Tag Archives: Documentary

ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

In hindsight, F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”

Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of  H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.

Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.

Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.

Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane (1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.

Still from F for Fake (1973)Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around  F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ F FOR FAKE (1973)

308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

Bara no sôretsu 

“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”

“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”

–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto

FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama

PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.

Still from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
  • The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in ‘s Ran.
  • The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
  • The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama.  Matsumoto released it separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.


Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses

COMMENTS: “Each man has his own mask,” says the voice from the Continue reading 308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []

302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I hate the irrational. However, I believe that even the most flagrant irrationality must contain something of rational truth. There is nothing in this human world of ours that is not in some way right, however distorted it may be.”–William Reich

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jackie Curtis

PLOT: After a disorienting “overture” hinting at themes to come, WR settles in as a documentary on the late work and life of William Reich, the controversial disciple of Sigmund Freud who came to believe in the therapeutic power of the orgasm and in a mystical energy called “orgone.” Gradually, other semi-documentary countercultue snippets intrude, including hippie Vietnam protesters, the confessions of a transsexual, and some fairly explicit erotic scenes (in one, a female sculptor casts a mold of a volunteer’s erect penis). Finally, a fictional narrative—the story of a sexually liberated Yugoslavian girl seducing a repressed Soviet dancer—begins to take precedence, leading to a suitably bizarre conclusion.

Still from WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Reich was a controversial figure in psychoanalysis; a highly respected disciple of Freud as a young man, his ideas grew more extreme and crankish as he aged. A reformed Marxist, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and devised an orgasm-based psychotherapy. His theorizing about “orgone energy” led to promotion of boxes called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure disease and control the weather. This device got him into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, and he was eventually persecuted for fraud, then imprisoned for contempt after refusing to stop selling his books and devices. He died in prison.
  • The hippie performance artist is Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (Fugs songs also appear on the soundtrack).
  • The film’s transvestite is Jackie Curtis, the Superstar mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie was just speeding away…”
  • The segments with Josef Stalin come from the Soviet propaganda film The Vow (1946).
  • WR was banned in Yugoslavia until 1986. It was either banned (for obscenity West of the Iron Curtain, for politics to the East) or heavily cut in many other countries. The film ended Makavejev’s career as a director in Yugoslavia; all of his future features were produced in North America, Europe or Austraila.
  • WR was selected as one of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Yugoslavian sexpot doing her impression of the Brain that Wouldn’t Die, declaring “even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past,” while her forensic pathologist stands above her holding the decapitation implement: an ice skate.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Penis molding; “Milena in the Pan”; hymn to a horse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A straight-up documentary of the clinically insane psychiatrist William Reich would necessarily have been a little bizarre, but that’s just the starting point for this crazy-quilt counterculture collage that alternates between Reichian sexual theories, demonstrations of New York decadence, and esoteric Marxist dialectic.


Short clip from WR: Mysteries of the Organism

COMMENTS: Sex is dangerous. It even gets WR‘s heroine, Milena, Continue reading 302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

CAPSULE: THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anonymous corpses

PLOT: Footage of autopsies performed at the Pittsburgh morgue, delivered without commentary.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At first I didn’t find Act at all “weird,” but the next day I found myself spontaneously describing it to another person thusly: “I saw the strangest documentary last night…” Both thoughts were true, based on different meanings of the words “weird” and “strange.” Act is strange in the sense of rare, uncommon, seldom-seen; it’s also disturbing and unsettling. But it’s deliberately rooted in reality, and not “weird” in the sense we use the term on this site: surreal, mysterious, hinting at the irrational.

COMMENTS: Society hides corpses from view—not from shame, but from unease. We seek to hide the evidence of a crime that has been committed against us. The title of Stan Brakhage’s charnel house poem (a somewhat literal translation of the Greek “autopsis”) suggests that here we will see death, and do so authentically: with our “own eyes,” not secondhand. The “act” of the title further suggests that this will not be a passive experience, but something we deliberately undertake to do.

Be prepared. Male and female, young and old, they all eventually arrive on the slab. Brakhage’s camera does not focus on any faces (a condition of his being allowed to shoot in the morgue). The anonymity of the bodies makes them more universal. He engages in little experimental camerawork (there are a few moments with strange zooms, or with abstract closeups). Bodies are clinically hacked apart and disemboweled, internal organs scooped out and placed in bins. In the most disturbing segment, the skin on the back of a man’s head is peeled upward to expose his skull, with the folds of flesh eventually bunching up around his eyes. There are closeups of meat sticking to ribs. Brakhage could have inserted footage from a butcher shop at some points, and you would not know the difference. The film runs for thirty minutes, although he could have stopped the camera after ten minutes or kept it running for another hour and a half. The end result is the same.

You might be disgusted. After a while, you might become numb, or even bored. You may be fascinated by the machinery of the body; your thoughts will likely turn to your own mortality. It’s grisly, but not exploitative. The camera does not tell you what to think or feel. The take home message of Brakhage’s audacious documentary seems to be, “look: this is what you are.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perhaps the longest uncomfortable silence in the history of cinema, Stan Brakhage’s documentary short The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is a harrowing, unshakable, but fundamentally fascinating, viewing experience.”–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

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

CAPSULE: THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG (2007/2013)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Leavold

FEATURING: Weng Weng

PLOT: Curious about 2-foot 9-inch Filipino “action star” Weng Weng (For Y’ur Height Only, The Impossible Kid), an Australian video store owner travels to the Philippines to interview the people who knew the actor personally and to fill in the missing details of his scanty biography.

Still from The Search for Weng Weng (2007) (D'Wild Wild Weng, 1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:The Search for Weng Weng is an unexpectedly substantial, insightful, and even moving documentary. In weird movie terms, however, its role isn’t to crash the list of the weirdest movies ever made, but to fill in gaps in your knowledge of an esoteric cinema oddity.

COMMENTS: Reviewing a Weng Weng movie has been on my personal “to do” list for some time, but I always found something higher priority to work on instead. Poor Weng Weng still gets no respect; he’s a marginal curiosity even on a weird movie site. Andrew Leavold’s passionate, late-arriving documentary gives us an excuse to initiate some Weng Weng coverage, even if it’s only secondhand.

To be honest, a vehicle like this is probably the best way to experience the Weng Weng phenomenon; you get to see the cream of the crazy clips without the fat, and a real human interest story is thrown in as a bonus. As the title of his most notorious film—For Y’ur Height Only—makes clear, Weng Weng’s acting career was a one-joke phenomenon. The Guinness Book of World Records holder as the shortest actor ever to star in a feature film, in the West Weng is only known for two movies, the aforementioned Height and The Impossible Kid. These spoofs cast him as a secret agent and wring absurd fun from their star’s short stature by having him kung fu bad guys (who helpfully fall to the ground after being kicked in the shins) and romancing women who can carry him around like a baby. Weng Weng also did all of his own stunts, which were sometimes spectacular by B-movie standards: flying a jet pack or jumping from a building and drifting down while holding an umbrella.

Weng Weng’s time in the international spotlight began in 1982, peaked in 1982, and ended in 1982. Only two of his movies made it to the U.S., and there was almost no biographical information available save for a scant unreliable paragraph from the actor’s visit to the Cannes Film Festival (in, naturally, 1982). He would have been forgotten entirely if his two novelty films hadn’t made it to VHS tape, where enthusiasts of the oddball like Andrew Leavold rented them—and, after picking their jaws up from the floor, wondered if they could get more where that came from.

All available evidence suggested the answer was “no,” but Leavold didn’t take no for an answer. Traveling to the Philippines, the director discovered a nation in deep denial about Weng Weng. Folks either didn’t remember him at all, or were embarrassed to think that a court jester was the Philippines most recognizable cinematic export. Although most Filipino films from the Seventies and Eighties B-movie explosion have been lost, Leavold hit the national film archives and discovered a few domestic release Weng Weng gems, including a pair of previously unseen (by Westerners) Westerns. While there, the director bumped into Weng Weng’s old editor, who hooked him up with the actor’s old co-workers, leading, ultimately, to the film’s strangest surprise—an audience with former first lady Imelda Marcos, and a surreal visit to her 83rd birthday party.

This side trip isn’t as digressive as it sounds, because In Search of Weng Weng proves to be almost as much about the Filipino soul and the social context out of which Weng Weng arose as it is about the life of the forgotten celebrity. Weng Weng himself comes across as a fairly sad character, often exploited and ignored despite his fame; and yet, the picture also suggests his brief stint of movie stardom may have brought him more pleasure than he would otherwise have known in life. Because Weng Weng was no longer alive at the time of filming, we only learn about him through others, which means that we get a multifaceted portrait of an ordinary human being fated to live an extraordinary life. Some believe he was happy with his fame, others pity him. But there is no denying that, exploited or not, Weng Weng brought pleasure to millions of people worldwide, which is more than most of us can say. Despite his lack of real acting talent and his freakshow appeal, this dwarf from the slums of Manila rose to become a genuine entertainer and even an icon. When Leavold describes the climax of the unseen-in-the-West Western D’Wild Wild Weng—a finale where pygmies and ninjas suddenly show up for the final battle—as “one of the most insane Filipino B-endings, a micro-Apocalypse Now and a Dadaist triumph,” we’re swept up in his enthusiasm and genuine affection for the character of Weng Weng. We have to wonder if—pardon the unintentional but inevitable pun—we haven’t been selling the actor short.

In Search of Weng Weng was begun in 2007 and screened at festivals as a work-in-progress, which explains the 2007 date given by the IMDB. It was completed in late 2013 and shown in its final form in festivals and theaters soon thereafter. It arrived for the first time on DVD in late 2016 courtesy of Wild Eye Releasing, with a commentary track from Leavold, extended interviews with the actor’s colleagues, and other goodies, including a trailer for the lost Weng Weng feature Gone Lesbo Gone (!)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an interesting mix of the absurd and the tragic.”–Ian Shane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (DVD)

 

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up in the museum after hours.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like a spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy Louvre director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or passes each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)