Tag Archives: Black and White

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

123. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

QUESTIONER: What are the most common comparisons to other films that you hear?

CORY MCABEE: There’ve been a few. Because it’s in black and white people sometimes say Eraserhead, but other than the fact that it’s in black and white I don’t really see much… [laughter]. I get a lot of “cross-betweens,” like “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.” [laughter]. That’s a very large area to cross between…

–Cory McAbee at an American Astronaut Q&A session

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT: Astronaut Samuel Curtis arrives on the asteroid Ceres, where he meets his old friend the Blueberry Pirate, enters a dance contest, and trades a cat for a Real Live Girl (who consists of cloned cells in a box). His commission requires him to go to Jupiter where he will swap the Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whom he will then take to the all-female planet Venus to exchange for the remains of an expired stud. Along his journey he is pursued by maniacal “birthday boy” (and film narrator) Professor Hess, a man who can only kill if he has no reason to do so.

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Writer/director Cory McAbee is the songwriter and lead singer of the band The Billy Nayer Show; the then-current lineup of the band (minus McAbee) appears in the movie in the Ceres dance contest sequence.
  • McAbee was working on a script entitled Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest when he got the idea for American Astronaut and decided it was the more interesting project. He completed the script for Werewolf Hunters in 2002, but negotiations with financiers fell through. Pre-production resumed in 2011, but the actor cast as the lead died, and the project is again on hold.
  • The American Astronaut got its limited theatrical release September 21, 2001, only a little more than a week after the 9/11 tragedy.
  • After our first viewing we declined to place The American Astronaut on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately (read our shortsighted initial review), but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast dressed as the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco helmet and thick black eyeliner, raising the roughnecks of Jupiter’s morale by performing a song and dance number in a spotlight on a stage in a cavernous warehouse.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The fact that it’s an absurdist musical comedy space western, for one thing. The American Astronaut is an incredibly personal affair—Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred, composed the songs, helped paint the backdrops, and probably sold the popcorn on opening night. McAbee brings a particular and peculiar set of personal preoccupations to the project: space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, , the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism, among others. It’s a galaxy of influences with competing gravities, and whether they appear as a meaningful constellation or just a meaningless mass of lights may depend on where the viewer is standing. The movie probably makes the most sense when seen from Mars.


Original trailer for The American Astronaut

COMMENTS: Since it’s such a spaced-out movie, it’s appropriate that The American Continue reading 123. THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

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 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).


Opening scene from 8 1/2

 

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)