Tag Archives: Criterion collection

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

Recommended

“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

ORSON WELLES’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

For fifty years, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) was locked in various disputes over ownership, and was only sporadically seen in wretched prints. It was talked and written about so much that inevitably seeing it (as I did in Chicago in the 90s) amounted to an ordeal. With both poor visual and audio, it was unquestionably a disappointment. Thankfully, Janus Films came to a long overdue rescue in 2015.

The restoration (available on the Criterion Collection) is miraculous, revealing one of Welles’ most astonishing, loving creations. While F for Fake was Welles’ final finished film, Chimes at Midnight is his final completed narrative feature—one that he never could have topped. The character of Falstaff inspired Welles to heights previously unreached (as it did Giuseppe Verdi). Chimes is his most personal and finest foray into Shakespearean terrain. While you’re watching it, you feel he’s peerless. Despite an epic struggle to finish the production, Welles’ direction is assured, but it’s as an actor that he soars in a tour de force performance. Welles himself cited as his best work, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff on film. One is inclined to agree. Welles had first played the part in a high school play that was ambitiously intended to be three hours long. Predictably, the school demanded cuts, forcing him to compromise (it wouldn’t be the last time). He played the part again in the late 1930s and in 1960, although both productions were short-lived financial failures.

Welles’ The Chimes at Midnight screenplay draws a linear chronological portrait of John Falstaff from the plays “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and “Richard III,” with Ralph Richardson’s narration taken from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles.”

Like almost all of Welles’ later films, it was made under ragged conditions. The director was able to obtain meager financing by telling a bold faced lie (see F For Fake) to producer Emiliano Piedra, promising to direct and act in a version of “Treasure Island” in exchange. Welles had no intention of keeping that promise,  which Piedra eventually discovered, complicating the production (it took two years to complete). Despite budgetary struggles, Welles produced a final masterpiece. Only Welles could do so much with so little, crafting a chiaroscuro landscape with an epic ferociously bleak battle scene that can rank with the likes of Kurosawa.

Still from Chimes at Midnight (1965)With his girth and advanced age now a plus, Welles is physically perfect for the role, but the character of a lush, rogue anecdotist on the verge of become a train wreck parody is also close to the actor’s heart.  He doesn’t play Falstaff too broadly (comedy was never Welles’ medium), and there is a touch of smallness in the distended knight living beyond his means. Art imitating life, as far as Welles was concerned. Almost equally fine is ‘s performance as the draconian Henry and (most disturbingly) as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

As fine as Laurence Olivier was as Hamlet, Henry, and Richard, there was always a feeling of Shakespeare being too easy for him. The (considerably budgeted) productions went smoothly. One never comes away from Olivier’s Shakespeare with a sense of the artist and the production having grappled with the literary source.  Quintessentially professional, Olivier, like the Berlin Philharmonic conductor , is well-rehearsed in the art of reinterpretation. What makes Chimes at Midnight unique among the great cinematic Shakespeares is that which some critics initially complained of in it. Welles, like Leonard Bernstein, transforms interpretation into a sweaty brawl. In doing so, the director’s idiosyncrasies, or rather personality, is so imposed that it transforms  the work into a bona fide personal manifesto: lusty, often approaching a bacchanal.  It speaks volumes that Olivier, unlike Welles, was an Academy favorite. Yet Welles is as fearless and assured with the text as the more acclaimed examples of Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Put Chimes at Midnight at the top of your Shakespeare to do list. You won’t even have to wait a half century to see it as it should be seen.

315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

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

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

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

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

BACKGROUND:

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

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

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

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


Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

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