Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: ON BODY AND SOUL (2017)

Teströl és lélekröl 

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ildikó Enyedi

FEATURING: Alexandra Borbély, Géza Morcsányi

PLOT: A slaughterhouse manager and the new quality assurance inspector, a functional autistic savant woman, pursue a relationship after realizing they share the same dream (literally).

Still from On Body and Sould (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “shared dream” conceit, the film’s only truly weird feature, serves little more than as a plot device to bring the unlikely lovers together.

COMMENTS: On Body and Soul begins with intimate footage of two deer tromping through a snowy woods by a lake. The buck tries to nuzzle the doe, but gets little response, as she meanders away searching for a tuft of grass. This opening segues into scenes of unsuspecting cattle at an abattoir being led to the killing floor. We then meet the new temporary meat quality inspector, Maria, a stand-offish but pretty blonde. She soon causes trouble by grading every side of beef a “B,” because they are two to three millimeters fattier than regulations—technically correct, by the book, but also not what financial manager Endre wants to hear. Maria also has great difficulty choosing a place to sit in the cafeteria for lunch, searching out the loneliest corner, and when Endre tries to talk to her, their conversation is awkward and strange. At home at night, Maria arranges salt and pepper shakers on her kitchen counter and recreates the day’s conversations, puzzling out their social significance. She’s definitely not neurotypical.

The true plot is set it motion when, through an absurd contrivance (the theft of bull aphrodisiacs from the slaughterhouse), an outside psychiatrist is brought in, analyzes the workers’ dreams as part of her profiling, and discovers, to her disbelief, that Endre and Maria share the exact same dream night after night, of two deer in a snowy glade. Other than the romantic notion of two souls linked by fate and the thematic connection to the apparently thin line between bodied beasts and soulful people, the happenings in the dream glade don’t intrude on the rest of the story, and are soon laid aside. Instead, Maria, conflicted by feelings for Endre she doesn’t understand, sets out on an often-humorous journey to expand her experience of life beyond the narrow focus of her own mind. She observes lovers spooning at the park as if she were studying mating rituals at a zoo. She tries to understand the appeal of music (eventually finding a single song she likes) before connecting with her own body by discovering the pleasure of lying in the grass while a sprinkler waters her. Simple Endrem, who has a womanizing past, can’t figure this strange woman out, and tries several times to end the burgeoning relationship, despite their uncanny dream connection.

The attraction here is Alexandra Borbély‘s fascinating portrayal of Maria. She makes expressionlessness an art form while portraying a character type who is seldom, if ever, seen on screen—and if so, never in the role of a romantic lead. The philosophical implications never get too deep, and the film may overlong for its slim storyline, but those looking for an offbeat (if not weird) arthouse romance should find this a tasty cup of meat.

The producers of On Body and Soul signed an exclusive contract to stream the film on Netflix, so it won’t be available on home video or other platforms for the foreseeable future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…its unwatchably brutal opening sequences are there to stun you, or in the butcher’s sense tenderise you, so that you hardly notice the implausible weirdness of human behaviour in the workplace scenes that follow… Endre and Maria’s affair is at its most romantic when it is at its most eccentric and weird.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

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)

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild Continue reading 320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

CAPSULE: BLUE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Voices of Derek Jarman, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Filmmaker Jarman documents his physical decline from AIDS, with his failing vision represented by a continuous, unchanging blue screen.

Still from Blue (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A movie where the screen is a single solid color for the full running time is, without dispute, unusual. But beyond that unconventional visual strategy, Blue is a straightforward, often bracingly direct audio memoir, contemplating death with sober and unvarnished clarity.

COMMENTS: When cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the man behind the striking visuals in the films of directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Yimou Zhang, was invited by the Telegraph to pick a single film to discuss for a series on influences, his choice was immediate and without hesitation. Blue, he said, was “one of the most intimate films I’ve ever seen.

It’s surely an odd choice for an acclaimed cinematographer, given that the biggest part of the film’s reputation is dedicated to its unorthodox visual: a screen filled—edge-to-edge, start-to-finish—with a single color, International Klein Blue, never changing, never varying. It’s fair to ask if a movie where nothing moves, where nothing appears, is even a movie at all.

In the truest sense, Blue is a radio essay, a production-heavy tone poem that wouldn’t be totally out of place on “This American Life.” (Indeed, after the film’s release, Britain’s Radio Three broadcast the audio on its own). One of the much-trumpeted merits of radio is that the listener can create pictures in the imagination that go beyond the limits of visual media. With Blue’s lush audio production (for which particular credit must be given to sound designer Marvin Black and composer Simon Fisher-Turner) and Jarman’s rich, sonorous British baritone as anchor, surely pictures aren’t even necessary.

But even in physical decline, Jarman remains a filmmaker, an artist with a discerning eye. And if the only thing he can see is the color blue, then that’s what his film will look like. The auteur theory posits that the director is a figure of singular vision, and this film carries that notion to its extreme: when you look at blue for the duration of the film, you are witnessing the director’s literal vision transferred to the screen.

Jarman himself is a sterling performer. When he extols the artistic virtues of the color blue, he reads as both erudite and heartfelt, while his lament for his fading vision is composed as it measures the weight of the loss. He lends warmth to the narration, even as his thoughts on death are calm and resigned. This can be hilarious in counterpoint, as when an introspective passage is immediately followed by a lewd gay parade chant. It can also be wrenching, such as his cool recitation of the myriad ways in which friends have met their own ends at the hands of the AIDS virus.

But while Jarman’s pain and frustration are clearly in evidence, what really dominates the telling of the tale is his growing recognition of the absurdity of it all. His descriptions of endless medical indignities—lesions and pills, long waits and painful IV drips, lengthy stays in waiting rooms—are delivered without anger, without passion. Stories of war and catastrophe have lost their power to sting. Even a quick impulse to go shoe shopping quickly fades. “The shoes I’m wearing at the moment will be sufficient to walk me out of life,” he observes. Jarman’s journey is one of growing disconnection from the world. Just as his vision has been reduced to a single color, his engagement with life is being pared down to the bare essentials. Put another way, the narrator we meet in Blue is in full DGAF mode, and finds beauty even in that.

A frequent parry to the claim of weirdness is that the thing deemed “weird” is actually “artistic.” There’s no reason that an artwork can’t be both, of course; one of the expectations of artists is that they see the world differently and their output reflects their unique point of view. But the distinction seems critical in assessing Blue. A mainstream moviegoer might look at the blue screen and see something too strange to comprehend, but Jarman is an artist, assembling every tool at his disposal (or, in the case of his eyesight, a tool lost) to make a statement. The art world seems convinced; the Tate Modern, MoMA, and the Getty are among the museums that have placed Blue on exhibit. Static screen be damned; Jarman has made a movie, and it is a powerful cinematic valedictory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Still fiercely experimental and controversial, with no visual images other than an unchanging blue screen, Blue is perhaps not the most accessible film from Derek Jarman and it will certainly appeal more to fans of the director who will better appreciate the insight it provides into the director’s mindset during the final years of his life. On the other hand, dealing with notions of mortality and creativity when faced with illness and death, the film also has a much wider interest and poetic resonance in its words, sounds, music and in the impact on the retina of watching a pure blue screen for 75 minutes.” – Noel Megahey, The Digital Fix

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

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

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

CAPSULE: “MARTIN SCORSESE’S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, VOL. 2”

DIRECTED BY: Lufi O. Akad (Law of the Border), Lino Brocka (Insiang), Mario Peixoto (Limite), Ermek Shinarbaev (Revenge), (Mysterious Object at Noon), Edward Yang (Taipei Story)

FEATURING: Tsai Chin (Taipei Story), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taipei Story), Yilmaz Guney (Law of the Border), Hilda Koronel (Insiang)

PLOT: This box set contains six newly restored art films from across the globe, most of which have never been released separately.

Stil from Limite (1931)
Still from Limite (1931)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “World Cinema Project” is an initiative to preserve films from around the world (especially the third world) which have cultural value as relics of their particular times and places, but which alone lack the commercial appeal necessary for market forces to do the job. While there are some curious obscurities in this second set, none of them are strong enough to demand a separate review, much less contend for a spot among the weirdest films of all time.

COMMENTS: Of the six random entries in the latest installment of the -led film preservation, surprisingly, half of them include elements that might spark the interest of fans of weird cinema. We can deal with the three others quickly enough. 1966’s Law of the Border is a “Turkish Western” about smugglers on the Syrian/Turkish border who try, and fail, to go straight as sharecroppers. A work of social realism, but with action-oriented gunfights, it’s somewhat confusing as narrative and rudimentary as cinema. The Filipino melodrama Insiang (1976), about a pretty but much-abused slum dweller who devises a complicated revenge plot against her embittered mother and a much older seducer, fares better, engaging the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Edward Yang’s Tapei Story (1985) is standard arthouse fare: a stately but not exactly gripping social drama about urban ugliness and alienation, generational clashes and changes, and so on. It may well win over intellectual-minded drama-hounds with its realism and cynicism, but it gave me a distinct “been there, done that—only now in Taiwan” feeling.

The three less conventional entries deserve slightly more attention, although none of them have quite enough weird weight to merit a full review (though if any spark your interest, by all means chase them down). Limite is a legendary Brazilian silent film, long thought lost and even now missing crucial elements, which turns out to be underwhelming. It’s the only film of Mario Peixoto, who was only twenty-one at the time. It’s “poetic” and “meditative,” which is to say, slower and more obscure than it needs to be. Peixoto shows a good deal of talent, with a gripping contextless opening image of a handcuffed woman which could have come from a lost Buñuel/Dalí collaboration and a humorously inventive tracking shot where the camera outpaces its wandering subject, then doubles back to catch up with her as she leans against a post, resting. Mostly, however, it’s composed of a lot of scenes of a scraggly threesome languishing in a lifeboat, with largely dialogue-free flashbacks explaining how they got there. Overlong and unclear, with many superfluous, indulgent camera experiments, it seems more like a first draft of a good movie rather than a completed masterpiece.

In a way ‘s Mysterious Object at Noon is the outlier in the set, since “Joe”‘s fan base is large enough that his 2000 feature debut has long been available on video (although this release marks its first appearance on Region A Blu-ray). It is doubtlessly a strange film, nonetheless, even by Joe’s standards. A narrative/documentary hybrid, the concept is that the director goes on a road trip through rural Thailand, inviting the people he meets to add a new chapter to a story. He films some of these sequences as mini-movies, stages another as a play, and spends a lot of time simply interviewing the participants. Unfortunately, the tale they come up with, about a crippled boy, his live-in teacher, and an alien, is disjointed and absurd in an uninvolving way; Mysterious Object is only interesting on the slightest formal and intellectual level. The experiment is ultimately a failure, though a noteworthy one.

1989’s Revenge, a Kazakhstani effort made during the glasnost period, is the set’s biggest surprise. The movie was made under the old Soviet apparatus but orphaned, with no funds for distribution or promotion, when that empire dissolved only two years later. It’s a sprawling near-epic of a man literally conceived as a tool of revenge for the murder of the sister he never knew, bookended by Buddhist parables. Born to be a poet but fated to be an avenger, mystical occurrences dog the boy’s journey from Korea through China to Russia in pursuit of his sister’s killer. It’s a strange and spiritual plea for poetry above worldliness, lit by outstanding cinematography and draped in vivid period costuming. Had more of the movies in the set been unexpected revelations like this one, this edition of the “World Cinema Project” might have earned a general recommendation.

While each of these films is significant in some way, they aren’t, as a lot, overlooked masterpieces. There’s a reason that none of them were considered commercial enough for a standalone release. (The exceptions, perhaps, are Mysterious Object, which was previously released on DVD, and Limite, which could have been marketed to hardcore cinema historians as a lost cult film). As a purchase, the set is hard to recommend except to the most dedicated film scholars with an overabundance of disposable income. The movies have so little uniting them that even if you were intrigued by three of these titles, that would still leave you paying for another three you had little to no interest in. Highbrow cinephiles may feel obliged to salivate at this buffet, but sadly, the spread elevates diversity above quality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once indispensible and flawed, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2 is best viewed as another fine product from the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, even if the grouping of films remains, as with the first set, little more than incidental.”–Clayton Dillard, Slant

ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I., Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and  teamed up for Fantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Continue reading ARIA (1987)

292. VIVA LA MUERTE [LONG LIVE DEATH] (1971)

“I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, ‘¡Viva la Muerte!’, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent.”–Miguel de Unamuno

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madhi Chaouch, Núria Espert, Ivan Henriques

PLOT: Fando is a boy growing up in Spain in the early days of the Franco regime, raised by his mother, about whom he has sexual fantasies. One day he discovers that his mother turned his father in to the authorities because of his “dangerous progressive” political views. In between fantasies, Fando decides to go searching for his father, but his quest is interrupted when he contracts tuberculosis.

Still from Viva la Muerte (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like the father in Viva la Muerte, Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War (one report claims it was for an assassination attempt). After five years he escaped from custody and was never seen again.
  • The title refers to a quote from the Fascist General Millan Astray: “Down with intelligence! Long live death!,” a line barked during a political debate with philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.
  • The movie is an adaptation of Arrabal’s 1959 novel “Baal Babylone” (which does not appear to have been translated out of the original French).
  • The sadomasochistic torture sketches first seen in the opening credits are by Arrabal’s fellow Panic movement member (for more on the Panic movement, see the background information section of I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fando’s papa, buried in the sand with only his head showing, and a quartet of riders fast approaching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Incestuous S&M mourning; priest’s tasty balls; slaughterhouse frolic

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A howl of protest at the horrors of the Franco regime, as well as an autobiographical attempt to exorcise some serious mommy issues, Viva la Muerte uses surreal vignettes as a savage expression of personal outrage.


Original trailer for Viva le Muerte

COMMENTS: Fernando Arrabal’s Viva la Muerte is the kind of movie Continue reading 292. VIVA LA MUERTE [LONG LIVE DEATH] (1971)