Tag Archives: Absurdist

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

322. THE FALLS (1980)

Recommended

“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway

DIRECTED BY:

NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys

PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.

Still from The Falls (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
  • Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
  • Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
  • At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
  • While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
  • An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.


Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls

COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway Continue reading 322. THE FALLS (1980)

CAPSULE: AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FOR THEATERS (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Matt Maiellaro, Dave Willis

FEATURING: Voices of Carey Means, Dana Snyder, Dave Willis

PLOT: Animated TV characters based on fast food items (Frylock, Shake and Meatwad) accidentally assemble an apocalyptic exercise machine and discover their own origins.

Still from Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let’s face it: the Aqua Teens are lightweight, fast-food surrealism. We’re including this film mainly as a nod to the Cartoon Network’s influential “Adult Swim” programming, which brought a peculiar, hip-pop absurdism to the airwaves starting in 2001. Other, sometimes darker and weirder examples of this aesthetic are found in the work of awkward comedy duo and the standalone live-action experiments of and .

COMMENTS: “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” the TV show about animated fast food characters and their Italian-American stereotype neighbor interacting with 8-bit aliens from “Space Invaders,” has only been out of production for two years now, but it seems like something that should go into the “fondly remembered” bin. I think it’s because the show was so aggressively minor, going (often successfully) for the easy laugh, always settling for snark instead of satire, randomness instead of surrealism. It was the kind of thing that you used to catch flipping through channels at 1 AM, watch until the next commercial break, chuckle once or twice, then move on. Like any long-running series, however, it spawned a dedicated fan base, in this case one large enough to justify production of a widescreen movie “for theaters.”

Colon Movie doesn’t do much to orient newcomers to Aqua Teen‘s world—although to be fair, the series had little structure in the first place. There are three main characters: cool and competent Frylock, a flying pouch of french fries; Master Shake, an arrogant but stupid milkshake; and Meatwad, a wad of meat with low intellectual capacities but shapeshifting abilities. Their adventures are free-form, involving space travel, mad scientists, and other silliness. Colon Movie begins with a widely-praised prologue: a parody of the old “let’s go out to the lobby!” snack commercials with a heavy metal junk food band howling angry suggestions at viewers (“This is a copyrighted movie by Time Warner. If I find you selling it on E-Bay I will break into your house and tear your wife in half!”) We then begin the movie proper, which begins with a segment set in ancient Egypt, followed by a digression involving time-traveling Abe Lincoln. Yep, it’s sketch comedy a la an animated , with a stoner edge. The introductory tomfoolery fades out and the actual plot-based tomfoolery begins around the  fifteen-minute mark with the introduction of the doomsday exercise machine and the crudely-drawn aliens (and a mohawk-wearing time-traveling robot) tasked with saving humanity from the machine’s destructive power. This plotline goes on for some time until it’s replaced by our heroes’ encounter with one Dr. Weird and flashbacks to several conflicting, inconsistent origin stories for the Aqua Teens. Along the way they encounter a giant poodle, more aliens (including a watermelon alien teamed up with a shrunken Rush drummer Neil Peart), a Space Ghost cameo, and other sporadically entertaining nonsense. It’s all over in a brisk 80 minutes, although with only an hour or so of actual story it still seems a little bit padded. Still, fans anointed it awesome, although newcomers would probably be better served with a shorter form 11-minute episodes as an introduction to the Force (although, with the cancellation of the series in 2015, that format may be harder to access).

Ultimately, Colon Movie will probably be remembered most for a bit of trivia: as part of a guerilla marketing scheme, LED boards featuring the “Mooninite” aliens were placed in several cities, including Boston. Unfortunately, the advertising was enacted during a period of high tension in Beantown (there had been a bomb scare earlier that morning) and the signs were mistaken for improvised bombs. Despite widespread criticism of the Boston Police Department for overreacting to the incident, the Cartoon Network’s parent company Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the city 2 million dollars to release them from any liability in the matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the ATHF television show, Colon Movie Film seemingly delights in making as little sense as possible. Its absurdist scenarios serve as little more than a ramshackle frame for bizarre non sequiturs, stoned pop-culture riffing, and some of the weirdest gags ever to make it into a studio-released film… roughly equivalent levels of tedium and hilarity.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss [years before he became a contributor], who called it “unbelievably absurd, nihilistic, low budget animation filled with stony non-sequitors… I believe that it has weird potential all and all.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

READER RECOMMENDATION: ESCORIANDOLI (1996)

AKA Trash – T.R.A.

Reader recommendation by “Tracian”

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Rezza

FEATURING: Antonio Rezza, Valeria Golino, Claudia Gerini, Isabella Ferrari, Valentina Cervi

PLOT: Five connected stories where the protagonist is always played by Rezza. An affair during a funeral is spiced up by the occasional comments of the deceased; the two lovers of a woman suddenly exchange their ages; a terminally bored girl is forced to join a totalitarian rehab clinic; a poet consumes his life searching for forgiveness for having stepped on a man’s toe; and a professional event-crasher loses control of his own body and is forced to cut it to pieces until only the head remains.

Still from Escoriandoli (1996)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because it is a rare example of an arthouse film that is not pretentious but actually fun, highly committed to weirdness and yet serious in its (admittedly well-hidden) message.

COMMENTS: While you have to understand Italian to fully appreciate the lyrical, offbeat and hilarious dialogues, everyone will be amazed by the physical and vocal contortions of the protagonist(s). Pretty much everything in Escoriandoli (the title itself is a pun that roughly means “confetti-like joy in excoriating them”) is odd: an example may be how all the actors on a bus react to its movements—although the vehicle is explicitly shown as being still—but almost no scene can be considered “normal”.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Italian surreal comedy consisting of a series of satirical vignettes… Fun at times, but the acting is way too silly.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: , , , , , Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
  • The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
  • Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
  • 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
  • In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

LIST CANDIDATE: HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982)

Weirdest!

 

DIRECTED BY: Neil Young (as Bernard Shakey),

FEATURING: Neil Young, , Dean Stockwell, , , Sally Kirkland, , Devo

PLOT: A formless counterculture comedy centered around a garage/coffee shop in Glowtown, an irradiated community located by a nuclear plant in the dystopian near future.

Still from Human Highway (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Did you know that, in the early 1980s, Neil Young farted around with filmmaking under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” and got Devo and a bunch of aging Hollywood acidheads (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) to run around in a goofy apocalyptic musical comedy? You gotta hand it to Young–he can’t act, he can’t direct, but he can make a weird movie.

COMMENTS: Just a hunch, but when Neil Young invited Dennis Hopper and pals out to the California desert to make a movie, there may have been drugs on the set. The cast is not afraid to go all out and look ridiculous, which might be due to being too high to care. Human Highway is a series of mostly improvised vignettes set in the Southwestern dystopia of “Glowtown,” centered around a gas station/diner, with side trips to the local nuclear power plant where Devo work as singing, glowing waste disposal engineers. There are several plot threads: imminent nuclear war, a harried Dean Stockwell trying to cut costs and raise prices to turn a profit, Lionel’s hopeless crush on a waitress, and an upcoming talent show. There’s also a flying saucer piloted by “oil-rich Indians” that shows up every now and then. All of these storylines get dropped when Lionel is conked on the head with a wrench and has a dream sequence consisting of about three Neil Young music videos strung together. He wakes up to the apocalypse, and a dance number.

If nothing else, the cast is interesting. Devo is featured prominently, and Booji Boy (a childlike band mascot/character played by Mark Mothersbaugh in a rubber mask and falsetto) gets some of the best bits. Hopper plays a couple of different roles besides the cook, but he isn’t memorable in any of them. Stockwell doesn’t have a lot of material to work with, and Tamblyn has even less, relegated to the role of Young’s sidekick. With fake buck teeth and oversized glasses, Young is OK, I guess, as Lionel the dopey hick mechanic—but why give himself the toughest comic role, rather than handing it off to one of his buddies who knew how to act? After Neil jokes that he should have died of radiation poisoning because he worked on radiators all his life, we start to get the feeling that the comedy might be intentionally lame, just like the backgrounds he and Tamblyn pedal past on their bicycles are intentionally fake. It’s like a parody of a movie (which is different than a parody movie).

Despite the fact that the flick, which was a goofy lark up to that point, grinds to a halt when Lionel has his rock star dream sequence, more songs would have been nice—if they had been scattered more evenly throughout the film. The musical highlights include Devo doing the folk standard “It Takes a Worried Man (To Sing a Worried Song)” (twice), and a novel New Wave-y collaboration with the band on Young’s “Hey Hey My My” (with Booji Boy squeaking the lyrics while Neil delivers an acidic guitar solo). And who can forget the closer, a surreal post-apocalyptic Casio deconstruction of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (recast as “Breakin’ in the Wind,” with Booji reciting lyrics like “and how many sweating hands will pull pulsing pickles, bright and orange, spewing liquid vile and green”)? Pitched as an anarchic musical rather than an improvised indulgence, Human Highway may have had a shot at being a successful cult film, instead of a legendary oddity sought out by fans of the featured performers.

Human Highway was made in 1982, and for some reason filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio—did they have a TV audience in mind? (It was made at the dawn of MTV and the USA Network’s edgy “Night Flight,” where it would have been a perfect fit). In any event, Highway was barely screened during its initial theatrical run, but found a small audience on VHS. In 2016 it had a limited run re-release in Young’s “director’s cut” edition, which trimmed 8 minutes off the running time. A budget DVD, in a cardboard sleeve, followed later in the year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never released until it came to home video in 1996, which is surprising: while it’s certainly way too weird to have played to mainstream audiences, it should certainly have done well on the midnight circuit that still existed when it was made.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)