Tag Archives: Existential

CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan

PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.

01ANOMALISA2-facebookJumbo

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.

COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.

Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and Continue reading CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENTERTAINMENT (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Alverson

FEATURING: Gregg Turkington

PLOT: A low-rent insult comedian who performs in a tux with a grotesque combover plays unappreciative dive bars throughout the Southwest on an increasingly surreal tour.

Still from Entertainment (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: After another failed gig, the Comedian’s friend, a business consultant, suggests that the performer consider making his act “a little less weird.” We disagree.

COMMENTS: I appreciate a bad joke. It’s hard to write a bit that has the shape of a joke, complete with a setup and a punchline, but then fails to land properly—not something completely random, but a crack that’s just barely off, a jibe that an alien or madman might think is funny. Comedy interruptus: a joke that perversely strangles its own payoff. (Judd Nelson’s painful, sweaty monologues in The Dark Backward were built around a similar premise, although The American Astronaut‘s rambling “Hertz doughnut” bit is the most successful iteration of the trope I can think of). The nameless comedian of Entertainment deals exclusively is such jokes: he starts off with premises like “Why don’t rapists eat at TGI Fridays?” There is no possible successful punchline to that set-up; the joke, rather, is that any comedian would have such poor taste that he would even try out such a line.

The meta gets piled high in Entertainment. The Comedian’s routine, delivered from under a carefully styled oily combover, might have gone over with a crowd of irony-digging college hipsters, but he’s trying it out in working class gin joints. “I’ve traveled a long distance carrying these jokes in order to bring them here and thrust them into your fool faces,” he complains on stage, after a poke at prop comic Carrot Top earns him only a few token titters. At a country club gig, he improvises a bit where he picks up a trophy and pretends to shoot the audience, then makes fart noises for a couple of minutes before dropping the mike and walking off stage. “We’re not paying for that,” is the icy, but reasonable, response of the lady who booked him. There’s something horrifyingly Sisyphean in the idea of a comic who’s compelled to take the stage and bomb night after night in front of a disdainful crowd of miserabilist drunks.

The rest of the tour, the blank-faced Comedian stays in motel rooms or crashes on couches. He spends his free time alone taking in the desert sights (a car mysteriously upended in the middle of nowhere seems like the perfect metaphor for his own inexplicable career) or leaving pathetically mundane, never-answered messages on his estranged daughter’s phone. Between the melancholy vignettes and embarrassing failed comedy routines are plenty of surreal sights, particularly in the film’s last half hour. The tour increasingly takes its toll on the Comedian’s mental state, as events grow more and more fragmented and panicky towards the end. Public restrooms are particularly anxious locales; one of the film’s best scenes involves an ambiguous meeting with a nervous hanging out at an isolated rest stop, while another bathroom produces an even more scarring vision. The Comedian hangs out with a crowd who look like the Southwestern cousins of the folks from Gummo (I kept expecting a chair-bashing session to break out), leading to more odd moments. A hallucinatory guest spot on a Mexican telenovela rounds out the strangeness. Throughout, the soundtrack is omnipresent and intense, with a mix of anxious ambient drones and popular music numbers that range from the ethereal to the ironic. The overall effect is like discovering Andy Kaufman’s old Tony Clifton character has a tragic backstory and suffers from chronic depression, then watching his mental breakdown from the inside. The film is a bleak vision of complete artistic and personal frustration, yet it rings hellishly true.

Though the character is never named, star Gregg Turkington uses the same gimmick (minus the existential despair) when he performs as “Neil Hamburger” (“America’s Funnyman”).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somewhere on the axis where David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and Joey Bishop intersect… Weirdly compelling if student-y and unfocused…”–Kyle Smith, New York Post (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: CUBE (1997)

Cube has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. Please direct comments to the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint,

PLOT: Seven strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.

Still from Cube (1997)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: Cube is classic cult sci-fi/horror.  It’s intriguing, captivating, and smart, but follows a linear narrative and has characters with logical motivations. Some serious weirdness can be found in its ugly, recycled visuals (only two cubical rooms were built and used for the set design) and brooding  ambient soundtrack, but it’s all coherent enough to stand as a firmly established vision of the bleakness of modern life. It has “weird” ambitions, but ultimately finds itself in the category of intense sci-fi, not transcendental strangeness.

COMMENTS: Cube, much to its own advantage, is quite minimalist.  The setting of the film is a series of cubical rooms with distinctively ugly color palettes. Decorated with different kinds of high-tech architectural patterns and shapes, the rooms evoke conceptual mathematics, serving as a sort of pastiche of NASA blueprints or military designs. The characters are dressed identically, have no memory of how they got in the cube, and each possesses some kind of useful skill. There is a math student, a cop, a medical professional, an escape artist, an exterior designer, and an autistic young man with a penchant for solving complicated arithmetic problems in his head. The opening scene shows a nameless character who steps into a room only to meet his ill fate with a swift slice and dice, painting the floor in symmetrical pieces of his bloody corpse before we see the film’s title shot over a background of blinding white light.

The danger lurking ahead is now obvious and imminent: some of the rooms have traps, and others do not. The suspense is heightened by the ignorance of the characters; we only know as much as they do, almost nothing at all. Apparently kidnapped and held against their will, they all work together to escape the cube, only to find that their biggest threat to one another is each other. One would probably wonder how such a simple idea could ever look so cool, but the atmosphere of the movie drives it forward, forcing us to develop our own ideas about what the cube is and why it was made.

An attempt at something of an explanation starts to develop around the mid-point, and here frustration rears its ugly head. (It may also have been slightly irresponsible to cast Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin, seeing that he is the only actor in the movie that is black and he is shown to be significantly more violent and unhinged than the others). Political and personal gripes aside, the delight in watching these characters hopelessly delve into their own survival emulates from the paranoia that comes from their ignorance. Plus, the gory deaths don’t hamper the entertainment value one bit. Face melting acid traps, wires that cut through skin and bone, sound-activated blades—this particular trap is the movie’s riveting and suspenseful center piece—and an anger-prone cop (a relevant touch in lieu of recent national tragedies) provide ample intensity, violence, and a sinister atmosphere that make Cube a force to be reckoned with. Its near immediate elevation to cult status was no surprise, as DVD sales and rentals (remember rentals?) were much higher than usual for a low budget Canadian movie with a cast of unknowns.

Aside from the suspense rooted in escaping bloody doom, there is a plethora of mind candy along the way, most of it rooted in mathematics and philosophy. Rooms are numbered in sequenced patterns of exponents of prime numbers, and while the math wizard works toward finding a way past the traps, she makes chicken scratches in the shiny metal doors of the cubes using buttons off her shirt. It’s here when the audience is treated to a creepy musical palette of hushed whispers and echoing warped synthesizers, as they fall further down into a bleak realm of chaotic peril. Whenever they make progress towards finding a way out, new problems arise, whether it is a miscalculation or anger and frustration stemming from the ever-growing exhaustion of the subjects. Cube twists and turns through suspicions and possible explanations. Did aliens build the cube, or was it the government? Is there a way out or are they all supposed to die? All of it is punctuated by violent gore, a catharsis for life’s impending ambiguities.

Symbolically, life inside the Cube is no different than life outside of it, full of unanswered questions, meaningless death, and a kind of endless striving towards a future that might not ever happen. Some of its more generic ideas stem from the dangers of a military-industrial complex, human purpose, and the endless grind of working towards nothing/death. There is nihilism, hope, confusion, betrayal and even compassion to be found inside of the cube, evidenced by the varying attitudes and behaviors of the poor souls who are trapped inside.  One particularly powerful component of the intended symbolic gesture comes from the character Worth (David Hewlett) when he is reluctant to leave the cube. “What is out there?” inquires Leaven (Nicole de Boer). There is an intense close up of a whiteout, the apparent exit, as he replies: “Boundless human stupidity.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential.”–Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tona,” who said it was “weird for the ambiguity, the paranoic atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

Both were produced by  (uncredited), , and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded among films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

Still from Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)Nicholson is shockingly subdued and vulnerable. Even better is , an overly familiar character actor villain, in his best celluloid role. Despite very good performances, Ride In The Whirlwind lacks  and Millie Perkins, who gave The Shooting its essential grounding.

Hellman is a Western grim reaper, as vital and original as Sam Peckinpah as a harbinger of the genre’s death. Comparatively, Clint Eastwood and his celebrated deconstructionist Unforgiven (1992) are obvious and unsatisfactory.

The films premiered together at Cannes and were enthusiastically advocated by  and other notable French critics. Alas, it was to little avail. Hellman’s twin opuses received scant attention in the States and only belatedly earned cult reputations.

The Shooting was previously reviewed here. Ride In The Whirlwind has received considerably less attention, but Criterion astutely treats the two films as inseparable. True to form, Criterion provides a definitive edition. Both films finally receive spotless, lush transfers. Among the plethora of extras are interviews with Corman, Perkins, Harry Dean Stanton, and Will Hutchins, an outstanding homage to Oates (written by critic Kim Morgan), critic Michael Atkinson’s equally excellent essay, and several commentaries by Hellman accompanied by film historians Bill Krohn and Black Lucas.

180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade

FEATURING: Jesse Eisenberg, , , Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige

PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.

Still from The Double (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
  • intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
  • Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
  • The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.


Original trailer for The Double

COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make Continue reading 180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

“Oh, my God, and when you got up in the morning, there was the sun in the same position you saw it the day before—beginning to rise from the graveyard back of the street, as though its nightly custodians were the fleshless dead—seen through the town’s invariable smoke haze, it was a ruddy biscuit, round and red, when it just might as well have been square or shaped like a worm—anything might have been anything else and had just as much meaning to it…”–Tennessee Williams, The Malediction

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Natasha Little, Rhys Ifans, , Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

PLOT: In 2092, after all disease has been conquered through cellular regeneration technology, 119-year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal man left in the world. He recounts his life story to a psychiatrist and a reporter, but his memories are wildly inconsistent and incompatible, and at times fantastic and impossible. In his confused recollections he is married to three different women, with multiple outcomes depending on choices that he makes in the course of his life; but which is his real story?

Still from Mr. Nobody (2009) BACKGROUND:

  • The genesis of this story came from Jaco Van Dormael’s 1982 short film “È pericoloso sporgersi,” about a boy who must make an “impossible” choice between living with his mother or with his father.
  • According to Van Dormael the script took seven years to write, working about five and a half hours a day, every day.
  • Van Dormael published the Mr. Nobodoy screenplay (in French) in 2006, one year before production began and three years before the film was completed.
  • Despite being made in 2009, the movie was not released in the U.S. until 2013, and then only in an attempt to capitalize on the Oscar buzz surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Leto temporarily retired from acting after Mr. Nobody, spending the next four years focusing on his band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
  • Mr. Nobody’s first name, Nemo, means “nobody” in Latin.
  • The movie is full of visual tricks and illusions, some of which are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. For example, watch for a scene where Nemo enters a bathroom then focuses on his own image in a mirror. When he turns around and the camera follows him back out of the room, we now see the perspective as if we had passed through the mirror; the reflection seamlessly swaps places with the real world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mr. Nobody‘s essential image is of branching, criss-crossing railroad tracks; if you want something with a little more surreal zip, however, check out the scenes of a fleet of helicopters delivering slices of ocean, slowly lowering them into place on the horizon.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Essentially an experimental narrative film disguised as a big-budget science fiction extravaganza, Mr. Nobody, an epic fantasia in which the protagonist lives a dozen different lives and a dozen different realities, was doomed to be a cult film from its inception. Even with a healthy dose of romantic sentimentality and whimsy a la , it is far too rare and peculiar a dish for mainstream tastes. The opening is confusing, the moral ambiguous, and reality won’t sit still; it’s got unicorns, godlike children, helicopters delivering the ocean, a future world where everyone has their own genetic pig and psychiatrists are known by their facial tattoos, and a malformed sub-reality where everyone wears argyle sweaters. It’s unique, unforgettable, and utterly marvelous.


Original trailer for Mr Nobody

COMMENTS: One of the enigmatic Nemo Nobody’s many possible past identities is a TV science lecturer who explains such esoteric concepts as Continue reading 168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Woman in the Dunes was promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Read the Certified Weird entry.

Reader Recommendation by Fredrik Allenmark

DIRECTED BY: Hiroshi Teshigahara

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An entomologist ends up trapped together with a woman in a house at the bottom of a sand pit in the desert, where they are forced to spend their nights shoveling sand.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Freud introduced the concept of the uncanny (“Unheimlich” in German) for the particular, often uncomfortable, Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)

143. THE TRIAL (1962)

Le procès

“It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream—of a nightmare.”–Orson Welles’ prologue to The Trial

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Orson Welles, , , Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, William Chappell

PLOT: Josef K. awakes one day to find two investigators in his apartment, who inform him he is under arrest and will have to stand trial. When he asks what the charges are, the police tell him it’s not their place to talk about that. The authorities release Josef on his own recognizance, and he spends the rest of the movie navigating a legal labyrinth, trying to find a way to absolve himself of a charge no one will specify.

Still from The Trial (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial” in 1914 or 1915; it was never completed and was only published after his death.
  • Feeling that studio interference had ruined Touch of Evil (1958), by the 1960s Orson Welles had sworn off directing for Hollywood studios for good (he continued to accept acting jobs). From 1958-1962 he worked on a never-completed adaptation of “Don Quixote,” then was approached by French backers about making a film in Europe; he would be given complete creative control. He was given a list of public domain titles to adapt and chose “The Trial.” (Unfortunately for the financiers, their research was faulty; it turned out that Kafka’s book was still under copyright at that time, and they were forced to negotiate licensing fees).
  • The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia, Italy and France. Welles shot the courtroom scenes and many of the interiors at the abandoned Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris.
  • Welles dubbed dialogue for eleven of the actors, and reportedly even overdubbed some of Perkins’ lines.
  • In interviews with Peter Bogdanovich for his biography This Is Orson Welles, the director said that he suffered from recurring nightmares of being put on trial without knowing why and stated that this film was “the most autobiographical movie that I’ve ever made, the only one that’s really close to me… It’s much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I’ve ever made.” The director of Citizen Kane also said that The Trial was “the best film I ever made.”
  • The production company never registered a copyright on The Trial in the United States and for many years it was in the public domain, until the copyright was restored under the GATT treaty.
  • The negative of the movie was thought to be lost, but a copy was discovered and restored in 2000.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Welles begins the movie by narrating Kafka’s mysterious parable “Before the Law,” about a man who withers and dies while waiting his entire life to pass through a doorway blocked by a guard. The fable is illustrated by elegantly grotesque slides created through “pinscreen” animation (the images are created by shadows cast by thousands of individual pins) by Alexandre Alexeïeff. Near the end of the movie Welles, now in character as the advocate Hastler, retells the fable, this time projecting the slides directly onto the face of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) as he stands before a screen. Welles’ hulking shadow, invisible to K as he faces Hastler, lurks over Perkins’ shoulder like the impassable guard of the tale—or like an angel of death.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Written at the dawn of the twentieth century, before the horrors of World War I, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is a masterpiece of nightmare literature and a harbinger of the angst that would come to define modernism. Orson Welles, the great grayscale poet, proves the perfect adapter of Kafka, imprisoning the beleaguered Josef K. in bars of light and shadow. Kafka’s story was a picaresque journey through abstract interactions with a sequence of bureaucrats and seductresses that, frustratingly, never brings him any closer to answering the central riddle of his indictment. Rather than elucidating Kafka’s text, Welles’ narrative decisions further muddy it, stringing poor Josef K along with a promise of an answer that never comes. I imagine Kafka applauding in his grave.


Original U.S. trailer for The Trial

COMMENTS: After the dreamlike prologue telling of the man who fruitlessly waits an entire lifetime for admittance to the Law, The Trial proper Continue reading 143. THE TRIAL (1962)

CAPSULE: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, , Laurie Bird

PLOT: Two men obsessed with illegal street-racing race another equally obsessive driver across America. Along the way, all three become increasingly involved with a fickle hippie chick, and inevitably their motivations change.

Still from Two-lane Blacktop (1971)


WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: All the main characters are so emotionally detached that at least one of them would nowadays be diagnosed as autistic, and they drive cars very fast for no significant reward because it’s all they know how to do. However, it’s not full-blown car-related weirdness on a level with ‘s  Crash. It’s an unusual film which some people will find interesting, but not really a candidate for the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: I’ve just said that some people will find this extremely offbeat film interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wanted to, and for the first half, I almost did; but it suffers from the same problems as many of Monte Hellman’s other movies: pared-down characters who don’t say much in an ultra-macho yet deeply symbolic situation, having very little fun. These particular characters are so minimalist that they don’t even have names—Warren Oates plays “G.T.O.” (the make of car he drives), and the others are just called the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Incidentally, it’s the only movie I’m aware of in which two of the “actors” listed as cast-members are automobiles.

The performance of James Taylor, better known for singing than acting, sometimes transcends wooden and goes all the way to metallic; but in fairness to him, this is exactly how the character’s meant to come across, so maybe he’s a superb actor. The Driver can’t express the slightest flicker of emotion without somehow dragging cars into it, and literally cannot talk about anything else: the one time he tries to, he ends up babbling about the life-cycle of the cicada. The trouble is, how is the audience supposed to engage with a “hero” whose visible emotional spectrum ranges all the way from cigar-store Indian to constipated robot?

Warren Oates gives by far the most complex and interesting performance. Unfortunately, he’s playing another character who is impossible to like. A running joke has him picking up hitchhikers, then bragging about himself and his car in such a tediously obnoxious way that they bail out at the earliest opportunity. He’s also a compulsive liar, and has no more idea how to talk to people than the Driver, whose saving grace is that he seldom attempts to.

As for the Girl, played by a non-actress cast because she was a real hippie, she’s shallow, selfish, irritating, and expresses no interest in any of the men beyond casual promiscuity. She is, however, the voice of reason, bluntly pointing out that the Driver and the Mechanic are boring people who obsess about cars because they’re on “some big masculine power-trip”. Since the crux of the film is a “love” triangle between three people who don’t like each other and whom you don’t like either, it’s difficult to care how things work out between them.

Apart from this, the motives of all concerned are almost non-existent. The Driver and the Mechanic (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s performance is adequate but lightweight, and since he talks constantly about technical aspects of car engines, not very interesting unless you’re a garage mechanic, which I’m not) usually win only enough money to pay for their next race, aren’t remotely famous, and don’t even seem to enjoy winning. As for G.T.O., he bought a Porsche by way of an unsuccessful charisma transplant.

A particularly odd aspect of the film is that there’s very little footage of cars doing anything exciting, and as for the big race that occupies most of the running-time, you have to keep reminding yourself these guys are supposed to be racing! There’s almost no physical danger, and if you’re hoping for a nail-biting dash to the finish line, all I can say is that Monte Hellman prefers downbeat endings. I’d even hesitate to say that this film ends rather than just stopping.

A lot of reviewers mention the groovy sixties music. In fact there’s very little; a song occasionally plays in the background, but most of the soundtrack is engine noise, and neither of the two professional musicians involved sings or plays a note.

If you’re into gloomy existentialism with cars, this is the film for you! If you’re into fast-paced action, sympathetic characters, or cars that aren’t ugly, you might find it a tad uninvolving. And you’ll probably agree with the studio’s decision to cut the original three-and-a-half-hour running-time by half.

“…a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.”–J. Hoberman, Village Voice (2000 re-release)