Tag Archives: 2002

288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

Weirdest!

“At this point I had realized that Damon’s film was like a Zen riddle. The more you tried to understand it with rational thought, the more it’s true meaning eluded you. I’d learned just to sit back and enjoy the experience.”–Thad Vassmer, “The Making of Reflections of Evil

DIRECTED BY: Damon Packard

FEATURING: Damon Packard, Nicole Vanderhoff

PLOT: Bob is a grossly overweight man trying to make a living peddling watches on the streets of present-day L.A. In flashback, we learn that his sister Julie died of an overdose in the 1970s. Julie’s spirit seeks out Bob with an important message from beyond the grave, which she eventually delivers to him at Universal Studios theme park.

Still from Reflections of Evil (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • Packard self-funded the film with an inheritance he received—one source estimated it at $500,000. He spent everything on the film and was broke immediately afterwards.
  • Packard sent out over 20,000 original DVDs he paid to have pressed for free, sending many to celebrities. He published some of their reactions on the movie’s now-defunct official website.
  • Reflections of Evil encountered serious distribution problems because of its unlicensed use of copyrighted material (such as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”). Packard recut the film in 2004 to avoid these issues (we review a different cut here).
  • Per the end credits, Universal Studios “permanently banned” Packard (presumably due to his guerilla shooting on their property).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bob’s massive, angry face seems to fill about every third or fourth frame. You’d be safe picking any one of the many warped camera tricks Packard uses to make his own bloated visage appear even more grotesque.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Young Spielberg’s death set; the Golden Guru; Schindler’s List: The Ride

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hiding behind the generic title Reflections of Evil (presumably chosen because Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid was already taken) is one of the most personal and peculiar movies ever made: a  homemade mélange of bizarre editing, black helicopters, vintage 1970s commercials, angry L.A. street people, barking dogs, a barking watch salesman, a ghost in a see-through nightgown, and so much more. Repetitive, abrasive, grotesque, and intermittently brilliant, Reflections will shatter your mind, leaving you wondering whether you’ve just watched the magnum opus of a crude genius or a the manifesto of a genuine madman.


Trailer for Reflections of Evil

COMMENTS: Although there is a loose story to Reflections of Evil, if Continue reading 288. REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002)

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was ‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under ‘s direction, Hungarian actor personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. , as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

‘s animalistic performance highlighted ‘s spirited takes on the character for the Dracula franchise (1958-1974). However, under other directors, Lee was the only redeeming quality in increasingly unimaginative films. By the time the series petered out, Lee wasn’t even that. and  succeeded with a remake of Nosferatu (1979) that can stand with the Murnau original. In 1992, and delivered a uniquely opulent interpretation, which, despite flaws, inspired an entire school of makeup and costume design. However, these were rare exceptions, and the bulk of films produced on the subject of Dracula (and vampires in general) only confirmed how dull, silly, and repetitive the mythology had become.

Just when it would seem that nothing new could be done with the character, along came ‘s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002). For those familiar with Maddin’s work, it should come as no surprise that his approach is completely revolutionary or that his postmodern originality springs from antiquated classicist art forms: silent film and the ballet.

Browning actually made an eccentric choice to use excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” as incidental music in his Dracula. Forgoing actual ballet music, Maddin utilizes Mark Godden’s choreography (performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), which instead utilizes excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies. Not surprisingly, Mahler’s Freudian baggage is an asset. Set to the often violent and macabre dancing, Mahler’s music here seems more related to Bela Bartok’s perverse ballet  “Miraculous Mandarin” than to his own “Resurrection” Symphony.

Still from Dracula Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)Maddin is aware that silent cinema at its best is a stylishly erotic, poetic art form, awash in an otherworldly Art Noveau milieu. The theatrical makeup, lack of dialogue, and overwrought choreography transports us to a plane separate from reality. Maddin, dialed into rudimentary cinema, often invites television-fed audiences to question the validity of his art as a “real movie. Dracula is as much fugue as it is moving picture, akin to a theater of the absurd homage to silent film.

Maddin concentrates on the vampire’s seduction, with the first half devoted primarily to Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle). Dracula (dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang) is Asian, lusty, vulnerable, and agile. In the first part, Mina and Jonathan Harker are relegated to minor characters (we don’t miss them). Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) is, as usual, apt to spoil the fun. It has been said that all literature is about sex, death, and God. Maddin’s Dracula likens blood to semen, which of course inspires much melodramatic Christian apprehension in the chaste, xenophobic doctor. There’s plenty of symbolism, too, about lust for money, the hypocrisy of Christian capitalism, celibacy, and martyrdom.

Despite its familiar source, Maddin’s Dracula, crepuscular and icy, is as startling as the productions of Murnau and Herzog, and perhaps even more so. It is paradoxically the coldest and most fiery interpretation of Bram Stoker to date. Knowing our familiarity with the narrative, Maddin wisely does not set out to spin yet another retelling; rather, it’s all about the aesthetics, baby. Primarily black and white (mixed with blood red and various tints) and filmed on super 8mm, and 16mm, Dracula is a director’s film, employing every fetishistic gimmick from the Expressionist bag. The choppiness is intentional and frantic, much in the same vein as Maddin’s justifiably famous Heart of the World (2000—probably his best film). The dull naysayers and vampire fans are actually right about one thing: Dracula is not a moving picture as much as it an overtly erotic icon.

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: MIDNIGHT SKATER (2002)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Lucas Campbell

FEATURING: Cory Maidens, Ezra Haidet

PLOT: A killer chops up his fellow students on a college campus while a zombie plague brews.

Still from Midnight Skater (2002)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even if this glorified home movie were good—and not only is it not good, it’s perversely proud of its badness—it’s not at all weird (except in the most obvious and derivative sense of the word). Midnight Skater simply apes the ironic grindhouse-throwback aesthetic, without putting its own spin on the genre.

COMMENTS: Why do low-budget filmmakers assume that comedy is easy? Whenever they’re wringing their hands over lack of a production budget, they say, “I know! We’ll make it a comedy! Then we can make fun of our own crap budget, it’ll be hilarious!” To a large extent this phenomenon is the poisonous effect of on the modern horror mentality, but it’s also the fallacy of believing that because Boner Bob’s impression of a gay meth dealer makes all his frat brothers at the Saturday night kegger spit Schlitz through their nostrils, his antics will make sober strangers crack up, too.

Midnight Skater does have one kinda-laugh, when the killer gives an absurdly literal recap of his latest necrophiliac adventure. Far more painful attempts at comedy come from a simpering, anime-and-D&D-obsessed gay nerd with a combination lisp/sneer and attitude of arrogant cowardice. The lame kill puns don’t even rise to the level of groaners (“now that’s what I call good head” quips the killer after crushing a victim’s skull). Mostly, the movie is a painful parade of bad lighting, overacting, audible offscreen noise, surprisingly ugly kids, OK zombie makeup, and crew members spraying people with syringes of tomato soup from just off camcorder.

Midnight Skater has garnered a surprising amount of praise from the few critics who actually condescended to look at it. The explanation is always that the kids look like they had a lot of fun making the movie. And, indeed, if you were part of the gang of college freshmen that made Midnight Skater, you’d be proud of the achievement, and have a great time reliving the film with your buddies over a case of cheap brewskies. On that level, the movie is a success—but a success for the makers, not for the viewers. It is a crime that this glorified home movie somehow got onto Netflix, and might accidentally take up a slot people could use to rent a real film. There’s a big difference between “good for you, you made a movie!” and “you made a good movie.” Encouraging amateurs to go out and make their own movies is one thing, but at some point, you have to stop giving people bonus points just for being inexperienced and enthusiastic. This is the marketplace of ideas, not a third grade soccer league; everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy just for participating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…getting in the same Spock state of brain with the insane and inventive no-budget filmmakers here may require Ritalin, a gross of sugary juice boxes and about a hundred trips to the video store (or at least a couple readings of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film). This is horror and hilarity as channeled through a TV eye mentality, a narrative knowledge derived almost exclusively from issues of Fangoria and untold reams of fan fiction.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Angry Rob,” who said “the acting is bad but the writing is brilliant.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, , Luis Guzman

PLOT: Business owner Barry Egan (Sandler) deals with anger issues, seven abusive sisters, a sex phone con artist, and the appearance of a strange harmonium all while falling in love with a mysterious, yet sympathetic woman (Watson).

Still from Punch-drunk Love (2002)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With its lead’s compulsive abrupt violent behavior, an uneasy sense of loneliness, abstract color schemes by Jeremy Blake, and a wonderfully weird soundtrack by Jon Brion, this film is highly off-kilter for a romantic comedy.

COMMENTS: Paul Thomas Anderson followed up his dramatic masterpiece Magnolia with this small-scale arthouse comedy/drama/character study. Adam Sandler was chosen for the role of troubled lead Barry Egan. Unlike the typical crude humor Sandler is known for, here he uses a restrained, subtle performance to capture Egan’s tantrums, loneliness, and troubled life. Egan is a unhappy business owner balancing work and his seven abusive sisters who taunt him about being gay and continuously call him at work. Barry comes across a harmonium that was sat on the side of the road by a mysterious van following an out of nowhere car crash (foreshadowing a later car crash with Sandler and Watson). Later, we explore Barry’s loneliness and his paranoia when he calls a sex phone operator who later begins to con Barry out of money, threatening and later sending out a group of brothers hired as hitmen to rough Egan up. This blackmail operation is ran by the “Mattress Man” (Philip Seymour Hofffman, in a hilarious role). Egan ends up meeting a mysterious, beautiful young woman, Lena (Watson) through his sister, the same woman earlier in the film he briefly talked to about leaving her car. He begins to fall in love over the course of the film attending a date at a restaurant that ends with them kicked out due to his uncontrollable temper. He then follows her to Hawaii, using frequent flyer miles earned from buying pudding. The hitmen are later defeated after a car crash wounds Lena, who is hospitalized. Barry confront the Mattress Man in a hilarious final showdown. The film ends with Barry running back to Lena, confessing all his problems and promising to never leave  again. Too weird to be a mainstream rom-com, too unpredictable and arthouse to please everyone, Paul Thomas Anderson retains his courage for experimenting with film and pulls an actual performance from Sandler. This is a MUST EXPERIENCE for any film fan looking to step outside the usual boundaries set by mainstream romantic comedy/dramas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weirdly sweet little love story… Anderson also throws in dark complications, including a sinister phone-sex scam, Barry’s strangely surreal sisters, his pudding-purchasing obsession and some very odd pillow talk.”–Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BILL MORRISON’S DECASIA (2002)

Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.

There is a breed of  minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey.  Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator.

As new opera directors rethink old chestnuts, so too does Morrison rethink Walt’s innovative concert program of film imagery wedded to music. How Morrison dances with the preexisting music is as original as that ambitious premiere in 1940. Dancing is an apt description, as Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish. Morrison’s approach to conveying that decay is as startling as ‘s humanizing “Messiah” and as relentless as Guth’s collaboration with Chaya Czernowin in Mozart’s “Zaide.” Morrison’s aesthetic point of entry manages to be paradoxically unsettling and accessible at the same time: no mean feat. Typically, in many postmodern endeavors it is mystery and spirituality that is forefront, usually (and lamentably) at the expense of expressive directness and all traces of humanity. Morrison does not make that mistake, and the unfolding of his vision is hypnotically entertaining.

Still from Decasia (2002)Using silent film footage and stock reels, Morrison’s imagery is akin to cadavers struggling with the effectiveness (or not) of embalming fluid. Nuns with schoolchildren, missionaries baptizing in a river, a boxer, crashing waves, a man reading a newspaper, a caravan of camels, landscapes, a geisha, miners, and volcanoes rise from the blemishes of  a Dorian Gray portrait, once as handsome and muscular as the square jawed  or as prettified as the coquettish . It is a circular, phantasmagoric dance-to-your-death potpourri. The assemblage of primordial imagery, conjoined with Gordon’s aural language, craft an evocative, textured  experience that is probably most effective on the big screen. The sole advantage to home viewing would be lack of interruption due to grumbling patrons walking out.

By taking this unpreserved archival footage, keeping it intact, and wedding it to the atonal composition, Morrison’s contemplative, non-linear narrative serves the nitrate deterioration like a protective skin. Decasia simultaneously celebrates decay and survival with an unbridled enthusiasm found in the most memorable cinematic experiments of the 1960s.