Tag Archives: Criterion collection

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

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DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy

FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin

PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
  • Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
  • Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
  • This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
  • The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.


Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)

COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

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DIRECTED BY: , Emeric Pressburger

FEATURING: Robert Rounseville, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Moria Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars

PLOT: During the intermission of a ballet, the poet Hoffman tells a drinking party stories of three women whom he has loved and lost: an automaton, a courtesan, and an ailing singer.

Still from Tales of Hoffman (1951)

COMMENTS: Hoffman is a layer-cake of high art contributions: starting with Jacques Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffman,” edited and altered to fit the running time and the producer’s fancies, with the libretto translated into English for the first time, adding an entirely new ballet scene and requiring extensive choreography for the rest of the acts, staged on lavish sets designed by unsung hero Hein Heckroth, and ultimately delivered through the medium of cinema and a magical camera. Offenbach’s final opus, completed only months before the composer’s death in 1819, seems an unlikely candidate for the most lavish cinematic opera ever filmed. Unlike the major works of Wagner, Mozart, or Bizet, it contains no well-known arias or overtures. What it does offer is a number of evocative scene-changes through a variety of romantic locales, which was what likely attracted and Emeric Pressburger (known, together with their customary production team, as “the Archers”) to the project.

Robert Rounseville makes for a bland Hoffmann; he was cast primarily because he played the part on stage, but in his defense he was one of the only actors to sing his own part (most were dubbed and performed while lip-syncing). Lithe ballerina Moria Shearer (from The Red Shoes) takes the spotlight for two top-notch dances, as the sinuous female dragonfly in the opening ballet and in a comic mode as the stiff automaton. With his expressive eyes and even more expressive eyebrows, Robert Helpmann snakes through the stories (and steals every scene) as Hoffman’s eternally recurring Satanic antagonist; a former dancer and choreographer, he performs no grand jeté‘s here, but always moves purposefully and gracefully. It’s fair to say he is the film’s onscreen star: usually, the actors are hardly more significant than the custom-built marionettes.

The sets, dances, wardrobes, and optics drive the experience, not the actors or narrative. Hoffman tours four major settings—the lily pad lake where the dragonflies perform their mating dance; the workshop of the automaton-maker, peopled with marionettes; the decadent Venice of courtesans; the classical marble halls of the singer’s villa on a remote Greek island—in addition to several minor sets (like the beer hall). Each has its own dominant color scheme: green for the dragonflies, yellow for the living dolls, red for the gondolas and bordellos of Venice, and blue for the Greek island. The Continue reading CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

28*. WALKER (1987)

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“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s commentary

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ed Harris, , , , Peter Boyle,  Marlee Matlin

PLOT: Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hires William Walker, a mercenary and adventurer fresh off a failed campaign to establish an independent state in Mexico, to take a small army to Nicaragua to join their civil war on the side of the Democrats. Assembling a ragtag band of disreputable men lacking better prospects, Walker takes his army to Nicaragua, where he has unexpected success, driving back the Legitimist army and arriving in the capital of Grenada as a liberator. Initially accepting a position leading the army, Walker grows power mad and seizes the country’s Presidency.

Still from Walker (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Walker was a real historical figure and, ridiculous anachronisms and obvious fantasy scenes aside, Walker describes the general direction of his career. Many scenes were drawn from his diaries and letters and other historical sources. (One major change was the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who did not sponsor Walker’s original expedition, but was involved in his downfall.)
  • The practice of American adventurers invading Latin American countries with private armies was surprisingly common in the 19th century, so much so that it earned its own name: filibustering. William Walker was the most successful filibusterer of all time. He somehow took control of Nicaragua with an army initially comprised of a mere 60 men.
  • Rudy Wurlitzer’s previous screenplays included the bizarre post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), ‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Western Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973).
  • Cox made Walker in the same year as Straight to Hell, a quickie scraped together after plans to film a punk rock concert in Nicaragua fell apart.
  • The movie was filmed while the C.I.A..-backed Contras were waging a guerilla war against the ruling Sandinistas. Cox filmed corpses from a Contra massacre and included the footage in the film’s end credits.
  • Universal Studios gave Cox his largest budget ever, six million dollars, to make what they hoped might be a prestige biopic, or even a hit. They did not expect the deranged, anachronistic, incendiary film Cox delivered, and after poorly-received test screenings they buried the film. Cox never directed in Hollywood again.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to cite one of the many iconic scenes of Walker, rifle in hand, striding confidently in the foreground in his smart Puritan-black suit while mayhem erupts in the background. We instead selected the surreal image of Walker striding confidently across the beach in the background, while in the foreground two of his men are being punished by being buried up to their necks in the sand with a tarantula crawling over one’s head, while their overseer enjoys a Marlboro and Coke.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Smoking during tarantula torture; 19th century helicopter evacuation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by (if he was obsessed with politics instead of sex and Catholicism). That’s Walker in a nutshell.


Original trailer for Walker

COMMENTS: Walker drops its strangeness on its viewers gradually. Continue reading 28*. WALKER (1987)

23*. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

Giulietta degli spiriti

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“I remember I had some exaltation about color. I see colors not like they are normally – we see colors in the object. In this case, I saw colors, just as they are, detached from the object. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of the color in a detached way.”–Federico Fellini

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mario Pisu

PLOT: Juliet, a wealthy housewife, has reason to suspect her husband is cheating on her. She has always been attuned to the spirit world, and after a seance she begins seeing visions and hearing voices; one of the whispering entities tells her that her neighbor, the strange, sexually liberated Suzy, will be her teacher. As her marriage disintegrates, her visions become harder to distinguish from reality, until Juliet snaps and banishes the spirits.

Still from Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini’s first feature-length color film (although his short segment for the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 was in color.)
  • Fellini took LSD (in a clinical setting) for inspiration in making this film. He found it “a little disappointing.”
  • Some of the biographical details of onscreen Juliet’s stories come from Giulietta Massina’s own experiences in her marriage to Fellini. The house seen in the film is the couple’s real house.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Juliet of the Spirits parades a host of bizarrely costumed Felliniesque grotesques across the screen in its 130 minutes, but aside from the perpetually smiling eye-of-the-storm Masina, the one who makes the biggest impression is buxom, bodacious Suzy (Sandra Milo). In one of the movie’s unforgettable scenes, she disrobes (offscreen) in the blink of an eye to demonstrate one of the hedonistic accoutrements in her bordello-like haven: a slide winding directly from her bedroom to her personal post-coital swimming pool.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hermaphrodite swami reception; faceless purple nuns

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like his previous 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits is a Fellini trip where dreams and fantasies—the more baroque and colorful, the better—intrude into reality as a way to explore the psychology of the film’s protagonist.


Original trailer for Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

COMMENTS: Juliet of the Spirits is transitional Fellini—most obviously, in updating the director’s palette to the full color spectrum, Continue reading 23*. JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965)

CAPSULE: SYMBIOSPYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: William Greaves

FEATURING: William Greaves, Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert

PLOT: Director William Greaves hires two actors to perform a short melodramatic dialogue in Central Park, then has another camera crew film his process of directing them, while yet another crew films the second crew.

Still from SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: Take One (1968)

COMMENTS:If you ever wished a movie consisted of all behind-the-scenes footage and no real content, here you go. William Greaves’ conceit is to repeatedly film a one-scene stage test for a feature that he never intended to make. As he guides the actors through their melodramatic line readings, a camera crew films his direction; a second camera crew films the first. They also film anything that happens on set, whether it be a crowd of gawkers, a homeless veteran who wanders out of the woods, or a policeman checking to see if they have permits to film in Central Park. Greaves wears the same distinctive green mesh shirt through the entire shoot, making it appear as if all the action takes place on a single day. Every now and then, the movie switches to split screens to show the crew and actors activities from different angles, and funky jazz (from Miles Davis’ classic “In a Silent Way” album) punctuates the action. If the act of observing a thing changes it, as the physicists say, then what does the act of observing oneself observing oneself do?

All this sounds like it could be unbearably self-conscious art exercise from stoned hippies, but it’s unexpectedly fascinating. It’s the “coup” staged by the crew, who take it upon themselves to film their own spirited private discussions where they wonder what the hell Greaves is up to, and why he seems to be playing at being incompetent, that ignites the film.  In 1968, they’re not a crew of jaded postmodernists: they sincerely discusses questions of reflexivity and artificiality versus reality, and try to find deeper meaning in the lines which they insist are drivel. They aren’t defensively ironic, as the tone would be were such a project made today; they are unafraid of seeming pretentious. This layer of revolt is essential to the film, supplying conflict and texture. And the viewer never knows if Greaves instigated (or even partly scripted) the crew’s spirited bull sessions, or simply lucked out when they took it upon itself to supply what becomes the most interesting part of the film. You wonder if Greaves is pulling some kind of Andy Kaufman-styled cinematic prank.

Shot in 1968, this movie was not exhibited until 1971, but slowly grew its legend through rare festival and museum screenings, gaining a series of influential champions among fellow filmmakers. This movement culminates in Symbiospsychotaxipalsm: Take 2 1/2, a sequel released in 2005 with the backing fans of and , which is included on the Criterion Collection disc. As far from a standalone feature as is possible to imagine, 2 1/2 starts with 30 minutes of unused footage from the first movie featuring two of the actors , then, after some reflections from the director and crew about the project, fast-forwards the story to see what has happened to these characters 35 years later (answer: they are still doing screen tests, and Greaves is still filming everything). The sequel is a worthwhile supplement, but mostly it serves to highlight the lightning-in-a-bottle success of the original. Youth has faded and the magic can only be remembered, not recreated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie-within-a-movie at a time when most of the meta-cinematic action was coming from Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard. But Greaves goes one better. He’s doing Godard doing Cassavetes.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (2006 revival)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russa03. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ONIBABA (1964)

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DIRECTED BY: Kaneto Shindo

FEATURINGNobuko Otawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura,

PLOTTwo women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.

COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.

The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.

Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings.  You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.

Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.

Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The director’s brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda’s cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda’s properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo’s obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)