Category Archives: Certified Weird (The List)

112. THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION (1984)

“Would a watermelon in the midst of a chase sequence not be, in its own organic way, emblematic of our entire misunderstood enterprise? At once totally logical and perfectly irrational?”–W.D. Richter, explaining why there is a watermelon inside the Banzai Institute

DIRECTED BY: W.D. Richter

FEATURING: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, , , , Vincent Schiavelli

PLOT: We are first introduced to Buckaroo Banzai as he rushes by helicopter from completing a delicate neurosurgery to test-drive a trans-dimensional race car in the Nevada desert. Banzai successful breaches the Eighth Dimension with his oscillation overthruster, but the experiment attracts the attention of the mad Dr. Lizardo, as well as a gang of Lectroid aliens who also want the device. Between rock and roll gigs and particle physics press conferences, Buckaroo and his band of scientist/musician/adventurers, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, will uncover an alien conspiracy that (naturally) threatens the fate of the world.

Still from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was writer W.D. Richter’s first directorial effort after having half-a-dozen screenplays produced (including the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Banzai eventually became a hit on VHS but was a huge flop in theaters, losing six million dollars and bankrupting the production studio. Richter only directed one other movie, the 1991 independent comedy Late for Dinner, although he continued to write screenplays (including Big Trouble in Little China). Richter did not write the script for Buckaroo Banzai, however; it was penned by his pal Earl Mac Rauch.
  • The name of the evil front corporation in Banzai, Yoyodyne, is a reference to a fictional corporation that appears in Thomas Pynchon’s novels.
  • In 2003 Entertainment Weekly ranked Buckaroo Banzai as the #43 cult movie of all time.
  • The sequel promised by the end credits, Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League, was of course never made, although legend has it that Richter is still trying to get it produced to this day. In 1998 pre-production work was done on a Buckaroo television series for the Fox network, but the show was never picked up. The Buckaroo brand has persisted through the years with a novelization and comic book adaptations.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We require a flashback to show how the Eighth Dimension was originally discovered by a then-sane Dr. Emilio Lizardo—but how to introduce it without disrupting the flow of the story? This movie believes the most natural way to incorporate the memory is to have a now-insane Dr. Lizardo hook electrodes onto his tongue and shock himself so that arcs of lightning fly out of his eardrums. We have to assume this bizarre home-electroshock therapy explains the perfect cinematic precision of the following flashback sequence, because no other sane theory is offered for Lizardo’s act of high-voltage masochism.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Refer to the plot synopsis. Any movie that successfully incorporates


Original trailer for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension

a band of rock and roll scientists, an invasion by aliens uniformly named “John,” the Eighth Dimension, inexplicable watermelons, and Jeff Goldblum as a New Jersey neurosurgeon who dresses like a cowboy—while working inside the Hollywood system, with a $12 million dollar budget—has worked hard enough to deserve a space on the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: According to an unofficial Buckaroo Banzai FAQ, the most frequently asked Continue reading 112. THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION (1984)

111. SANS SOLEIL (1983)

AKA Sunless

“It is tempting, and not unjustified, to speculate that one reason for Marker’s growing visibility and popularity is that, as a culture, we have now finally caught up with works that once seemed like dispatches from another planet…”–Catherine Lupton, “Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle” (2007 Criterion Collection essay)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alexandra Stewart (narrator, English language version)

PLOT: Essentially plotless, Sans Soleil is structured as a series of letters sent from around the world by a fictional director addressed to the anonymous female narrator. The footage shown ranges from the banal to the incredible, and each image sparks a meditation from the letter writer. Among other sights, we view Japanese praying at a shrine to dead cats, the imaginary nightmares of sleeping subway riders, and the bloody slaughter of a giraffe by poachers.

Still from Sans Soleil (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sandor Krasna, the cameraman whose letters the unnamed narrator is supposedly reading, is fictional, an alter-ego of reclusive director Chris Maker. The name “Chris Marker” is itself a pseudonym for Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve.
  • Marker has said he was born in Mongolia, a claim some film historians dispute. He was a philosophy student before joining the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. After the war he became a journalist, then a documentary filmmaker.
  • Sans Soleil was Marker’s first personal film after years spent making a series of Marxist political documentaries.
  • The title comes from a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky; some of the melodies are recreated in nearly unrecognizable electronic versions arranged by Isao Tomita.
  • In one section of the film “Sandor Krasna” has traveled to San Francisco to visit locations from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Remembering the scene where Madeline points to the tree stump, the narrator says “he remembered another film in which this passage was quoted…” The other film, of course, is Marker’s own La Jetée.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Sans Soleil‘s unforgettable scene is the slice in time when a striking-looking young woman in Cape Verde, who knows the camera is pointed at her but demurely refuses to acknowledge it, briefly makes eye contact; Marker highlights the moment, remarking about “the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” (It’s an inversion of a famous bit from Marker’s La Jetée, where every shot is technically the length of a film frame except for a single glance at the camera). As unexpectedly powerful as this brief moment of eye contact is, it’s unfortunately not so weird. So, for our indelible image we instead turn to the video transformation of the ceramic cat idol into an abstract orange and blue blob, a moment where Marker brings two of the film’s diverse interests into a temporary harmony, illustrating how he weaves his seemingly random obsessions into a coherent tapestry.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Sans Soleil begins with an image of three Icelandic girls and


Clip from Sans Soleil

voiceover narration admitting that the photographer can find no other image to link it to, followed by a brief shot of American warplanes on an aircraft carrier, followed by scenes Japanese commuters napping on a ferry. This ADD documentary changes topics every minute or two, with each brief sequence accompanied by a spoken observation that could be read as profound, poetic, pretentious, or even all three at once. Sans Soleil visits cat shrines, the slaughter of a giraffe, and a monkey porn museum in its wanderings. If that’s not weird enough for you, the film takes time out of its busy schedule to recreate the imaginary nightmares of passengers dozing on a Tokyo subway. All of the scenes are accompanied by freaky synthetic electronic sounds percolating up through a video mix that’s often altered with then-avant-garde video transformation techniques. With their feet nailed to reality, documentaries have to strain hard to escape the bonds of gravity and sail to the heights of weirdness, but Sans Soleil is one experiment in nonfiction that manages to soar effortlessly.

COMMENTS: Essentially, Sans Soleil is an arthouse version of Mondo Cane. (For the record, I Continue reading 111. SANS SOLEIL (1983)

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer,

PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.

Still from Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
  • The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
  • Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
  • The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
  • A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. Wha tfollows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.


Re-release trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small

COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from Continue reading 109. EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL [AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN] (1970)

108. BAD BOY BUBBY (1993)

“Christ, kid, yer a weirdo!”–Pop

DIRECTED BY: Rolf de Heer

FEATURING: Nicholas Hope, Carmel Johnson, Claire Benito, Ralph Cotterill

PLOT: With only a rudimentary vocabulary but a gift for mimicry, middle-aged Bubby has been raised by his mentally ill, abusive mother with no knowledge of the outside world inside what is essentially a fallout shelter. One day an interloper enters their underground hovel, shattering the only reality Bubby has ever known. Eventually he finds himself released into a modern Australian society he can hardly comprehend, but must learn to fit into somehow.

Still from Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Partially as an experiment and partially for practical reasons, de Heer chose to shoot the film with thirty-two different cinematographers, essentially one for every location.
  • Bad Boy Bubby uses binaural sound: the film’s soundtrack was recorded and mixed from two microphones Nicholas Hope wore behind his ears, so that the audience would experience the sonic world exactly as it would be heard from Bubby’s perspective. On home video the effect is largely lost, with the end result being only that a few of the conversations in the film sound frustratingly muffled.  The director suggests that the theatrical experience can be reproduced by listening to the movie while channeling the sound through a pair of stereo headphones.
  • Originally, the underground scenes were to have the sides matted to create a narrow, claustrophobic aspect ratio, and the film was to expand into widescreen when Bubby surfaces into the outside world.  Director De Heer thought the effect was too intense and made the film “unwatchable” and dropped the idea.
  • Bad Boy Bubby won a FIPRESCI International Critics Prize, along with several less significant festival awards.
  • We initially passed Bad Boy Bubby over for inclusion on the List, declaring it to be only “borderline weird.” You can read the original review here.
  • A search for reviews of “Bad Boy Bubby” on the Los Angeles Times website yields no results, but offers the helpful suggestion, “Did you mean ‘bat boy’ bubbly?”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bubby the punk rock front man performance artist, on stage in a priest’s collar, holding a blowup doll with enormous breasts wearing a gas mask, backed by a band whose heads are swaddled in cling wrap.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In my original review of Bad Boy Bubby, I demurred adding the film to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies by noting that the movie “has a unique tone that’s hard to capture, but the first words I’d choose to characterize it are ‘relentlessly offbeat,’ rather than ‘weird’… for the most part de Heer chooses to tell his story using a straightforward, realistic narrative style that makes us believe bizarre Bubby is a real person in a real world.” The first words I’d use to describe it are still “relentlessly offbeat,” but on further reflection I’ve concluded that Bubby‘s offbeat moments come relentlessly enough that “weird” is a fine choice for the second word I’d use to describe it. I do not want to be in the business of denying the weirdness of movies that feature middle-aged feral children, cling-wrap murders and bizarre swings in tone, especially when they have rabid cult followings and excellent critical reputations.


Short clip from Bad Boy Bubby

COMMENTS: Bad Boy Bubby is a film that moves slowly from deep darkness into light. It is Continue reading 108. BAD BOY BUBBY (1993)

107. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001)

“I fear that in the speech which I am about to make, instead of others laughing with me, which is to the manner born of our muse and would be all the better, I shall only be laughed at by them… the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach.”–Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: John Cameron Mitchell

FEATURING: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin

PLOT: We first meet Hedwig as she and her band the Angry Inch are performing at a seafood buffet in Kansas City. In flashback, and in music videos, we learn that she was born a boy named Hans in East Berlin, and underwent a (botched) sex change operation so she could marry an American G.I. and leave for the West. Now, she and her band are shadowing the cross-country tour of Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s ex-boyfriend turned arena rock star, whom she accuses of having stolen her songs.

Still from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Cameron Mitchell, then a professional stage actor, debuted the character of Hedwig in 1994 at a drag show at a punk nightclub in New York City. With the help of songwriter Stephen Trask, he built an off-Broadway play—originally staged in the ballroom of a fleabag hotel in Manhattan’s meat packing district—around the androgynous chanteuse.
  • In the early drafts of the play Tommy was the main character and Hedwig a supporting player.
  • Mitchell’s father was U.S. Army Major General John Mitchell, and the younger Mitchell spent much of his childhood in Berlin where his father was stationed during the later part of the Cold War.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Is it Hedwig’s androgynous Aryan visage, half-hidden under a pound of glittery makeup and a sculpted blond wig big enough to double the diameter of her head? Or is it the animated retelling of Aristophanes fable in “The Origin of Love,” with a squiggly line drawing of Zeus cutting the legs off whales? Fortunately, thanks to split-screen technology, we don’t have to choose; we can get Hedwig’s glacial glam mug on the left and a severed half-moon face yearning to swallow her up on the right together in one still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Well, it does feature a rock star who’s the victim of a botched sex


Original trailer for Hedwig and the Angry Inch

change searching for love and vengeance and telling her life story through song while playing on a tour of discount seafood restaurants with her band of Eastern European refugee musicians, which is a plot you don’t see everyday. If that’s not enough to satisfy your weird desires, however, stick with it until the end, when it drifts into a dreamlike series of music videos that see characters swapping sexes and changing into other characters.

COMMENTS: He may not be widely acknowledged as the West’s weirdest philosopher, but Continue reading 107. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001)

106. LA GRANDE BOUFFE (1973)

AKA The Big Feast; Blow-Out

“If you don’t eat, you won’t die.”–Ugo, La Grande Bouffe

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , ,

PLOT: Four middle-aged, upper middle-class men (a judge, a TV personality, a pilot and a chef) hole up at a country villa to feast; it is gradually and casually revealed that they plan on eating themselves to death. They gorge themselves constantly, but the pilot can’t stand to go even for a day without sex, so prostitutes are invited to join them—along with a schoolteacher who attaches herself to the group willingly. As the gluttonous orgy continues the whores flee in disgust, but the teacher joins in the bacchanalia with gusto.

Still from La Grande Bouffe (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • All of the main actors use their real names. All four of the male stars were well-established (Mastroianni, of course, was an international star and sex symbol). Except for Noiret, each had worked with director Ferreri before. Each had also had prominent roles in weird films from other European directors (Mastrioanni, most famously, in Federico Fellini films, but Noiret appeared in Zazie dans le Metro for Louis Malle, Piccoli was a mainstay in Buñuel movies, and Tognazzi had small roles in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and  Fellini’s Satyricon). The quartet would reunite with the director the next year for a surrealist rendering of Custer’s last stand called Don’t Touch the White Woman (starring alongside another weird favorite, ).
  • The scatological content of the film scandalized some viewers at Cannes, but the film nonetheless won a FIPRESCI prize for Ferreri.
  • At its British showings La Grande Bouffe was protested by infamous decency crusader Mary Whitehouse; her attempts to have the movie banned ironically led to modification of the Obscene Publications Act to exempt films with artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The visions that will probably stick with you when you think back on La Grande Bouffe are scenes of four great European actors stuffing their faces with turkey legs, a castle made out of pâtés, and a pair of matching cakes shaped like breasts. Michel Piccoli dancing with a pig’s head is another strong candidate, as are the numerous gross scatological moments. But, the strangest and most lingering image may be the final one: sides of meat scattered around the villa lawn—a slab of beef wedged in the crook of a tree—and a pack of dogs sitting and looking attentively at the carcasses, making no move to eat.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: La Grande Bouffe takes an absurd premise—four men decide to eat


Brief scene from La Grande Bouffe

themselves to death—and plays it out with illogical realism, proffering no explanations or motives for what happens.  It’s an unnatural but straight-faced parable that suggests nothing about how we’re supposed to take it. It’s a grotesque spectacle, but a strangely engrossing one, with a fascination that comes largely thanks to a dream cast of 1970s Euroweirdos.

COMMENTS: In the course of their Grande Bouffe, the four suicidal gourmands scarf Continue reading 106. LA GRANDE BOUFFE (1973)