Tag Archives: Existential

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Anne Wiazemsky

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)

CAPSULE: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Peckinpah

FEATURING: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández

PLOT: Bennie enjoys a low-key existence as a pianist in Mexico City until he seeks a reward for proof of Alfredo Garcia’s death; Garcia’s head causes unimaginable trouble for Bennie and his friends as thugs converge on it to collect the bounty.

Still from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The ubiquitous South-of-the-Border heat eventually saturates the addled brains of the characters and filmmakers, but Peckinpah’s gritty classic is very much “just” a film noir entry from some decades after their heyday. Still, casual conversations about culpability and forgiveness with a rotting head in a sack isn’t something you see every day.

COMMENTS: Sam Peckinpah is regarded by many as the ultimate “bad boy” director. Held in awe by people ranging from comedian Denis Leary, film critic Roger Ebert, and even neophyte director Ryan Prows, Peckinpah’s films have a merited reputation for gritty intensity. While he won’t become a member of the esteemed 366 canon of directors, Peckinpah should be regarded as a dear friend. His scorched, nihilistic, and impressively grisly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes up trumps in its genre (Post-Western-Neo-Noir?), but also veers enough into pathos-filled idiosyncrasy to warrant a good look.

The succinct plot provided above doesn’t quite do justice to the proceedings. Things start brutally enough with a dressing down (literally?) of a defiant daughter by her tyrannical father—a powerful Mexican plutocrat, complete with posse and compound. The daughter has become pregnant from relations with—you guessed it—Alfredo Garcia. His dalliance was his death warrant, and a swarm of hit-men (all eager to claim the one-million-dollars on offer) surge out of the compound to hunt him down. Two such assassins encounter our friendly neighborhood barman, Bennie (Warren Oates), and this initially bloodless series of events quickly starts to steadily ratchet up the death count as Bennie and his girl (Isela Vega) look for Garcia. The third act is, well, a series of violent punctuations punctuated themselves by little bits of philosophical musing.

As Bennie’s journey inexorably leads him to a head in a bag, so to does the flow of this review. Between a couple of dramatic scenes (a truly tragic death and a comparably tragic mass murder) we enjoy a conversation that, had it continued, might have let Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia butt its way onto the list. I don’t know if it was the film stock used or the mediocrity of the Blu-Ray transfer, but the film’s atmosphere—which was already teetering on the verge of collapse from sun stroke—becomes truly hellish. Flies fill Bennie’s beat-up Impala as a stench permeates the vehicle (almost wafting to the viewer), and through this fog of death and heat, Bennie has exchanges with the million-dollar head. Bennie chastises Alfredo, shouts at Alfredo, and bargains with Alfredo. At a roadside cantina, we wonder if the jig is up when a small boy cleaning his filthy car windows inquires about it. Bennie, cool despite it all, explains, “Cat. Dead cat. Used to belong to a friend of mine.” Ultimately, Bennie even forgives Alfredo.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is so infused with violence that most contemporary genre pictures pale in comparison. Peckinpah captures almost every slaughter with the greatest impact possible. We don’t ever see the titular character (not alive, at any rate), and his head is merely a plot device which forces us to bear witness to the lives of men and women at the bottom of the food chain and at the end of their tether. Pathos borders on bathos as Peckinpah turns the screws on the initially carefree and affable Bennie. Even in the company of its peers, it is surprising to see a movie so relentlessly cynical, particularly when this cynicism is only ever interrupted by one man’s conversation with a decomposing head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

318. CUBE (1997)

“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller

PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.

Still from Cube (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
  • Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
  • If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
  • Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
  • A remake, to be directed by , was announced in 2015.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.


Original trailer for Cube

COMMENTS: Are you an aspiring filmmaker with limited resources Continue reading 318. CUBE (1997)

CAPSULE: WAITING FOR GODOT (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

FEATURING: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford, Stephen Brennan

PLOT: Two chatty hobos wait in a landscape of rubble for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who seems increasingly unlikely to show.

Still from Waiting for Godot (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is nothing that’s weird about this version of Waiting for Godot that isn’t weird about its source material. The film transplants the surreal masterpiece to the big screen fully intact, serving as a filmed document of the classic play. As possibly the greatest piece of existential theater ever devised, Godot is self-evidently strange in its minimalist approach to the great questions of man’s purpose and the presence of a higher power, and its defiant resistance to straightforward explanation or simple interpretation. The film is respectful, even reverential, and serves as a straightforward representation of the work for anyone who has no other opportunity to experience it live.

COMMENTS: There’s a certain amount of cheeky fun in writing up the plot synopsis for Waiting For Godot. After all, ’s landmark play is probably literature’s finest example of “the story where nothing happens.” There is no arc, no growth, no movement whatsoever. Two men wait for Godot to come; he does not. They say they will leave; they do not. The particulars change from one act to the next (a circumstance that draws notice, if not comprehension, from one of the principals), but the result is the same. The entire play is predicated on nothing happening. Which makes its point all the sharper; there may be no purer expression of the essential, beautiful futility of life. As Beckett wrote in another context, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

As such, Godot doesn’t really gain much from realization in film. The abstract, desolate setting (sometimes rendered as a bare stage) is given a gritty, realistic feel on the screen. Lindsay-Hogg does mix broad overhead shots with attentive close-ups, expanding the emotional vocabulary of the actors. But there’s only so much you can do without wrecking all that is uniquely Godot. It’s not like we’re going to “open it up,” following the characters to a new setting or adding in flashbacks to Vladimir’s life before. The play’s the thing, and film (a medium for which Beckett himself did not think Godot appropriate) is just a means of capturing it in perpetuity.

This Godot is part of an ambitious effort to film all of Beckett’s plays. It stands out from its brethren: lasting longer than any of the playwright’s other works, boasting an unusually large cast (of five), featuring actors who exchange dialogue and are allowed to move about the stage. Beckett was relentless in eliminating anything inessential or ornamental; he wrote the original Godot in French, a language in which he was less skilled, to keep his language simple. Over time, Beckett’s plays get shorter and shorter, he dispenses with names, puts his actors in pottery or buries them in sand, and begins to favor incomprehensible monologues. By contrast, Godot is downright old-fashioned.

It’s also easy to forget how enamored of early film comedy Beckett was (a love borne out in his only venture into the medium, Film). The persistence of innocence in a cruel world, the difference between erudition and wisdom, the bowler hats: all put one in the mind of or . It’s easy to see why comedians and clowns have been drawn to the leading roles, from Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to Steve Martin and . This film’s cast is made up of stalwart Irish actors who had performed the play together many times, so while they tap into the comedy inside the absurdism, the performances are smartly crafted, unaffected, and comfortable with Beckett’s voice. (They even opt for his preferred pronunciation of the title character’s name: GAH-doe.)

But I’m sidestepping the key question: Is it weird? There is a factor that is prodding me to include it, and that is the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the List, which is based on a play that I find greatly entertaining but far more explicable and less “weird” than this. But while Godot is most certainly a challenging play, one which posits any number of unlikely and unexplained premises, and one in which answers are not forthcoming (Beckett argued that the play says everything there is to say), in the final analysis, Godot filmed is still Godot, no more than it was, weird by virtue of its origins rather than anything inherent to the film itself. This Godot is an excellent record of the play, but like a movie of a lobster-and-grape-jelly sandwich, it’s only weird by virtue of what it captures, not what it is. If you’re looking for a Waiting For Godot that does more to take advantage of the unique qualities of the movies, well, you’re going to have to wait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[John Murphy’s] performance is pathetic, heartbreaking, and surrealistically hilarious… Although ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically a single set piece, Lindsay-Hogg’s camerawork and blocking is so inventive that the theatricality of the work (which bogged down previous televised versions) is carefully reinvented to accommodate the cinematic medium. The result is not a filmed play… but rather a thoroughly cinematic experience. – Phil Hall, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

(This movie, along with the entire “Beckett on Film” cycle, was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

Recommended

他人の顔; Tanin no kao

“The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape…”–Peter Grilli, writing for the Criterion Collection

“Yield to the mask.” —The Face of Another

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mikijirô Hira, Machiko Kyô, Miki Irie

PLOT: Left with a disfigured face after an industrial accident, Okuyama spends his days in bandages while complaining to his wife. Hatching a scheme of questionable ethics with his psychiatrist-surgeon, things change for Okuyama after a cunningly designed mask is crafted to allow him, at least part of the time, to be “normal.” However, the doctor’s warnings of personality shift come true as Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife to wreak emotional revenge.

Stoll from The Face of Another (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes (also Certified Weird), The Face of Another was based on the work of novelist Kôbô Abe. While the psychiatrist appears only passingly in Abe’s book, his role was greatly expanded in the film to allow for a more tangible counterpart to Okuyama.
  • Director Hiroshi Teshigaraha stuck with the classic “academy ratio” and black and white film one last time with this movie, despite the then-current popularity of color and CinemaScope. He surrendered to modernizing pressures with his next movie, The Man Without a Map.
  • The incongruous waltz playing in the opening credits (as well as the German night-club song at the biergarten) was written by Teshigahara’s and Abe’s collaborator, composer Tôru Takemitsu, whose score was also instrumental in Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes.
  • Despite being commercially and critically well-received in its home country, The Face of Another met with a tepid audience beyond Japan’s borders. A number of critics, it seemed, had had just about enough of the intellectualist, art-house cinema that had been bombarding the movie scene for some years by then.
  • Another of Teshigahara’s art buddies — Arata Isozaki — stepped up to the plate, designing the psychiatrist’s morphing, glass-filled office. An architect by vocation, Isozaki went on to design numerous famous buildings, including the MOCA in Los Angeles and the stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though any shot with Okuyama bandaged sticks in the mind, the most jarring scene occurs when he’s fully disguised as a normal person. Having just been released into the custody of his psychiatrist after an arrest for assault, Okuyama and the doctor face a swarm of sack-clay masked citizens descending upon the streets. The doctor looks unnerved by the sight; his patient less so. Before their dramatic “goodbye”, they are utterly enveloped in a sea of faceless faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ever-mutating doctor’s office; sunbeam cooks incestuous brother; the faceless masses

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Face of Another  is essentially a Japanese New Wave art-house musing on the nature of identity. But cranking things into the realm of bizarre is a series of sets and scenes—the doctor’s uncannily undefinable office space, mirrored mirrors, and so forth—as well as strange veering between philosophical and vengeful tones. Throw in a second (and even an obliquely referenced third) story line, a German biergarten in downtown Japan, and the occasional symbolist image (among them a Doorway to Whirling Hair and spontaneous transfiguration to slaughtered livestock), and, well, you could say you’re facing something pretty weird.

Trailer for The Face of Another

COMMENTS: The meaninglessness of personal identity is a troublesome thing to ponder. The interchangeability of any given cog in society’s wheel flies in the face of notions of individuality and the Continue reading 254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada,

PLOT: A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)