Tag Archives: Avant-garde

LIST CANDIDATE: L’INHUMAINE (1924)

The Inhuman Woman

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marcel L’Herbier

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: A celebrity singer feels responsible for the suicide of a young suitor.

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Too weird for 1924, when screenings reportedly prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its numerous 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.

COMMENTS: L’inhumaine is a riot of Futurist preoccupations, with sets and themes evoking then-current Euro-chic: Cubism, Art Deco, German Expressionism (filtered through French Impressionism) and even a bit of Surrealism. Director Marcel L’Herbier’s intent was partly to showcase all the new movements in the art world for 1925’s Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. To this end he invited artists like painter Fernand Léger and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to put their individual stamps on the various sets. The outside of singer Claire Lescot’s mansion are Cubist, and model cars pull up in front to drop off attendees for her soirees. She takes her meals in a grand geometric hall; the dinner table is on an interior peninsula surrounded by a pool in with swimming swans, and butlers in eerie smiling masks serve hors d’oeuvres. Claire has an indoor “winter garden” with giant ferns, and Einar’s laboratory, lined with neon and filled with strange machinery, makes Dr. Frankenstein’s digs look subtle and restrained. Every detail is so heavily artificed that even the real sets look like painted cardboard backdrops.

L’Herbier uses every camera trick in the silent arsenal: irises, tinted footage to denote different moods and locales, double images, words appearing in mid-air, lightning-fast Soviet-style montage (which reaches a fevered peak in the still-awesome final “resurrection” sequence with its spinning dials and rocking pendulums overlaid on a veering camera and certain-to-cause-seizures strobe effects). Watching this, you’ll understand why fell in love with the 1920s (I wonder if “The Heart of the World“‘s competing suitors explicitly nod to L’Inhumaine). The acting is theatrical and possibly old-fashioned even for 1924 (watch as the evil maharajah narrows his eyes when introduced to signal his untrustworthiness), but still appropriate for melodrama. But the film’s biggest detriment, and the thing that holds it back for unqualified classic status, is the miscasting of matronly opera star Georgette Leblanc as the fabulous beauty who enchants the hearts of the world’s most eminent men. Leblanc put up half the money for the production, essentially buying the role; but I don’t care how well she sings or how glittery the tiara, no man is going to commit suicide for a woman who compares only slightly favorably to your Aunt Martha. Imagine how effective L’Inhumaine might have been if they’d cast an actress who looked more like Maria in Metropolis!

The Blu-ray, a co-production between France’s Lobster Films and the United States’ Flicker Alley, offers the viewer the choice of either French or English subtitles, as well as a choice of music. The Alloy Orchestra’s percussion-heavy, mechanistic performance is perhaps closer to the score’s original intent—you can occasionally hear a touch of George Anthiel in it—but drummer Aidje Tafial’s progressive jazz accompaniment is superior. He leads an ensemble featuring percussion, accordion, vibes and trumpet, and the abstract spaces the group explores suggest an agreeable affinity between the old and new avant-gardes. Sadly, composer Darius Milhaud’s original score is thought to be lost.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the Alloy Orchestra accompanied a screening that left hundreds of us wondering who slipped the hallucinogens into the popcorn… it’s so completely what it is, so fervent in its devotion to then-fashionable notions of modernism, it’s hard to adjust your eyes to the real world again.”–Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune (2016 screening)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)

“It is LOVE that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.”–from the program to L’Age D’Or

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gaston Madot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst

PLOT: It begins as a documentary on scorpions. “Some hours later,” reads an intertitle, and suddenly we are on a rocky beach where a peasant spies four chanting bishops perched on a rocky outcropping. Later, on the same beach, a man and a woman are discovered locked in an embrace; they spend the rest of the movie attempting to consummate their love, as the action shifts to “Imperial Rome” and a private concert at a wealthy bourgeois garden party.

Still from L'age D'or (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • The bohemian aristocrat Vicomte Charles de Noailles commissioned this film as a birthday present for his wife (a poet and a descendant of the Marquis de Sade). Because of the scandalized reaction to the film’s blasphemous content, the Vicomte was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, and quickly withdrew the film from circulation.
  • The film’s original title was to be Un Bête Andalou.
  • As with Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel originally planned to co-write and co-direct with, but the two had a falling out before the film was completed. Dalí is credited as co-writer, but disowned the film later, and what remains of his contributions is a matter of conjecture.
  • Painter Max Ernst had a large role in the film; other less-famous members of the Surrealist circle appear in smaller parts.
  • The opening is footage from a 1912 documentary. The ending is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom.”
  • Along with official members of the Surrealist movement, Pablo Picasso, , Vladimir Nabokov, and Gertrude Stein were among those in attendance at a private screening hosted by the Vicomte.
  • Buñuel had hoped that Un Chien Andalou would incite riots and was disappointed when it was a huge popular success. L’Age D’Or did inspire violence. Members of the Fascist-leaning “League of Patriots”  threw ink and the screen and destroyed paintings by Dalí and other Surrealists that were being exhibited in conjunction with one screening. The French authorities banned the film within a year of its release “to preserve public order.”
  • Because the de Noailles family removed L’Age D’Or from distribution, the film was not legally screened in the United States until 1979.
  • At the urging of the Spanish Communists, who considered Surrealism bourgeois, Buñuel later re-cut L’Age D’Or into a 20-minute short to make it less difficult and more accessible to proletariat viewers. This version of the film did not survive.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For its poster image, distributor Kino Lorber takes the scene where Lya Lys, frustrated that her finger-sucking foreplay with Gaston Madot has been temporarily interrupted, satisfies her desires by fellating the toe of a nearby statue. But we find the moment where she walks into her boudoir to see a cow lounging on her bed to be funnier, and less expected. (Footnote one: one source reports that this scene is a pun, since the word for “cow” [“vache”] was then-current French slang for “cop.” If so, the fact that this meaning is lost on contemporary audiences makes the image even more surreal. Footnote two: a still that frequently accompanies reviews of the movie shows a man crouched down next to the cattle-infested bed; this shot does not appear in Kino’s cut of the film, and may be from a promotional still).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shoo cow; stone toe sucking; Jesus leaves the orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Skeletal bishops on the beach, cows in the bedroom, and Jesus at a murder orgy: the scandalous L’Age D’Or was too hot and weird for 1930, and still carries the power to shock today. Watch it for its historical importance, but also as a profane prayer—an unapologetic hymn in praise of unfettered individual desire.


Short clip from L’Age D’or

COMMENTS: In the repurposed documentary footage that opens Continue reading 242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)

CAPSULE: THEORY OF OBSCURITY: A FILM ABOUT THE RESIDENTS (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.

FEATURING: Assorted

PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.

Still from Theory of Obscurity (215)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.

COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.

Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.

Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen to (and watch) the source material.

I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano , a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing). Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven. However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Still from Pierrot Lunaire (2002)The haunting lyrics are besotted with imagery of sick moons, flowing blood, brandished swords, gruesome communion, blue murder, bloodied crosses, ancient gloom, one-legged storks, coffins, and giant black butterflies ready for the kill. It’s hardly “La Boheme,” Continue reading THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

  1. Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method. []

CAPSULE: “MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM 1920-1970”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: James Agee, , Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, James Broughton, Rudy Burckhardt, Mary Ellen Bute, Joseph Cornell, Jim Davis, , Marcel Duchamp (as Rrose Selavy), Emlen Etting, Oskar Fischinger, Robert Florey, Amy Greenfield, Alexander Hammid, Hilary Harris, Hy Hirsh, Ian Hugo, Lawrence Janiak, Lawrence Jordan, Francis Lee, Fernand Léger, Owen Land, Helen Levitt, Jay Leyda, Janice Loeb, Jonas Mekas, Marie Menken, Dudley Murphy, Ted Nemeth, Tom Palazzolo, Bruce Posner, Charles Sheeler, Phil Solomon, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, Francis Thompson, Slavko Vorkpich, J.S. Watson Jr., Melville Webber

FEATURING: Too many actors (many amateurs) to list

PLOT: A collection of influential short experimental films spanning five decades.

Still from Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: To be clear, one of the individual films featured in this compilation (Meshes of the Afternoon) has already made the List. Many of the others are noteworthy, but we deem none quite List-worthy. As a collection, these discs are recommended for weird movie fans and adventurous cinephiles. This is a must-own, cornerstone release for dedicated experimental film devotees.

COMMENTS: Released by silent movie specialists Flicker Alley and curated by director/film historian Bruce Posner, “Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film” is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—although we might quibble about whether every one of these films is actually a “masterwork,” they are all, at the very least, representative of a major figure or category of experimental film. These shorts, spread out over two DVDs or Blu-rays, are  rich and challenging, and may be best experienced in small nibbles, one or two at a time, contemplated over a span of several evenings, accompanied by a fine sipping beverage.

The films are arranged chronologically and although they span the full range of artistic expression, they often fall into several distinct types or subgenres. One of the earliest forms is the “city symphony” (à la 1929’s Man With a Movie Camera), of which the very first film in this collection, “Manhatta,” is an example. In a city symphony the director simply takes his camera into an urban environment (in American film usually New York City) and films what he sees, later arranging the footage into a montage that paints a portrait of the town. There are five or six examples of the form here, and although this can be one of the dullest of formats, Francis Thompson’s 1958 eyebending opus “N.Y., N.Y.,” shot with an array of distorting lenses of the director’s own design, is a notably thrilling exception. Other film types you may notice are the figure study, where the lens focuses on the human body in motion (“9 Variations on a Dance Theme,” “transport,” Maya Deren’s “Meditation on Violence”) and purely abstract films (“1941,” which uses broken light bulbs and wet paint, or Stan Brakage’s “scratch on the emulsion” experiments).

An especially noteworthy subset of these experiments is the music Continue reading CAPSULE: “MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM 1920-1970”

366 UNDERGROUND: SPLENDOR SOLIS, HOME MOVIES 1998-2015 (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

SYNOPSIS: Compiled from footage filmed over a period of 17 years, Splendor Solis is a tone-poem celebration of cinema, creativity, play, collaboration, friendship and all of the splendors under the sun.Splendor Solis

COMMENTS:  The latest from The Underground Film Studio (who previously brought us Savage Witches), Splendor Solis is a 60 minute twin-screen presentation of odds and ends from the previous 17 years of Daniel Fawcett’s filmmaking career. While that may at first seem to be a pretty easy (and lazy) way to build a film, not to mention an invitation to boredom, Splendor Solis ends up being anything but tedious.

Combing through 17 years’ worth of “home movies”—video diaries, unfinished films, video experiments, filmed performances, behind-the-scenes footage and yes, real home movies—is a massive undertaking in and of itself. Attempting to make a coherent and interesting film out of all that material is an additional mountain to climb. Splendor Solis succeeds in overcoming the boredom trap in two ways. First, the editing by Fawcett and is crackerjack. Presenting the footage via twin screens helps immensely in using up footage and in juxtaposing segments. Second, the music and sound design play an integral part in keeping the energy level up.

The result is a playful spectacle for the eyes which also serves as an accelerated look at the growth of an artist.

Splendor Solis had its World Premiere at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival in September, 2015 and will be making the film festival circuit in 2016.

EDITED BY: Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais

MUSIC BY: Simon Keep, Jos Dow, Daniel Fawcett, Alex Lemming, Magnus Williams, Thomas Hartley

366 UNDERGROUND: NIGHT AND A SWITCHBLADE

 DIRECTED BY: Ben Finer

FEATURING: Lloyd Todd Eddings, Katya Quinn-Judge, Jason Bragg Stanley, Alexandra Miniard, Nikita Vishnevskiy, William Pike, Casey Robinson, Matthew A. Leabo, Anthony Napoletano, Johnathan Meola, Saori Tsukada, Aleksander Garin

PLOT:  The new kid in town, Sandie Po, is already a Rebel Without a Cause. He’s butted heads with the local gang of toughs, some of whom wear animal masks. He’s made a friend, gone to the local sock hop and met a girl, and stabbed a cop. On the lam, he heads for the woods, wherein very strange, cryptic, sexual events bewitch everyone who enters.

vlcsnap-2015-05-06-21h33m59s683COMMENTS Night and a Switchblade‘s log line describes it as “a bizarro-noir, teen rebel movie about deviant youth and the lurid mysteries haunting a nocturnal American landscape.” Add “highly influenced by ” to that, and it pretty much pegs the film.  Unfortunately, in this case imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

The film attempts to go for a 1950’s patina to depict small-town American life, mixed with dark contemporary elements (see Blue Velvet, “Twin Peaks”), but the characterizations aren’t up to the task. It doesn’t help that the dialog is pretty much variations of the f-word thrown in at random. It f—-n’ may have f—-n’ seemed a f—-n’ good f—-n’ idea at the f—-n’ time, but f–k; that f—–n’ s–t just gets f—-n’ tiresome when it’s f—-n’ used all the f—-n’ time, YOU GET IT YOU F–K??!! F–K!!

Unless you’re f—–n’ . Otherwise, just f—-n’ leave that f—-n’ s–t the f–k alone.

vlcsnap-2015-05-06-21h35m25s666Also, when the surreal weirdness starts to kick in, it seems to be just empty weirdness for weirdness’ sake, so insular and obtuse, it remains a mystery. I know this accusation has been thrown towards Lynch’s work; however, I’d argue that Lynch’s symbolism, bizarre as it can get, at least has some sort of meaning behind it. That’s why he can make your flesh crawl with Frank Booth’s gas huffing and Bob’s appearing anywhere. There’s always something recognizable in Lynch. Admittedly, most of the stuff in Switchblade is pretty cool looking, and you can appreciate the effort and craft that’s been put in it, but it didn’t move me. My first viewing of the film, I bailed out after an hour, and that was more than generous. I did go back to finish out the film, but I was still completely unmoved.

The movie is substantially better when everyone keeps their mouth shut and doesn’t say a word. There is some talent on display here. Technically, it’s a very accomplished film: Blake Williams’ cinematography, Scott Rad Brown’s art direction, the costume design by Bevan Dunbar and Karen Boyer, and the shoegaze music from Color War (who appear in the film as the sock hop band Violet and the Vettes).

For me, the Lynch-inspiration/imitation just killed what could have been a great film on its own terms – visually, it’s wonderful, but I found it lacking anything substantial behind its weirdness, and it probably should have been cut into several short films instead of a feature. If you’re still intrigued enough to look for it—and it is currently up for free at the official site, remember: enter at your own risk!

vlcsnap-2015-05-06-21h41m17s586

188. EDEN AND AFTER (1970)

L’éden et après

“The curtain falls and the audience applauds a bit, a smattering of polite applause. Then the host of the festival appears, the curtain opens, and he introduces Catherine Jourdan. Thundering applause! I think, ‘Good. It’s going well.’ I walk onstage all dressed up in my tux… Howls of disapproval! I wait for them to quiet down and say, ‘Please note, I’m the director of this film. This young woman has been in many films, but you never noticed her before. If you liked her in this film, perhaps I had something to do with that.'”–Alain Robbe-Grillet, recalling the debut of Eden and After at the Berlin Film Festival

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Jourdan, Pierre Zimmer

PLOT: A group of college students take drugs and play games of chance (like Russian roulette) at a cafe called “Eden.” One day, a stranger appears and offers the students a taste of his “fear powder,” which Violette accepts. The man winds up dead, and a valuable cubist painting is missing from Violette’s room; the convoluted trail leads to Tunisia, and to sexual slavery.

Still from Eden and After (1970)
BACKGROUND:

  • This was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first color film. In an interview he explains that he was offered the opportunity to do 1968’s The Man Who Lies in color but turned it down, partially because it was set in a forest and he did not believe Eastman Color film stock conveyed the color green very well. When he visited Tunisia and found locations with almost no green anywhere in the landscape, he decided that this would be where he would shoot his first color film.
  • Catherine Jourdan was a last minute replacement for another actress who had to drop out when her hair fell out after a botched dye job.
  • In making Eden and After Robbe-Grillet was inspired by the twelve-tone serial music of his friend Pierre Boulez. Instead of a regular plot, he listed twelve recurring “themes” for the movie, which would play off each other in a non-linear way: the story would be “a-narrative” or “a-diagetic” in the same way serial music was “a-tonal.”
  • Robbe-Grillet recut Eden and After, shuffling scenes in a different order, incorporating some unused footage, and adding new narration to make an entirely different (though equally surreal) movie titled N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les dés…—an anagram of L’éden et après). Dice was based on principles of aleatory (randomized) music, and was only shown on French television.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Originally a novelist by trade, Robbe-Grillet was known more for narrative playfulness than for visual imagination. Eden and After‘s sensual beauty and sadomasochistic tableaux marked his progression as a visual artist. This is arguably the director’s most sensuous film, filled with startling images. Nude, leggy French actresses, often victimized, constitute one of the film’s key recurring motifs. The picture of mini-skirted Violette, fetishistically shod in black leather boots, encountering her double in the blank Tunisian desert is a titillating but printable candidate. Perhaps the most unforgettable composition, however, is a shocking view of three dead, bound women posed against Inquisition-style torture equipment, one impaled on a bed of spikes, with blood spattering the white walls. That bloody fantasy is indelible, but perhaps a bit too strong, so officially, we will pick the similar but  tamer scene that Redemption Video selected for its Blu-ray cover (with the nudity cropped out). Three women lie in cages in a white void. Two wear white nightgowns, one is nude; two cages sit on the ground and one is suspended in the air; two wear blindfolds, one covers her eyes with her arm. A lamp, two halves of a wrought iron gate, and a white patio chair furnish the scene. What it signifies is anyone’s guess.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fairly summarized as “Alice in Wonderland” meets “Justine” meets The Trip, Eden and After is what happens when a dyed-in-the-wool Surrealist (and unrepentant bondage fetishist) makes an acid movie for the collegiate set, composing the experimental script on principles analogous to the serial music of Pierre Boulez. Weird? A tad.


Clip from Eden and After

COMMENTS: You could construct a coherent story from Eden and Continue reading 188. EDEN AND AFTER (1970)

CAPSULE: ABNORMAL: THE SINEMA OF NICK ZEDD (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Zedd

FEATURING: Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Annie Sprinkle, Kembra Pfahler,

PLOT: A collection of shocking, often pornographic underground films from “Cinema of Transgression” founder Nick Zedd.

War Is Menstrual Envy from Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although occasionally interesting, none of the shorts here are memorable enough to require inclusion on a list of the best weird movies ever made.

COMMENTS: In 1985’s “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” Nick Zedd demanded that “boring films never be made again.” Even taking into account the context of this broadside (which was explicitly aimed at structuralist filmmakers like who dominated the film school curricula of the time), this was an incredibly arrogant claim that was doomed to come back and bite him when audiences noticed that—surprise!—the films made by Nick Zedd and the Cinema of Transgression were frequently boring. “Any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at,” continues the Manifesto, and despite the dubious nature of that claim, Zedd’s films usually do succeed on that front (although occasionally, they only shock due to how boring they are—“Lydia Lunch,” I’m looking your way).

At any rate, note that the statement “any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at” doesn’t imply the converse: that any film that does shock automatically is worth looking at. Like most experimental filmmakers, Zedd’s work is a mixed bag, with a few successes shining out from amidst a sea of crud. The now out-of-print “Abnormal” disc collects most of his important short films made between 1980 to 2001, along with an excerpt from the (brilliantly titled) feature length movie War Is Menstrual Envy and some interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Here’s the rundown of the films, approximately in reverse-chronological order (as they are presented on the disc):

  • “Tom Thumb in the Land of the Giants” (1999): This show-on-video short is presented as a trailer. It’s not clear whether this is a pitch for a longer movie that never got made, or whether this was the concept all along. Zedd’s son Kajtek is pursued by a “phantom” through a graveyard in broad daylight; it ends with a shot of a one-armed man and the boy escaping (though the magic of trick photography) into a giant vagina! At only 4 minutes long there is still some dead space, but it is about the optimum length for a Zedd film.
  • “Ecstasy in Entropy” (1999): A (mostly) silent black-and-white film set in a strip club/bordello. Retired-porn-star-cum-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle appears. There’s fellatio and fake ejaculation, and at one point the strippers laud the virtues of anarcho-socialism in voiceover. It briefly switches to color for the last few minutes for a catfight. Not as interesting as it sounds.
  • “Why Do You Exist?” (1998): A woman smears spray-cheese and whipped cream on her ample bosom, then we see a parade of video portraits of performance artists and grimy underground personalities mugging for the camera. Once you get past the boobies it’s fairly dull, unless you’re one of the out-of-work actors profiled here.
  • War is Menstrual Envy (1992): This 14-minute clip is the meatiest and most nightmarish segment of the collection. A topless woman painted blue and dressed like a nun (Kembra Pfahler) unwraps a disfigured burn victim, then dresses him like a sheik; another woman (Annie Sprinkle) enters, undresses him again, and licks his scarred chest. Then opening credits run over footage of eye surgery. The grotesque beauty on display here is Zedd’s finest work, but 14 minutes was enough; another hour of this stuff would be nauseating Continue reading CAPSULE: ABNORMAL: THE SINEMA OF NICK ZEDD (2001)