Tag Archives: Existential


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


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.”


“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.)


‘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


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)

  • 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


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)


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)


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.


“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


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)


  • 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)



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)


DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

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

PLOT: A mysterious guest sleeps with every member of a wealthy household, and when he leaves they come to strange, mostly tragic ends.

Still from Teorema (1968)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mainly on the strength and reputation of its director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a seminal figure in the Italian avant-garde scene of the 1960s and 1970s, who nonetheless has only a small handful of films that might qualify for the list of the 366 best weird movies. Teorema, while not his best known movie, may be the the poet-cum-director’s most mysterious parable, and therefore demands consideration.

COMMENTS: Today, it’s hard to imagine the controversy that accompanied the relatively tame Teorema in 1966. The film was given an award by a left-leaning Catholic film board at the Venice Film Festival, then condemned by the Vatican for indecency. Despite containing no nudity or explicit sexual depictions, Teorema was brought up on obscenity charges in Italy. Some of Pasolini’s Communist brethren even criticized the film for its irreverent approach to Marxism and for its apparent religiosity. I imagine what really unnerved people at the time was the bisexuality of dreamy, blue-eyed Brit Terence Stamp, the movie’s mysterious visitor. A homosexual character would have been somewhat shocking in 1968, but a man who fornicates equally with men and women—and whose charms are irresistible to straight men—is far more threatening to sexual mores; it’s even more outrageous when it’s hinted that the pansexual visitor may be God. Teorema is schematic in structure: after a few introductory passages, including a long sequence done silent film-style, the plot settles down to a series of sexual encounters between the magnetic Stamp and the members of the household (mother, father, daughter, son, maid) where he stays as a guest, followed by an examination of their individual breakdowns after he leaves them bereft. Synopses invariably misreport that Stamp “seduces” the household, which is almost the opposite of Pasolini’s scheme here: each of the family members is attracted to the visitor on their own and seeks to seduce him. He initially rejects their advances, but quickly succumbs—he provides sex as an act of charity, or grace. When Stamp leaves, with as little explanation as was given for his arrival, the family falls apart. The pastimes they cling to to try to fill his absence—sex, respectability, money, art, even sanity—are revealed as empty and unsatisfactory. The housekeeper Elena, who retreats to her country village where she eats nettles and performs morose miracles, appears to escape the tragic fate of the others—although her end hardly seems more comforting than the father’s, who winds up naked and raving mad in the desert. What it all means is up for interpretation: despite delivering each plot point on time with mathematical regularity, Pasolini leaves out some essential step from his proof that would lead us to an irrefutable conclusion. I suspect the movie is mostly about the death of God and Pasolini’s notion that, with the decline of Christendom, the bourgeois class would implode from a lack of meaning in their lives. (If Pasolini is to be believed—and surely his tongue was tucked partially in his cheek when he gave this reductionist quote—the film’s message is that “a member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong).” The snail’s pace and minimum of dialogue make the movie a bit of a chore to watch, and for all his concern with sensuality, Pasolini is no more than average as a visual stylist. True to its name, Teorema (Italian for “theorem”) is a dry theoretical film that’s more interesting to discuss afterwards than it is fun to watch.

Astute 366 readers may note that Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q is basically an inverted (and perverted) version of Teorema.


“The sort of moviegoer who thinks all movies must make sense — obvious common sense, that is — should avoid ‘Teorema.’ Those who go anyway will be mystified, confused, perhaps indignant.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “lo-fi jr.,” who called it “the most psychotically Catholic flick I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)


DIRECTED BY: Olallo Rubio

FEATURING: Edward Furlong, Peter Coyote

PLOT: A man checks into a Las Vegas hotel room on the eve of the apocalypse to ponder the meaning of his fading existence.

Still from This Is Not a Movie (2011)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not good enough. Although it’s technically well-made considering its budget, it’s full of stoned, faux-profound ruminations and (often explicit) references to much better, more original movies.

COMMENTS: Peter Nelson is holed up in a suite at the Dante-themed Apocalypse Resort and Casino “…trying to solve a deep existential conflict before I drink myself to death. It’s a very ambitious and pretentious goal.” Writer/director Olallo Rubio is at least aware that his own movie is “ambitious and pretentious,” and tries to deflect criticism by making his movie self-aware of its own limitations. The gambit doesn’t work, but we do have to grudgingly admire his roundabout honesty and sincerity. The script plays like a series of incidents and revelations jotted down in notebooks by couple of sophomore English majors during an all-night bull/sensi-smoking session. This one room chamber piece made up mostly of a single actor conversing with different versions of his own split personality, tied together by a weathered metafictional conceit and interspersed with movie trailer parodies, is the kind of pitch any Hollywood producer would immediately nix unless  and Angelina Jolie were already attached. But that fact alone makes the movie interesting as a curiosity; pot-smoking humanities majors bursting with ideas their forebears already came up with years ago comprise a legitimate demographic, and their visions almost never reach the big screen. Pete Nelson worries about “the System,” a vaguely conceived capitalist conspiracy composed of politicians, corporate propaganda, and general American vulgarity (a spoofy propaganda film-inside-a-film suggests that the conspiracy encompasses the Catholic Church, the Beatles, Hitler, and Gene Simmons of KISS). He argues with his drunken cowboy alter-ego that the System is responsible for his memory loss, until a surfer dude version of himself pops up to supply a more metaphysical explanation for his dilemma. The first part of the movie is unpredictable (who saw the ghost coming?), which is its biggest strength. Unfortunately, a finale that is even talkier than the rest of the film lays all the cards on the table, with disappointing results. Visually, the movie is interesting, with large portions shot in arty black and white, liberal use of split screens, and psychedelic CGI; the soundtrack (by Slash) is also pro. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Leaving Las Vegas (mentioned by name), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Holy Mountain (seen on TV), among other films, are all referenced either explicitly or implicitly: Rubio clearly has good taste in influences, but constantly reminding your audience of similar but vastly superior movies is seldom a good idea. I can see why many people hated This Is Not a Movie, and it’s hard to argue with them, except to aver that at least it achieves its badness by being infuriating rather than by being boring. Late in the movie, Rubio again anticipates his critics through dialogue, when Pete describes what he thinks a movie is (and isn’t): “…it’s a form of entertainment that enacts a story based on a dramatic arc. It has plots, subplots and storytelling devices to maintain the interest of the viewer. It needs a story, not just moments of conflict, witty talk, activity, and fucking symbols.” Characterized that way, This Is Not a Movie is not a movie; but Pete’s constricted definition is a challenge to the viewer to expand their own notion of “movie” to something beyond a mere carrier for a story. So, This Is Not a Movie is a movie—it’s just not a very good one, because its solipsistic conceits aren’t novel, fresh, or particularly clever. Still, This Is Not a Movie illustrates my pretentious movie theorem: an intellectually ambitious failure is more interesting than an unpretentious failure. I may not have been impressed by this film’s grandiose ideas, but I was happy to see it at least had some.

This Is Not a Movie (2011) should not be confused with This Is Not a Film (2011), the documentary shot by Iranian director Jafar Panahi while under house arrest for propaganda against the state, which was smuggled out of the theocracy on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake and screened at Cannes.


“To call This is Not a Movie weird is disingenuous. Rubio’s film is a simulacrum of weird, a copycat approximation of what the mass public perceives as being so… True visionary weirdness comes from creating original iconography and doing something no one else could ever conceive of. That’s what all the people Rubio is ripping off did.”–Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk (DVD)