compelling us with images of collapsing landscapes and Jim Carrey bathing in a sink.

COMMENTS: Some would say that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie about Continue reading 47. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)


“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood.  Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round.  And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…”–Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rifkin

FEATURING: Judd Nelson, , Wayne Newton, ,

PLOT: Marty Malt is a garbageman and aspiring stand-up comic with no talent and no confidence.  One day, a third arm begins to spontaneously grow out of his back.  Although his act hasn’t improved, the gimmick is enough so that greasy agent Jackie Chrome takes interest in him and his accordion-playing, garbage-eating buddy Gus.

Still from The Dark Backward (1991)


  • The Dark Backward was the first script written by Adam Rifkin, who was only 19 years old at the time.  He would direct the film six years later at age 25.
  • The title was selected by opening the complete works of Shakespeare to a random page (the quote comes from “The Tempest,” Act I, Scene II: “How is it/That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?”
  • James Caan reportedly agreed to appear in the film only after an insistent Rifkin called him at the Playboy Mansion.
  • Judd Nelson auditioned for the role by performing Marty Malt’s comedy routines, in disguise, at open-mike nights in Los Angeles.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Probably, one of the many images of Marty’s third arm, whether he displays it to the audience by mechanically spinning around after delivering another lame joke, or as doctor James Caan examines the embryonic fingers sprouting from the his back.  Individual viewers’ mileage may vary, however; you may be indelibly grossed out by the orgy with three morbidly obese women, or by Gus’ nauseating midnight snack of rotting chicken.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise alone—the world’s worst stand-up comic becomes a success after he sprouts a third arm from his back—immediately qualifies as weird.  For better and worse, director Rifkin doesn’t shy away from going whole hog into grotesquerie, churning out a first feature that looks like a technically polished version of an early John Waters film.

Clip from The Dark Backward

COMMENTS: If a therapist laid The Dark Backward down on a couch and psychoanalyzed Continue reading 46. THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)

45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

FEATURING: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

PLOT:  An unnamed young man appears to be drifting from dream to dream, each animated in a different style. His dreams involve him talking to various college professors who explain their theories on existentialism, artificial intelligence and free will, as well as more typical dreamlike experiences such as floating away and taking a ride in a boat-car. About halfway through the film it slowly dawns on the dreamer that he is dreaming, and he begins to ask the characters he meets for help waking up.

Still from Waking Life (2001)

  • The film was shot on mini-DV video over a period of six weeks. Each frame was then painstakingly hand-drawn by a team of animators using computer software specifically adapted for this film (a 21st century update of the process known as Rotoscoping).
  • Each minute of film took an average of 250 hours to create.
  • Featured actor Wiley Wiggins also worked as one of the animators.
  • The monologues on existentialism and free will were delivered by Robert C. Solomon and David Sosa, respectively, two philosophy professors from the University of Texas.
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy play the same characters in their short scene as they did in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film where thirty different animators each put their own distinctive stamp on the characters, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if thirty different people came up with thirty different answers to the question, “what was your favorite image in Waking Life?” We’ll suggest that final shot of the dreamer floating into the heavens is the obvious take-home image to bring to mind when you remember the movie, however.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Waking Life is a string of vignettes of varying levels of oddness, it’s the animation—which shifts from style to style, with the only constant being the fact that the backgrounds continually shift and waver in a state of eternal flux—that keeps it weird. The concept—that the entire film is a dream from which the unnamed protagonist can’t seem to awake—promises an exemplary level of surreality. In fact, many of the segments are, on their face, completely ordinary: cogent explanations of sometimes difficult, sometimes speculative philosophical concepts. The fact that these heady but decidedly rational ideas are explored in the context of the supposedly irrational world of dreams, might, in itself, be considered just a little bit weird.

Original trailer for Waking Life

COMMENTS: There are at least two ways to conclude Waking Life is an unconditional Continue reading 45. WAKING LIFE (2001)