Tag Archives: Avant-garde

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

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“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

CAPSULE: CAFE FLESH (1982)

“Go play in the fallout.”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream)

FEATURING: Michelle Bauer (as Pia Snow), Andy Nichols, Paul McGibboney, Marie Sharp, Tantala Ray, Dennis Edwards, Kevin Jay

PLOT: “Able to exist, to sense… to feel everything, but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t. 99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill. The rest, the lucky one percent, are Sex Positives, those whose libidos escaped unscathed. After the Nuclear Kiss, the Positives remain to love, to perform… and the others, well, we Negatives can only watch… can only come…to … Cafe Flesh…”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cafe Flesh is a post-apocalyptic adult film about people who become violently ill from human touch. Generally speaking, adult films are pro-sex, so it is definitely a unique entry in the world of adult cinema. Cafe Flesh was not the only post apocalyptic adult film—it was a popular sub-genre in the 1980s—but I do think it might have been the first. The copious cutaways to the gawking, impotent patrons during sex shows were peculiar, but completely relevant to the plot. As odd as they were they fit in the context of the film. The first couple of performance-art sex scenes were definitely wacky. A lonely housewife is seduced by a milkman in a rat mask while three grown men dressed like babies look on from their high chairs. A guy in a huge pencil headpiece bangs one of the broads in the office while the naked receptionist looks on typing and repeatedly asking “Do you want me to type a memo?” Cafe Flesh definitely teeters on the edge of weirdness, but forced at gunpoint to answer “weird or not weird,” I would have to go with “not weird.”

COMMENTS: I was a huge fan of Stephen Sayadian’s Dr. Caligari and couldn’t wait to check out some of his other work. Turned out, his other features were all adult films. My exposure to hardcore films at that time was pretty slim. After checking out Night Dreams and Cafe Flesh, however, I was inspired to check out several other adult titles from the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, very few were as entertaining or as unusual as Stephen Sayadian’s.

The plot verbiage above is taken directly from the film’s introduction. The primary focus is on two of the club’s regulars, Nicky and Lana, “The Dagwood and Blondie of Cafe Flesh,” so dubbed by the club’s delightfully sarcastic emcee Max Melodramatic. I gathered from the film’s opening statement that the 99% of the population do not only become physically sick by human touch, but are also impotent and couldn’t get the job done anyway— although it really doesn’t go into much detail on the subject. The post-apocalyptic victims gather together at Cafe Flesh to gawk at art noveau hardcore sex shows. The performers are not volunteers, by any means. Enforcers are out there to flush out sex-positives who are not performing. Angel, a doe-eyed virginal lass from Wyoming, is taken away to do her part in entertaining the 99%.

If you were impotent and human touch made you vomit, would you really want to go to a sex club? They mock the torture of the audience numerous times, the majority of the abuse coming from the aforementioned emcee. Andrew Nichols gives a genuinely standout performance. He delivers his wordy dialog with complete ease; I did not question for a second that he was the emcee of a seedy post-apocalyptic sex club. Also stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the park is beautiful Michelle Bauer (billed here as Pia Snow, the name under which she made a few adult films at the start of her career). Bauer should be a familiar face to those of us who enjoy 1980s horror cinema. She appeared in a ton of horror flicks: The Tomb, Terror Night, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Nightmare Sisters, and Deathrow Diner, to name a few. I found her character here to be so very likable, I really wanted her to have a happy ending, and indeed she does.

Obviously, considering the plot, the sex is limited strictly to the shows the sex negatives watch. Dripping with 1980s flare and fashion, these stage shows are creative and well-costumed. Stephen Sayadian’s films embrace everything that was fabulous and flattering from that decade: sharp angular silhouettes, bold solids, wide black and white stripes. It was all about geometry then—at least, the cool stuff was. I have been suitably impressed with the sets and costumes for all three of the Sayadian films I have seen. The superb synth soundtrack from Mitchell Froom hits every right note; absolutely perfect musical accompaniment. I love this soundtrack so much that I own it. Black and white striped teddies, angular phone booths, sunglass-bespectacled studs, naked ladies in cases—there is just so much to say about the aesthetics here.

Cafe Flesh is a visual treat that oozes the 1980s with good performances and a badass soundtrack. A highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, apocalyptic adult adventure.

Fun fact; if you do a Google search for an adult film title, its IMDB listing is usually the first or second hit that will come up. If, however, you are on the IMDB website and search that title, it will not come up at all, unless you use the advanced search feature and toggle the button to “include” adult titles every time.

GoreGirls’ Dr. Caligari review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Night Dreams review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Cafe Flesh photo gallery (NSFW)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in terms of sci-fi pornography set in a post-apocalyptic netherworld, you can’t anymore cerebral than this… Sex Negatives force the Sex Positives (the 1% left unaffected by the fallout) to perform bizarre, surrealistic sex acts for their amusement.”–Yum Yum, House of Self-Indulgence (DVD)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

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.)

308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

Bara no sôretsu 

“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”

“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”

–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto

FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama

PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.

Still from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
  • The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in ‘s Ran.
  • The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
  • The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama.  Matsumoto released it separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.


Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses

COMMENTS: “Each man has his own mask,” says the voice from the Continue reading 308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

“At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued.”–Jaque Catelain, in his biography of Maurice L’Herbier

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: Claire Lescot, a celebrity opera singer, hosts a soirée at her modernist mansion for her many male admirers and suitors. Among these is the young engineer Einar, whom she toys with and eventually scorns. When Einar commits suicide, it causes a scandal and Claire is castigated for her callousness; but is there more to his mysterious death than meets the eye?

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

BACKGROUND:

  • Maurice L’Herbier started his career as a writer; his fascination for cinema partly developed when he was assigned to the French Army’s Cinematographic Service, where it was his job to document the horrors of WWI.
  • Star Georgette Leblanc, an opera singer, put up 50% of the production cost. L’Herbier offered her a script which she deemed too noncommercial, and he had it rewritten according to her suggestions.
  • The production design was divided among several leading international avant-garde artists, each of whom was responsible for creating a different set. These artists were all featured in the influential 1925 Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Art, for which L’Herbier was also a member of the jury.
  • Extras in the 2,000-strong audience that boos Claire included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. To set the mood, dissonant composer George Antheil played piano as the opening act.
  • The original score by Darius Milhaud is lost, although he may have recycled some of the themes for use in later compositions.
  • As was typical for avant-garde performances of the period, fights erupted at the screening.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many crazed sets to choose from—Claire’s dining room isthmus, her spiky green “winter garden,”  Einar’s disorienting Cubist laboratory—that we were totally confounded at picking just one. Fortunately, we can go with a bizarre costuming choice instead: the masked butlers in short pants with smiles (literally) plastered on their faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Perma-grin waiters; backwards television; riotous resurrection montage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Too weird for 1924, when screenings prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its many detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.


Blu-ray trailer forL’Inhumaine

COMMENTS: It’s fitting that L’Inhumaine stars an opera star (playing Continue reading 287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)