Tag Archives: Controversial

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, , Lea Bridarolli

PLOT: A young girl of about 6 wakes up inside a coffin and finds herself in a strange girl’s boarding school, planted in a forested park walled off from the outside world.

Still from Innocence (2004)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful metaphor for childhood. The pacing, however, makes Picnic at Hanging Rock feel like a nonstop thrill ride.

COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s debut film as an odd one, a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two teachers guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they meet the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.

Butterflies are used as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to function as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries are allowed to linger without elucidation. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It doesn’t feel essential, but it is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.

Innocence barely received any distribution in the United States, and has only been released on a region-free French DVD (with English subtitles for the film, though not for the extras). Part of the reason for its poor exposure may be the minor controversy revolving around some topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the perceived fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affects mainly over-sensitive Americans. While concerns over child sexualization are valid, I suspect most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…weird picture of very young girls trained for ambiguous future roles at a woodsy community… genuinely odd and unsettling…”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as a “dreamy, beautifully filmed tale set in an isolated girl’s school .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

“The ancients had visions, we have television.”–Octavio Paz (quote cited by Oliver Stone as one of his inspirations for making Natural Born Killers)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , , Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield

PLOT: Mass murderers (and lovers) Mickey and Mallory stalk the Southwestern U.S., slaughtering innocents who cross their path but always leaving one victim alive to spread their legend. The television show “American Maniacs” tracks their adventures, and they have a large cult of followers. The pair are finally apprehended, but a live television interview scheduled to air after the Super Bowl gives them a narrow window to escape.

Still from Natural Born Killers (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • Natural Born Killers was based on a screenplay written by , who was an unknown when the script was optioned for $10,000. By the time Oliver Stone was finished rewriting the script, so little of his original concept remained that Tarantino disassociated himself from the project. In the original script, “American Maniacs” host Wayne Gale was the main character, not Mickey and Mallory. Tarantino publicly stated that he was not disappointed with the direction Stone took the script, but simply felt that the finished project represented the director’s vision rather than his own. According to Jane Hamsher’s tell-all book about the production, Tarantino was upset that he was not allowed to purchase the rights back after he became a hot Hollywood commodity and tried to get the project scuttled behind the scenes, going so far as to tell and Tim Roth that he would never cast them in anything again if they accepted a role in the film.
  • Stone originally conceived of the project as an action picture, a simple movie that he could produce as a break from his serious works of social realism, but the script turned much darker as he worked on it.
  • Shot in only 56 days, but editing took almost a year. The ultra-fast pacing required almost 3,000 edits.
  • According to Oliver Stone. 155 cuts were imposed on the movie by the MPAA in order to receive an “R” rating (a crucial imprimatur for commercial purposes, since many newspapers at the time would not advertise NC-17 or unrated movies). All of this material is restored in the director’s cut. Despite the large number of total cuts, the restored footage only amounts to about 3-4 minutes of screen time.
  • A number of murders, mostly committed by teenagers, were said to be inspired by the film. In 1995, convenience store clerk Patsy Byers, who was paralyzed for life after being shot by a pair of young lovers who had dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers all night on a continuous loop, instigated a product liability lawsuit against distributor Time Warner and Oliver Stone on the grounds that they “knew, or should have known that the film would cause and inspire people […] to commit crimes…” After a series of court hearings, the case was finally disposed of in 2001 on First Amendment grounds.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Natural Born Killers is about the power of images, making isolating a single frame from this nonstop barrage of psychedelic American carnage quite the challenge. Nonetheless, we located one picture which encapsulates the movie’s theme perfectly. Since Oliver Stone is not exactly noted for his subtlety, he garishly splashes his key insights over his characters’ tight tank-tops when a Navajo shaman sees the pair through spiritual eyes: words appear on Harrelson’s torso announcing him as a “demon,” then, even more tellingly, reading “too much t.v.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if the story was being viewed through a remote control with a stuck channel button where every station is fixated on telling the story of celebrity killers Mickey and Mallory, the visual style of Natural Born Killers changes every few seconds. Disorientation, the substituted and enhanced reality of manipulated images, is the baseline reality of this ever-shifting nightmare vision of an America trapped inside a banal, violence-obsessed TV tube.


Original trailer for Natural Born Killers

COMMENTS: There is no way to reasonably discuss Natural Born Continue reading 187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

RELIGULOUS (2008)

The following is not standard for 366 material, but given the controversial nature of the film, we feel it has an off the beaten path place here.

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

Critic Brian Orndorf wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.

ReligulousMaher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.

Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:

One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.

While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have Continue reading RELIGULOUS (2008)

BARBARA STANWYCK PRE-CODE DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHT NURSE (1931) & BABY FACE (1933)

 was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).

For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”

However, in 1934, the studios lost the war when Breen replaced Hays. Joseph Breen was a constipated, Hollywood executive, in-house Keystone Kop type in cahoots with the Catholic League of Decency. Like that infamous organization, Breen saw the “big sin” as sex, and saw sex as undoubtedly on the mind and agenda of all those Christ-killing Hollywood Jews. Breen was a vile anti-Semite and saw Jewish-led celluloid muck merchants as being on a mission to open a Pandora’s box of sins on a gullible, innocent Christian public. The Hays Code was not only enforced, but now became even more rigid. The newly revised code composed an extensive lost of “dos” and “do nots.” Not surprisingly, over half of the do nots involved sex. The Code stayed in effect until the 1960s when it went the way of the dinosaur. (As we are apt to do in America, when freed to discuss sex, Hollywood then went from one extreme end of the pendulum to the opposite extreme end). Regardless, among the original do nots were: sex, sinners going unpunished,  sex, profanity (which included taking the divine name in vain), sex, any mention of virginity, sex, actual scenes of child birth, sex, use of drugs, sex, nudity, sex, interracial relationships, sex, lack of patriotism, sex, sedition, disrespect of flag, sex, sympathy for criminals, sex, disrespect for institutions, and sex.

A number of film historians have written volumes on the pre-Code era and, understandably, take delight in finding how many Code conventions were broken in that period. Night Nurse and Baby Face are two of the most infamous examples.

Still from Night Nurse (1931)
Still from “Night Nurse”

Night Nurse is directed by William A. Wellman, and co-stars with a young Clark Gable. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck)  is trying to get a job as a night nurse in the big city, despite having no high school education. She got the taste for nursing in the country while caring for her dying mother. The bitchy head nurse seems to think the lack of education is a big deal and sends our heroine packing, but not for long. Lora literally runs into well-heeled Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), bats an eyelash, shows off her gams, and soon this tomato has been accepted into the trainee program.

Lora’s new roommate is Maloney (the vivacious Joan Blondell). Maloney is the smarty pants trainee and the two hit it off so well that they spend an awful lot of peek-a-boo time undressing one another down to their lingerie and climbing into bed together. On her way to sainthood, the nurturing Lora actually cares about the patients. One of those is a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) who is really a good egg (sort of), though he gets fresh with our night nurse while she tends his bullet wound. When asked about his injury, Mortie concocts a story and vows: “Nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it!” 

When Lora inherits charge of two young girls, she runs into Nick (Clark Gable), a sexy, black silk robe wearing, gigolo chauffeur who tends to the girls’ dipsomaniac mama, the widowed Mrs. Ritchie (Charlotte Merriam). Nick is slowly starving the two whelps to order get their inheritance for Ritchie’s mobster boyfriend. In one jaw-dropping, memorable scene, Ritche is passed out on her bear skin rug, champagne glass empty, with the disgusted Lora standing over her, yelling: “You mother!” Things get even hairier when Lora threatens to call the kops and Nick socks her in the jaw! Lora, with hands on hips and darts for eyes, lives up to her moniker “Miss Iodine.” She whips the entire apathetic hospital into action, socks a phony in the mug, and solicits Mortie’s help to rid her of Nick. This beautifully lurid, period melodrama is blessed with Wellman’s visual panache and a shockingly nonchalant, amoral finale.

Baby Face is among the most notorious pre-Coders. Aiding its legendary status was its racier, pre-release edit (it was released just as the Production Code began to be enforced). The uncut version was believed lost until discovered at the Library of Congress in 2004. The Turner Classic Movies DVD release has both edits. Stick with the restored cut. Predictably, it’s more fun.

Babs is the aptly named Lily Powers, whose widowed, alcoholic father has been pimping her out to the mangy crowd that populates his speakeasy. One of Lily’s regular johns points her towards Nietzsche: “Be a master, not a slave, and use men to get the things you want,” he tells her. “Yeah.” Lily’s brain lights up together with her nihilistic cigarette. Lily becomes convinced of her feminine power when a convenient boiler explosion sends daddy to a much deserved hell.

With four bucks, Lily and her dad’s servant, Chico (Theresa Harris) hop aboard a train car. When the railman discovers them and threatens to kick them off, Chico suggests a romp in the hay. New York, here we come! Lily becomes “Baby Face” and spreads for anyone who can advance her career at the bank, including a young, curly topped .

Lily gives Lulu a run for the money and similar consequences await, including a murder-suicide scandal. Enter Tranholm (George Brent), Paris, marriage, eventual true love and realization that Nietzsche was clueless. Although director Alfred E. Green lacks Wellman’s directorial flair, he wisely defers to Stanwyck’s star power. Baby Face is not as outlandishly plotted as Night Nurse, lacks that earlier film’s idiosyncratic period zingers, and is bogged down with an unconvincing conversion at the finale. Still, for most of its ride, we are right there in the sack with Baby Face.

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ruggero Deodato

FEATURING: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

PLOT: A professor launches an expedition into the Amazon searching for a missing crew of documentary filmmakers; he instead finds reels of film the crew shot depicting atrocities they themselves committed against the tribes, followed by the cannibals’ ultimate vengeance.

Still from Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Other than an unusual narrative structure and an incongruent musical score, I can’t detect much weirdness here; in fact, the movie strives for documentary realism. I think the fact that people (including critics) continually cite this film as “weird” is a case of confusion between the overlapping genres of the “shock” movie (which is sometimes, but not always, weird) and the “weird” movie (which is often shocking, but not always in a disturbing way).

COMMENTS: “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” muses Cannibal Holocaust‘s professor as ninety minutes of carnage grind to a halt. Surely, what he meant to say is “I wonder who the real savages are?” I mean, the real cannibals are clearly the ones who eat people, right? It’s sloppy, thoughtless touches like that which should tip off this film’s defenders that, despite some stabs at social commentary, Holocaust is not meant as a meaningful work of horror art. It’s a work of commercial exploitation, designed to bleed maximum receipts from grindhouse theater patrons. Because of its parade of atrocities, it is effective at giving you that dirty, nihilistic feeling that some people crave in their “horror” (although I think this type of extreme transgressive film, which isn’t really scary, belongs to another genre entirely: call it “despair porn” or, less judgmentally, “moral horror”). Director Ruggero Deodato does have a talent for moral horror, turning cannibal rape orgies into a kind of flowing sick poetry. The low-tech special effects here are excellent, especially the skulls overgrown with lichen and crawling with jungle vermin, and the impalement scene was so realistic that an Italian court brought Deodato up on charges of murder until he revealed how the trick was done. The unusual structure of the film, with a standard narrative yielding halfway through to found footage sequences interrupted by a framing commentary, serves to keep the viewer off guard.

Aside from the visceral makeup and the willingness to go “all the way” in depicting cruelty, however, Cannibal Holocaust is competent at best, subpar at worst. The acting, especially from young actors in the missing film crew, is not very convincing. Worse yet, their motivations are barely explained and cartoonishly villainous. The crew appears to conceived of as photogenic, celebrity versions of mondo shockumentarians (in a typically tasteless move, Deodato includes actual footage of villagers being executed by African firing squads that could have come from the Italians’ opus Africa Addio). The notion is that the filmmakers in the film-inside-the-film are willing to provoke conflict and stage violence (charges leveled against Jacopetti and Prosperi) to make their documentaries more shocking and marketable. The over-the-top way this idea is executed is scarcely believable, however; not only does the director here stage obscene atrocities and film his own rape scene, he is visibly gleeful when his guide has to have his leg amputated and when he comes across a woman impaled on a stake. If he could, he would tie cannibal women to train tracks while cackling and twirling his mustache. And besides the lack of credible motivation, there’s an even bigger logical problem with the movie that goes straight to the reason for its existence: although we might stretch our imagination to believe that the filmmakers might be stupid enough to shoot their own crimes, no one would take valuable time that could be spent fleeing for his life to film the cannibals’ final revenge against his friends.

Of course, the worst part of the movie, which gives it its enduring infamy, are the gruesome animal killings, highlighted by the nauseating decapitation and evisceration of a giant river turtle. So many people miss the point of the objections to the animal cruelty that it’s necessary to elucidate it again. It does not matter that most of the animals were eaten after they were killed, or that most of them died quickly and relatively painlessly. The point is that, if it was truly necessary to the story, the violence against animals could have been realistically staged, just as the violence against humans was. Deodato deliberately—and repeatedly—chose to have the animals actually killed on-camera precisely because of the effect he knew it would have on the audience. He wanted to generate shock, outrage, and—ultimately and especially—income. Animal cruelty objectionable because of what is says about humans who perpetrate it; the “cruelty” side of the equation is far more saddening than the “animal” side. (To his credit, Deodato is on record as regretting shooting these scenes).

Leave the animal killings out of the movie, however, and Cannibal Holocaust would be lost in the trashpile of Italian cannibal movies, no more remembered than Cannibal Ferox or Emanuele and the Last Cannibals. The film is an effective sickie, but it’s morally repugnant and, as many have correctly pointed out, ironically hypocritical in its insincere attack on the media’s tendency to focus on (and even instigate) violence. The thesis that modern industrialized man is as savage as the Amazonian cannibal tribe is facile at best, but the only way that Deodato can prove it is to make himself into a monster. It’s as if I said to you, “people are inherently vicious,” and then proved my point by punching you in the nose. You’d probably be more angry at me than convinced of my theory, which is how I feel about Cannibal Holocaust.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani’s unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent.”–Sean Axmaker, Digital Delirium (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom

DIRECTED BY: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A pair of modern day Italian filmmakers visit the antebellum American south to make a documentary on 19th century slavery.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians Jacopetti and Prosperi partly to address accusations of racism in their previous movie Africa Addio (Goodbye Africa), is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity.

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their helicopter over the cotton fields as slaves and their white overseers wave at them, Goodbye Uncle Tom is one unusual movie. Much of the dialogue spoken is taken from actual pro- (and anti-) slavery texts, including the works of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, pseudoscientific and pseudoreligious justifications for racism, and an economist who criticizes the “peculiar institution” as inefficient. What is more memorable, however, are the parade of degrading scenes (that are based on real historical practices) depicting the harsh realities of the slave trade: teeth being knocked out for force-feeding, mass enemas, and castration. There are acres of naked brown flesh on display, as human chattel is herded from place to place; especially unforgettable is a scene of hundreds of nude extras, newly arrived from Africa, battling each other to eat slop from a trough. These scenes feature nudity on an epic scale that’s rarely been achieved in the movies.

The parade of atrocities is hard to watch and hard to stomach, but the case can be made that the filmmakers are simply recreating history in its full horror. What calls the high-mindedness of the project into question, however, are the unhealthy number of sequences devoted to the prurient sexual practices of the antebellum South. Uncle Tom depicts the plantation as a giant brothel. There are multiple rape scenes (scored to searing acid rock music that sounds uncomfortably triumphant), scenes of slaves and mulattos of both sexes used as prostitutes, and breeding scenes where “virile” slaves are kept like animals and put out to stud with terrified pre-teen females. The most disturbing bit involves a girl, introduced as thirteen years old, seductively begging a white man to take her virginity (and offering him a whip) so she will be spared losing it to a well-endowed slave. This is a pure sick male fantasy rendered in pornographic detail, and it’s far too direct to work as satire. Jacopetti and Prosperi were capable of getting their point about the sexual politics of slavery across with subtlety and wit—there is a brilliantly ironic scene where oblivious Southern belles discuss the unthinkable prospect of miscegenation, while the camera dwells on the impassive faces of house servants who clearly have partially Caucasian features—which only highlights the gratuitous sleaze of the pure titillation scenes. Like Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi’s bloody previous documentary on post-colonial political turmoil in Africa, Uncle Tom somehow manages to be  condescending and progressive, cynical and humanistic, all at the same time. One scene may cause a Klansman in the audience to stand up and clap, while the next minute it’s a Black Panther who’s cheering. The documentary as a whole arrives about 150 years too late to expose the evils of slavery, but there is a brave and surreal coda in which a modern black man reads passages from “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and imagines the bloody massacre of a white suburban family.

This review is based on the original theatrical release of Goodbye Uncle Tom (known on DVD as the “English language version”). The version of Uncle Tom reviewed here was taken from Blue Underground’s “Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature Set,” where the disc sits alongside Africa Blood and Guts (Africa Addio) and the Jacopetti/Prosperi documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. The Uncle Tom disc includes about 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by cameraman Giampaolo Lomi. There is also a “Director’s Cut” of the film that takes a more obvious contemporary political stance. This alternate edit of the film cuts out about 30 minutes of plantation scenes, such as the bizarre sequence with a swaddled veterinarian examining newly arrived slaves, and replaces them with then-contemporary footage of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., including footage of black comedian Dick Gregory’s 1968 presidential run. Some consider this to be a more politically relevant, less exploitative presentation of the film. To our knowledge it’s only available in the 8-disc “Mondo Cane Collection” set from Blue Underground (buy), which includes both cuts of Uncle Tom along with Mondo Cane and Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, two different versions of Africa Addio, and The Godfathers of Mondo.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tally Isham, who called it a “jaw-droppingly bizarre and offensive pseudo-documentary.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

169. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)

“‘Demonstration as theater,’ because then you got the headlines, and then you made your point. And there was a lot of competition for those headlines then [the 1960s]. So, it was theater as protest, certainly, which is something that, until the Seattle riots recently, kids don’t even know about… They know ‘I have a dream,’ they know Martin Luther King, they know Malcolm X, but they don’t know all that weird stuff… this is like a radical movement against cinema, which there hasn’t ever been one, but [laughs]…”–John Waters, Pink Flamingos commentary

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Danny Mills, ,

PLOT: Divine, winner of a contest to determine the “filthiest person in the world,” has gone into hiding at a trailer park with her egg-obsessed mother, randy son Crackers, and “traveling companion” Cotton. The Marbles, a couple who make a living by kidnapping women, impregnating them, then selling the babies to lesbian couples for adoption, are jealous of Divine’s title, believing they are filthier specimens of humanity. An escalating war of outrageously foul pranks between the two camps eventually results in arson, murder, and consumption of doggie-doo.

Still from Pink Flamingos (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • According to John Waters, neither his own parents (who financed Pink Flamingos), nor Divine’s mother, ever saw the movie; in fact, they were “forbidden” to see it.
  • The film’s budget was $12,000 (about $68,000 in 2014 dollars). It made a reported $6,000,000 in its original run and perhaps an additional $12,000,000 in subsequent video rentals.
  • The movie is dedicated to Sadie, Katie and Les, the Manson Family names of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten. During the film you can also see graffiti (painted by the crew) reading “free Tex Watson.” Waters says that the Manson Family and their recent trials were a big influence in this “anti-hippie movie for hippies.”
  • The chicken that was killed during the sex scene between Crackers and Cookie had been bought from a man who was selling them as food, and was cooked and served to the cast afterwards.
  • Waters wrote a sequel to Pink Flamingos called Flamingos Forever; plans to film it were scrapped due to the reluctance of Divine to reprise the role in middle age and the 1984 death of Edith Massey.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh my. There is a phrase that was coined for images like those in Pink Flamingos: “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” A naked woman covered in fresh chicken blood, a rectal closeup of a curious proctological case study, and of course the film’s grand finale (and reason to exist)—300 pound transvestite Divine using her gullet as a pooper scooper, gagging down dog dirt with a grin—are all candidates. If we want to chose something less nauseating to remember, we can consider the vision of Divine herself (himself? itself?) as the takeaway image, since this is the movie that introduced the iconic drag queen—a character who looks like Elizabeth Taylor during the “Big Mac” years, if her makeup had been designed by a grateful but seriously stoned Ronald McDonald—to the wider world.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About a 300 pound woman (played by a man) living in a trailer who is harassed by a couple of “jealous perverts” because she is anointed “the filthiest person in the world,” Pink Flamingos is a parade of hard-to-swallow, tongue-in-cheek perversities played out in an unreal subculture where society’s values have been turned on their head. It’s the ultimate stoned, amoral underground atrocity, an obscenity shouted at the normal world by angry freaks.


Clip from Pink Flamingos

COMMENTS: If you’re not offended by something in Pink Flamingos, then please go see a psychiatrist. The movie’s reason to exist is to shock and Continue reading 169. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)

LIST CANDIDATE: L’AGE D’OR (1930)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys

PLOT: What plot? The screenplay was co-written by Salvador Dalí! A man and a woman long to have sex, but for various reasons they never do. Along the way, other things happen for no reason at all.

Still from L'Age D'or (1930)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a direct follow-up to Un Chien Andalou, arguably the weirdest film ever made; it’s the only other film by the Bunuel/Dalí combo; and it’s the only other official Surrealist movie by Buñuel. So it ought to be a shoo-in. Unfortunately, as with so many sequels, it utterly fails to live up to the promise of the first film.

COMMENTS: Although this is often described as a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, they fell out before shooting started, so Dalí’s contribution was probably minimal (though depending on who you ask, he may have contributed little to Un Chien Andalou either). Scripted to run for 20 minutes, it somehow ballooned out of control and tripled in length during shooting. Fortunately, the aristocratic patron who provided the finance simply reached for his checkbook and told them to carry on regardless. Or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. Un Chien Andalou is 16 minutes long, which is about as long as that level of blistering irrationality can realistically be maintained for, both in terms of the scriptwriter’s imagination and the audience’s patience. Stretched to just over an hour, the same kind of thing feels baggy, and is at times downright boring.

After a totally irrelevant prologue—the first three minutes are a documentary about scorpions—the film proper begins with a ragged man observing four elderly bishops sitting on a rock by the sea mumbling prayers. He rushes to a tumbledown shack and informs the other ragged men within, who appear to be guerrillas of some kind, that the “Majorcans” have arrived. In what seems to be a typically sly joke expressing Buñuel’s growing disillusionment with the Surrealist movement (he left in 1932), these men listlessly perform utterly pointless activities, and when they take up arms to combat the forces of religion, they’re so crippled and worn-out that almost all of them collapse, apparently from sheer apathy, before making it as far as the coast. The one man who gets there has just time to observe that the bishops have spontaneously turned into skeletons anyway before he too collapses. In an otherwise nonsensical speech, the most listless of the lot tells the others that they’re sure to win because they have paintbrushes. And their leader is played by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst (who remained a faithful Surrealist, so maybe the joke’s on him too).

At this point a flotilla of small boats arrives, and numerous civic dignitaries and smartly-dressed persons disembark. It becomes apparent that the death of the four Majorcan bishops has inspired these people to build the city of Rome (in 1930). However, the ceremony of laying the foundation stone is interrupted by the first appearance of the two protagonists, who are attempting to have very loud sex in a pool of mud. Not surprisingly, they are prevented by the outraged crowd and dragged away.

Not a bad beginning, but from this point on, it’s strictly by-the-numbers Surrealism. Gaston Modot, a very prolific character actor, is suitably intense, but kicking puppies and blind men is a poor substitute for slashing a woman’s eyeball! Lya Lys at one point comes across as the world’s worst actress, and is obviously using an autocue, but this must have been deliberate, since she too had a mainstream career (weird movie buffs can see her in The Return Of Doctor X, in which Humphrey Bogart, for the first and last time, plays a vampire). The almost-consummation of their passion goes on far too long without being anywhere near as intense or explicit as the similar scene in Un Chien Andalou. Priests and bishops in vaguely comical situations recur time and time again, we see the first use of Buñuel’s characteristic “incongruous animal indoors” trope, random passers-by kick violins down the street or have loaves on their heads, and so on. But it all seems a bit tired.

There are standout moments—a man cold-bloodedly killing his son for the most trivial of reasons, a suicide falling not to the floor but the ceiling, Lya Lys passionately sucking the toe of a statue—but not enough of them. There’s a tacked-on ending, in which, as a lengthy intertitle informs us, a quartet of degenerates emerge from a bestial orgy (actually the one described in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom), and one of them turns out to be Jesus Christ. It comes across as a rather childish ploy to get the film banned on purpose.

Ultimately this is an ambitious failure, and not really very interesting. So many specific motifs from this film cropped up 44 years later in The Phantom Of Liberty that the latter movie could not implausibly be viewed as a secret remake. Perhaps Buñuel, always a lover of in-jokes, knowing that his career was almost over, was making his biggest in-joke of all?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exhilarating, irrational masterpiece of censor-baiting chutzpah.”–Jamie Russel, BBC (DVD)

CAPSULE: AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964)

À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma

DIRECTED BY: José Mojica Marins

FEATURING: José Mojica Marins, Magda Mei

PLOT: Brazilian undertaker Zé do Caixão (“Coffin Joe”) eats meat on Friday, terrorizes peasants, and plots to steal his best friend’s fiancee; a gypsy witch is the only person in town who dares to defy him.

Still from At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Up until its nightmarish finale, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is only weird in the sense that it features a one-of-a-kind antihero: Zé do Caixão, a the stovepipe hat wearing undertaker and self-appointed ubermensch who eats lamb on Holy Friday, rails against God during a thunderstorm, and gleefully murders his friends and acquaintances. The vicious character was popular enough to spawn a series of films, and Zé became an iconic boogeyman in Brazil, along the lines of a Freddy Kreuger in the States. Although not all that strange, the original At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is arguably the best of the Coffin Joe movies; the character, however, would return in weirder guises…

COMMENTS: When José Mojica Marins made At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul in 1964, there were no previous Brazilian horror films for him to model his movie after. That explain why Midnight, while cheap, sleazy, and cheesy in design, feels fresh and unique. Marins begins Midnight with not one, but two prologues. In the first Coffin Joe explains the concepts of life, death, existence and blood; in the second, an old gypsy hag waves a Universal Studios surplus skull in front of the camera and warns audiences there’s still time to turn around and go home. In between the introduction and the foreword, the sadistic highlights are previewed over the credits. A leather gloved hand bloodies a woman’s face, the same hands strangle a man in a bathtub, and a tarantula crawls over a bound victim, all while the wind howls and screams, moans and cackles echo in the background like a soundtrack for a Halloween haunted house. The opening impression is of a cross between a Universal horror and a grindhouse roughie; throw in a bit of Anton LaVey posturing, and that’s a fairly accurate description. The violence, which includes severed fingers and gouged eyeballs, is astounding for the early 1960s (there’s no nudity, of course—modesty must prevail). There’s a brutal rape scene, but Zé’s casual blasphemies probably shocked the original audience even more. The plot is simple but unusual: it’s mostly a series of scenes of Coffin Joe scandalizing pious villagers with his sacrilegious antics, then beating and whipping them while daring them to gather the courage to confront him. Meanwhile, he obsesses about fathering a son to carry on his bloodline, and decides to get rid of his barren girlfriend in favor of his only friend’s fiancée. A gypsy woman hangs around the edges of the picture predicting doom for the blackguard. Coffin Joe finally goes too far in his iniquities and one night, at midnight, the spirits of those he’s wronged come to take his soul. It’s not the plot (and certainly not the production values) that impresses, however, but the character of Coffin Joe. Clad head to toe in black, with a stovepipe hat, cape, pipe, bristly beard, and three-inch long fingernails sharpened like knife points, Zé is an instant nightmare icon from the moment he arrogantly strides onscreen. But what makes him terrifying is that he freely chooses evil: there is no backstory to humanize him or explain how he became embittered and corrupted. He’s simply a sociopath who delights in causing pain to his fellow human beings, and who is smart enough to justify his lusts and strong enough to seize them. His philosophy of evil is summed up by his assessment of the villagers he terrorizes: “They’re weak because they fear what they don’t know. I am free. Therefore, I am stronger.” Because Zé, an atheist in a superstitious Catholic society, has no fear of eternal punishment, he can take whatever he wants. A woman he rapes tells him she will kill herself: Zé’s chilling response is to wipe her blood from his lips and inform her that all the women say that—at first. Coffin Joe is repulsive, but he’s also charismatic; the cinematic figure he resembles most is Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We can’t actively root for him, but we can’t help but secretly envy him; he is what we fear in ourselves. That makes for a great character, even if the technical qualities of the movie surrounding Coffin Joe can’t quite live up to Marins’ ghoulish persona. Zé’s downfall satisfies the censors; evil is punished. But at the end, when the forces of superstition and the vengeful spirits of the dead swamp the undertaker, Coffin Joe’s comeuppance has all the sincerity of a fallen preacher’s tearful apology to his parishioners. It’s there for show, to convince the audience that wickedness has been buried once and for all. As Coffin Joe’s words echo in our ears, we remain unconvinced.

Director José Mojica Marins says he took the role of Coffin Joe because he could not find a professional Brazilian actor willing to play the part. He portrayed Zé do Caixão for 45 years, through three canonical Coffin Joe films and a host of guest appearances, including cameos in Marins’ more surreal offerings, including the LSD horror Awakening of the Beast and the cut-and-paste highlight reel Hallucinations in a Deranged Mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Morality is annihilated, transgression is exalted — a confrontational close-up makes Mei’s mauled mouth as bizarrely erotic as Barbara Steele’s punctured face in Black Sunday…”–Fernando Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by EricSG, who praised the “eerie atmosphere” and “surrealistic touches that hint upon Bunuel (albeit more evil)” and added “the ending catapults it into the weird netherworld with psychedelic camera tricks…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)