Tag Archives: Documentary

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)

CAPSULE: TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

DIRECTED BY: Frederick Wiseman

FEATURING: The inmates and staff of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane

PLOT: A documentary chronicling the operations of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility and the lives and treatment of its inmates.

Still from Titicut Follies (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Titicut Follies is shocking, disturbing, disheartening. It helped usher in cinema verité with a direct approach to documentary filmmaking that had rarely been seen before. But it’s only weird to the extent that man’s inhumanity to man is considered weird. In fact, the most bizarre thing about the film may be that, in half a century, things have changed very little.

COMMENTS: It’s remarkable that Titicut Follies exists at all. The subject matter is not typical fare, even for a documentary, with no protagonist to follow and no banner to carry. The presentation is stark and straightforward, showing routine events with no context or explanation, and refusing to allow uncomfortable moments to end through the artificial escape of cutting away. Watching it fifty years after it was shot, in a society where everyone is painfully aware of the need to manage situations to minimize liability and risk, it is astounding to see how open and guileless the staff is in their attitudes and actions toward their charges. The obvious question is, how did anyone let this get on film?

Credit is due first and foremost to director/producer/editor Frederick Wiseman, who is rightfully famous for his blunt approach to his subjects. Eschewing talking heads, narration, captions, non-diegetic music, or anything that would comment upon the images captured by his camera, Wiseman immerses himself in his chosen setting, fading into the background until the subjects forget the camera is even there. This fly-on-the-wall approach allows him to capture moments of extraordinary intimacy, because the participants fail to notice that they never went off public view. Trained as a lawyer, Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film as a director, but it cemented both his style and his subject matter, a warts-and-all look at how people function within institutions. (A recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, none of Wiseman’s films has ever even been nominated for a competitive award).

Some of the responsibility has to be placed at the feet of his willing subjects. Clearly, no one at Bridgewater had any worries about how their methods would be viewed. There can be no doubt that many of these inmates are afflicted with severe mental disease. Some are victim to uncontrollable body spasms, others spew endless paranoid monologues that name-check the president and the pope among their tormentors. Even a quiet, composed patient reveals his true nature as he describes his horrible crimes in a flat, detached tone. Without a doubt, keeping control over hundreds of unpredictable, dangerous men requires an approach that would be frowned on in polite society.

Those methods, though, are delivered in such a cold, unfeeling manner that it is ultimately impossible to view them as anything but torturous. Footage of a man named Jim, who is chided for fouling his cell, is peppered with what initially feels like friendly banter from the guards tasked with cleaning him up. However, as the scene goes on, the suggestion that he try harder morphs into bullying, and their repetition of his name is so condescending and insistent that Jim’s eventual outbursts feel utterly justified. The final shock comes with Jim’s revelation that he used to be a teacher; in this place, no honorable past will protect you from the hellish present.

Which points to one more explanation as to how Titicut Follies slipped through the cracks: there’s no empathy left at the institution to trigger embarrassment. No one thinks twice about the decency or appropriateness of what they are doing any more. Concern for humanity has long since left Bridgewater. In the film’s most notorious scene, an inmate is force-fed via a tube through his nose by doctors who openly smoke and discuss his condition in infantile terms. The delivery of nourishment by decidedly non-nurturing means is the film’s greatest oxymoron, and Wiseman magnifies the horror of the moment by crosscutting with footage of the same patient’s funeral, in which he appears to receive far greater care and affection than he did in life.

The movie is framed by scenes from an amateur variety show put on by the prison, with the awkward-looking patients singing standards in stiff white shirts and milkmen’s bow-ties. They are frequently joined by the warden, who, absurdly, views himself as a delightful showman, telling off-color jokes, breaking into song (he does this offstage as well, while walking through the hospital), and lusting after applause from the audience. Those moments feel strange in counterpoint with the daily horrors of life at Bridgewater. Yet, they’re actually a perfect extension of the interplay between inmates and staff throughout the film. Both groups are trapped in Titicut Follies, some by mental illness, some by the apathy and cruelty brought on by years of detached power. However, one of those groups doesn’t realize it’s trapped. But it soon will…

TRIVIA: …and how. Once they got a look at Wiseman’s film, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections sued to block the movie and managed to get Titicut Follies banned for over two decades, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the inmates. A title card added at the end of the movie curtly throws shade on the true impact of the Department’s efforts.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film is appropriately surreal, setting the tone for the next hour and a half… It’s almost something you could imagine seeing in a Harmony Korine film… it’s crazy to think it’s actually real.” – Jay Cheel, The Documentary Blog (DVD)

CAPSULE: THEORY OF OBSCURITY: A FILM ABOUT THE RESIDENTS (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hardy, Jr.

FEATURING: Assorted

PLOT: Various talking heads (including a member of the Talking Heads) reminisce and opine about the longest lasting and perhaps most creative performance art group of the past half-century, the Residents, interspersed with clips of performances, videos, and news appearances.

Still from Theory of Obscurity (215)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Modestly disappointing, Theory of Obscurity slams through all the familiar tropes of the modern documentary form, with the subject matter its weirding grace. Oddly for a documentary, this seems to be aimed at those who only care to know very little about the subject.

COMMENTS: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is undoubtedly a hyperbolic aphorism to use, but the underlying message is apt in describing Hardy’s underwhelming Residents documentary. Setting his sights on the pop-underground ensemble, Hardy has whipped up a love-letter worthy of a high school freshman. The sentiment is correct, and the delivery is in earnest, but he somehow says far too much without conveying anything of depth. The technical competence of his documentary cannot be argued, but one is left wanting something more than a film version of an All Music Guide bio.

Assorted entertainment luminaries, each with a varying degree of modishness, sit in front of the camera and talk about their feelings or experiences with the mysterious troupe from Louisiana. Les Claypool from Primus particularly shines, likening his first experience of a Residents tune to hearing the “music that plays in Hell,” then explaining it came to be “like a fungus” that he learned to appreciate. Penn Jillette pops in fairly often, but his presence is largely unilluminating, as he wears his fandom (quite rightly) on his sleeve. Tossing in a slew of other less famous individuals (including the soft-spoken gentlemen who made up the original “Cryptic Corporation”, the Residents’ administrative and marketing crew), the viewer is left with not quite an hour and a half of sentimental tales, enthusiastic praise, and archival clips. The fact of the matter remains, and is emphasized, that this group really can and should be judged based on their output.

Along with the main feature, there are some forty minutes or so of remastered Residents material in the supplements, from a (very) bad recording of their first live performance (before they had even adopted their name) to a “found footage” dream narrative put together in the mid-Oughts. While watching these selections, their evolution from unlistenable neo-Futuresque troubadours to dominanting icons of weird, the correct way to study the Residents became even more apparent. Ditch the commentary and listen to (and watch) the source material.

I may be judging Don Hardy and company a bit harshly here, but that is because such a bold topic as the Residents deserves a far, far bolder documentary. He and his team were allowed, the disc says, previously unrivaled access to the group’s archives. However, either through inability or disinclination to expand on what’s already been made available, Theory of Obscurity languishes. Its quality is sufficient for those who know nothing of the group and seek a loose frame of reference, but anyone who has had any interest in the Residents will likely already know everything the movie recounts, and more. A quote from Matt Groening in the film’s first half acts almost as a disclaimer: “Our knowledge [about the Residents] is incomplete.” Unfortunately, Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity does nothing to further this knowledge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans and newbies alike will be delighted by much of Don Hardy’s documentary, which draws on an expansive archive of surreal expressions from an (alleged) quartet whose creative emphasis was as much visual as sonic from the start.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IN THE BASEMENT (2014)

Im Keller

DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl

FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians

PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.

Still from In the Basement (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.

COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.

Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.

While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When did this kind of thing, they did not drape it in obscuring Art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THROUGH THE WEEPING GLASS (2011)

On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: This brief film essay contemplates various medical misfortunes and wonders in the framework of an often unsettling visit to the Mütter Museum. Exploring conditions ranging from Fibrodysplasia Ossificus Progressiva to conjoined twin-hood, Through the Weeping Glass examines anomalous conditions, creepy medical devices, and the sometimes unnatural nature of being human.

Still from Through the Weeping Glass (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As documentaries go, this is an unnerving one whose subject matter is investigated with hazy-to-sharp focus, super-imposition, and eerie recreations of the backstories. However, the movie maintains a disciplined technique, providing a glimpse at the nastiness of medical phenomena through history that is easy to follow—as unpleasant as that proves to be at times.

COMMENTS: “No child ever imagines the unimaginable: that he will end up as a skeleton.” So begins our visit to Philadelphia’s museum of medical oddities. The sweet, soft-spoken narration provided by Derek Jacobi (“I, Claudius,” “Brother Cadfael”) sets things up with a twist: naturally everyone becomes a skeleton eventually, as death comes to us all. However, the seemingly mundane words quickly get sinister when the case of Harry Eastlack is explored. Harry injured himself as a child, fracturing his leg while playing with his sister. The bone healed, and then kept growing. Ultimately, his skeleton developed a further skeleton around itself, and we are informed, “in the end, [he] could only move [his] lips.”

By the beginning of the past decade, the Quay brothers had long established themselves as the wizards of stop-motion animation. One of their passions, however, has always been “exotic arcana” (so sayeth the pamphlet accompanying their recent anthology), and their piece on the Mütter Museum and its contents marks the first time the brothers ever made a movie stateside. “Weeping Glass” features few of the otherworldly flourishes that mark their main body of work—most notably altering of portraits’ eyes by giving them an ominous, forlorn sheen—but the camera technique and soundscape summon the unsettling vibe that permeates their oeuvre. Focus on objects shimmers from sharp to blurry, tracking shots are choppy and often pursued at unlikely eye levels, and an animation of sorts is provided by the super-imposition of hands when pre-16th century texts and pre-20th century medical devices are displayed.

The oddest achievement the brothers can claim with this documentary is their uncanny knack to ride on the darker side of the line separating creepy and cheesy. The jump cuts between alarming images are often accompanied by the dissonant, clanking score one would expect to find in the lazier varieties of horror movie. Though they are no doubt helped by the fact that what’s on display would be unsettling no matter how presented, the Quays still impress by forcing the viewer to realize, “oh, I know they’re just trying to make me addled. Dear Lord, it’s working.”

By the end of “Through the Weeping Glass,” you will not only learn about the tragic case of Harry Eastlack, but also catch glimpses of a man with a pillow-sized tumor, get a peak at both the Hyrtl skull collection (139 specimens, each with a brief history of the owner written thereon) and Dr. Chevalier Jackson’s collection of swallowed objects (over 2,300 pins, game pieces, and even a “Perfect Attendance” badge), and finish off with a couple exchanging their “…’til death do us part” wedding vows in the presence of the plaster cast bodies of the famed “Siamese” twins, Chang and Eng. “Through the Weeping Glass” is a disquieting piece, but the Quays’ direction and Jacobi’s nuanced voice-over inject it with a subversive sense of humor. This late example of the Pennsylvania boys’ work is very informative, highly watchable, and delightfully grotesque.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…rare is the non-fiction film that through its style, design and intent properly matches the tropes of the fictional horror flick. And perhaps this creature is so rare that only one exists: Through the Weeping Glass…”–Mike Everleth, Underground Film Journal (contemporaneous)