Tag Archives: Black and White

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

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

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

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

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

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

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

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


American trailer for 8 1/2

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

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

CAPSULE: TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT (1975)

AKA Moment to Moment; Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos; Jive

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elsie Downey

PLOT: None, although certain strands (such as the idea that someone has been hired to convey

Still from Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975)

two tons of turquoise to Taos tonight) recur throughout this series of brief sketches.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s actually too far out, man; it’s almost an hour of nonsense, but too randomly assembled to be any fun. The individual sketches aren’t carefully composed beforehand and they aren’t allowed to play out to their full potential, resulting in comedy that’s juvenile and ridiculous rather than cleverly absurd.

COMMENTS: If Robert Downey Sr. were James Joyce, then Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight would be his Finnegan’s Wake; the point where he took what had been fertile boundary-pushing experimentation beyond the limits of the audience’s tolerance, and ended up producing something so obscure and esoteric that it was of interest only to the author himself. It’s clear enough what he intended to do: make a movie with no beginning or end, one that existed only “moment to moment” (the film’s original title). The problem is that the individual moments aren’t very good and don’t link up to anything universal; there are too many sections of the film that are just montages of Elsie Downey wearing different outfits, or Downey family home movies that have been spliced into the film at random points. As for the individual bits, there are far too many moments when the actors look like they’re improvising while high as a kite, working without a plan and assuming everything they’re doing is hilarious. An example is the frankfurter scene, where a man and woman are sleeping on a park bench and the fella asks her to fetch him a frankfurter. He repeats the request over and over until she finally leaves the bench, then a couple of youngsters walk over—one of whom can’t say anything but “ri-ight…”—and strike up a nonsense conversation with the bum. The woman comes back sans hot dog and the man asks where his food is; the woman answers, “you’re lucky I got up at all.” Hilarious, right? Well, if you don’t like that one, at least there will be another gag in thirty seconds; the problem is it’s not likely to be any more amusing or interesting than the last bit. There are a few brief moments that shine through the general avant-garde dreck: a game of baseball played by men on horseback, a woman who donates her panties to a hungry man, and conventionally funny exchanges like the man who proclaims “I have a brain tumor,” to which his companion responds “It’s all in your head.” But, after watching a scene where a woman with an eyepatch and a cowboy snort cocaine and giggle inanely at each other’s babbling monologues, you might assume that large parts of this mess are just too autobiographical for comfort. Downey Sr.’s best work came when he had a clearly stated central theme (advertising in Putney Swope, religion in Greaser’s Palace) which he could play off of with his improvisatory absurdist riffs. Set him loose without any sort of structure and he’s like a bebop musician who just assumes that if he ignores the melody he can play the greatest, most out-there free jazz you ever heard. The result may be beautiful to his ears, but most folks will only hear a noise that sounds like a cat with a kazoo taped over his mouth and his tail caught in a blender.

Some of the dozens of investors who put up money to fund Downey’s mad vision and may have later regretted it included Hal Ashby, Norman Lear and Jack Nicholson. Taos was, essentially, Downey’s last experimental film venture; in the 1980s and 90s he would sell out, only to direct some horrible Hollywood flops (like the Mad magazine financed fiasco Up the Academy). Despite the fact that his wife Elsie Downey is featured in almost every scene, and the film basically plays like a love letter to her, the couple divorced the year this was released. Taos was screened at underground venues but understandably never got any real distribution; Downey has continued to tinker with the editing through the years. The version offered on Eclipse’s “Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.” disc is a recent re-edit that cuts 20 minutes off the running time (it’s still too long).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…taps the same welcomed vein of indulgent weirdo gags found in Soderbergh’s ‘Schizopolis’ or Rafelson’s ‘Head’…”–Aaron Hillis, IFC (DVD)

BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965)

To the alternative cineaste, Doris Wishman is somewhat akin to what Mary, the Mother of Christ, is to Catholics. She was a considerable influence on luminaries such as , Roger Corman, and Quentin Tarantino. Like them, Wishman approached genre films with an idiosyncratic enthusiasm for the art and the business. Her films are sexploitation roughies, nudie-cuties, and precursors to the grindhouse films. Therefore, she also has her detractors, who compare to her to the likes of Ed Wood. Wishman was a true, self-taught outsider artist. And like most outsider artists, being a maverick had its advantages and disadvantages (she never had the budget she needed). Wishman was as tenebrous and quirky as her films. She often told elaborate lies about herself and remained defiant to the end, mocking conventional attitudes. “I’ll continue making films in Hell” she said, terminally ill, only days before her passing at age 90. If that anecdote doesn’t endear her to you, well, you may have come to the wrong film site.

For the Wishman newcomer, Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965) is probably the best entry point. This film, her first real “roughie,” inhabits an expressionist, subconscious world that Luis Buñuel, Franz Kafka, and the aforementioned John Waters might recognize (and yes, I am being serious). Indeed, protagonist Meg (Gigi Darlene) might be soulmate to Kafka’s Josef K, moving numbly through an inverted, anti-fairy tale nightmare told by John Waters at his copping-an-attitude best.

Meg’s husband goes to work, after he has made love to her in their Boston apartment. Meg showers her husband off, slips into a sheer nightie and begins to obsessively clean the house, purifying herself and her surroundings from the taint of sex. Shots focused on Meg’s hands, feet, knees, the shag carpet, and an ominous ashtray compose a queer dreamscape. Meg literally takes out the trash in her life, only to be raped by the apartment janitor. When he comes back for seconds, Meg whacks him to death with the ashtray and in a downright bizarre cut-away composition the ashtray is seen from the dead janitor’s perspective.

Still from Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)Meg is unable to fully comprehend what has occurred, let alone deal with it. She escapes the confines of her apartment, almost sleepwalking through the violent New York City like Minnie the Moocher gliding through an animated apocalypse. She has moments of sexual tranquility, but, alas, they are short-lived. The abuse cycle continues, so does the purging and the incessant shifting. The closest she comes to achieving something is in a short-lived lesbian relationship. Yet, this time, Meg willingly flees potential happiness.

The film becomes circular, as dreams often are, but Bad Girls Go To Hell has its cake and eats it too. There is a comeuppance to such a lifestyle of ill repute, BUT, like Wishman, Meg personifies defiance in the face of recompense. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a serious contender for this site’s coveted List. Doris Wishman has yet to receive her 366 crown, but I will go with my instincts here and leave further discussion of this film to other hands.

In the meantime, we will revisit Doris Wishman in next week’s review of Deadly Weapons (1973) .

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Green

FEATURING: Jason Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels

PLOT: Against her wishes, a surgeon keeps his fiancée’s severed head alive while he searches for a new body for her.

Still from The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Brain that Wouldn’t Die bypasses the rational portion of the frontal cortex and directly stimulates the part of the brain that responds to misogynist daydreams and deformed mutants in closets. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a cheesy, sleazy 1960s b-movie, but Brain shows a shameless and deranged imagination that pushes it into the realm of the genuinely strange.

COMMENTS:”The paths of experimentation twist and turn through mountains of miscalculation and often lose themselves in error and darkness,” says an assistant mad scientist by way of explaining a mutant to a detached head. “Behind that door is the sum total of Dr. Cortner’s mistakes.” Now, substitute “filmmaking” for “experimentation, “in this movie” for “behind that door” and “director Joseph Green” for “Dr. Cortner” and you have a perfect description of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. This simple story of Bill, a surgeon who tries to find a new body for the decapitated fiancée whose head he is keeping alive in a pan in his lab, could have made a forgettable matinee monster movie, but the tale takes so many illogical and ill-advised turns that it wanders off into a cinematic no-man’s land and winds up in a perversely fascinating sewer. Forget about the fact that the head—who is so chatty that Bill eventually has to put surgical tape over her mouth (!)—couldn’t talk without lungs; that’s only the most obvious of this movie’s many problems. People in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die act according to an alternative psychology that is bizarrely consistent with the movie’s need for sleaze, but in no way natural for human beings. When Bill’s beloved Jan loses her head, he demonstrates the movie’s theory that the first stage of grief is lust as he’s immediately off picking up strippers, cruising the streets leering at female pedestrians, and lurking around figure modeling studios looking for a suitable replacement body. He’s not just interested in finding just any body to save his love’s life as expeditiously as possible; he has to find a donor who’s stacked. It’s the perfect chance to upgrade! Fortunately for him, most of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE (1968)

Le viol du vampire

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bernard Letrou, Solange Pradel, Jacqueline Sieger

PLOT: In Part I a psychoanalyst tries to cure four sisters of their belief that they are

Still from Rape of the Vampire (1968)

centuries-old vampires; in Part II, the Queen of the Vampires revives the cast members who died in Part I so she can conduct medical experiments on curing vampirism.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Jean Rollin’s feature debut—which began as a partially improvised 30 minute short in which the main characters died at the end, only to be magically brought back to life for “part II” so the story could be expanded to feature length—is one of the vampire auteurs weirdest works, which is saying something. But, like all Rollin films, it’s a mixture of the awe-inspiring and the godawful. There’s likely only room for one Rollin representative on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies; is Rape it? We’ll need to finish up his entire catalog to be sure.

COMMENTS: Rape of the Vampire wants to be the Un Chien Andalou of lesbian vampire movies; it can’t quite reach those lofty aspirations, but it does have fun trying. Viewers frequently complain that the story is “incomprehensible,” but that’s not quite the case; the vampiric shenanigans are illogical and confusingly related, but there is a plot line that plays through from beginning to end. It’s the old story about a psychoanalyst who visits a chateau uninvited to convince four sisters they’re not vampires, then falls in love with one of the sisters and gets killed by angry villagers and then is secretly resurrected so he can foil the plan of the Queen of the Vampires to simultaneously cure vampirism and inaugurate a new age of the nosferatu by burying a bride and groom in a coffin during a high school play. Or something like that. Rollin deliberately disorients the viewer, and you can be forgiven for thinking that you must have nodded off and missed some crucial plot point; this is the kind of movie where you’re constantly gazing at the screen and thinking, “who is that guy again? Isn’t he dead?” For example, there is a scene where the psychiatrist tries to convince one of the sisters that she’s no more blind than she is a vampire; Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE (1968)

119. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)

“This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.”–Maya Deren, notes on Meshes of the Afternoon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Alexander Hammid

FEATURING: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid

PLOT: Approaching her apartment one afternoon, a woman picks up a flower, sees a figure disappearing around a corner down the garden path, then fumbles her key as she tries to unlock the door to her room. She goes upstairs and falls asleep in a chair looking out of the window, where she has a series of dreams that recombine these simple events and objects in unexpected ways. Doubles appear, she floats up the staircase, and the person she briefly glimpsed earlier appears as a figure of menace haunting the corners of her mind.

Still from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

BACKGROUND:

  • Deren legally changed her first name from Eleanora to Maya (Sanskrit for “illusion”) just before embarking on her career as a filmmaker with Meshes.
  • Alexander Hammid, Deren’s second husband, co-created and appears in Meshes as “the Man.” The music that now accompanies the film was added in 1957 and was composed by Deren’s third husband, Teijo Ito.
  • Some commentators, including avant-garde director Stan Brakhage (who knew the couple) claim that Meshes was largely the work of Hammid rather than Deren, who went on to have the more noted career.
  • Meshes was made for $275 (which would be about $3,500 today adjusted for inflation). Deren once joked that she made movies for what Hollywood spent on lipstick.
  • Added to the National Film Registry in 1990. The registry began in 1989 with twenty five American films worthy of preservation due to their historical and artistic importance and adds twenty five more films each year since; Meshes was in the second class inducted.
  • Deren, a Ukrainian immigrant, was the first avant-garde filmmaker working outside the studio system of any importance in the United States. She was also a lecturer, wrote articles on film theory, and established the Creative Film Foundation and the Film-Makers Co-op. She unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage at 44 while studying and filming Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The image film critics usually invoke when describing Meshes is Deren with her face and palms pressed up against the windowpane, the reflections of palm trees merging into her curly black hair and an inscrutable expression on her face. The picture has an undeniable metaphorical power: here we see a portrait of the psyche, the plane where reflections from the external world merge into the self. But while there’s an undeniable intellectual appeal to that selection, we’re going to go instead with something freakier and more nightmarishly visceral: the cloaked form with a mirror for a face, a mysterious figure into whom the sleeping protagonist pours her suppressed fears and anxieties.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Many weird movies are about dreams, or plumb the sleeping mind to exploit dream logic and plunder the unconscious’ mutated symbols, but Meshes of the Afternoon is probably the most psychologically accurate dream movie ever made. From the way it repurposes everyday events and objects, turning keys into knives and passing pedestrians into emissaries of the unknown, to its impossible geometries where windows open onto stairs and distant beaches, Meshes captures the architecture of a dream—and traps us inside it.


Film student analysis of a scene from Meshes of the Afternoon

COMMENTS: A mesh is a net or a web, and this afternoon the strands that trap our nameless Continue reading 119. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)/SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965)

Something Weird Video offers up two of the most obscure, absurd, sexually depraved white trash soapers in this 1965 double feature.

Day of the Nightmare was directed by John A. Bushelman. Bushelman’s directorial credits are few, but he was a prolific editor of low budget cult trash. Cat Women on the Moon (1953), Frankenstein 1970 (1953, starring ), the Sinister Cinema favorite Tormented (1960), and Village of the Giants (1965) are among his (ahem) “notable classics.”

Familiar B-actor John Ireland (who had an off-screen reputation rivaling ‘s) virtually sleepwalks his way through what amounts to a supporting detective role, despite receiving star billing. That leaves the rest of the acting chores to unknowns who, with one exception, are not up to the job. The direction and lighting is as bland and anonymous as the acting and the title, which is unfortunate because, despite lethargic execution, Day of the Nightmare teeters on the edge of having real sensationalist potential by mid 60’s film standards.

The plot is related to ‘s more atmospheric Homicidal (1961). Jonathan Crane (Cliff Fields) is an artist with a few loose screws. He is married to Barbara (Beverly Bain, in her sole screen credit). Poor Barb is a much put-upon wife, and Bain is the only actor able to overcome Bushelman’s static direction.  She invests enough into her character to create an interesting portrayal which, alas, does not salvage the film.

Still from Day of the Nightmare (1965)Crane cries (embarrassingly) at his psychiatrist office, Crane has a drag persona, Crane likes to watch lesbos get it on, and Crane has an S & M fetish. The film opens with our hero lashing an unattractive model on her buttocks.  Cliff Fields’ turn as a queen has to be one of worst drag performances ever burned into celluloid. He sports sunglasses at night, a crumpled raincoat and a lopsided dishwater blond wig (he looks a bit like an uncanny precursor to Michael Caine’s transvestite psycho killer in 1980’s Continue reading DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)/SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965)