A girl is swept up and indoctrinated by a group of veiled women.
DIRECTED BY: Anna Rose Holmer
FEATURING: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett
PLOT: A preteen tomboy finds herself drawn into the dance classes at her local recreation center, but soon after she joins the group the older girls begin suffering mysterious seizures.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While definitely of interest to aficionados of weirdness, and a highly recommended film overall, it just doesn’t reach the levels of bizarre we aim for with the List.
COMMENTS: Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a quiet, athletic 11-year-old girl who spends her afternoons at the local rec center with her older brother, training in the boxing gym with a group of teen boys. She finds herself compelled to join the dance drill team that rehearses down the hall, feeling shy around the girls but determined to show off her moves. Though she doesn’t appear to be naturally gifted at dance, she sticks with it and befriends some of the other new recruits, observing the older girls who lead the troupe with the curiosity of a child and the growing understanding of a young adult. When the seizures start, Toni and her friends are more intrigued than scared, and they watch from afar as more and more of the older girls are affected by this unexplained malady. Toni begins to suspect that it’s intentional, that they want it, and it becomes a kind of calling card for a cool inner circle.
Based on plot alone, The Fits sounds like a fairly standard coming-of-age drama, and in some ways it is: a shy and intelligent girl finds community within a larger group, learns about new adult realities, maintains her independence, etc. The parallels between the girls’s seizures and female puberty are obvious, as Toni feels the kind of ostracization and curiosity that preteen girls might experience as their friends start getting (and discussing) their periods. Along with fear of the unknown there is a pride attached to the phenomenon, a feeling of special knowledge and maturity. Throughout the film, we see our tomboy protagonist slowly acquiring visual markers coded as “girly,” including glitter nail polish and pierced ears, which help her fit in with her friends. But she slowly sheds them all, retaining her sense of difference. Eventually, Toni (and the audience) senses that there is a kind of freedom attached to the seizures—the precise, fluid movements of the drill team are liberally flung out the window in the sudden and erratic fits the girls exhibit. There is a beauty to letting go, to giving in to being a girl, to finding acceptance in her changing, awkward preteen body.
With a keen observational eye and resourceful use of a single location (the town recreational center), first-time director Anna Rose Holmer fully engages with the perspective of her central character. We see everything through Toni’s eyes, and the subtle, powerful performance of Royalty Hightower communicates a world of experience with little expository dialogue. But the most intriguing stylistic element of The Fits is its sound. While one might realistically expect a soundtrack of dance music, specifically pop or hip hop, to go with the performances of the drill team, the music rarely matches the action onscreen. Instead we are treated to bizarre, somewhat abstract soundscapes that create a sense of intrinsic eeriness, hinting that something must be wrong here. The surreal music serves to pick apart the weirdness of adolescence, and to heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Toni feels every day behind her stony exterior as she maneuvers the muddy waters between childhood and adulthood. Without it, the events of the film would be dramatic, but not necessarily extraordinary. With it, we are left with a distinct but ambiguous sense of strangeness, an itch we can’t quite scratch, a mystery never to be solved. And yet, thanks to an exuberant final dance number, there’s a contentment that goes along with it, suggesting the power of sisterhood.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Sur un Air de Charleston
DIRECTED BY: Jean Renoir
FEATURING: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins
PLOT: In 2028, an explorer from Africa in a futuristic flying sphere visits a devastated Paris, where a scantily-clad flapper with a pet gorilla teaches him how to do the native dance—the Charleston.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a cute time-capsule oddity, but it’s also throwaway fluff—it lacks weird heft.
COMMENTS: Jean Renoir was an early cinema pioneer, and the son of famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Catherine Hessling was Renoir pere‘s last muse and model, and Renoir fils‘ first wife and leading lady. Jean’s cinema career would eventually result in conventional, realist stalwarts like The Grand Illusion (1935) and Rules of the Game (1937), but the short “Charleston Parade” shows him at a playful, experimental early stage. (Renoir did not make much money from his silent films, and actually sold his father’s paintings to finance them). “Charleston Parade” was made in three days on a lark. It was condemned in Puritanical America because of the amount of skin Hessling displays, along with her salacious dancing, and probably because of its racial and anti-colonial subtexts as well. Many of the director’s fans seem to think of this slice of Gallic zaniness as an embarrassment that Renoir would probably wish he could take back. I, on the other hand, wish more of the director’s movies were this unhinged. Every great director owes it to his fans, and himself, to make at least one weird movie.
The African explorer’s flying sphere (a nice effect for the time) lifts off from civilized Africa heading for the wilds of Europe. Cut to a ruined street in Paris where a flapper in short-shorts and a camisole tugs on a rope connected to an ape. Her legs are splayed lasciviously. The explorer lands on a pole. He is played by a black man dressed in a minstrel getup and made up to look as if he was wearing blackface. After some slapstick mugging and bumping and grinding the flapper ties the explorer to a pole and begins a savage dance, shown in both fast and slow-motion. The explorer requests to use a telephone, which the flapper creates by drawing an outline on a wall in chalk. She dials up some angels (disembodied heads with wings attached, played by the crew, including Renoir himself). The rest of the film consists of the flapper teaching the explorer to dance, until she finally climbs into his sphere and flies back to civilized Africa (causing her pet ape to weep).
Though “Charleston Parade” is thoroughly wacky, the racial satire of the film gives it an added level of strangeness. The idea of a future where Africa is civilized and Europe is savage is at the same time progressive and condescending. A black actor in blackface was a first, for sure, although a more daring idea would have been to cast a black actress (e.g., Josephine Baker) in whiteface—but then Renoir couldn’t have used his wife as the star.
Despite being the work of a famous auteur, “Charleston Parade” is obscure and has rarely been anthologized. On DVD, it is only available on the eclectic 3-disc set “Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition,” where it is the shortest film alongside Whirlpool of Fate (1925), Nana (1926), The Little Match Girl (1933), La Marseillaise (1938), The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), and The Elusive Corporal (1962). There is no sound on the short embedded below (there isn’t on the DVD either; where’s thewhen you need them?) I suggest playing something peppy in the background.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“These images reveal a spirit of play and weird humor in Renoir that would later manifest itself in his kindred spirit antiheroes like Boudu. Charleston Parade is an oddity from Renoir, but it’s a compelling and enjoyable oddity.”–Ed Howard, Only the Cinema (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose suggestion was unfortunately lost. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Brandon Trost, Jason Trost
FEATURING: Jason Trost, Caker Folley, Lee Valmassy, Art Hsu
PLOT: In the future rival gangs fight for control of a lawless suburban town, gaining power and street cred by winning dance video game duels.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It dances to the beat of its own beat machine, for sure, and will strike a chord with some, but it’s not weird enough to overcome its own lightweight aspirations.
COMMENTS: Although I can’t unconditionally recommend The FP, I do admire its willingness to play its goofy premise with a (mostly) straight face. There are only a couple of outright jokes in the movie’s entire run-time (including a pretty funny one about the ecology of alcoholics and waterfowl). Most of the time, we’re allowed to generate our own humor from the absurd spectacle of wannabe gangstas settling deadly scores on video game dance floors. Eye-patched hero J-Tro quits the 248 gang after brother B-Tro drops dead, presumably of shame, after losing a hoofing contest to mohawked L Dubba E, leader of the 245 clan. Coaxed out of retirement by monumentally irritating sidekick KCDC, J-Tro returns to the FP to find L Dubba E monopolizing not only the suburbs’ liquor supply, but also his would-be New Wave squeeze Stacy. This leads, inevitably, to a series of training montages before J-Tro faces L Dubba one-on-one for some beatbox vengeance. Meanwhile, a cast of spastic punk extras say the f-word while dressed in mix-and-match outfits from Road Warrior and Karate Kid (the ladies dress like Cyndi Lauper in the depths of a depraved cocaine binge). From the Commodore 64-style opening graphic scroll to the synthpop theme, the movie is oh-so-Eighties it hurts. It’s a parody of all those shy-and-stoic underdog defeats the arrogant villain and gets the girl flicks, and also a satire on today’s white suburban youth acting all ghetto (not the most challenging of satirical targets, for sure, but sometimes you aim at what you can hit). The slang is thick to the point of near impenetrability (“J-TRO jumped his ass and was like bow to the bridge, yo kick it! Believ’ dat!”), but it’s too near real contemporary teen talk (characters actually say “whatevs” and “for realz”) to have any poetic charm. Odd moments include an attack with an electric tennis racket and a drug trip where a freaked out J-Tro believes he’s being attacked by hipsters in rainbow wigs, but the weirdest thing about the movie is that none of the characters realizes that none of the other characters in the movie actually has a “black ass.” The 248 crew refer to each other as “Niggas” (“nig” for short), which they explain stands for “Never Ignorant in Gettin’ Goals Accomplished.” To me, a more accurate acronym for their behavior would be “Willfully Insipid Goofiness Galls Adults.” I desperately wanted to enjoy this offbeat movie, but I couldn’t, because every character was constantly screaming at me in a stream of profanity-laced, alphabet soup jargon, and I wanted them all to die in grisly ways. With its head-rattling techno soundtrack and post-apocalyptic rave visuals, The FP seems hellbent on giving anyone over the age of 30 a screaming headache; if that sounds like an endorsement to you, then by all means give it a watch.
The FP was released by Drafthouse Films, the new distribution branch of the famous Alamo Drafthouse saloon/cinema.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders
FEATURING: Pina Bausch
PLOT: A selection of modern dances from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch, interspersed
with tributes from the dancers who worked with her and presented in 3D.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pina Bausch invented weird dances, but filming them (even in 3D) doesn’t make a weird movie, just a movie about people performing weird dances.
COMMENTS: German choreographer Pina Bausch died unexpectedly just before Wim Wenders began principal photography on Pina; whatever profile of the working artist he might originally have planned, the film became instead a eulogy. Because Bausch believed that movement was itself a language that could express emotional truths impossible to say with language, it’s fitting that almost none of her words remain in the film but that her life is instead told through her abstract dances. (What quotes we do have are mostly platitudes for the comfort and inspiration of her dancers: “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”). It begins with a semi-conventional staging of Stravinsky’s still-shocking “The Rites of Spring,” with pagan maidens anxiously swaying in nude-colored nightgowns until the high priest selects the unlucky gal destined to dance herself to death to ensure a good harvest. That’s as comfortably classical and representational as things get. When we move into Bauch’s own imagination, we encounter a dreamlike café where blind women crash into the walls, a ballet performed in the pouring onstage rain beside a giant craggy rock, and a woman who walks onto a train cradling a pillow and silently connects with a passenger wearing donkey ears. Next to a muddy lake, a hunched woman bears a sleeping man on her back, while further in the background another lady marches along with a tree growing out of her spine. Limp dancers manipulated like puppets by others are a repeating theme; for example, there’s one sequence where a man carefully positions two comatose lovers, placing the woman’s arm around the man’s neck and then hoisting her into his arms, but she always slips off and he repeats his manipulations over and over, performing the futile ritual faster and faster each time until he’s almost a blur on the screen. Dances from four of Bausch’s major works are recreated; Wenders sometimes pours the action out of the theater and into the streets of Wuppertal. A few shorter pieces were created for the film by her disciples in Pina’s surreal style. The stagings and costumes are minimalist but always evocative and interesting; color schemes are intense and dramatic. The musical accompaniment is tasteful, eclectic and melodic, ranging from the expected classical chestnuts (Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky) through jazz (Louis Armstrong) and Portuguese fado to moody modern avant-rock and electronica. I didn’t go into Pina as a fan of modern dance, and I didn’t come out one; but, even though the non-narrative feature did become a bit repetitive at 100 minutes, I’m glad I spent the time getting to know the woman and her craft. I don’t think Pina will spark the same interest in its esoteric subject as Wenders’ The Buena Vista Social Club did in Cuban music, but it’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the grace, dedication and creativity of the dancers, or by the love and respect that went into composing this tribute to Pina’s life work.
Though sometimes promoted as the first 3D documentary, fellow German Werner Herzog beat Wenders to the punch (at least by release date) with his equally weighty Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). When I watched Cave on a flat screen, I was convinced that, by not having seen it in 3D as intended, I was missing out on crucial visual textures. But (although I know I’ll be in the minority here), having caught Pina in a theater in all three of its intended dimensions, now I’m not convinced that 3D technology can ever add anything to a film’s visuals but a touch of novelty. The human brain automatically adds depth to a flat image, making 3D effects superfluous. Pina‘s dancers didn’t seem richer or more real to me simply because they were superficially curvier and stood out a bit from the background. In fact, they looked artificial and unnatural, in that peculiar way only modern computer-generated effects produce. The ersatz hyperreality of 3D may perform a weirdening function by enhancing the oddness of Pina’s otherworldly compositions, however.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Pina’s power comes from the way Wenders uses that illusion of living, flexing proximity to immerse you in Bausch’s dreamlike, emotionally vertiginous world. Watching Pina is like being inside one of Bausch’s surreal pieces.”–Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)