Tag Archives: 2011

CAPSULE: THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011)

On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.

Still from Through the Weeping Glass (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.

COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”

By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.

The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”

By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)

WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new album,  at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.

Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”

Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), (), (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.

The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.

Still from Midnight in Paris (2011)Gil () is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.

Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. Lea Seydoux (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.

Next week: Zelig (1983)

LIST CANDIDATE: FAUST (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk

PLOT: A doctor who’s bored with life sells his soul to a Moneylender in exchange for one night with a beautiful young woman.

Still from Faust (2011)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Though it can be stuffy, this hallucinatory version of Faust also brings us monkeys on the moon, a gynecological exam utilizing hard-boiled eggs, and an inexplicable ending that sees the title character apparently trapped in an afterlife that looks like a volcanic island of the coast of Iceland. Literary-minded weirdophiles may want to stump for this subtle and intelligent, but somewhat confused, movie to take up a slot on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made, but it’s not inspiring enough to make it on the first ballot.

COMMENTS: Aleksandr Sokurov’s adaptation of Faust keeps the central story and conflict, presenting the tragic tale of a jaded natural philosopher who finds further dissatisfaction in his pursuit of Earthly pleasure and power, but the Russian director’s take may not please everyone. Goethe’s epic poem/play, the take on the Germanic legend which most informs Sokurov’s, was full of phantasmagorical digressions, such as a parade of pagans during Walpurgis Night. So is Sokoruv’s version; but the digressions are not the same, and the director adopts Goethe’s method as a license to pursue his own visions, wherever they might take him. What is poetic on the printed page becomes a dream when filmed.

The biggest change from play to screen is a change in the “party of the second part” in the eternal contract for Faust’s soul from the devil Mephistopheles to a decrepit old man known as the Moneylender. Rather than a suave Satanic seducer, the Moneylender is a wrinkled nuisance, sly but with degraded manners (when he’s warned not to defecate outside the Church, he decides to do his business inside). Although Faust does pursue a woman, believing that carnal love will fill the empty space in his soul when philosophy and drink have failed, his primary relationship in the movie is with the Moneylender, who acts as a fatalistic conscience. The Moneylender’s surprising bath scene, which makes you think that a nude scene from the Elephant Man might not have been so bad, is the movie’s boldest moment.

It has been noted that Sokoruv’s film favors earth tones, rich browns and shadowy greens, and looks like the works of an old Dutch Master; but it’s worth pointing out further that the image here is also frequently murky and smudged, like a Rembrandt before restoration. Sokoruv’s choice to forgo widescreen vistas for the outdated 4:3 aspect ratio makes Faust cramped and claustrophobic; even when we’re outdoors, the movie feels like it’s playing out in a dingy room at the top of the stairs, lit by sunlight coming through a filthy window. At times (seemingly at random) he adds a queasy distorting lens. My suspicion is that the film’s grimy look is meant to evoke the filthiness and decay of the medieval milieu—the events seem to take place at the height of the Black Death, and there are coffins, funerals, and corpses everywhere (the movie even starts with a shot of a cadaver penis).

Although the film moves slowly, it’s extremely dialogue-dense, philosophical, and challenging for non-German speakers unfamiliar with the source material, who may find themselves quickly left behind. While Sokurov’s Russian Ark was esoteric in its subject matter, it was clearly motivated by a desire to explore Russian culture and its relationship to the West. His Faust is hermetic at its core. Although Faust is officially part of a quadrilogy which also includes biopics of Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito, it’s unclear precisely what the director’s intended spin on the legend is, or why he lumped a fictional philosopher in with historical tyrants. He’s changed enough of Faust to make the story his own, but the film doesn’t explain the reasons for the alterations it makes; it doesn’t do a clear job justifying itself and explaining why we needed this skewed take on the legend. Perhaps there is no justification to be had, and none needed. Goethe began his second book of his “Faust” with a prologue in which he sang “Let Reason be the thrall of Magic, and let bold Phantasy appear/In all her freedom, all her glory.” That could be the ancient anthem of the weird aesthetic, and perhaps Sokurov is merely heeding its call.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] triumph of the weird… takes a flying leap into bizarritude.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)