Tag Archives: Literary

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new album,  at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.

Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”

Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), (), (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.

The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.

Still from Midnight in Paris (2011)Gil () is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.

Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. Lea Seydoux (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.

Next week: Zelig (1983)

189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)

The Ruling Class is a rather… unusual film.”–original trailer to The Ruling Class

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Medak 

FEATURING: , William Mervyn, Carolyn Seymour, , Coral Brown, Alistair Sim, James Villiers

PLOT: The 13th Earl of Gurney dies, leaving Jack, a madman who believes he is God, as his direct heir to inherit his seat in the House of Lords. His relatives scheme to trick Jack into marriage so that he will produce an heir to carry the Gurney line, and then seek to have him declared incompetent and have him committed. Unexpectedly, however, his psychiatrist’s drastic treatment cures Jack, and now that he no longer believes himself to be God, his disposition is not nearly as gentle.

Still from The Ruling Class (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • Peter Barnes adapted the script from his own play. (The play is till occasionally performed; at the time of this writing, was starring in a performance at Trafalgar Studios). Peter O’Toole bought the rights from Barnes, and director Medak convinced O’Toole to exercise his option after a night of hard drinking (naturally).
  • O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
  • The original U.S.theatrical release omitted Carolyn Seymour’s striptease scene so that the film could be released with a PG rating.
  • The Ruling Class‘ VHS release was cut by 13 minutes so that it would fit on a single tape. Some TV broadcasts used the same shortened version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some would say it’s Peter O’Toole as J.C. taking a flying leap off his cross on his wedding day, an image the director liked so much he highlighted it in a freeze frame. We prefer the penultimate hallucination, where the House of Lords is seen as a gallery of cheering corpses and clapping skeletons draped in cobwebs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter O’Toole’s literally insane performance (“bless the pygmy hippos!”), accompanied by frequent hallucinations and left-field musical numbers, turn this literate upper-crust satire from a pointed class parable into something eccentric enough to deserve the designation “weird.”


Original trailer for The Ruling Class

COMMENTS: Although only making it onto film in 1972, the Continue reading 189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: FAUST (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk

PLOT: A doctor who’s bored with life sells his soul to a Moneylender in exchange for one night with a beautiful young woman.

Still from Faust (2011)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Though it can be stuffy, this hallucinatory version of Faust also brings us monkeys on the moon, a gynecological exam utilizing hard-boiled eggs, and an inexplicable ending that sees the title character apparently trapped in an afterlife that looks like a volcanic island of the coast of Iceland. Literary-minded weirdophiles may want to stump for this subtle and intelligent, but somewhat confused, movie to take up a slot on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made, but it’s not inspiring enough to make it on the first ballot.

COMMENTS: Aleksandr Sokurov’s adaptation of Faust keeps the central story and conflict, presenting the tragic tale of a jaded natural philosopher who finds further dissatisfaction in his pursuit of Earthly pleasure and power, but the Russian director’s take may not please everyone. Goethe’s epic poem/play, the take on the Germanic legend which most informs Sokurov’s, was full of phantasmagorical digressions, such as a parade of pagans during Walpurgis Night. So is Sokoruv’s version; but the digressions are not the same, and the director adopts Goethe’s method as a license to pursue his own visions, wherever they might take him. What is poetic on the printed page becomes a dream when filmed.

The biggest change from play to screen is a change in the “party of the second part” in the eternal contract for Faust’s soul from the devil Mephistopheles to a decrepit old man known as the Moneylender. Rather than a suave Satanic seducer, the Moneylender is a wrinkled nuisance, sly but with degraded manners (when he’s warned not to defecate outside the Church, he decides to do his business inside). Although Faust does pursue a woman, believing that carnal love will fill the empty space in his soul when philosophy and drink have failed, his primary relationship in the movie is with the Moneylender, who acts as a fatalistic conscience. The Moneylender’s surprising bath scene, which makes you think that a nude scene from the Elephant Man might not have been so bad, is the movie’s boldest moment.

It has been noted that Sokoruv’s film favors earth tones, rich browns and shadowy greens, and looks like the works of an old Dutch Master; but it’s worth pointing out further that the image here is also frequently murky and smudged, like a Rembrandt before restoration. Sokoruv’s choice to forgo widescreen vistas for the outdated 4:3 aspect ratio makes Faust cramped and claustrophobic; even when we’re outdoors, the movie feels like it’s playing out in a dingy room at the top of the stairs, lit by sunlight coming through a filthy window. At times (seemingly at random) he adds a queasy distorting lens. My suspicion is that the film’s grimy look is meant to evoke the filthiness and decay of the medieval milieu—the events seem to take place at the height of the Black Death, and there are coffins, funerals, and corpses everywhere (the movie even starts with a shot of a cadaver penis).

Although the film moves slowly, it’s extremely dialogue-dense, philosophical, and challenging for non-German speakers unfamiliar with the source material, who may find themselves quickly left behind. While Sokurov’s Russian Ark was esoteric in its subject matter, it was clearly motivated by a desire to explore Russian culture and its relationship to the West. His Faust is hermetic at its core. Although Faust is officially part of a quadrilogy which also includes biopics of Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito, it’s unclear precisely what the director’s intended spin on the legend is, or why he lumped a fictional philosopher in with historical tyrants. He’s changed enough of Faust to make the story his own, but the film doesn’t explain the reasons for the alterations it makes; it doesn’t do a clear job justifying itself and explaining why we needed this skewed take on the legend. Perhaps there is no justification to be had, and none needed. Goethe began his second book of his “Faust” with a prologue in which he sang “Let Reason be the thrall of Magic, and let bold Phantasy appear/In all her freedom, all her glory.” That could be the ancient anthem of the weird aesthetic, and perhaps Sokurov is merely heeding its call.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] triumph of the weird… takes a flying leap into bizarritude.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

“[The Swimmer needed] someone like a Fellini or a Truffaut. It needed some kind of strange, weird approach to capture the audience and make them realize that, in a way, they were not looking at anything real.”–Burt Lancaster

“What the hell does this mean and who the hell would want to make it?“–Unnamed studio executive’s response to Eleanor Perry’s screenplay for The Swimmer

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)

FEATURING: , , Janet Landgard

PLOT: Ned Merrill, a fifty something suburbanite, begins his day with a strange, simple goal of swimming  home through a “river of  pools.” Christened “Lucinda’s River,” after Ned’s wife, our protagonist connects the dots from swimming pool to swimming pool,  speaking to neighbors along the way who reveal a little more about his character. Ned’s odyssey inexorably drains his illusions, rendering his truth an authentic nightmare.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although highly athletic, Burt Lancaster did not know how to swim and prepared for the role with several months of swimming lessons.
  • The Swimmer was the dream project of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry, with Frank directing Eleanor’ s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. Fortunately for them, star Burt Lancaster got behind the project. Although the project was greenlit in the experimental sixties, Columbia Studio and producer Sam Spiegel were skeptical. Spiegel could not grasp the material, and constant fights with Frank Perry lead to the director being fired. Perry was replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose feel for the narrative lacked Perry’s poetic eccentricity. Luckily, Eleanor Perry was on set to the end to counteract Speigel’s clueless demands, one of which included asking for a happy ending. In the end Spiegel had his name removed from the film.
  • According to the documentary The Story of the Swimmer, one of the primary reasons Frank Perry was fired and half his scenes were reshot was a dispute over a scene with actress Barbara Loden. Lancaster and Loden apparently got caught up in their love scene in a pool, and down came Loden’s bathing suit top. Perry wanted the scene intact. Unknown to the director, Spiegel was a good friend to the actress’ husband, Elia Kazan. True to his nature[1], Kazan told the Perrys he was okay with the scene, and then double crossed them by going to Speigel, demanding the director be fired. Spiegel’s reputation was almost as bad as Kazan’s and Loden expected her dismissal, which came when she was replaced by Janice Rule.
  • Spiegel promised to be available on set for Lancaster, but predictably broke his promise, which resulted in numerous problems, including Columbia prematurely pulling the plug on The Swimmer. An additional day of shooting was needed and Lancaster was forced to finance the final shoot out of his own pocket.
  • A young Joan Rivers makes her first cinematic appearance in a small role as a rich suburbanite. Surprisingly, she is quite good. Later, Rivers complained that Lancaster required numerous takes and made her character “unsympathetic,” which naturally inspires a smile from the rest of us.
  • Author John Cheever makes a cameo as a passed-out drunk.
  • This is the first film score by Marvin Hamlisch. Producer Spiegel gave him the gig after hearing him play piano at a party. Hamlisch was still in college at the time.
  • Despite all the production tensions, The Swimmer opened to good reviews, but predictably bombed at the box office. Its financial failure succeeded in quickly cementing a solid cult status.
  • The Swimmer was released in a poor-quality DVD in 2003 that quickly went out of print, and the movie was essentially unavailable on home video until Grindhouse Releasing’s 2014 Blu-ray/DVD edition.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Ned, coming upon an empty pool and a boy who is afraid to swim, believes his”project” has been ruined. Ever the innovator, the swimmer, with young cadet by his side, takes a pantomime dip. They breast-stroke, dog-paddle, and wade their way through a barren basin. Allegories abound in The Swimmer and there is truth, wanted or not, to be found in the cliche “out of the mouths of babes.” This scene is obvious, and in other hands, it would have been too much so. Yet, with assured direction and acting, it makes for a potent vignette here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of The Swimmer is contextual, as opposed to visual or on the surface. Taking place in the course of a day, the film is a phantasmagoric metaphor for an entire life. The final, devastating scene, though expected, will hauntingly linger like the film itself does. The Swimmer’s composition resembles a short story, and is not at all what we expect in a film. The movie beautifully breaks the rules, with David L. Quaid’s cinematography and Marvin Hamlisch’s score enhancing the strange, impressionistic quality. 


Original trailer for The Swimmer

COMMENTS: With its wholly odd, even fragile structure and troublesome shooting, The Swimmer‘s success was dependent on the right actor in the Continue reading 177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

  1. Kazan’s reputation had already been cemented when he was the first to name names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying many lives for merely having leftist affiliations. Kazan never regretted his actions and publicly stood by his behavior []

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes? Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of . Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in Continue reading 138. DOGVILLE (2003)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry