MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) opens with a scene of fearsome waves crashing against a desolate shore.  It could almost be described as Debussian, save for the unsettling dead and total silence that continues, unabated, throughout the film.

Maya Deren's At LandThe exotic Deren appears, emerging from a sleep, like a mermaid spit ashore from the crashing waves.

Deren begins slowly climbing a massive, twisted, dead tree trunk; the figure of Deren/Eros embarking on her great existential journey.

The nymph (her face adorned with child-like innocence) slithers on her stomach across a dining room table, populated with faceless corporates.  They do not take notice of her, preoccupied with idle chatter and many cigarettes.  Her eyes focus on a solitary figure, playing chess at the table’s end.  By the time she reaches that end (there are brief, repeated, struggled, exploratory diversions through a mass of shrubbery) she finds the player has just left and, as she gazes at the board, the rest of the room’s occupants are also leaving.

Telekinetically, she moves the chess pieces, until the pawn (one of eight) falls through a hole in the table.  She attempts to retrieve it and finds herself  back on the shore, then on a country road, walking and talking with a young man (represented by five different men).

She cannot keep up with the man and he leaves her behind as he disappears into a cabin, shutting the foreboding door behind him.

Determined not to be abandoned, she crawls under the log cabin but emerges in a contemporary, nearly abandoned home, laden with furniture, covered in white sheets.

It is not the young man she finds, but an older, bedridden man (figure number six), under a white bed sheet.  They silently stare at each other, identify Continue reading MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

APPROPRIATION AND MUTILATION: THE WEIRDEST FORM OF FLATTERY?

If you search for “366 Weird Movies” on Google, you may discover this odd tribute: an unauthorized, uncredited, unlinked “remix” of our review of The Toxic Avenger, Part II on an anonymous blog.

This new version contains a few insights that I missed in my initial review.  For example, we learn that the movie is a “moral jocose spoof” with “politically false noxiousness,” one which “should pay fans of absurdist murderousness< a harm” (all true enough statements, I suppose).

Richard Harrington’s Washington Post review, cited in our article, has been similarly reworked to produce even more profound insights.  He finds that the original Toxic Avenger had ” a dope, surreal vim” and ponders the eternal question, “What happens when you disparage a cinema that’s considerate simple derision and disparage out cold the considerate on the unharmed derision?”  Smoke a joint and try to wrap your mind around that one; it’s even better than “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

What’s going on here?  Has 366 Weird Movies become grist for some elaborate Internet Dada mill? Looking at the reworked text, it looks like someone has taken the original article and used an automated program like Babblefish to translate the review into a foreign language, and then translated it back into English to mangle the grammar and vocabulary.  They’ve also inserted the nonsense phrase “on the unharmed demeaning” randomly at several points in the text, and helpfully highlighted arbitrary words and inserted links to two unrelated blogs: one from a mom in Australia, and the other to a young Arab journalist in Kuwait. The blog itself contains page after page of similarly stolen and transformed posts from all over the Web, including columns giving relationship advice (“A functional relationship can contrariwise indeed befall when both partners are advantageous with themselves enlighten and then with each other and scoff at a oodles.”)

The blog calls itself “humorous” (the title, not a description), and the posts are Continue reading APPROPRIATION AND MUTILATION: THE WEIRDEST FORM OF FLATTERY?

WHAT WAS THAT WEIRD MOVIE?

Here’s the latest request:

“Impossible request here. When I was 4 or 5, I got up from bed and walked into the living room where my parents were watching a late night movie. It was a horror sci-fi piece of some sort. All I remember is a dog walking towards the camera and when it got near I realized it had a human head. That scene must have made quite an impression because I still remember it today. So… pre-1984 sci-fi/horror, mutant dog with human head. It’s not much of a description, but do you have any clues?”

At first I thought it might be John Carpenter’s THE THING, but the helpful folks at badmovies.org came up with a better idea–the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS:

26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”–Matthew 10:34-36

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Laurent Terzieff, Bernard Verley, Edith Scob, ,

PLOT:  Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred.  Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion.  Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.

milky_way_coie_lactee

BACKGROUND:

  • In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
  • The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
  • Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church.  According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
  • Although the film is often blasphemous on it’s surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film.  This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
  • With it’s large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a

Original trailer for La Voie Lactée

strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.

COMMENTS:  Of all the great directors, Luis Buñuel was the greatest prankster.  His son, Continue reading 26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 7/4/09

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Tony Manero (2008):  A Chilean black comedy, set during the Pinochet dictatorship, about a lowlife thug and murderer who’s obsessed with the Manero character from John Tavolta’s Saturday Night FeverThe London Times calls it “wonderfully bizarre.”  Tony Manero official site (Spanish).

NEW ON DVD:

Dark Streets (2008): A noirish musical fantasy set in 1930s New Orleans. With a soundtrack featuring Natalie Cole, Etta James, Dr. John, Richie Sambora, and co-star Bijou Phillips, it’s almost certain to sound good, if nothing else. Buy from Amazon.

Hide (2008): Described by the producers as “Tarantino meets Bonnie and Clyde,” this indie action flick apparently has a twist ending that has baffled many viewers. Starring Rachel Miner and Christian Kane. Buy from Amazon.

Tokyo! (2008):  A suite of three fantastic, surreal short stories directed by three different international directors (Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-Ho Bong), all set in Tokyo.  Not surprisingly, the stories appear to focus on the theme of urban alienation.  Buy from Amazon.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen.  The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias.  Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors.  Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do.  Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.

ariaroddamFranc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.

Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.

Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.

Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.

Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.

Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.

Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER PART III: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Apocalypse Inc. and their literally diabolic CEO dupe New Jersey superhero Toxie into working for them as a spokesman/executive so he can earn money for an operation to restore his fiancée’s sight.

Still from Toxic Avenger 3: The Last Temptation of Toxie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  For the same reasons that The Toxic Avenger, Part II won’t make it.  The Last Temptation of Toxie is actually a bit weirder than the previous sequel; unfortunately, it’s also quite a bit worse.

COMMENTS:  There are two huge problems with this third installment in this mediocre series.  The first is that there is way too much plot: Toxie doesn’t kick ass from start to finish.  Instead, having completely rid the town of Tromaville of evil in the first two movies, he’s put himself out of work and has to find odd jobs to make ends meet.  He worries about financing a sight-restoring operation for Claire, hires on with Apocalypse, betrays his core values and becomes a soulless corporate suit… and it takes forever for the mutated avenger to find his moral compass again and get back to tearing off transvestite punk gangsters’ limbs.  This leads to the even more devastating second problem: the reason the movie seems so interminable is that, with no action sequences for most of the way, Temptation is forced to rely on it’s sense of humor to keep the audience from tuning out.  Although Toxic Avenger movies always get off a memorable one-liner or two (there’s a quotable and unexpected shot here at the Chevy Nova), the series isn’t capable of sustaining long stretches of comedy without resorting to gory sight gags.  Desperate to manufacture yuks, the producers resort to a “comic” trick they also used in Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: they insert cartoon sound effects to accompany mundane actions (there’s a sound effect when Claire scratches her head, Toxie points his finger and we hear a bullet ricochet, etc).  The script also makes multiple self-aware references, e.g. “I’ll mop up Tromaville and make room for The Toxic Avenger 4!,” that suggest the writers were running out of gags fast.  All of this is a shame, because the two “temptation” fantasy sequences in Part III are actually well done, with nice budget art direction and memorable costuming: the dog-faced demon and the dancing girl in lurid blue body paint are suitably cheap demonic denizens of a bargain-basement Hell.  There’s also a nice transformation scene where the devil pops out of an executive, which is effective rather than campy, and a live action video game finale that’s just crazy enough to work.  It’s too bad that these few promising sequences are wrapped up in a uninvolving plot with lame humor substituting for the missing action. Also of note to some (you know who you are!) is the fact that this is the only Toxic Avenger entry without abundant nudity. It seems that, even though Phoebe Legere was signed for the back-to-back sequels, the contract with her breasts expired sometime between Part II and Part III, making this third entry a shockingly hooter-lite affair.

The Toxic Avenger Parts 2 & 3 were filmed back to back in 1989 with the same cast; there was enough extra footage from Part 2 that the studio decided to cobble together a third Avenger film from the leftovers.  Last Temptation is so badly conceived that it suggests that, even though Troma specializes in low budget guerrilla filmmaking, they can’t just go out into left field and wing it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… this one doesn’t make any sense either. I loved it!–Joe Bob Briggs, Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART II (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc., wanting to turn Tromaville into a toxic waste

Still from The Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989)

dump, lures the mutant superhero Toxie away to Japan to search for his father.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Films churned out by Troma Studios are low-budget affairs heavy on sex, violence and absurd comedy; they are weird compared to typical Hollywood fare, but they’re all similar compared to each other.  With the above-average effort Tromeo and Juliet representing the studio on the List of 366, it’s unlikely that any other Troma films will make it.

COMMENTS:  I am a contrarian.  I believe that The Toxic Avenger, Part II is actually a slightly better film than the original The Toxic Avenger.  The reason is the shift in tone from malicious teen revenge fantasy/comedy to pure comic spoof.   This sequel purges much of the mean-spiritedness from the original–such as the scenes where the audience is expected to identify with the Avenger as he stalks and kills half-naked girls from the upper crust of teen society–while still retaining it’s politically incorrect edge.  The original over-impressed viewers in 1984 due to its novelty and outrageousness, but viewed retrospectively, this sequel is just as bizarre and humorous (which is to say, very bizarre and mildly humorous).  The centerpiece fight scene comes early on, with Toxie dispatching and dismembering a seemingly endless variety of bizarrely costumed goons–a dog boy, a transvestite, a midget, and a number of rejected Village People characters–to the tune of “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.”   The scene is more extended and over-the-top than the restaurant holdup sequence in the original Avenger, and should satisfy fans of absurdist violence.  Once Toxie reaches Tokyo, he meets even more strange characters, including briefcase carrying, mohawk-wearing Japanese businessmen, and fights ninja duels with ridiculous props, including “throwing starfish” and a swordfish-like creature with a functioning chainsaw in place of the horn.  The jokes are aggressively lowbrow, but every now and then the Troma writers throw in something clever to remind you they’re not as stupid as some of the shamelessly lame slapstick gags might suggest–there’s a sly insertion of a David Mamet “quote” that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

The producers shot more footage for this sequel than they could use, so the assembled cast quickly finished off a second sequel, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and released it the same year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What happens when you take a movie that’s good stupid fun and take out the good fun?  Usually, you get a sequel…  Other Troma Inc., films, including the original ‘Avenger’ and ‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High,’ worked partly because there was a silly, surreal energy coursing through them. This sequel seems less inspired than calculated.”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (Toxic Avenger 2, contemporaneous)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.

Video trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/26/09

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Surveillance (2008):  Psychological thriller from Jennifer (Boxing Helena, daughter of David) Lynch in which FBI agents try to solve a string of grisly killings with the help of three witnesses who tell conflicting stories.  Has divided critics over its brutality and perversity, as well as its twist ending.  With Bill Pullman and Julia Ormand.  Playing New York and L.A. only, with future dates throughout California and Denver, Co. Surveillance Official Site.

NEW ON DVD:

Diary of a Suicide [Le journal d’un suicidé] (1973): There’s little information available on this (perhaps justifiably) overlooked French anthology movie about a man on a cruise challenged to tell tall tales by a mysterious translator. It’s likely being released now to coincide with Last Year at Marienbad (see below), because Suicide also stars Delphine Seyrig.  Buy from Amazon.

Karl May (1974): Hans-Jürgen Syberberg picture with an intriguing Kafkaesque premise: in Nazi Germany, Karl May (a real-life writer of potboiler Westerns for German audiences) is put on trial on suspicion that he is a character from one of his novels.  Seldom seen.   Buy from Amazon.

Last Year at Marienbad [L’année dernière à Marienbad] (1961):  Alain Resnais dreamlike classic (written with Alain Robbe-Grillet) about a nameless Man who waits for a year to run away with a nameless Woman–only to find out that she does not remember meeting him when the time comes to reunite–has been shamefully out of print for what seems like forever.  The Criterion collection again rides to the rescue with a two disc edition.  A major, major event in weirdness.   Buy from Amazon.  Also available on Blu-Ray.

Phoebe in Wonderland (2008): This well-acted, tearjerking indie drama about an obsessive/compulsive little girl isn’t exactly weird, although it does contain a several fantasy sequences inspired by Alice in Wonderland.  Most importantly, it’s been reviewed in these pages.   Buy from Amazon.

Waltz with Bashir (2008):  Genre-crossing, partially fictionalized Israeli animated documentary on the 1982 Shabra and Shatila massacres and the amnesia of states contains some wonderfully surreal passages on the absurdity of war.  This was one of the best films of 2008, and damn weird to boot; it should be reviewed on these pages in the future. Buy from Amazon.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!