Tag Archives: Existential


As part of our continuing effort to restore all the posts lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010, we’re reprinting this column from Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema, originally published on Sep. 23, 2010.

Several years ago European avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez dismissed the cranky, experimental music of American composer Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives as “having come from an insurance salesman.” By contrast, Boulez’ own music is tinkly Euro-avant, a musical tradition that was given freedom towards academic experimentation by old money. Not a single Boulez work can get under the skin like Ives’ “Gong on the hook and ladder” or “Symphony 4.”
American horror has long had a fitful relationship with the American avant-garde; it has also been more genuinely disturbing than anything Europe has produced. Kentucky born Tod Browning produced jagged, feverish dreams while Brit James Whale produced well-crafted, sophisticated, and witty fairy tales. There is something far more unsettling in Lon Chaney painfully looping fishing wire around his eyeballs, or Lon Jr. “accidentally” strangling an extra, than there is in Boris Karloff’s passion for cricket. An avant-garde filmmaker even approached the infamous “naive surrealistEd Wood, hoping for a collaboration, but by then Wood was too drained and too ravaged by rejection to respond.

So, it seems only apt that B-horror maestro Roger Corman financed Monte Hellman’s sojourn into a western Oz. Hellman’s The Shooting (1967) could be a disturbed and disturbing younger sibling to Maya Deren‘s At Land (1944).  Carole Eastman’s Sarte/Camus-like screenplay is wistfully organic and, simultaneously, startling in its unflinching, unromantic bleak minimalism, assisted greatly by Gregory Sandor’s desolate camera work.

Still from The Shooting (1967)The Shooting begins where Anthony Mann left off, and may well be the defining subversive post-Mann western.  Former bounty hunter and miner Willet Gashade () returns to camp only to find his twin brother, Coin (also Oates) missing and his partner, Leland, shot dead by an unseen sniper.  Left in the camp is the hysterical Coley (Will Hutchins) who relates to Willet that he overheard an argument between Leland and Coin.  Coin had “ridden down a Continue reading THE SHOOTING (1967): AMERICAN-STYLED DISSONANCE

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe.  In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.  Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)


  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned.  As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale.  The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a

Official trailer for A Serious Man

few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

FEATURING: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

PLOT:  An unnamed young man appears to be drifting from dream to dream, each animated in a different style. His dreams involve him talking to various college professors who explain their theories on existentialism, artificial intelligence and free will, as well as more typical dreamlike experiences such as floating away and taking a ride in a boat-car. About halfway through the film it slowly dawns on the dreamer that he is dreaming, and he begins to ask the characters he meets for help waking up.

Still from Waking Life (2001)

  • The film was shot on mini-DV video over a period of six weeks. Each frame was then painstakingly hand-drawn by a team of animators using computer software specifically adapted for this film (a 21st century update of the process known as Rotoscoping).
  • Each minute of film took an average of 250 hours to create.
  • Featured actor Wiley Wiggins also worked as one of the animators.
  • The monologues on existentialism and free will were delivered by Robert C. Solomon and David Sosa, respectively, two philosophy professors from the University of Texas.
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy play the same characters in their short scene as they did in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film where thirty different animators each put their own distinctive stamp on the characters, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if thirty different people came up with thirty different answers to the question, “what was your favorite image in Waking Life?” We’ll suggest that final shot of the dreamer floating into the heavens is the obvious take-home image to bring to mind when you remember the movie, however.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Waking Life is a string of vignettes of varying levels of oddness, it’s the animation—which shifts from style to style, with the only constant being the fact that the backgrounds continually shift and waver in a state of eternal flux—that keeps it weird. The concept—that the entire film is a dream from which the unnamed protagonist can’t seem to awake—promises an exemplary level of surreality. In fact, many of the segments are, on their face, completely ordinary: cogent explanations of sometimes difficult, sometimes speculative philosophical concepts. The fact that these heady but decidedly rational ideas are explored in the context of the supposedly irrational world of dreams, might, in itself, be considered just a little bit weird.

Original trailer for Waking Life

COMMENTS: There are at least two ways to conclude Waking Life is an unconditional Continue reading 45. WAKING LIFE (2001)



FEATURING: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, ,

PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.

Still from The Limits of Control (2009)

COMMENTS:  Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.

It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)


NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted from the “Borderline” category onto the List of the Weirdest movies of all time! This page is left up for archival purposes. Please view the full review for comments and expanded coverage!


DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A putzy Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  While the early leader for Weirdest Movie of 2009, A Serious Man won’t be eligible to be officially added to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time until it receives its DVD release and the film can be pored over meticulously by our team of critics.  Okay, to be honest, the home video release requirement is a way to buy time, while I let the Coens’ latest ferment in the back cellar of my consciousness.  The conundrum is that, superficially, this movie is not that weird; there are a few dream sequences and nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, this movie has a skeletal undercurrent of  ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  Also, the way it’s currently unsettling and outraging square moviegoers points to a powerfully different movie.

COMMENTSA Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Testament, the Book of Job, as a postmodern absurdist comedy.  The ancient Job was a good and prosperous man; God allowed Satan to test his faith by wiping out his flocks, killing his children, and smiting him with boils.  The beleaguered Job, bothered by visits from three unhelpful friends who try to console him with off-base theological speculations, eventually despairs, but never doubts God’s existence or goodness.  His only plea is to understand his misfortune, to be able to ask God directly, “Why me?”  God, appearing in a whirlwind, bitchslaps Job for his audacity: “who are you to question me, the Author of the Universe?  It’s your job to obey and suffer in silence.”  (I’m paraphrasing here).  After this reproof, God restores Job’s riches and lets him have new Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)


“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)


  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.

DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)


“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See


FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)


  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.

Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

Must See


FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)


  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.

Scene from Stalker

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)