Tag Archives: Magical Realism

260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

Yume; Dreams

“I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”–Vincent Van Gogh

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Akira Kurosawa

FEATURING: Akira Terao

PLOT: Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa lenses eight short films inspired by his own dreams. The main character, played by two child actors and one adult, is simply credited as “I.” The dreams involve a fox wedding, living doll spirits, a snow witch, a platoon of dead soldiers, Vincent van Gogh, the explosion of Mt. Fuji, a weeping demon, and a happy funeral.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • One of the most awarded filmmakers in cinema history, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams at the age of 80. He had not made a movie since 1985’s Ran. He completed two features after Dreams before finally retiring in 1993 and dying in 1998.
  • Late in his life, Kurosawa had difficulty raising money in Japan because, despite winning awards overseas, his movies did not make a lot of money in his home country. After reading the script for Dreams, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas convinced Warner Brothers to fund the film. Spielberg served as executive producer and Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic provided the visual effects.
  • Ishiro Honda (Godzilla) served as “creative consultant” and is said to have directed some sequences uncredited, as well as supplying the inspiration for “The Tunnel” segment (which was similar to a story Honda had written but never filmed),
  • Kurosawa personally chose to play Vincent Van Gogh because the director’s energy matched his conception of Van Gogh’s passionate nature.
  • A final ninth dream, which would have involved an outbreak of world peace, was scrapped because Kurosawa envisioned legions of extras and it would have been too expensive to film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “I” wandering through a series of Van Gogh paintings, crossing over painted bridges and stepping around painted trees.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing dolls; Martin Van Gogh; demon under a dandelion

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When one of the world’s greatest filmmakers deigns to tell us of his dreams, we should sit quietly and listen. If we do, we will be privileged to witness ghostly spirit pageants, movie screens transformed into impressionist canvases splotched by gobs of paint, giant dandelions, and horned demons weeping beside pools of blood.  We have much to learn.


Original trailer for Dreams

COMMENTS: The title is a lie. The visions here are not literal recreations of Akira Kurosawa’s dreams. Although each segment grows Continue reading 260. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S DREAMS (1990)

CAPSULE: KAILI BLUES (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi

FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen

PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.

Still Kaili Blues (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.

COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.

Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s like with less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).

Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

“Usually you can fall back on a genre or something and go, ‘It’ll be great!’ With us, we were like, ‘I don’t know man, we’re making something crazy, it might not turn out well…’” – Daniel Kwan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: Paul Dano,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washed ashore. Investigating, he finds it is endowed with many with life-saving powers, and eventually develops the power of speech. Naming the corpse “Manny,” the two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries to find his way home and Manny tries to remember what it’s like to be alive.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is the first feature from writing/directing team “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They met at Emerson College in 2008, and soon collaborated on short films and music videos that combined Kwan’s background in design and animation with Scheinert’s background in comedy and theater.
  • Kwan came up with the idea as a joke, and the two aspiring filmmakers would pitch it during studio meetings for fun until they were eventually encouraged to actually develop it into something. The script came together in 2014 at the Sundance Labs, where was one of their advisors. (According to Scheinert, he wanted them to somehow incorporate the Gilligan’s Island theme song.)
  • Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were the first actors to whom they sent the script. Both agreed immediately, after which Daniels rewrote the parts to be more suited to the actors.
  • Daniel Radcliffe insisted on performing most of his own stunts.
  • Daniels’ Grammy-nominated music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” single was a testing ground for the idea of an independent-minded penis later used in Swiss Army Man. Daniel Kwan himself is the main dancer in the video.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hank’s descriptions of women and sex (along with help from an alluring advertisement) provoke a sudden erection in Manny, but it soon becomes clear that his penis is actually pointing their way home. The erratic movements of Daniel Radcliffe’s member as it jerks within his pants towards a nearby pathway create an image I certainly won’t forget any time soon.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Corpse jet ski; DIY bus ride; fiery (and propulsive) bear escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With a farting, hacking, spewing, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the film’s complete sincerity, which despite all its high-concept groundwork makes its audience care deeply about its central characters.


Trailer for Swiss Army Man

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are Continue reading 257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

256. AMARCORD (1973)

“The natural was not an opportunity for Fellini, material to be recorded or rearranged, but rather a constraint, like rationality, defined order, and logic were—a limit on his creativity—and that is why the natural, the narrativized, and the realistic began to disappear from Fellini’s work, at first imperceptibly, before 1960, and then markedly afterward.”–Sam Rohdie, “Amarcord: Federico of the Spirits”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Armando Brancia, Pupella Maggio, Luigi Rossi, Josiane Tanzilli, Maria Antonietta Beluzzi

PLOT: Amarcord documents a year in the lives of residents of an Italian coastal town (based on Fellini’s own hometown, Rimini) in the 1930s under Mussolini’s Fascist party. Titta, an adolescent boy, is the character with the most screen time, and he spends it mostly with his friends engaging in mischief and lusting after unobtainable older women. The most unobtainable of these is Gradisca, the dreamy, red-maned village beauty and the second most important character, whose eventual marriage marks the end of a chapter in the town’s history.

Still from Amarcord (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • Won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the film was also nominated (in 1976) for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
  • Depending on what source you believe, “amarcord” is either a Fellini neologism, or an unusual slang word from the Romagnolo dialect of Italian meaning “I remember.” Per Damian Pettigrew, it possibly derives from “amare” (“love”) + “ricordo” (“memory”) (=”fond memory”), perhaps with a touch of “amaro” (=”bitter”, for “bittersweet memory”). Or, it might be just a slurred pronunciation of the Italian phrase “io mi ricordo” (“I remember”).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most mainstream movie fans remember the peacock in the blizzard, or the massive S.S. Rex passing by in the night (over, as it turns out, a sea made of cellophane). The weird-minded are more thrilled by the sight of the imaginary wedding ministered by the giant Facscist talking head made from red and white blossoms, with the girls holding up hula hoops on one side of the aisle while the boys raise their rifles on the other.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flowery Mussolini wedding; bean vendor in a harem; dwarf nun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Amarcord finds Federico Fellini fondly remembering, or deliberately misremembering, his own youth in a series of sketches that alternate between burlesque comedy, light absurdism, and total fantasy. Mainstream movie lovers sometimes see Amarcord as too flamboyant, while Fellini’s more surrealist-oriented fans often miss the delirium of Satyricon, seeing this one as too nostalgic and accessible. Amarcord admittedly isn’t Fellini’s weirdest, but as one of the most beloved works by one of the weird genre’s key directors, it’s worth your time. It skates onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies on the sliding-scale rule: the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to be honored.


Original U.S. release trailer for Amarcord

COMMENTS: It sounds like an outtake from “Arabian Nights” by Continue reading 256. AMARCORD (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Swiss Army Man has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), a young man on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) with life-saving powers. The two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries find his way home.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With a farting, hacking, spewing, talking, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is probably bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But it’s the film’s kooky charm, black humor, and remarkable feeling that makes me recommend it.

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are alone, when there is no social pressure to be reasonable or logical, when we can allow ourselves to think, just for a second, that maybe that unexplained feeling or movement is a ghost drifting through our house or a glitch in the Matrix. Swiss Army Man, the debut feature from filmmaking team “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), revels in the idea that in isolation people are free to be as weird as they are, and that maybe that is a beautiful thing. Lost, alone, scared, unsure, Hank not only finds himself immediately opening up to a random corpse (known later as “Manny”), but he accepts his magical properties almost immediately because he has no reason not to. He doesn’t seem to care if this crazy experience is all in his head or not, so the audience doesn’t need to, either.

Hank discovers more and more uses for Manny as the story moves along—he starts fires with spark-inducing fingers, acts as a fountain after collecting rain water all night, moves across the water as a fart-powered motorboat, and points the way with his penis-compass (really), among other things. However, the surprise of the film is that it isn’t really about its titular character’s multi-purpose nature, but more about the strange, surprisingly moving relationship that develops between the two men. Manny is a blank slate, with no memory and no knowledge of the outside world, so much of the dialogue is Hank answering never-ending questions about life, love, work, and bodily functions. They begin to enact a strange love-story-once-removed, with Hank playing the part of a semi-fictional woman so that Manny can learn how male/female romance works, but as time goes on the fantasy blurs into reality. They rely on one another so completely that their symbiotic relationship mirrors a romantic one, and despite the impossibility of their situation it is utterly believable.

Ultimately, Swiss Army Man is an exercise in contradictions. It combines thoughtful, often elegant visuals—a cool blue/green/ color palette, engrossing camerawork, soft lighting—and pairs it with exceedingly low-brow visual and audio gags, with the ever-present fart and dick jokes driving a lot of the humor. It gives us an inventive, gorgeous score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell and overlays it with nonsense words and goofy lyrics sung by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. It reveals many of the terrifying realities of survival in the forest while eliciting comedy and wonder out of its fantasy elements. Much of its dialogue centers around a heterosexual love story, but it actually works better as a homosexual one. What makes the film work so well is that everyone involved accepts these contradictions wholeheartedly, knowing that something can be beautiful and disgusting and hilarious and strange and emotionally affecting all at once, because weirdness is okay, even after you’ve left the isolation of the woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie wears its weirdness as a badge of honor — as well it should.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: AIR DOLL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Hirokazu Koreeda

FEATURING: Doona Bae, Arata Iura, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji

PLOT: Nozomi, an inflatable sex doll, develops consciousness and comes to life, wandering through the streets while her owner is at work, encountering various lonely souls including a video store attendant, with whom she falls in love.

Still from Air Doll (2009)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The central conceit (and character) of the inflatable sex doll is the only weird element in this film. The people surrounding Nozomi and the contemporary Japanese setting are grounded in naturalism, positioning the film in the genre of magical realism rather than surrealism.

COMMENTS: The concept of an outsider or alien force experiencing human existence is a familiar trope in cinema. Ex Machina (2015), Her (2013), A.I. (2001), City of Angels (1998) and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) all explore similar concepts. In the main, these films present a robot or artificial intelligence evolving human characteristics, whereas Air Doll posits a less likely protagonist: an inflatable vinyl sex doll.

Nozomi, a “sexual surrogate” as she lamentably reminds us through the film, lives with her owner, Hideo, in modern urban Tokyo. She passively listens to his self-important ramblings about work (which we later learn are lies), and then later serves as an equally passive recipient to his sexual advances. The following morning, after Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi inexplicably comes to life (Nozomi describes the process as “finding a heart”) in a sequence where an animated puppet becomes actress Doona Bae, enjoying the sensual thrill of dripping water running over her hand. Her first thoughts on her newfound consciousness are “beau-ti-ful!,” but this will change by the film’s end.

Nozomi is a curiosity to those she encounters, but their reactions are no match for her own wonder at everything she sees. Even the garbage men fascinate her. Nozomi’s wonder and simple satisfaction with life remains a stark contrast to the thwarted happiness of the human characters throughout the film

Nozomi’s position as outsider is reinforced both by her status as an animated doll and the casting of Korean actress Bae in a Japanese film. This is purposeful casting by director Koreeda to throw his observations of modern urban life into sharper relief. Like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satire or analysis of a culture is strengthened the more alien the presence of the other observing it. Bae, the alien in question, seems incapable of delivering a poor performance; even if the film is weak (witness the failed splendor of Cloud Atlas) she is always in top form and her portrayal here is no exception. Nozomi is by turns curious, ebullient, playful, saddened, sensual and emphatic. Her small, staccato, childlike walk in her French Maid’s dress is also a lovely touch, emphasizing Nozomi’s innocence and vulnerability.

Despite the potential here for an incisive and engaging investigation of modern Japanese life—and by extension human existence—the overall tone remains light and humorous , although the film does take a much darker turn in its final act. Even the bleaker aspects of the human characters’ lives fail to inspire sympathy because they are so underdeveloped (many of them we only see once or twice in small cutaways). You could argue the conceit of a sex doll coming to life is farcical and thus the comic tone is appropriate, but elsewhere Koreeda teases us with more involved drama (for example, Nozomi’s boss blackmailing her for sex) without ever really committing to it.

That the film is a slight work that sadly never lingers in the memory is evidenced by the lack of interviews and production materials surrounding it online. Even the links on its Wikipedia page are dead and its archived page on the Cannes Film Festival comes up with an “error.” This is not to say that the film doesn’t have very beautiful and tender moments: for example the gentle touch the old man asks Nozomi to place on his forehead, or Nozomi opening up a tear on her arm in order to smell the breath of her lover; its simply that there is nothing significant about the human experience mined in any great depth. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) (1952) is a much more palpable and urgent examination of what it means to be human and why life is so precious. (I mention it only because the initial pleasure in life Nozomi experiences is similar to the renewed urgency found by Ikiru’s protagonist).

As a rumination on urban loneliness and inertia, defeated dreams and the loss of innocence transitioning to adulthood, this film is arguably successful; however in addressing the larger questions of what it means to human it falls flat, suffering from a lack of focus and peripheral characters in need of further development.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it’s set in a cold and seemingly hollow world.”–Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice Magazine

LIST CANDIDATE: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Holger Andersson, Nisse Vestblom

PLOT: As series of absurdist sketches linked by a few recurring characters, including most prominently a pair of joyless novelty salesmen peddling plastic vampire fangs and other trinkets.

Still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List for completeness’ sake, since the two previous entries in Roy Andersson “trilogy about being a human being”—Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—were both easy Certified Weird choices. I must aver that I do find this the weakest of the three “human being” films, however.

COMMENTS: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a perfect title for a Roy Andersson film, evoking the concepts of detachment, alienness, and existential contemplation that mark the Swede’s strange ruminations on the human condition. In typically skewed Andersson fashion, the pigeon in question inhabits a poem, a poem which a shy elementary school girl does not quite recite in front of an assembly, but which is nonetheless, we are assured, a beautiful poem. Andersson’s sketches are hard to describe to an outsider—they are absurd, yes, and bone dry—but once you see one you immediately recognize the style. You also immediately intuit the elliptical points Andersson makes about human behavior. Life is funny and futile, strange and mundane. Social interactions are a minefield of potential embarrassments, but also full of arbitrary rules that impede our ability to connect with each other. A man drops dead in the lunchline: who will take his beer and shrimp sandwich? He paid before he passed.

Pigeon lacks, I think, the one knockout segment that each of Andersson’s previous features had. The conclusion of Songs from the Second Floor presents a truly terrifying vision of a post-Christian Europe where the dead have been unleashed on the living, while You, the Living contains the young girl’s dream about marrying Mickey Larsson, the most wistful and tender scenario Andersson has ever constructed. Pigeon offers a couple of candidates for a standard-bearing tableau. The first is the sudden appearance of the foppish King Charles XII, who rides into a modern watering hole on horseback, to no one’s especial surprise. While this sequence is pleasantly absurd, the second candidate has more satirical bite. Soldiers load chained Africans into a giant copper cylinder festooned with horns. “I thought of something horrible,” says one of the novelty salesmen, sitting on the edge of his bed in his one room apartment with “Uncle One-Tooth” masks strewn about, in the very next scene. “And I was involved.”

Andersson’s films are a continuum—the same static compositions, the same dour expressions, the same careful conservation of motion and emotion. Odd little awkward playlets played out on endlessly identical sets of gray apartments and glum bars. Due to their vignette structure and constant tone, you could cull the best segments from the three films (perhaps sprinkling in some of Andersson’s shorts) to make a standalone feature that wouldn’t play any differently than the canonical works do. The result would be a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the best way to enjoy this is not to search for coherence or unity but to just let it wash over you and embrace the weirdness…”–Leslie Felperin, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHITE GOD (2014)

 Fehér isten

DIRECTED BY: Kornél Mundruczó

FEATURING: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér

PLOT: A young girl is separated from her beloved mutt after her father refuses to pay a new tax on mixed breeds; the dog is thrown into the streets of Budapest and becomes the leader of a wild pack that terrorizes the city.

Still from White God (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. It’s only the bookend opening and closing scenes that really approach the lunatic.

COMMENTS: White God begins with a scene of a young girl pedaling her bicycle through the streets of Budapest, which is depopulated as though in a dream; suddenly, a pack of two-hundred fifty dogs appears from around a corner, loping behind her in slow motion. It’s a startling, half-surreal image, but the movie takes some time to get back to anything approaching its power. Post-credits, we flash back to the beginning of the story to get our narrative bearings: Lili, a young musician just embarking on womanhood, and her mutt Hagen are inseparable pals, but trouble arises when the girl has to spend the summer with her dog-hating father in his Budapest apartment. Hagen is a hassle, and to make things worse the city has enacted a blatantly allegorical tax on half-breed dogs. After Hagen makes a nuisance of himself, the father kicks the cur to the curb in a fit of pique.

So far the film has been a drama, but with this development it begins shifting genres. For a while as we follow Hagen’s adventures in the alone in the big city, meeting other strays and evading dogcatchers, it seems like this will be a live action lost pet family flick a la Benji. Things turn far darker and distinctly un-Disney, however, as Hagen finds his instinctual trust in the beneficence of humans is unwarranted. The scenes of animal cruelty that follow, while clearly simulated and intended as social criticism, will make this film all but unwatchable for some animal lovers. Interspersed with Hagen’s journeys are the parallel adventures of Lili, who continues to search for her beloved pet but also starts to take an interest in boys. Things take a stranger turn when Hagen escapes captivity and organizes a pack of feral strays into a force for vengeance against his human oppressors; the movie becomes a canine version of The Birds, with dogs running through the streets, slamming themselves into car windows as women scream, trapped in their vehicles.

To its credit, White God handles these multiple shifts in tone and genre well, and wears its absurd premise lightly. And yet, the movie is not entirely successful, mainly because its human characters aren’t as interesting or impressive as its animals. Although the core story of a girl’s love for her dog is inherently moving, the scenes of Lili alone are not warranted as anything other than a break from the tension of poor Hagen’s abuse at human hands. White God spends too much time with its people; but what you will remember about it is the hundreds of dogs rampaging through the streets of Budapest, a feat of practical animal choreography that has never been attempted on this scale before. It’s no wonder that the DVD’s extra features treat chief animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller with almost as much reverence as director Mundruczó; if there were an Academy Award for best animal stunts, White God would be a shoo-in.

The title “White God” is somewhat mysterious. It evokes ‘s 1982 flop White Dog, a moral allegory about the deprogramming of an albino German Shepherd trained by white supremacists to attack blacks. Just as the letters in the two title nouns are transposed, the plot arc here is the mirror image of Fuller’s film: God‘s canine progresses from domesticated to vicious. The title also refers to the way dogs look at humans as godlike beings, and, furthermore, to the old European ideal of “whiteness” as representing genetic purity and perfection. I have no idea whether these meanings come across in the Hungarian title “Fehér isten,” or whether that title includes its own untranslated puns or wordplay, although this information is as unnecessary to appreciating the film as is understanding the specific Hungarian political references Mundruczó may be making here.

White God won the “Un Certain Regard” prize (given to “original and different” movies) at Cannes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

White God is a strange beast. Director Kornel Mundruczo has created a beautiful and bizarre film that veers between gritty realism and haunting fantasy…”–Lucy Barrick, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad,” who called it “not the strangest film ever, but definitely something to take a look at.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BIRD PEOPLE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pascale Ferran

FEATURING: Josh Charles, Anaïs Demoustier

PLOT: Set at a hotel by Paris’ Orly Airport, the story follows an American businessman who suddenly decides to quit his job and a French maid who has an odd experience one night on her rounds.

Still from Bird People (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only half-weird (and only about half-good, too).

COMMENTS: Bird People has some strange concepts, an eccentric tone, and an unusual structure; just barely enough to keep it watchable through its long and slow 2+ hour runtime. It begins with a prologue in which we flit among various characters on a Paris commuter train, sometimes listening to their cell phone conversations, sometimes hearing their thoughts. They talk about their jobs or parties they’re going to; no one really has much of interest to say, or, if they might, we don’t get the opportunity to get to know them. Which, of course, is the point. What we have here is another of those Continental “cinema d’ennui” films about how modern life and technology destroy our interconnectedness (crucial life events are conveyed remotely, by an e-mail) and drain away our sense of wonder. As usual in this subgenre, the director wallows in the mundane in order to make her point, requiring enormous patience from the viewer as we watch characters smoke endless cigarettes (this is a French film, after all) or long takes of birds flying around. Whether you find your patience rewarded is up in the air; if you’re an arthouse patron, I’d guess the movie has about a fifty-fifty chance of success.

The film is divided into two halves. The first is straight dramatic realism, following Gary, a software engineer working for a small start-up firm. He’s mildly successful and upwardly mobile; he owns a major block of stock in the company but still needs to do hands-on work, meaning that he must stop-over for a night in Paris to take a meeting while on his way to Dubai to work on a power plant project. While sleeping in his hotel room he has an anxiety attack and abruptly decides that he wants to quit it all; his job, his family, the stress, and simply start his life over in his Paris hotel room with no plan. It’s a rare leading role for accomplished character actor Josh Charles, whom we both envy (because what slave to the dollar [or Euro] hasn’t daydreamed about chucking it all and starting fresh?) and disapprove of (because the script doesn’t gloss over the way he leaves his coworkers and wife in a bind—one of the movie’s most alive sequences is the painful conversation where he breaks up with his wife over Skype). The second half of the film dwells on maid Audrey (an appealing Anaïs Demoustier) as she makes her dismal rounds, and here is where the magical part of the movie’s magical realism happens. We won’t spoil the surprise as to what happens in her storyline. Neither will we guarantee that you’ll be blown away by its poetry. The contrast between airplanes and birds makes for an interesting metaphor, but while the film boasts good performances, cinematography, and other scattered points of interest, Bird People never really takes off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The surrealism stands in stark contrast with the stripped-down naturalism that has come before, and it is in this stretch that the film finally leaves terra firma and takes flight.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sergio Hernández, Santiago Figueroa, Christian Vadim, Valentina Vargad, Chamila Rodriguez, Pedro Villagra, Sergio Schmied

PLOT: An old man recalls his childhood, when he used to carry on conversations with Long John Silver and Ludwig van Beethoven, as he waits in a boarding house for the man who will kill him to arrive.

Still from Night Across the Street (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a fine, absurd death movie. We suspect Ruiz has fielded better candidates to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time, but this one carries an extra poignancy due to the fact that we are watching an artist sail into the sunset under his own power. Night Across the Street is Ruiz’ posthumous jibe at mortality.

COMMENTS: “Time seems to stumble here,” muses a character (amusingly, the line is delivered immediately following a jump cut). “The hours don’t follow one another.” Our main character, Don Celso, is talking to Jean Giono, a somewhat obscure French writer who died in 1970 but whom he meets in a translation seminar, presumably in the present day. Celso is used to chatting with such apparitions; as a child, he used to hold conversations with Beethoven (whom he takes to see a cowboy movie) and the fictional pirate Long John Silver (who predicts that someone close to the boy will die, only to find that every victim he suggests is already dead).

Night Across the Street‘s sense of being lost in a sea of memory where the distant past shares equal billing with the present should be familiar to anyone who has ever observed grandpa recalling his first kiss in the seventh grade as if it happened yesterday, while simultaneously forgetting where he put his keys and how to operate the remote control. The first forty minutes of the movie are full of flashbacks to Celso’s boyhood, leading us to fear that Night will one of those dull, reverential movies full of the bittersweet reminiscences of an old man reflecting back on a life speckled with triumphs and tragedies; but the last two-thirds of the film, dealing with the approach of death and its aftermath, prove far more interesting than the setup. The forcibly retired Celso is waiting for the man who will kill him to arrive, you see, and when the boarding house matron’s nephew, a poet, comes to stay, he thinks his killer has finally arrived. In a convoluted parody of drawing room murder mysteries and noirish twists, the nephew is planning to kill the old man for his money, while romancing his own aunt and a dancer/prostitute who also lives at the home. Meanwhile, Don Celso is trying to talk an assassin, who is a client of the dancer, out of killing the nephew.

It gets stranger from there, as rumors of murder start to fly and the movie’s dream sequences start having their own dream sequences. In the world of this movie, no distinction could be less important than the one between fantasy and reality (unless it is perhaps the one between past and present). Only the difference between life and death truly matters, but even that line proves difficult to draw. Different permutations of the story coexist, overlapped onscreen: it’s a surreally garbled tale of murder, a young boy’s ominous premonitions of the future, an old man’s dying dream, a self-conscious metafiction, and the memoirs of a ghost, all at the same time. It ends as a haunted house tale set in a cursed boarding house, a place where the ghosts are haunted by their own meta-ghosts. The movie sports a delightful sense of intellectual play, especially wordplay (the lectures on translation, poetry recitations, a running gag about a crossword clue, and the main character’s obsession with the word “rhododendron”). Nothing could be more absurd than death. With his extremely odd and dry sense of humor intact until the end, Ruiz laughs at death—not defiantly, but with genuine befuddled amusement.

Raoul Ruiz made over 100 movies in his lifetime, some in his native Chile and many in France where he lived in exile during the Pinochet regime. In 2010 he was diagnosed with cancer and received a successful liver transplant. He shot Night Across the Street in March of April of 2011; in August of that same year he died of a lung infection. He did preparatory work on one final movie, Linhas de Wellington (Lines of Wellington), a historical drama set in the Napoleonic Wars, which was completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…suffused with the contrast between experience and memory, reality and surreality.”–Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “a splendid and utterly weird movie, released after the filmmaker’s death, which brings a poignant resonance with the subjects tackled in the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)