Tag Archives: Autobiographical

LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: , , , , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: The second chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five autobiographical films, “Endless Poetry” concerns his younger self’s fall for poetry, his resistance to his authoritarian father’s pressures to become a doctor, and his liberation from his oppressive family by joining Santiago’s bohemian artist circle.

Still from Endless Poetry (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While representing some of the most accessible and straightforward storytelling that the author has ever conjured, Endless Poetry is still very distinctively a vision from Jodorowsky, a result of his passionate and eccentric sensibility full of personal symbolism and mystical allusions, bizarre occurrences, and self-aware theatricality. The List’s increasingly limited slots, and the fact that Jodorowsky is already well-represented here, is all that keeps this one at the margin.

COMMENTS: With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, legendary cult cinema hero and weirdophile favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky has entered, at 87 years old, an unexpected phase in his career where he embraces filmmaking as a therapeutic, expurgatory reliving of his past. In this second installment of his autobiographical project (intended as a five film series), we witness Jodorowsky’s adolescence in Santiago and his escape from the oppression of his father and the Darwinist worldview that he tries to enforce on his son, which clashes with the boy’s sensitivity and newfound interest in poetry sparkled by the writings of .

Very much in the same vein as its predecessor, this one takes the form of a psycho-autobiography where the artist renders his life as a mystical, oneiric and carnivalesque myth. Obviously, such a project could only be the product of Jodorowsky’s characteristic pretentiousness. If Dance, however, was relatively melancholic in tone, Poetry is more celebratory and narcissistic, portraying Jodorowsky’s awakening in an appropriately glorifying, joyous display. When Alejandro eventually runs away from home to join an artist’s collective, his immersion in poetry and a bohemian lifestyle is shown as an enlightenment and revelation of his true self and fate. His reception in the community of outcasts is the triumphant reception of a new member in a family, one in which he finally feels he belongs. Like his new siblings, Alejandro’s passion for art is absolute, and he insatiably wishes to “live” poetry. From this moment on, the film chronicles his experiences in the city’s artistic circle, discovering like-minded friends such as Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, and even a lover (played by the same actress who portrays his mother, in a Freudian stroke that remains integral to Jodo’s style).

The idealistic dilettantism that overwhelms and possesses Alejandro is never questioned; the daring and revolutionary mindset of his community is synonymous with liveliness, freedom, realization and self-hood, whereas the world of everyone else is depersonalized, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

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)

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the pot-smoking college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost-realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)

260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows Continue reading 260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

Have you had any interest from distributors?

The sales rep is talking to distributors. He’s saying, ‘Be patient.’ The distributors are afraid of the film because the film is weird. If you noticed.

You’d think that weird might be good.

Yes, weird should definitely be good, especially among these distributors who talk about how they’re into fresh, new original stuff. But they’re not. They’re the most cowardly creatures on the planet. I just got this big wave of good press, so that will make them realize it’s safer.”–Nina Paley, early Sita interview with Studio Daily

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Reena Shah, Debargo Sanyal, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Nina Paley, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

PLOT: The relationship between artists Nina and Dave is strained when Dave relocates to India for a job. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets discuss the legend of Sita (the avatar of the god Lakshmi) and Rama (Vishnu’s reincarnation) from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” introducing animated recreations of the story of the love affair between the two demigods. Portions of the story are further illustrated by musical numbers where a flapper version of Sita sings the ballads of 1930s torch singer Annette Hanshaw.

Still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama, the seventh human incarnation of the god Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon-king; he rescues her but then rejects her, unable to cure himself of the suspicion that she was unfaithful during her captivity. The epic Sanskrit poem is composed of 24,000 couplets, was written centuries before the birth of Christ, and is considered one of the key works of Hindu literature.
  • Paley was inspired to create Sita Sings the Blues by noting parallels between the dissolution of her own marriage and the failed relationship of Sita and Rama as told in “The Ramayana.” After her breakup, she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw while staying at a friend’s house, and incorporated the songs into the narrative.
  • Paley animated the movie almost entirely by herself on home computers (much of it in Adobe Flash); the process took three years. Although she was a working cartoonist before making Sita, she had no professional training as an animator.
  • Although universally praised in the west, Paley reported receiving criticisms from India from both the right (that the film was irreverent) and the left (that it represented a neocolonialist appropriation of Indian culture).
  • Paley originally released the movie under a liberal Creative Commons license, but later took the unusual decision to remove all restrictions and make the work a true public domain release. However, Annette Hanshaw’s music is still under copyright to its owners, so the film is not truly free and clear of restrictions (although no litigation has yet resulted from its continued distribution).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Selecting a single image from this visual smorgasbord is an impossible task. It’s likely that the characters from the Hanshaw musical numbers, with their undulating Flash graphics and comic book coloring, will stick in your memory the most: curvy, -ish Sita and her broad swiveling hips; buff, Hanna-Barbera-blue demigod Rama; and the many-headed, multi-limbed gods and demons who float through the story.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hindu big bang; flapper goddess; flying eyeball stalks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Paley is on record as suspecting that her homemade Hindu jazz epic was too “weird” to get a distribution contract. After Roger Ebert championed the film as “astonishingly original“, and it received overwhelming praise at festival screenings, the “weird” talk died down. It shouldn’t have. Sita is weird. It’s a proud, purposeful, defiant re-connection with humanity’s weird mythological roots, with primordial legends of hybrid god-monsters whose bizarre appearances only serve to magnify their very human foibles. Add in psychedelic animation, torch song musical numbers, and a chorus of unassuming non-omniscient shadow puppets, and you’ve got one strange and spicy stew of a home-cooked movie.


Theatrical release trailer for Sita Sings the Blues

COMMENTS: Sita Sings the Blues is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible Continue reading 237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

“What happens, by accident, is that the way you choose to lie, because it’s coming from you, has something of the truth in it. Whatever you’re saying is something that’s intentionally coding the truth. And then somehow that coding gets worn down the more you retell it until finally you might as well just be telling the truth—under oath, and on sodium pentothal. It’s disguised somewhat but it’s as true as, say, Homer is true, the “Odyssey,” and the great literature is true. None of the surface is true, but… So in this case I started with a mostly true surface, and the more mischievous I tried to get about it… I just found myself returning to my way of thinking about the world, or my place in it, which involves laps and subterranean things. So it’s not like I was structuring the story so that things would rhyme or echo with each other, or belong in one piece, it’s just that they came from one place—me—and ended up in one sort of cohesive place—the movie My Winnipeg.”–Guy Maddin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Guy Maddin (narration), , ,

PLOT: “Guy Maddin” narrates a documentary about his hometown, Winnipeg, mixing fact with outrageous tall tales. In the course of the film he hires actors to portray his family and recreate scenes from his childhood. Maddin states his intent is to escape Winnipeg by “filming my way out;” but one of the running themes of the documentary is that no one ever leaves Winnipeg.

Still from My Winnipeg (2007)
BACKGROUND:

  • My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel.
  • The film is the third part of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy,” three partly autobiographical but fictional films all starring a character named Guy Maddin, which also includes Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006),
  • During festival screenings the film was shown with live narration, usually performed by Maddin but sometimes rendered by guest narrators including and .
  • Ann Savage, who specialized in femme fatale bad girl roles in the 1940s, had not acted in 16 years (her last role was a bit part in an episode of “Saved by the Bell”) when Maddin called upon the then 86-year old actress to portray his mother in My Winnipeg. Savage died one year later.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The eleven horse’s heads, distressed mouths filled with frost, flash-frozen in the Red River after they stampeded while fleeing a stable fire. The view is so romantic and astounding that (according to Maddin) young lovers used to picnic among the icy mares’ heads.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The Documentary Channel commissioned a documentary about the city of Winnipeg from renegade director Guy Maddin, and instead of a recitation of local facts, they got an icy plunge into the frozen lake of the director’s psyche. The mockumentary form turns out to be a perfect match for Maddin’s prankster temperament. Like the subterranean rivers the First Nations say flow with mystical power underneath Winnipeg’s surface rivers—“the forks beneath the forks”—he exhumes (or invents) fantastic myths about his hometown to try to get at deeper truths about himself.


Original trailer for My Winnipeg

COMMENTS: Relentlessly subjective, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is Continue reading 193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

181. THE DANCE OF REALITY (2013)

La Danza de Realidad

“I want to make cinema that loses money, cinema that forces me to look for work in other mediums. Filmaking for me is sacred. Films should have a purpose, to open our consciousness.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,, , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: Alejandro Jodorowsky is born to Jewish Ukrainian parents in Tocopilla, Chile; his Communist father Jaime models his appearance on his idol Josef Stalin, and his mother Sara only communicates through operatic singing. Jaime decides he must assassinate Ibanez, the fascist dictator of Chile, and eventually becomes the tyrant’s trusted groomsman. Meanwhile, Sara teaches Alejandro religion and how to cope with being a Jewish outcast in a Latin nation with fascist sympathies, while Jaime is captured, tortured, and has a religious conversion before returning to his wife and family.

Still from the Dance of Reality (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • Though clearly fantastical, many of the elements of The Dance of Reality are autobiographical. The film was shot in Tocopilla, Jodorowsky’s childhood home.
  • This was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature film since 1990’s (relatively mainstream) flop The Rainbow Thief. He was 84 years old when Reality was completed.
  • The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune was indirectly responsible for Dance of Reality being made, because it put Jodorowsky in contact with his former producer Michael Seydoux, who put up a million dollars to get the project started.
  • Brontis Jodorowsky is Alejandro’s son; he plays the director’s father in Dance of Reality. (In 1970’s El Topo, Brontis played the son of the mystical gunfighter played by Alejandro). Another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Adan, scored the music, and his wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, did the costumes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Choosing a most memorable image from an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie is like choosing the most important note in a Beethoven symphony. We went with the image (from the film’s finale) that was also selected for the movie’s poster: young Alejandro, dressed in his bright red fireman’s uniform, strides across a dock lined with life-sized black and white cardboard cutouts of Tocapilla’s oddball inhabitants: a fat prostitute, an armless beggar, the tattooed Theosophist. Always one to acknowledge his own artifice, Jodorowsky makes sure that the stagehands are partially visible behind their character shields.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If given his own way, Alejandro Jodorowsky will never make a normal or predictable movie. He certainly does not in this psychosurreal autobiography that features an ocean’s worth of sardines raining on Tocapilla’s shore, a fireman’s emblem that comes to life to suffocate its wearer, and a woman who cures her husband of the plague through her holy urine.


Original trailer for The Dance of Reality

COMMENTS: Mystical moviemaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has always held that cinema is sacred, and weirdophiles and midnight movie cultists have Continue reading 181. THE DANCE OF REALITY (2013)

CAPSULE: WALK AWAY RENEE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Caouette

FEATURING: Renee Leblanc, Jonathan Caouette

PLOT: Jonathan Caouette documents his mentally ill mother Renee’s move from a group home in Houston to one in New York; on the trip she loses her medication and dementia and paranoia set in.

Still from Walk Away Renee (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though its subject is bonkers, and its experimental methodology sometimes follows suit, Renee is only weird by the standards of documentary filmmaking. The movie has episodes of madness, but most of the time it’s fairly stable.

COMMENTS: A crazy-quilt of documentary footage, recreations, old home movies, and psychedelic montages, Walk Away Renee is meandering to the point of being psychotic, an arguably appropriate approach given its subject. Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s mother (he always calls her Renee, never Mom) is both bipolar and schizoaffective; even in her most lucid moments, she seems distant and distracted. When she’s unstable, she becomes panicky and irritable, and talks about the dead baby inside her while sitting in the doorway of a Manhattan business and screaming at her son to leave her alone. Once a gorgeous green-eyed brunette who could have been a model, fifty years of being unable to care for herself while drifting in and out of institutions have taken their toll on her beauty; she’s lost several teeth, which causes her to mumble and makes her offbeat declarations (“I’m Dolly Parton!,” “Want to be in the family circus?”) even harder to understand. The traditional family roles have been reversed; the son mothers the mom, taking her for Ferris wheel rides at the fair and overseeing the diet of antipsychotic medication necessary to keep her coherent. This dynamic leads to touchingly ironic moments, as when the son stops his distracted mom from stepping out into traffic; this event reminds her of her motherly duties, and at the next crosswalk she tells him to be careful and hold her hand while crossing the street. The opening epigram, from Einstein, suggests that past, present and future are a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” which the movie uses as a license to intersperse home video footage of a younger Renee throughout the contemporaneous story of relocation from Houston to New York City. Some of the memories are wistful ones of happier times, when guileless Renee would play at being the lead actress in Jonathan’s home movies. Others, from Renee’s stay in the 1990s with her demented eighty-year-old father in his filthy Houston home, seem to come right out of one of ‘s nightmares: the two screech at each other, caught up in separate delusions, while a toy baby doll cackles demonically in the background. Avant-garde montages also intrude on the proceedings, utilizing layers of home movies edited into psychedelic backgrounds, meant to dislocate us inside Renee’s weaving brain. This process culminates in a kaleidoscopic trip through an umbilical wormhole connecting alternate soap-bubble universes. Of course, we know that editorial selection has created the story we are seeing, but we want to believe (and have no real reason to doubt) that this vision captures the essence of their relationship. Caouette, whose face is constantly photographed in worried closeups, presents himself as the long-suffering good son. It’s a little self-serving, but there’s nothing to suggest he hasn’t earned such a portrayal; anyone who has cared for a mentally ill relative deserves a little pat on the back. The knowledge that this is one of those newfangled “hybrid” docs—-many of the scenes are recreations rather than live events, all of the voices of doctors and nurses on the other end of the frantic phone calls are voiced by actors, and Caouette gives himself a “story” credit, an unconventional touch for a supposed documentary—also undercuts the emotional impact a bit. Still, there is enough of the undeniably real Renee here to make this a touching, if meandering, tribute to a gentle soul whose misfiring neurons have trapped her in an eternal childhood.

Caouette’s 2003 documentary Tarnation covered much of the same ground, with more focus on the (also dysfunctional) grandparents who raised him. That movie was edited on an Apple laptop with an estimated budget of $218 and was championed as a masterpiece of DIY filmmaking. Most of the critics who panned Renee suggested that it was little more than a bigger-budgeted remake of Tarnation; not having seen the original, I found this effort to be interesting and poignant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are also elaborate, ‘Tree of Life’-style effects for an ill-advised science-fiction subplot that further distances this follow-up from reality.”–Lou Lumenick, New York Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.

GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale, , Edra Gale

PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
  • This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
  • After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
  • 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
  • The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
  • Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain


American trailer for 8 1/2

and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).

COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s Continue reading 121. 8 1/2 (1963)