Tag Archives: Absurdist

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: Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, , , Keith Moon, 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, Mark Mothersbaugh, 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, Young’s 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 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 and 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.)

CAPSULE: DICKSHARK (2016)

The reviewer of this film has requested to remain anonymous.

DIRECTED BY: Bill Zebub

FEATURING: Erin Brown, Kayla Browne, Rachel Crow, Scarlett Storm, Bill Zebub

PLOT: A renegade scientist creates a substance that alters genes, hiding it in the innocuous form of a penis enhancing cream. A man applies the cream, transforming his penis into the head of a shark, his partner shoots off his penis, and the Dickshark escapes into the sewers to wreak havoc on countless female victims.

Still from Dickshark (2016)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Although the subject matter is quite surreal, the dialogue and acting style (although often absurd) halfheartedly attempt realism. The incoherent narrative is less by design than by poor execution.

COMMENTS: Dickshark is what might emerge from ’s production house if Smith really stopped caring about production quality or coherence in his work. Director Bill Zebub is also from New Jersey and shares Smith’s earthy humor, emphasis on dialogue and a love of titillation and risqué subject matter.

You know what you’ve signed up for with Dickshark from the title and trailer. This is an exploitation picture, there’s going to be a shark, it’s going to be shaped like a dick, and its going to attack a lot of women. What you probably didn’t expect are the endless, at first mildly amusing scenes of director Bill Zebub (as the scientist, Dick) delivering half-exposition/half-nonsense monologues as he massages the breasts of semi-naked women “for science” until Dickshark comes to the rescue by clumsily “raping” the women (i.e., someone off camera throws a prosthetic shark at the actress’ groin). Zebub makes no attempt at disguising this personal porno fantasy, filling every rape scene with slow motion footage of undulating female buttocks and even a mock confession: “I’m not an aging movie director who only cops a feel by paying models to be in his movies, and who writes parts for himself that have him making out and groping them.” Really, that’s about all this film amounts to, and while at first this nonchalance and irreverence are kind of fun, it wears thin after the first hour.

What other attempts at plotting remain are tedious interludes, usually two-shots with a rival scientist intent on stealing Dick’s genetic secrets, which stretch on forever and contain lingering close-ups while the off-screen actors talk. The production values and editing reminds one of Manos: The Hands of Fate, but with more vaginas.

The acting quality is slightly above the average pornographic film, with Erin Brown faring the best of the women with her earthy, laconic humor. Zebub’s acting style is best defined as a composite of Alan Moore’s haircut and a working class Woody Allen with the spasmodic gesticulations of ’s character in Apocalypse Now.

Towards the end of the film there emerges a kind of commentary on the nihilism of modern existence: in a confession to the camera, the rival scientist chooses to end his life while bemoaning his small penis. It comes across as a kind of apology for how scattered and half-hearted the film has been, but if all we as audience members are to take away from Dickshark is that life is pointless and must be filled with nudity, shark ejaculate and directors frotting on their actresses, then thank Christ we only paid five dollars video on demand for the privilege.

What I personally took away from the film is how fascinating an undulating vagina looks in extreme close up and slow motion. Not even in Antichrist could compete with the sheer weight and focus Zebub gives to the female sex in Dickshark. The film really deserves the IMAX treatment, and preferably with raincoats offered to prospective male viewers.

The three hour first assembly—which I confess I couldn’t brave—can be found on Vimeo on Demand here:

The two hours and eight minute cut (which still taxed my patience) can also be found on Vimeo on Demand (under the alias Frankenshark):

The DVD runs an advertised 150 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like the demented love child of Tinto Brass and Troma for which we never asked.”–Randall Lotowycz, The Ink & Code (DVD)

230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

Recommended

“Nobody ever got the point about what it was about. What we were trying to say through all this laughter and fun, was that if they dropped the bomb on a major civilisation, the moment the cloud had dispersed and sufficient people had died, the survivors would set up all over again and have Barclays Bank, Barclay cards, garages, hates, cinemas and all…just go right back to square one. I think man has no option but to continue his own stupidity.”–Spike Milligan

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rita Tushingham, Michael Hordern, , Richard Warwick, , Mona Washbourne, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore,

PLOT: After a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain, about twenty survivors prowl the wreckage, including 17-months pregnant Penelope and her parents and lover, who live on a still-functioning subway car. Aboveground, Lord Fortnum seeks the opinion of a doctor, who confirms his suspicions that nuclear mutation will soon turn him into a bed sitting room. When the chocolates taken from vending machines run out, the family makes its way to the surface, where Penelope finds herself engaged to the doctor, the mother turns into a wardrobe, and the entire family moves into Lord Fortnum.

Still from The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Bed Sitting Room began its life as a one-act play, written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Promoters acknowledged the film’s limited commercial prospects by issuing a poster with the tagline “we’ve got a BOMB* on our hands” and the footnote (“*BOMB – a motion picture so brilliantly funny it goes over most people’s heads”).
  • The film bombed so hard, in fact, that director Richard Lester could not find work for four years afterwards, and when he returned to movies he toned down the absurdism of his early films and worked in a mainstream idiom, returning with the action-comedy The Three Musketeers (1973) and going on to direct blockbusters like Superman II (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The BBC, tidy tuxedo on top his top half, sackcloth on the bottom, squatting in an empty television frame on a blasted salt flat to deliver exposition.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: BBC post-bomb broadcasts; dad’s a parrot and mom’s a wardrobe; a doctor living inside his patient

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Twenty very British survivors of the apocalypse go about their business amidst the rubble, despite mutations that gradually change them into furniture or bargain housing. This absurd anxiety nightmare about the Bomb could only have come out of the Swinging Sixties; it’s one of the weirder relics of an era when filmmakers felt it was their patriotic duty to laugh in the face of the imminent apocalypse.


“Trailers from Hell” annotated original trailer for The Bed Sitting Room

COMMENTS: The original play “The Bed Sitting Room” was written Continue reading 230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , Tim Roth, , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

LIST CANDIDATE: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom

PLOT: As series of absurdist sketches linked by a few recurring characters, including most prominently a pair of joyless novelty salesmen peddling plastic vampire fangs and other trinkets.

Still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List for completeness’ sake, since the two previous entries in Roy Andersson “trilogy about being a human being”—Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—were both easy Certified Weird choices. I must aver that I do find this the weakest of the three “human being” films, however.

COMMENTS: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a perfect title for a Roy Andersson film, evoking the concepts of detachment, alienness, and existential contemplation that mark the Swede’s strange ruminations on the human condition. In typically skewed Andersson fashion, the pigeon in question inhabits a poem, a poem which a shy elementary school girl does not quite recite in front of an assembly, but which is nonetheless, we are assured, a beautiful poem. Andersson’s sketches are hard to describe to an outsider—they are absurd, yes, and bone dry—but once you see one you immediately recognize the style. You also immediately intuit the elliptical points Andersson makes about human behavior. Life is funny and futile, strange and mundane. Social interactions are a minefield of potential embarrassments, but also full of arbitrary rules that impede our ability to connect with each other. A man drops dead in the lunchline: who will take his beer and shrimp sandwich? He paid before he passed.

Pigeon lacks, I think, the one knockout segment that each of Andersson’s previous features had. The conclusion of Songs from the Second Floor presents a truly terrifying vision of a post-Christian Europe where the dead have been unleashed on the living, while You, the Living contains the young girl’s dream about marrying Mickey Larsson, the most wistful and tender scenario Andersson has ever constructed. Pigeon offers a couple of candidates for a standard-bearing tableau. The first is the sudden appearance of the foppish King Charles XII, who rides into a modern watering hole on horseback, to no one’s especial surprise. While this sequence is pleasantly absurd, the second candidate has more satirical bite. Soldiers load chained Africans into a giant copper cylinder festooned with horns. “I thought of something horrible,” says one of the novelty salesmen, sitting on the edge of his bed in his one room apartment with “Uncle One-Tooth” masks strewn about, in the very next scene. “And I was involved.”

Andersson’s films are a continuum—the same static compositions, the same dour expressions, the same careful conservation of motion and emotion. Odd little awkward playlets played out on endlessly identical sets of gray apartments and glum bars. Due to their vignette structure and constant tone, you could cull the best segments from the three films (perhaps sprinkling in some of Andersson’s shorts) to make a standalone feature that wouldn’t play any differently than the canonical works do. The result would be a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the best way to enjoy this is not to search for coherence or unity but to just let it wash over you and embrace the weirdness…”–Leslie Felperin, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

“The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”–Jonas Mekas on Zazie dans le Metro

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: When 10-year-old Zazie’s mother leaves her in the care of her exotic dancer uncle for the weekend , the only thing the sassy little girl wants to see is the Metro, but it’s closed due to a strike.  So she sneaks out of her uncle’s apartment and encounters a dirty old man, who is also a policeman, among her many adventures. Her weekend ends when the many friends and adversaries she’s accumulated—including a cobbler, an amorous widow, and a polar bear—find themselves involved in a drunken food fight while the worn-out tyke nods off into dreamland.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zazie dans le Metro is based on the hit 1959 comic novel of the same title by Raymond Queneau (a repentant former member of the Surrealist circle). The book relied heavily on wordplay and was widely thought to be unadaptable to film.
  • Although the film generated a small cult in France, Zazie was Louis Malle’s first flop after beginning his career with two hits (Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers).
  • Some parents were angry at Malle’s film, believing that the sexuality made it inappropriate for children. Zazie originally received an “X” rating (16 and over) from the British Board of Film Classification.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely, it must be Zazie’s impish, gap-toothed smile, which she breaks into whenever she imagines growing up to be a schoolteacher who torments her students by making them eat chalk.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eiffel Tower polar bear; wet dog in a parrot cage; high-heeled six shoe-ter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As Zazie’s transvestite uncle says, “Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream!” If a mad scientist found a way to cross-breed and , Zazie dans le Metro is the movie the mutant hybrid would direct.


The Criterion Collection’s “3 Reasons” video for Zazie dans le Metro

COMMENTS: There’s nothing in Louis Malle’s oeuvre that’s remotely like Zazie dans le Metro. There’s nothing else in the rest of the Continue reading 217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen

PLOT: Fletcher Munson, a corporate functionary, is tapped to write a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder of a pseudo-religious self-help movement called Eventualism. One day, still struggling to come up with a draft, he notices his exact physical double in a parking lot—a dentist who, it turns out, just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Meanwhile, we occasionally peek at the life of nonsense-speaking exterminator and Lothario Elmo Oxygen, whose connection to Munson’s storyline will not become entirely clear until the final act.

Still from Schizopolis (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Steven Soderberg served as writer, director, and lead actor. This was his first appearance on film and to date is his only leading role.
  • Soderberg made Schizopolis for about $250,000, shooting in Louisiana with his old LSU film school buddies, in between shooting the big-budget Hollywood movies The Underneath (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
  • Soderberg did not have a shooting script but wrote new parts each day, and incorporated improvisations from the cast.
  • Actress Betsy Brantley, who plays Steven Sorderberg’s wife in the film, was Soderberg’s real-life ex-wife.
  • Soderberg’s opening narration was added after Schizopolis‘ negative reception at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shot with handheld video cameras in a bland suburbia, often in a vérité style, Schizopolis is very much a work of words and ideas, not images. Therefore, the most representative image is actually a picture of a word: a sign reading “idea missing.” The meta-joke is that Schizopolis is aware it is built out of ideas, and is confident enough to joke about its own dependence on concepts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pantsless titles; nose army; dentist doppelgänger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Schizopolis translates as “divided city” or, informally but more appropriately in this case, “city of schizos.” When the film opens with the director standing on an empty stage, backed by carnival music with periodic changes of focal length as if you were watching the intro through an optometrical device, warning that the upcoming movie may confuse you and you should prepare yourself to see it multiple times,  you should be fairly warned that your mind is about to be toyed with, and toyed hard.


Original trailer for Schizopolis

COMMENTS:  After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on Continue reading 216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

BAGLEY: Everything I do is rational.

JULIA: Why have you put chickens down the lavatory?

BAGLEY: To thaw them before dismemberment.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Bruce Robinson (voice)

PLOT: Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is an unscrupulous advertising executive, but he finds himself blocked while trying to come up with a campaign to sell pimple cream. The stress leads him to combination epiphany and mental breakdown, and he decides to renounce hypocrisy and manipulation and retire from marketing. The internal strife, however, has caused a boil to form on his neck; and that pustule then forms a face, and a voice, and a personality that’s even nastier than the old Bagley…

Still from How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Bruce Robinson began his career as a struggling actor, but found greater success when he turned to screenwriting and directing. His first script, The Killing Fields, was nominated for an Oscar in 1984. His first film as director, 1987’s Withnail & I, was a semi-autobiographical story of two poor, hard-drinking actors, also starring Richard E. Grant; it became a cult hit. How to Get Ahead in Advertising was his second feature film, but did not replicate the success of Withnail.
  • Robinson (uncredited) provides the voice of the boil.
  • Advertising was produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who also produced Monty Python films and the Certified Weird Time Bandits.
  • The London Sunday-Times gave away free copies of the DVD as a promotion in 2006.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, the fetuslike boil-with-a-face peering out from Bagley’s executive neck.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disney birds; chatty chancre; notice his cardboard box?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising grows organically from that greatest fertilizer of weird films: obsession. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has Something to Say, and he is not going to let taste, subtlety, or realism get in the way of him saying it. The movie is completely committed to its bizarre two-headed premise, and star Grant gladly goes over the top for his director, literally baring his buttocks while wearing an apron and stuffing frozen chickens in his toilet.


Original trailer for How to Get Ahead in Advertising

COMMENTS: Ad exec Dennis Bagley develops the mother of all zits Continue reading 215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)