Tag Archives: Expressionism

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

333. TUVALU (1999)

“I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema. To discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life, and death. From another perspective, another angle, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It’s a beautiful place.”–Leos Carax

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Chulpan Khamatova, Terrence Gillespie, Philippe Clay, Catalina Murgea

PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.

Still from Tuvalu (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
  • The movie  was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.


Brief clip from Tuvalu

COMMENTS: Tuvalu borrows its style from the weird world of silent Continue reading 333. TUVALU (1999)

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

Poesía Sin Fin

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: , , , , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: The second chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five autobiographical films, “Endless Poetry” concerns his younger self’s fall for poetry, his resistance to his authoritarian father’s pressures to become a doctor, and his liberation from his oppressive family by joining Santiago’s bohemian artist circle.

Still from Endless Poetry (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While representing some of the most accessible and straightforward storytelling that the author has ever conjured, Endless Poetry is still very distinctively a vision from Jodorowsky, a result of his passionate and eccentric sensibility full of personal symbolism and mystical allusions, bizarre occurrences, and self-aware theatricality. The List’s increasingly limited slots, and the fact that Jodorowsky is already well-represented here, is all that keeps this one at the margin.

COMMENTS: With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, legendary cult cinema hero and weirdophile favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky has entered, at 87 years old, an unexpected phase in his career where he embraces filmmaking as a therapeutic, expurgatory reliving of his past. In this second installment of his autobiographical project (intended as a five film series), we witness Jodorowsky’s adolescence in Santiago and his escape from the oppression of his father and the Darwinist worldview that he tries to enforce on his son, which clashes with the boy’s sensitivity and newfound interest in poetry sparkled by the writings of .

Very much in the same vein as its predecessor, this one takes the form of a psycho-autobiography where the artist renders his life as a mystical, oneiric and carnivalesque myth. Obviously, such a project could only be the product of Jodorowsky’s characteristic pretentiousness. If Dance, however, was relatively melancholic in tone, Poetry is more celebratory and narcissistic, portraying Jodorowsky’s awakening in an appropriately glorifying, joyous display. When Alejandro eventually runs away from home to join an artist’s collective, his immersion in poetry and a bohemian lifestyle is shown as an enlightenment and revelation of his true self and fate. His reception in the community of outcasts is the triumphant reception of a new member in a family, one in which he finally feels he belongs. Like his new siblings, Alejandro’s passion for art is absolute, and he insatiably wishes to “live” poetry. From this moment on, the film chronicles his experiences in the city’s artistic circle, discovering like-minded friends such as Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, and even a lover (played by the same actress who portrays his mother, in a Freudian stroke that remains integral to Jodo’s style).

The idealistic dilettantism that overwhelms and possesses Alejandro is never questioned; the daring and revolutionary mindset of his community is synonymous with liveliness, freedom, realization and self-hood, whereas the world of everyone else is depersonalized, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

CAPSULE: SCREAMPLAY (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Rufus B. Seder

FEATURING: Rufus B. Seder, , Katy Bolger

PLOT: Young Edgar Allen comes to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and settles in at a fleabag motel; he incorporates his revenge fantasies into his murder-mystery screenplay, but finds that the killings he writes about occur in real life.

Still from Screamplay (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an oddball tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama, but there’s nothing tremendously weird about it.

COMMENTS: In his introduction to the DVD edition of Screamplay, calls Rufus B. Seder the “ of Tromaville.” While that’s more than a bit of a stretch, it’s true that this classic horror homage, distributed (but not made) by Troma just before they stumbled onto the lucrative Toxic Avenger formula, is extremely highbrow by the company’s gore-comedy standards. Aside from the minuscule budget, it’s unlike anything else in their catalog. It’s far enough outside the mainstream that George “Sins of the Fleshapoids” Kuchar took on a rare acting role outside of his own productions (he’s wonderfully sleazy here as the heavy).

The story is simple: a series of murders among the dregs of Hollywood—would-be writers, actresses, agents, and producers—holed up in a low-rent motel are linked to a script being churned out by an eager but naive young screenwriter. The style, however, is more impressive. Rufus B. Seder’s influences are obvious: from the Expressionistic shadows of Nosferatu to the cheap B-movies of the 30s and 40s that vainly but valiantly tried to exploit that atmosphere (there’s even a sly nod to Plan 9 from Outer Space when a cop absentmindedly scratches his face with his revolver). Most of the time Screamplay looks like a 30s period piece you might catch on the Late Late Show, complete with a scratchy public domain quality transfer, but there are moments that would not be out of place in a Guy Maddin movie—or an early draft of Barton Fink as done by a poverty row studio. Seder’s performance seems to be at least partially modeled on Bill Woods’ wild-eyed mugging in Maniac—his innocent expression darkens and his eyes turn insane at the drop of a plot point. The ganja-inspired hallucination with a pair of murderous hands appearing in a cloud of pot-smoke also recalls ‘s maniacal epic.

The sets are very basic, but with overdramatic lighting, they achieve a melodramatic budget Expressionism. The blocky motel stairs leading to nowhere reach a minimalist sort of Surrealism, as does the police station set—basically just a raised podium reading “Hollywood Police Dept.,” flanked by Greek pillars with light bulbs on top. The story is set in no time in particular; the style recalls the 1930s, naturally, but occasional anachronisms like a roller-skating transvestite mugger add another layer of absurdity. Overall, it’s an impressive triumph of style over budget. Still, unless you’re obsessed with 20s and 30s horror, I wouldn’t recommend rushing out and trying to find Screamplay; but, if you do, I’d be willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.

Rufus B. Seder never made another movie after this one; he went into the production of holographic murals instead (examples of his work are included as a special feature on the DVD). It’s a shame, because Seder has clear talent and may have been able to make a truly great weird movie down the line had he stuck with it. He seems to have gotten movies out of his system with this project, but at least he found a niche for his creative impulses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…possibly the best Troma movie you’ve never heard of… with very few exceptions, [it] would feel right at home on a double bill with the classics from the twenties, thirties, and forties it so lovingly homages.”–James Lasome, Horrorfreak News (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ShaneWreck,” who characterized it as “[a] bizarre, expressionistic satire on Hollywood.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)