Tag Archives: Black and White

NOVEMBER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

Still from Day of Wrath (1943)In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

“[Children are] constantly constructing, and then reconstructing and amending and annexing a model of their cosmos, their universe. The real joyous intoxications and wonderment come from building faulty models, and then tearing them down and rebuilding. But you never completely tear down your model, I think you just keep adding on to your faulty model of the way the world works. All if us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have built this really elaborate model, which we feel is right now finally. But at its very foundation, at the very bottom, its very earliest days, there are these errors that run like a motherlode through the ensuing years.”–Guy Maddin, “97 Percent True”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Katherine E. Scharhon, Maya Lawson, Erik Steffen Maahs, (narration)

PLOT: “Guy Maddin,” who has not been home in thirty years, returns to Black Notch, the island on which he spent his childhood, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish: to give the family lighthouse/orphanage two good coats of paint. The trip sparks Guy’s memory; he recalls when celebrity teen detective Wendy Hale arrived on the island to investigate the strange holes found on the back of orphan’s heads. Guy develops a crush on the detective, but Hale goes undercover as her own brother, Chance, and seduces Guy’s sister, all while investigating his dictatorial mother and mad scientist father on her way to uncovering secrets that will tear the family apart.

BACKGROUND:

  • Brand Upon the Brain! was funded (for a reported $40,000) by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization on the condition that Maddin use a local Seattle cast and crew. The film was shot in nine days.
  • This is the middle entry in Maddin’s unofficial autobiographical trilogy, in which each film has a (different) protagonist named Guy Maddin. (The first was 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee and the last was 2007’s My Winnipeg).
  • The script was written with Maddin’s frequent collaborator Geroge Toles, but Maddin regular (who usually appears as an actor) wrote the narration.
  • The idea of narration for a silent film was inspired by “explicators,” people who would be hired by theaters to explain visual and narrative concepts the audience might not get on their own during live screenings of silent films.
  • Originally staged as a live event with a small orchestra (including a “castrato”) and foley artists, different performances featured different guest narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (who does the definitive reading), Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, , , Louis Negin, , Eli Wallach, and Maddin himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The lighthouse lamp, an all-seeing orb, sort of a rotating papier-mâché rendition of the Eye of Sauron. Several of Guy’s family members come to bad ends before it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rumanian womb birthmark; holes in orphan’s heads; the undressing gloves

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s another mad Maddin false autobiography! This time, the director imagines himself as the offspring of a mad scientist and yet another iteration of his domineering mother archetype, raised in a lighthouse among a band of orphans. Absurd but emotionally true memories are jumbled up, with a melange of archaic obsessions each taking their turn in the subconscious spotlight: teenage detectives, confused genders leading to confusing crushes, family members transfigured into zombies and vampires, with all of this lurid melodrama shot on blurry Super 8 and edited by a drunken, psychotic subconscious. Pure madness.


Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

COMMENTS: “The past… into the past!” Memory is the theme of Continue reading 315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

CAPSULE: VAMPIROS SEXOS (1988) & MONDO WEIRDO (1990)

Vampiros Sexos AKA I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing

Mondo Weirdo AKA Jungfrau am Abgrund (Virgin on the Edge)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Carl Andersen

FEATURING: Feli Schachinger, Carl Andersen (as “Zaphod Beeblebrox”) (Vampiros Sexos); Jessica Franco Manera (Mondo Weirdo)

PLOT: Vampiros Sexos has something to do with a space vampire trying to recover poisoned olive oil which turns teenagers into “zabbadoings”; in Mondo Weirdo, a sexually repressed young woman enters a world of nightmarish eroticism.

Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)
Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even for a website that specializes in weird movies, Carl Andersen’s two ultra low-budget punk sex films are an acquired taste for specialized audiences. Most will want to stay far away, but others will eat it up… you know who you are.

COMMENTS: I’m sure Carl Andersen put a lot of work into Vampiros Sexos, but it plays like something slapped together over a drunken weekend (which is probably the exact aesthetic he was going for). The “plot” is a loose assembly of vampire tropes and silly jokes interrupted by long, explicit, polyamrous orgies. It’s presented in grimy black and white and often uses odd angles and shaky cameras, with scenes (deliberately) overlit or underlit so you can barely make out what’s going on. Sonically, it sometimes plays like a silent film (complete with intertitles that switch between English and German), and at other times like a  roughie with unsynced sound. Mostly, it plays like a long, explicit DIY music video, with the band Model D’oo supplying songs like “I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing” in a lo-fi, synth-and-drum heavy style trapped halfway between early 80s New Wave and industrial music. Sexos contains attempted slapstick, full-frontal zombies, stripping during the credits sequence, “The Three Psychedelic Stooges” (I never figured out what this referred to), vomiting, goofy gore, lots of scenes shot inside what looks like a cellar punk club, and a sexy lady with a shaved head. The sparse but occasionally amusing B-parody dialogue includes lines like “inside this vat is an undiscovered olive oil. I will now take it onto me to cook up some pretty lunch” and “I will show you my zombie bootie.” Anderson is fond of referencing his influences (or, more accurately, stuff he thinks is cool): “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Night of the Hunter, and . His actual stylistic influences are more like a combination of , , and Gerald Damiano. It’s not as much fun as it sounds.

Mondo Weirdo shows improvement, though if you caught it sans-Sexos you might think you were looking a first attempt at a student film (again, I suspect that’s exactly the aesthetic Andersen is going for). This time around the lighting is uniform, the camera is fluid rather than jerky, and there are more ambitious effects, like a triangularly split screen for a lesbian sex scene. Even Model Doo’s music has improved, becoming more ambient and soundtrack-like at times. The film begins with a vintage exploitation disclaimer, though one delivered in broken English, describing the upcoming attraction as “one of the most bizarre cases in history of distorted sexuality” and warning “should you seem to have problems to share this world of nightmare and bloodily cruel events, please leave the auditory [sic] now.” The opening finds attractive, waifish Odile menstruating (presumably for the first time) in the shower, then walking into a punk club where two girls are going at it hot and heavy around a stripper pole. She’s so scarred by the confluence of these two events that she spends the rest of the film walking around in a daze, giving blow jobs, slitting throats, mystically traveling through the bell of a saxophone, vomiting, licking blood, and engaging in split-screen lesbian sex. At one point a -style intertitle explains “elisabeth bathory invites odile to a strange dinner with strange people and very strange things are going on!” A doubling of characters puts me in mind of Meshes of the Afternoon, while the theme of a doomed, rebellious girl silently wandering through a haunted landscape makes Odile into a teen pornstar version of the Gamin from Dementia (1955). The graphic sex is still distracting and the desire to shock immature, however, and the overall product, while better than Sexos, is a bit boring, in the film school dropout way that the can make sex and violence boring.

Cult Epics label founder Nico B. named these movies to his top 10 weird movies list in 2015, calling Vampiros Sexos “a European punk rock hardcore sex vampire film, stylistic and trashy at the same time” and noting that Weirdo “surpasses the first one in obscenity.” He was so impressed he acquired the rights and released this three-disc set: a DVD of Sexos (transferred from VHS and presented with the short “What’s So Dirty About It?,” an experiment using the hardcore scenes from the feature edited into a strobing pattern), Mondo Weirdo on Blu-ray (with Andersen interviews as a bonus feature), and a CD of Model D’oo’s songs from both films.

Jessica Franco Manera is reportedly the daughter of prolific Eurosleaze director , to whom the film is dedicated (alongside ). It takes a special kind of man to dedicate a film to the father of the actress you’ve cast in a role requiring her to perform hardcore sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mondo Weirdo]  is pretty insane stuff, not for the faint of heart… [Vampiros Sexos] makes even less sense than Mondo Weirdo… The two main attractions are essential viewing for fans of transgressive and outre cinema.”–Ian Jane, “Rock! Shop! Pop!”

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)

304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

L’Année Dernière à Marienbad

Must SeeWeirdest!

“Who knows what true loneliness is, not the conventional word—but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory, or some illusion.”–Joseph Conrad,  Under Western Eyes

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff

PLOT: In the confines of the corridors, salons, and gardens of an outlandishly extravagant spa hotel, one man attempts to persuade a female guest that they met a year prior and had planned to run off together. At first she resists his suggestions, but as he repeats his reminiscences, her denial becomes more and more strained. As they flit about the hotel, other guests fade in and out of focus, and the young woman’s male companion looms ever more ominously.

Still from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • Last Year at Marienbad was born of a collaboration between , who had achieved fame for his revolutionary non-narrative novels (dubbed nouveau roman), and Alain Resnais, who had recently completed Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the opening credits, Robbe-Grillet is billed before Resnais. Afterwards, Robbe-Grillet was inspired to become a (defiantly strange) director himself, eventually notching two Certified Weird films (L’Immortelle and Eden and After) under his own leadership.
  • Cannes had refused to accept the movie as an entry, officially citing the fact that the lead actor was not French, but according to rumor because of Resnais’ public stance against the Algerian War.
  • Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 forced the distributors to rethink their strategy of a very limited release.
  • In hopes of recreating a “silent movie” feel for Marienbad, Resnais requested some old-fashioned film stock from Eastman Kodak. Unfortunately, they were unable to provide it.
  • (The Tin Drum) apprenticed on this film as second assistant director.
  • Included in both Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) and Steven Shneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The movie divided contemporary critics and audiences, as well.
  • The alternately somber and jarring score (performed mostly on solo organ) was written by Francis Seyrig, the lead actress’ brother.
  • Robbe-Grillet was nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar (losing to Divorce Italian Style).
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Talk about being spoiled for a choice! Any given scene in Marienbad is a showcase of divinely arranged formalist beauty. What sets the tone (and stands out the most), however, is the alternately freezing and unfreezing of the actors immediately following the play performance that begins the film’s “action” (so to speak). The camera gracefully slinks around the the hotel’s inhabitants as the characters’ action and chatter stop dead, only to start anew a few moments after being silenced.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Living freeze-frames; “I always win”; shadowless trees

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Narratively speaking, Marienbad is about as bare-boned as a film can be without slipping into the realm of incomprehensible. A man and a woman met, or possibly didn’t meet, a year ago, and now the man wants the woman to run away with him. Alain Resnais brings Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dreamy script to geometric life with time fluxes, repetitions, and stylized acting by stylized hotel patrons. The black and white cinematography and challenging edits heighten the sense of shattered narrative that, much like the vicissitudes of human memory, can’t fully coalesce.


Original Trailer for Last Year at Marienbad

COMMENTS: As an art form, film exceeds its competition in manipulation: manipulation of emotions, of perceptions, and of ambiguity. Continue reading 304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

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

KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the -produced Bedlam (directed by ). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The Strange Door, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).

The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, -inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.

Still from The Haunted Strangler (1958)A film is more than a plot or good makeup effects, however, and Day counts on the actor to carry this character-driven opus. Karloff plays a writer named Rankin, seeking justice for a man whom he believes was wrongly executed as the Haymarket Strangler. Rankin believes the true serial killer is still at large, and through his investigation we are transported through a series of impressive set pieces, from a dilapidated asylum to a gravesite ripe for defiling, a prison, and a sleazy cabaret. The narrative “twist” is transparent almost from the opening, and witnessing Karloff’s B-film descent into hysterical lunacy makes for a beguiling contrast with the A-quality art production. Given the flimsy plotting, a more subdued performance would have rendered the enterprise vapid. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, blatant titillation, and dated makeup, Karloff bounces through a project that is tailor-made for him.

Corridors of Blood is a different animal, with nary a monster in sight—at least not the genre expectations of a supernatural ogre. Rather, it is the monster of ignorance that rears its head here, and despite the Continue reading KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970