Tag Archives: Anti-authority

CAPSULE: RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH (2010)

DIRECTED BY: John Alan Simon

FEATURING: Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Wigham, Katheryn Winnick, Alanis Morisette, Hanna Hall

PLOT: In an alternate-reality America, a music producer receives psychic dream transmissions from a mysterious entity known as VALIS (“Vast Active Living Intelligence System”), who provides advice for overthrowing the President of the United States, a crypto-Communist dictator.

Still from Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The paranoid plot is pretty damn peculiar, but the presentation isn’t unhinged enough for weird immortality.

COMMENTS: A tale of pink, pro-rock n’ roll aliens beaming hallucinatory political advice to subversives from a satellite orbiting earth, Radio Free Albemuth is totally baffling if you don’t know the backstory behind it. It may be even stranger if you do. If you want to be confused and astounded by a weird little story (and don’t demand the highest production values), you might skip this review and just take a chance on Albemuth. But if you want context, here it is. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a counterculture science fiction author, the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines and LSD in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” He described these experiences in a semi-autobiographical novel set in an alternate history timeline titled—you guessed it—“Radio Free Albemuth.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to suspect that the alien epiphanies he experienced may have been hallucinations. The novel, on the other hand, present VALIS’ revelations as gospel. To confuse matters, “Alebmuth” included a science-fiction writer character named Philip K. Dick, but the ecstatic pseudo-religious experiences were attributed to a different protagonist, a music producer who schemes to promulgate VALIS’ revolutionary message through subliminal messages hidden in rock records. Dick’s publishers rejected the novel, and he reworked it into a more palatable story titled “VALIS” (which became the first book in a trilogy). Dick’s original novel, of which this movie is a faithful adaptation, was posthumously published in 1985.

The insane origins of this story may help the uninitiated reader understand why the movie Radio Free Albemuth feels a bit—off. It is, almost literally, the work of a mad genius. This adaptation, made for about three-and-a-half million dollars, has production values comparable to a TV miniseries. The acting is uniformly competent—Shea Wigham’s stoic Dick probably comes off the best, and (ironically) singer-songwriter Morisette isn’t as bad as you might fear. The CGI hallucinations—wormholes, alien cathedrals, angels made of pink electricity—definitely betray their budget, but are acceptable. There is little stylistic zing to the production; the novice director lets Dick’s ideas speak for themselves, in all their delusional grandeur, and what keeps the movie watchable is waiting for the appearance of the crazy, delivered in the voice of one apparently sane. Albemuth is, at the same time, one of those goofy hypotheses that posit a sci-fi explanation for ancient religious ecstatic experiences (a step more sophisticated than UFO cults) as well as an anti-authority allegory (rock n’ roll as carrier of the torch which will incinerate American conformity). It is a weird, though not wholly satisfying, artifact from a unique mind.

None of this will mean much to the hardcore Dick aficionados (I fully realize that some of our less mature readers will titter at the preceding phrase) who are the movie’s target audience. They likely have their minds already made up, and either unconditionally support a faithful adaptation, or believe it’s sacrilege to even try to realize the author’s vision on this meager budget. Casual Dick fans (more titters) may find this either a fascinating introduction to the reality-bending postmodern wormhole of the author’s late works, or an oddity to gape at askance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…resembles a weird artifact from the early days of science-fiction television… this lifeless adaptation only proves that making entertaining movies out of hard-to-swallow ideas is as challenging as you might think.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

145. MARQUIS (1989)

Recommended

“This is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. I found it to be discomforting and just weird… This movie gives me the chills. However, I would watch it again just because it is so fascinatingly WEIRD.”–IMDB reviewer ethylester (June 2002)

DIRECTED BY: Henri Xhonneux

FEATURING: Voices of François Marthouret and Valérie Kling

PLOT: The dog-faced Marquis de Sade is imprisoned  in the Bastille for blasphemy, where he entertains himself by writing pornographic novels and holding long conversations with his talking penis. Among the other prisoners is Justine, a pregnant cow who claims she was raped and is carrying the King’s child. The prison’s Confessor plots to hide the bastard heir by claiming De Sade is the father; meanwhile, outside the Bastille walls revolutionaries would like to free the political prisoners for their own purposes.

Still from Marquis (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • The historical Marquis de Sade was imprisoned at the Bastille, where he wrote the novel “The 120 Days of Sodom,” from 1784-1789. The Bastille was just one stop in a series of trips to prisons and insane asylums that dogged the aristocrat his entire life.
  • The two main female characters in Marquis, Justine and Juliette, are named after the title characters of two of de Sade’s most famous novels. Perverted scenes from the Marquis’ actual stories are recreated with the movie, using Claymation.
  • Little is known about director/co-writer Henri Xhonneux, who besides this film has only a few even more obscure credits to his name.
  • Artist/writer , of Fantastic Planet fame, was the better known co-scripter of Marquis. Topor also served as art director for the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely it must be one of the many tender moments when the Marquis holds a heart-to-heart talk with his own member (named Colin), although there are so many of these dialogues that we will need to narrow down our search further. We’ll select the moment when Colin, lacerated from having pleasured himself inside a crack in the stone prison wall, stares weakly at the Marquis while wearing a little bloody bandage wrapped around his head like a nightcap, begging the writer to tell him a story so he can recover enough  strength to fornicate with a cow.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Every character in the movie is based on a different animal and wears a animatronic masks that looks like it came out of a pile of designs  rejected for Dark Crystal as “too creepy.” In between Machiavellian political machinations, these beasts have kinky sex with each other. The Marquis de Sade, a handsome canine, holds long conversations with his cute but prodigious member Colin, who has not only a mind but a face and voice of his own. As pornographic costume biopics recast as depraved satirical fables go, Marquis registers fairly high on the weirdometer.

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Short clip from Marquis

COMMENTS: Although you could consider it a porno puppet shock show or a misanthropic fable concerning man’s animal nature, perhaps the best Continue reading

CAPSULE: CATERPILLAR (2010)

AKA Kyatapirâ

DIRECTED BY: Kôji Wakamatsu

FEATURING: Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya

PLOT: Lieutenant Kurokawa loses all four limbs and is rendered deaf, dumb and disfigured

Still from Caterpillar (2010)

during the Japanese invasion of China on the eve of World War II; when the Emperor declares him a “Living War God,” his wife Shigeko is ordered to care for the living torso, including fulfilling all her usual wifely duties.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its perverse premise and its superficial similarities to the Certified Weird Johnny Got His Gun, Caterpillar isn’t that weird; instead, it’s an intense domestic drama about duty.

COMMENTS: Lieutenant Kurokawa is a monster. Scarred by the war, unable to hear or to speak (with great difficulty, he can sometimes painfully squeeze out a single syllable), he’s essentially a torso, an esophagus and a fully-functional phallus. Flashbacks reveal that the caterpillar, now revered as a god, was actually a moral monster long before his physique was carved up to match. The duty to care for the god-monster falls upon long-suffering partner Shigeko, who must feed him, wipe him, and cater to his suddenly insatiable sexual needs.  For the wife, the mangled Lieutenant combines the worst aspects of an infant and a spouse—completely dependent, demanding, and incoherent, but with no compensatory cuteness or tenderness. She lives alone with him in a one-room house of horrors. Yet, perversely, this disaster delivers an unexpected upside for the poor farm wife. She gains social standing in the village as the caretaker for a god. She is sure to wheel him out in his cart daily to shore up the morale of the rapidly depopulating village as all available able-bodied men are shipped to the front to help failing war effort (even as the daily radio broadcasts detail Japan’s magnificent martial victories). On the home front, Shigeko also eventually learns to enjoy the petty power she has to deny the god a little bit of rice or sex, becoming herself a mini-dictator of an empire consisting of one subject on a straw mat. Caterpillar starts slowly but draws you in to the compellingly claustrophobic dynamic between these two unlikely mates yoked together by fate and obligation. Shinobu Terajima’s performance as the wife is brave and sympathetic (she won many awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), but Keigo Kasuya’s turn as the caterpillar is even more crucial to the film’s success. His ability to convey mute fury and desperation with just his eyes, stutters and howls humanizes his role as a symbol of national and domestic fascism. The film never becomes truly exploitative, but there is plenty of caterpillar/human sex, in multiple positions, to titillate the curious. The cinematography is mostly cast in a drab browns that are effective at evoking a backwater rural lifestyle but aren’t particularly pleasing to look at. The budget is obviously tiny: for events outside of the hut and the village, the movie mainly relies on archival footage, along with one war crime recreation with distracting CG flames superimposed over the scene. But the inherent horrific drama and Wakamatsu’s insistent indictment of unthinking duty overcome the cheapness, and Caterillar metamorphoses into an anti-authority parable worth paying attention to.

Like many Japanese directors, Kôji Wakamatsu began his career in the trenches making “pink” films before graduating to more serious features. His filmography contains some titles he’d probably prefer we forgot: movies with names like The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Diary Story of a Japanese Rapist, and Violated Angels. In the 1970s Wakamatsu began slipping more politics into his exploitation films, culminating in  United Red Army (2008), an entirely serious drama about the collapse of the Japanese radical movement in the 1970s, and in this film. Caterpillar was adapted from a 1929 short story by Edogawa Rampo that was originally banned as perverse and unpatriotic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a sexually charged two-hander with blunt allegorical implications… Audience interest will be limited to Wakamatsu devotees and the kind of cult-oriented audiences who automatically perk up at the chance to see simulated amputee sex.”–Vadim Rizov, Boxoffice Magazine (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTZéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…)  With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner.  Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.

COMMENTS:  Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.

By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend.  From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable.  The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”  Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.

Today, of course, the movie is notably tame.  In fact, if you’ve been exposed to any of the Continue reading

79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

“SOCRATES: Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets… men [pass] along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

SOCRATES: Like ourselves…”–Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Christos Stergioglou, Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou

PLOT: A Father and Mother raise their three children—two girls and a boy, aged somewhere between their late teens to twenties—in an isolated country estate with no knowledge of the outside world.  The children spend their days playing odd games, engaging in strange family rituals, or learning new words with incorrect definitions; they are taught that “sea” means an armchair, a “motorway” is a strong wind, and so on.  The one outsider they know of is Christina, who Father brings in weekly to satisfy Son’s sexual urges; inevitably, she discloses facts about the outside world that disrupt the family’s artificial harmony.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)


BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” prize (which recognizes works that are either “innovative or different”) at Cannes in 2009.
  • Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011 (only the fifth Greek film so honored).
  • According to writer/director Lanthimos, the three actors who played the children got into character by inventing games (like the “endurance” game the kids in the film play) to pass the time.
  • Mary Tsoni, who plays the younger daughter, was not an actress prior to this role; she was a singer in a band.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dogtooth is a movie made more from concepts than from imagery.  Most likely, the scene that makes the biggest impression is the one that best encapsulates the family’s strange rituals.  To celebrate their parent’s wedding anniversary, the two girls perform an awkward, shuffling dance, as invented by two children who have no knowledge of choreography, while their brother accompanies them on guitar.  After the younger girl bows out, the rebellious older one begins throwing her body around with bizarre, manic abandon, until her parents object to this display of individuality.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beginning with the conceit that the meanings of ordinary words have


Original trailer for Dogtooth [Kynodontas]

been changed, Dogtooth presents us with an unsettling vision of an “ordinary” family where the basic rules of social behavior have all been unpredictably altered, for reasons that are never fully explained.

COMMENTS: “Dogs are like clay, and our job here is to mold them,” the dog trainer explains to Continue reading