Tag Archives: Artsploitation

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Clips from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY: Agustí Villaronga

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

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

CAPSULE: THE DOOM GENERATION (1995)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Johnathon Schaech

PLOT: Three teenagers have sex and go on a murder spree.

Still from The Doom Generation (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With lots of low-comedy shocks but very little outright weirdness, The Doom Generation is a shallow, unilluminating wallow in hyperironic misery. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it makes Akari’s followup, Nowhere, seem mature and clever by comparison.

COMMENTS: The main characters are a slut, an idiot, and a psycho. It’s never a good sign when the audience hates all three of the principals and hopes that they will die. Instead, the trio kill a bunch of people who are probably as loathsome as they are—but we never get the chance to find out for sure, because we’re stuck following these losers on their tour of American convenience stores and motel rooms. The only possible reason to like these characters would be the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between Amy and Jordan, but Araki sabotages that possibility by making the male a spineless cuckold, and granting the female’s selfish fantasy of banging the bad boy while keeping her sweet doting lover on the side. Meanwhile, there’s nothing at all redeemable about third-wheel Xavier, who exists only to seduce these two lost souls into a life of slaughter that, we assume, is meant to play as their logical reaction to the superficial consumerist society they find themselves trapped in.

The Doom Generation is a painfully tone-deaf satire that tries for the trashy camp of , but actually has the comic sensibilities of Dude, Where’s My Car? To wit: the decapitated Asian Quickiemart clerk’s name is—get this—“Nguyen Kok Suk.” Heh heh, brilliant: pass that bong, brah. I suppose the meta-joke is supposed to be that Araki is crafting a movie that’s so dumb that his characters—kids given to uttering self-pitying lines like “there’s just no place for us in this world”—would think was deep. A newswoman characterizes the skull earring found at a crime scene as “the type sold most frequently in ‘rock and roll’ paraphernalia shops, often worn by homosexuals, Satanists, and members of other dangerous cult groups.” This, of course, is the way clueless teenagers imagine clueless adults talk about them. Araki lays the irony on so thick that we can’t tell whether he’s secretly fond of these kids (whose only good act is to bury a dog they accidentally kill), or is just using them for the sex and murder money shots he needs to keep the audience feeling smug, titillated and jaded.

The characters surnames are Red, White and Blue, and every time they purchase something at a convenience store or drive-thru, the cash register rings up “$6.66.” Is Araki implying that America is hell? I can’t tell. The only good points about the movie are the art direction, Rose McGowan’s performance (a confident debut in her first starring role), and a somewhat amusing running joke where Amy keeps running into old lovers she denies knowing. The only weird points are the severed head that keeps talking after it flies off its body and the green screen news broadcast where vapid talking heads deliver campy copy over grisly crime scene footage. Otherwise, this is a tedious tale of three unpleasant people wandering around and killing things until their movie ends. It should have been titled The Dim Generation.

Lest one I assume I have some personal vendetta against Gregg Araki, note that I gave The Mysterious Skin a “Must See” rating. It’s hard to imagine that that intelligent and emotionally shattering drama, which tackles the subject of youthful disaffection with authenticity and compassion rather than sick jokes, was the work of the same director as the self-consciously hip Doom Generation. The difference in quality results from Araki, a great stylist but not a great thinker, adapting someone else’s material rather than writing his own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… structured as an apocalyptic journey into the unknown — America’s wastelands — but this time the road comedy is hallucinatory and psychedelic, in a style reminiscent of ‘Natural Born Killers,’ though blessedly lacking Oliver Stone’s blatant message and obvious satire… The trio flee into a bizarre world of nightmarish violence and omnipresent danger that gets darker and darker as their odyssey progresses.”–Emanuel Levy, Variety (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: CALIGULA (1979)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione

FEATURING: , , , Teresa Ann Savoy,

PLOT: Caligula becomes the Emperor of Rome and lots of depravity happens; any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely accidental.

Still from Caligula (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: On paper, Caligula sounds like a sure bet. There are many bad movies that get honored here, and we even have a tag called “.” Caligula could theoretically qualify for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made by that standard. Except that “bad” doesn’t describe Caligula so much as stupid. Nothing more need be said about this movie but “stupid.” Rocks are too smart to watch Caligula.

COMMENTS: There is at least a hefty essay and maybe a book to be written about the story of how Caligula got made, although perhaps it would be more correct to say it got “executed.” The drama involved in the production is a thousand times more entertaining than anything that ended up on film. Pretty much everybody involved locked horns and stormed off the set to sue each other. Various creative forces within the production struggled to make it a historic Shakespearian opera, a cheap exploitation flick, a softcore porn epic, and a hardcore snuff porn transgression; the result was best summed up when one reviewer called it “a boondoggle of landmark proportions.”

Some cultural context is helpful: the 1970s were an era when movies like Deep Throat had brought big-screen porn into a relatively acceptable light, and filmmakers were getting more daring in testing the boundaries of taste. Caligula pisses on the very idea of taste, and if you dare to abuse your intellect by watching it, you will encounter several scenes where it literally does just that. Welcome to the Horny Roman Empire, with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) romping with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), which seems to be harmless enough erotica until you learn they’re brother and sister. His uncle Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), summons him to discuss politics and witness his depraved orgies. Caligula assassinates Tiberius and assumes the throne, breaking all hell loose as he sinks into depravity. Caligula promotes Drusilla as his equal, convicts Marco (Guido Mannari) of treason in a kangaroo court and offs him, and marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren) because he can’t legally marry his sister. Drusilla dies, Caesonia gets pregnant, Caligula wars with the Roman senate and declares himself a god, Caligula shows off his horse, the new senator Chaerea plots to assassinate Caligula and succeeds, and the movie ends, merciful heavens be praised.

In the midst, background, foreground, and everyground of these shenanigans, naked people cavort in every depiction of hedonistic excess possible. It kind of plays out like a film with a bigger budget but fewer ideas and not a trace of a sense of humor. In fact, Malcolm McDowell’s presence in this film invites you to compare it to a signature scene of A Clockwork Orange; it’s exactly the kind of “ultraviolence” film the character Alex would be forced to watch during his brainwashing sessions. There’s rape, torture, bestiality, necrophilia, mutant people with four legs and butts on their bellies, silly over-the-top executions and mutilations, urination, defecation, and basically every perversion you could search for on the Internet. Most of this just flies by with no context or reason to exist. Sometimes the camera just gets bored and focuses on somebody’s crotch, while irrelevant actors screech their dialog in hopes of getting it’s attention. Nobody in this movie even gave a thin damn about historical accuracy. The sets are festooned with anachronisms such as a styrofoam hat shaped like a penis, worn by an extra just casually passing through the set while apparently waiting for a taxi.

When it comes to erotic arthouse films, Caligula fails by every definition. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover does a superior job of being a weird epic with erotic scenes, for just one example. There’s a dozen or so artsploitation films already in line on this site ahead of Caligula, and there’s only so many we need. In terms of history, just take into account that even the writings we have of the real life of Caligula (mostly Suetonius, writing 80 years after the emperor’s death) are suspected of fudging the facts in the interest of political propaganda. In terms of pure kinky titillation, go watch The Story of O or Secretary or Belle De Jour instead. Don’t look for steamy thrills in Caligula, because nobody, not even serial killers apprehended with a freezer full of body parts, is this depraved.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… as with a lot of bad would-be art, this cinematic oddity holds a truly bizarre fascination…”–Michale Dequina, The Movie Report (1999 revival)

264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

AKA Hot Number

“I said, anybody who makes dirty phone calls as a life’s project is a pretty weird person. So where am I going to get the kind of material that he would be speaking? He wouldn’t be speaking anything we know. He would be talking the kind of stuff that you see on men’s room walls. “–The Telephone Book lead animator Len Glasser on his inspiration for the final sequence

DIRECTED BY: Nelson Lyon

FEATURING: Sarah Kennedy, Norman Rose

PLOT: Oversexed Alice receives an obscene phone call and falls in love with the mellifluous caller, who reveals his name to be “John Smith” of Manhattan. She searches the telephone book to find him, encountering stag film producers, perverts and lesbian seductresses in her quest. When she finally tracks him down, they share the ultimate obscene phone call, whose orgasmic power is depicted symbolically as a crude, sexually explicit surrealist cartoon.

Still from The Telephone Book (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • “superstars” Ultra Violet and Ondine appear in small roles in the film. An “intermission” scene showing Warhol himself quietly eating popcorn was cut, and the footage lost. (Still photos of the scene do exist).
  • Writer/director Nelson Lyon went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in its earliest years, but his career ended after he was involved in an infamous speedball binge that ended with John Belushi’s fatal overdose.
  • The film was a complete flop on release and quickly disappeared from circulation, preserved in rare bootlegs and only resurfacing as a curiosity in the new millennium.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In the animated sequence visually expressing the ineffable ecstasy aroused by John Smith’s erotic patter, the bottom half of a gargantuan woman—with rivets in her thighs, suggesting she’s an automaton—squats on a skyscraper and pleasures herself, while a man whose entire head is a tongue watches her with drooling interest. Sights like that have a tendency to stick in the mind.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Superstar” pontificating over a nude; rotating pig-masked man; tongue-headed cartoon libertine

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The last twenty minutes. Up until then, The Telephone Book is a mildly absurd pre-hardcore sexploitation comedy with art-scene pretensions; a long confessional monologue from a pig-masked pervert followed by a surreally obscene, obscenely surreal animated climax launch it into a different stratosphere of weirdness.


Original trailer for The Telephone Book

COMMENTS: The Telephone Book is a sex comedy dirty enough for Continue reading 264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the Continue reading 252. POSSESSION (1981)

248. DJANGO KILL! (IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!) (1967)

Se sei Vivo Spara; AKA Oro Hondo

“That [If You Live, Shoot!] should be part of the small group of films that become a part of film history, embedded in the viewer’s imagination, obviously pleases me greatly… But I have to quickly add that it is a cult phenomenon for a few young likable nutcases. Every generation has a few of those.”–Giulio Questi

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tomas Milian, Roberto Camardiel, Francisco Sanz, Piero Lulli, Ray Lovelock

PLOT: Two wandering Indians find a half-dead Stranger climbing out of a makeshift desert grave. They also find a bag of gold on his body, which they melt down and fashion into bullets for him. They then take him to the nearest town, which the Indians call “the Unhappy Place,” where the Stranger goes after the man who betrayed him, stole his share of the gold, and left him for dead.

Django Kill (If You Live, Shoot!) (1967) still

BACKGROUND:

  • Franco Arcalli served as editor and collaborated on the screenplay. Arcalli later became a big name in the Italian film industry, going on to collaborate with (on Zabriske Point), Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris) while also collaborating on screenplays for Last Tango and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, among others. As his fame grew, he continued to work on Questi’s movies, as well.
  • Questi drew on his experiences as a paramilitary resistance fighter during WWII for the action sequences.
  • Italian audiences complained to censors about gruesome scenes where a man’s torso is torn apart to get at the golden bullets inside and another where a man is scalped. These scenes were immediately re-edited—in different countries, between twenty and thirty minutes of violence were cut out. Since they weren’t included in prints sent to the U.S., these scenes were never dubbed into English; therefore, when watching the restored version on Blu-ray, these scenes suddenly appear subtitled when the rest of movie is dubbed.
  • Originally titled If You Live, Shoot!, distributors later added Django Kill to the title (against Questi’s wishes) in a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of Franco Nero’s Django series. Thomas Millian does not play Django, and If You Live, Shoot! has nothing to do with the series.
  • Repo Man director is one of this film’s champions; he provided a 1997 introduction for a BBC series called “Forbidden Films,” where he he called it “the creepiest film I’d ever seen.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Based on sheer grisly shock value, it’s the scene where the villagers rip into Oaks’s still-breathing body trying to dig out the golden bullets inside it. Due to skillful editing, you don’t actually see as much blood and torn flesh as you imagine you do, but that’s part of what makes the scene so masterful—you and the filmmakers collaborate on building it in your mind’s eye.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Golden bullets; gay cowpokes of the Old West; alcoholic oracle parrot

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With its ambiguously dead antihero who shoots golden bullets fights Mr. Sorrow and his gang of gay fascist cowboys, Django Kill‘s subversive, surreal subtext befuddled 1967 viewers expecting warmed-up Spaghetti Western leftovers. It still has the power to perturb the unsuspecting today. Go into it looking for weirdness, and you’ll be amply rewarded.


British DVD release trailer for Django Kill

COMMENTS: Halfway down the dusty road that leads from A Fistful Continue reading 248. DJANGO KILL! (IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!) (1967)

CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti

PLOT: Four Italian fascists kidnap dozens of young boys and girls and imprison them in an isolated villa to sexually torture them in bizarre rituals of sadism.

Still from Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Salo: disturbing, intense, perverse, depressing, extreme. “Weird” is pretty far down the list. (I did not find any critics who used the word “weird” in discussing Salo). So many of our readers have nominated it for review that I am forced to confess that it may be found lurking somewhere in the outermost penumbra of the weird—but if you want to see a truly weird treatment of the same source material, look at how ended L’Age d’Or with a Surrealist reference to the same novel adapted in Salo.[1] Casting Jesus Christ as Duc de Blangis is less obscene but far more provocative than anything Pasolini could depict in his literal rendition of the book.

COMMENTS: “Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites… and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes… We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.”

Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom may seem stranger to someone who comes to the movie with no foreknowledge of the source material, the Marquis De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom,” than it does to someone who knows the backstory. De Sade, of course, is the 18th century writer whose name inspired the now commonplace words “sadism” and “sadist.” He was an aristocrat devoted to literature, philosophy, and pornography (not in that order), and he produced some genuinely accomplished works. His most powerful books, such as “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and “Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue,” mix shocking depictions of sexual cruelty with virile intellectual monologues wherein the characters philosophically justify their depravity and smash moralist objections.

“The 120 Days of Sodom” was not one of those books. It was De Sade’s first major work, written while was imprisoned in the Bastille (for a string of crimes including the beating of a prostitute and consensual homosexual sodomy). “Sodom” is an obsessive catalog of perversions, with almost none of the philosophical speeches that would add meaning and value to De Sade’s later work,[2] arranged according to a mathematical progression: 30 days of orgies in each set of four escalating perversions, moving from “simple” passions (such as urine drinking) to “murderous” ones. The novel was probably intended for De Sade’s own sexual gratification. The result is the Continue reading CAPSULE: SALO, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

  1. Henri Xhonneux and also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis. []
  2. “The 120 Days of Sodom”  was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee,

PLOT: A 16-year old girl travels to Los Angeles to become a model; her rare beauty makes her an immediate hit, but not everyone in town wishes her success.

Still from The Neon Demon (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Since I’m incredibly jaded when it comes to cinematic strangeness, when I get the rare opportunity to watch a weird movie in a theater, I like to pay attention to the reactions of the other theatergoers to try to assess the film’s baseline level of audience alienation. At the well-attended late night screening where I saw The Neon Demon, at two separate points the young man sitting directly behind me let out a distressed “WTF are we watching?” My own viewing companion (a film fanatic with mainstream tastes) complained Demon was both “too arty” and “too trippy.” On the other hand, there were no confirmed walkouts—although one woman did step out briefly when a certain grossout scene commenced, only to return when it was over. The lack of mass departures was discouraging, but the audience’s stunned reactions were generally strong enough to convince me that Refn’s onto something genuinely weird here.

COMMENTS: Stylishly unreal and bluntly provocative, lit by neon and covered in glitter, The Neon Demon may be the most beautiful and least meaningful art film of 2016. It begins with radiant waif Jesse (Fanning) posing for necrophilia-themed glam shots, and progresses through an expressionist Illuminati pyramid catwalk triumph and gratuitous grossout scenes (which I won’t spoil, except to say that multiple taboos are tweaked, sometimes in the same scene) to a bloody climax. The film is washed in Natasha Braier’s unreal lighting schemes, a la Suspiria—or even more on point, a la a bigger-budgeted Beyond the Black Rainbow—and the characters are clothed in Erin Brenach’s bizarrely conceived metallic/pastel costumes, with the entirety choreographed to a chilly, abstract electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Sensually, Demon is a pulsating, glittering delight, although anyone looking for intellectual sustenance will find little nourishment here (the film’s unsubtle message is “L.A. feeds on the beautiful,” hardly a novel insight). The whole experience is like attending a rave held at Hollywood’s most fashionably nihilist discotheque.

The roles are underwritten—or, more charitably, archetypal. Fanning does well enough as the wunderkind of pulchritude, a luckless gal who knows she has one asset in life and is determined to use it. Jena Malone is more impressive as a make-up artist who takes it upon herself to play big sis to the industry comer, while Heathcote and Lee portray a pair of catty anorexic working models, on the wrong side of 21 and eaten up with envy at Jesse’s success. The marginal male characters are just as obvious—a couple of domineering, vaguely threatening fashion impresarios, and aspiring boyfriend and photographer Dean, who, upon learning Jesse is only 16, hesitates ever so slightly before leaning in for a good night kiss. Of the masculine predators, the standout is easily Keanu, playing against type as a low-rent sleazeball operating a motel catering to runaways. Given the character’s utter depravity, the role was brave and unexpected for a waning matinee idol. After 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and now this dark cameo, I will declare that Reeves’s penance for his masterpiece-wrecking Jonathan Harker is officially complete.

Fashion isn’t art, it’s design, so can—or should—a movie about the fashion scene be artful? Individual shots from The Neon Demon are pure genius—yet, there’s not much that ties the film together conceptually, other than its obvious cautions about the high-stakes world of professional superficiality. A fashion maven rightfully scoffs at the notion that Dean (who claims, without much visible evidence, that Jesse has unseen depths) would be interested in the model if she wasn’t singularly gorgeous. Just like it’s subjects, The Neon Demon is shallow and beautiful. And though beauty isn’t everything, it actually counts for a lot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN THE BASEMENT (2014)

Im Keller

DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl

FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians

PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.

Still from In the Basement (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.

COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.

Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.

While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When did this kind of thing, they did not drape it in obscuring Art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)