Tag Archives: Allegory

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOSSAL (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

PLOT: An alcoholic woman discovers that she unwittingly controls a giant monster who is attacking Seoul.

Still from Colossal (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The premise is strange, but the execution is not as bizarre as it might have been, tending more to light psychological drama.

COMMENTS: The two opening scenes of Colossal are well-matched. In the first, a Korean girl loses her doll in a park, only to find a giant gray monster looming over the skyscrapers of distant Seoul. 25 years later, a tipsy Gloria (Hathaway) meets her own personal disaster among the skyscrapers of New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment and onto the streets after she shows up drunk again.

Two women, facing two monsters, which, the movie suggests, may really be the same thing: the Seoul-stomper is somehow connected to Gloria’s screwed-up life. After her world falls apart and she moves back to her quiet hometown, things go to hell as she takes a job in a bar run by old friend and would-be lover Oscar (Sudeikis). That Korean monster, spotted one night 25 years ago, starts appearing again in Seoul almost nightly, although it usually does little more than scratch its head and stumble around aimlessly. These appearances, which naturally go viral on CNN and social media, all seem to happen while Gloria is blacked out. Meanwhile, Gloria ups her drinking and finds herself a boy toy, a handsome younger man without much backbone. That development doesn’t please Oscar, who’s given her a job, TV, and a new suite of furniture in hopes of finally winning his childhood sweetheart.

After this setup, we expect the movie dive into a wacky kaiju/romantic comedy mashup, but things get darker, as the metaphor extends from the monster merely representing Gloria’s alcoholism to embrace co-dependency and abuse—it a conflation of all of her bad choices, along with some misfortunes that befall her through no fault of her own. The script lets the symbolism get away from it a little bit, and neither the mechanism through which the monster manifests itself, nor its origin story, nor its final disposition, quite live up to the cleverness of the original conceit. The movie has serious (if not colossal) tone problems: too many innocent Koreans are killed for it to be an effective comedy, but the premise is too ridiculous to generate the tension needed for action/horror thrills. Colossal does find a way forward, by staying so committed to its allegory that you keep watching just to figure out how it will all be resolved. Sudeikis provides another reason to tune in, as he turns out to be a powder keg with a secret of his own. Colossal had the potential to level much more real estate than it did—lover’s spats and millennial introspections outnumber kaiju battles by at least two-to-one—but you should still find a lot to enjoy lying about in the rubble.

Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the indie scene with the tightly-wound time travel bibelot Timecrimes. Since then, he’s been continuing to make smart movies with sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and someday may produce an oddity ready-make for the List of the Weirdest Films Ever Made. This isn’t it, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique and bizarre and surprising and original piece of filmmaking… From its weird little prologue to a nearly perfect ending, ‘Colossal’ is a trip in multiple meanings of that word.”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWILIGHT OF THE COCKROACHES (1989)

Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare

DIRECTED BY: Hiroaki Yoshida

FEATURING:  Kaoru Kobayashi, Setsuko Karasuma, Kanako Fujiwara

PLOT: A colony of cockroaches lives in happy comfort in the apartment of a lonely slob, but that all changes the day a girlfriend moves in and takes over cleaning the place and eradicating the pests.

Still from Twilight of the Cockroaches (1989)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As noted elsewhere on this site, the bar for weirdness in Japanese anime is set pretty high, because the genre itself is such a wild frontier. Twilight of the Cockroaches sets itself apart by being half-animated and half-live-action, and by being about the politics of cockroach tribes. If that in itself isn’t compelling enough, any film whose IMDB page’s plot keywords list includes the phrase “talking turd” pretty much demands our consideration.

COMMENTS: The present author is aware of exactly two commercial films in which cockroaches make up the majority of the cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment, and I’m reveiwing other one now. Of the two, Twilight of the Cockroaches wins easily for “weirdest cockroach movie.” The comparison has to stop there, because the two movies are entirely opposite in tone. A critter’s eye view of a society of anthropomorphic non-humans, Cockroaches has more in common with Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh than an MTV-sponsored slacker comedy. It pounds in a heavy political message, possibly related to Hiroshima or Auschwitz, though the director declared it to be about Japan; fan bases debate it to this day. Fill in your own country and political philosophy here.

But for those of you without too much book-learnin’, this is a movie about cockroaches. Naomi is a cockroach waif—“19 in cockroach years”—who serves as our narrator and has “never experienced terror.” She and the rest of her vermin society reside in the apartment of Saito, a human bachelor whose deadly sins include sloth and gluttony, allowing the cockroaches to live in fat contentment. The roaches worship Saito as a god, giving thanks for his sloppy leftovers as they mistake his neglect for benevolence. Sage, the “great leader” of this society, is a reassuring father to his people, ringing with praise for their benevolent human. Naomi is engaged to the stable suitor Ichiro, but she pines for Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe. Hans brings grim stories of other apartments where cockroaches fight for survival against humans determined to annihilate them, which is shocking news to Naomi in her peaceful utopia.

Hans returns to his side of the apartment complex, while Naomi contracts wanderlust, exploring the outside world in her quest for the truth. She sets across the vacant lot next to the apartment to find Hans, braving all kinds of hazards—and meeting a helpful turd—along the way. The elders of Naomi’s tribe lament how entitled and shiftless the modern generation is, as the young ones scoff at the warnings that the good times could abruptly end. That foreshadowing comes to pass when Saito, somehow, gets a girlfriend, who moves in with him and brings with her a holocaust of housecleaning and bug-killing. This forces the roaches to confront the error of their complacency. It will be up to Hans’ militarized comrades to show the way forward for roachkind.

The slow, lethargic pace of this film, scored to soulful, lonely piano solos, makes it a chore to sit through. And yet, just when you’re ready to take the film on the serious terms it so obviously desires, it throws talking poop at you. Scenes like a pie-eating party that turns into a pie-throwing party are slapstick; while when Naomi is trapped in a roach motel with other bugs, themselves dying, working together to lift her out, are creepy. The tone is all over the place, and on top of that the visuals flash from blaring daylight reality to shadowy animation. Moments of drama are punctuated by the realization that you’re being compelled to sympathize with a bunch of cockroaches. At the very least, it’s a unique effort in all kinds of ways, with some imaginative technical shots, but it’s also a shoestring budget with blockbuster ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of a DVD release means you’re stuck watching VHS tapes with very phoned-in English dubbing. The choppy result is a hard film to know how to take, but one thing is certain: a bug’s life ain’t always easy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somebody please get that rolled-up newspaper and smack Japanese writer-director Hiroaki Yoshida in the head with it. COCKROACHES doesn’t even qualify as a camp classic. Besides being thoroughly deranged, it’s also slow, dull, and numbingly mediocre.”–TV Guide

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada,

PLOT: A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

214. DER SAMURAI (2014)

“…there seems to be some sort of secret anarchic urge within me to see the monsters set loose and rampantly reclaim what’s theirs, to witness them bringing back some wonder and excitement into a world so controlled by order and reason that it at times threatens to suffocate all sense of joy and opportunity.”–Till Kleinert

DIRECTED BY: Till Kleinert

FEATURING: Michel Diercks

PLOT: Young policeman Jakob deals with a wolf menacing his rural east German village by placing bags of butcher scraps in the woods, hoping to lure the predator away from inhabited areas. One night he receives a mysterious package which he is instructed to deliver to an abandoned house; inside the home is a man in a dress who unwraps the package to reveal a samurai’s katana. The transvestite then runs into the night, where he embarks on a campaign of murder and mayhem to which Jakob must put an end.

Still from Der Samurai (2014)

BACKGROUND:

  • Der Samurai is Till Kleinert’s directorial debut, and his graduation project for the German Film and Television Academy.
  • The film was denied a government funding grant because it was deemed “incompatible with the taste guidelines of German public television.” Much of the budget was instead raised through a crowdfunding campaign.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When your movie stars a blond-haired samurai in a floor length backless white party dress, you have a good idea what the indelible image is going to be.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Transvestite samurai; flamingo punch; explosive decapitation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Exploring the weirdness in queerness, Der Samurai is a primal confrontation with the Other, embodied in the person of a wolf man come to life as a dress-wearing, sword-wielding maniac who taunts a repressed country policeman into a confrontation with his own desires.


Original trailer for Der Samurai

COMMENTS: Jakob’s long duel with a mysterious cross-dressing Continue reading 214. DER SAMURAI (2014)

CAPSULE: WHITE GOD (2014)

 Fehér isten

DIRECTED BY: Kornél Mundruczó

FEATURING: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér

PLOT: A young girl is separated from her beloved mutt after her father refuses to pay a new tax on mixed breeds; the dog is thrown into the streets of Budapest and becomes the leader of a wild pack that terrorizes the city.

Still from White God (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. It’s only the bookend opening and closing scenes that really approach the lunatic.

COMMENTS: White God begins with a scene of a young girl pedaling her bicycle through the streets of Budapest, which is depopulated as though in a dream; suddenly, a pack of two-hundred fifty dogs appears from around a corner, loping behind her in slow motion. It’s a startling, half-surreal image, but the movie takes some time to get back to anything approaching its power. Post-credits, we flash back to the beginning of the story to get our narrative bearings: Lili, a young musician just embarking on womanhood, and her mutt Hagen are inseparable pals, but trouble arises when the girl has to spend the summer with her dog-hating father in his Budapest apartment. Hagen is a hassle, and to make things worse the city has enacted a blatantly allegorical tax on half-breed dogs. After Hagen makes a nuisance of himself, the father kicks the cur to the curb in a fit of pique.

So far the film has been a drama, but with this development it begins shifting genres. For a while as we follow Hagen’s adventures in the alone in the big city, meeting other strays and evading dogcatchers, it seems like this will be a live action lost pet family flick a la Benji. Things turn far darker and distinctly un-Disney, however, as Hagen finds his instinctual trust in the beneficence of humans is unwarranted. The scenes of animal cruelty that follow, while clearly simulated and intended as social criticism, will make this film all but unwatchable for some animal lovers. Interspersed with Hagen’s journeys are the parallel adventures of Lili, who continues to search for her beloved pet but also starts to take an interest in boys. Things take a stranger turn when Hagen escapes captivity and organizes a pack of feral strays into a force for vengeance against his human oppressors; the movie becomes a canine version of The Birds, with dogs running through the streets, slamming themselves into car windows as women scream, trapped in their vehicles.

To its credit, White God handles these multiple shifts in tone and genre well, and wears its absurd premise lightly. And yet, the movie is not entirely successful, mainly because its human characters aren’t as interesting or impressive as its animals. Although the core story of a girl’s love for her dog is inherently moving, the scenes of Lili alone are not warranted as anything other than a break from the tension of poor Hagen’s abuse at human hands. White God spends too much time with its people; but what you will remember about it is the hundreds of dogs rampaging through the streets of Budapest, a feat of practical animal choreography that has never been attempted on this scale before. It’s no wonder that the DVD’s extra features treat chief animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller with almost as much reverence as director Mundruczó; if there were an Academy Award for best animal stunts, White God would be a shoo-in.

The title “White God” is somewhat mysterious. It evokes ‘s 1982 flop White Dog, a moral allegory about the deprogramming of an albino German Shepherd trained by white supremacists to attack blacks. Just as the letters in the two title nouns are transposed, the plot arc here is the mirror image of Fuller’s film: God‘s canine progresses from domesticated to vicious. The title also refers to the way dogs look at humans as godlike beings, and, furthermore, to the old European ideal of “whiteness” as representing genetic purity and perfection. I have no idea whether these meanings come across in the Hungarian title “Fehér isten,” or whether that title includes its own untranslated puns or wordplay, although this information is as unnecessary to appreciating the film as is understanding the specific Hungarian political references Mundruczó may be making here.

White God won the “Un Certain Regard” prize (given to “original and different” movies) at Cannes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

White God is a strange beast. Director Kornel Mundruczo has created a beautiful and bizarre film that veers between gritty realism and haunting fantasy…”–Lucy Barrick, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad,” who called it “not the strangest film ever, but definitely something to take a look at.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

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)

208. THE APPLE (1980)

“I’ve never been so high in my life!”–Bibi in The Apple

DIRECTED BY: Menahem Golan

FEATURING: George Gilmour, Catherine Mary Stewart, Vladek Sheybal

PLOT: Alfie and Bibi are a naive duo of musicians from Moose Jaw, Canada. Mr. Boogalow, a Faustian music producer who controls the entire world’s music industry with his BIM corporation, tries to sign them to a contract; Alfie refuses, but Bibi is seduced by the lure of fame. Bibi becomes the world’s biggest pop star as Boogalow extends his influence to government, forcing all citizens to wear a “Bimmark” or be fined; Alfie tries to win her back.

Still from The Apple (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • Together with his cousin, Yolam Globus, The Apple screenwriter/director Menahem Golan ran the Cannon Group, which produced hundreds of B-movies in the 1980s. Golan personally directed 46 films and produced or co-produced over 200. Some of the films Cannon later produced or distributed included ‘s King Lear, The Company of Wolves, and Lifeforce, along with exploitation movies featuring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and a handful of lucrative ninja movies. Their story is told in the 2014 documentary The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. The Apple was made near the beginning of their moviemaking careers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Alfie’s vision of glam-rock Hell, featuring Napoleon, a dancing chorus of the damned, and a giant plastic apple, with a Roger Daltrey clone in a gold lamé G-string serving as master of ceremonies. It’s all capped off by the moment when an actual, actual, actual vampire (with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and a sheer periwinkle scarf) pops into the frame, displaying her fangs and jazz claws, cocking her head, and generally acting like a vampiric village idiot.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: An actual, actual, actual vampire; pop dictatorship; deus ex Cadillac.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This science-fictiony musical satire/religious allegory is an attempt to cash in on the camp credibility of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with the disco sensibility and glittery production values of Xanadu (also made in 1980). The results are spectacularly uneven: the bizarre costuming, choreography, and psychedelic production numbers are actually pretty good in their deliberate excess, the songs range from annoying to hummable, and the rushed, out-of-left-field messianic ending is an unforgettable cinematic disaster.


Original trailer for The Apple

COMMENTS: The Apple pulls you in many different directions: Continue reading 208. THE APPLE (1980)