Tag Archives: Minimalist

CAPSULE: DARLING (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Keating

FEATURING: , Brian Morvant

PLOT: A young woman hired to house-sit in the oldest residence in Manhattan discovers evidence of an occult history, and her grip on reality immediately begins to unravel.

Still from Darling (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Darling effectively captures a violent descent into madness, with filmic techniques that heighten the lead character’s insanity. But there’s not much that’s actively unusual about it, and the film’s most notable plot elements hearken back to earlier, superior movies.

COMMENTS: One person, alone. Only the sights and sounds as company. At what point does detachment make way for dementia? When does sanity start to break down? The idea of the lone individual doing battle with both oppressive solitude and personal demons is a hallmark of storytelling, whether in literature (Robinson Crusoe, The Shining), on the small screen (Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent,” The Twilight Zone pilot “Where Is Everybody?”), and certainly in the movies (Cast Away, 127 Hours, Buried). So the near-solo effort that is Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance has a healthy precedent. But in this particular instance, one film looms over Darling like a mighty monolith: Repulsion. That’s bad news for Darling, because other than a reduction in the cast and an increase in the level of hinted-at gore, the new film is barely a gloss on its predecessor.

The film’s entire modus operandi is to minimize any of the elements that would serve to explain, justify, or add any depth to our heroine’s plight. She has no name (the credits offer “Darling,” but it still sounds more like Sean Young’s term of irritated affection). We have no sense of her past or history, until a very late reveal. Her wardrobe seems to consist of two dresses and a nightgown (with a soupçon of gratuitous nudity for good measure). She has virtually no interaction with others, save for one character who establishes the premise and another to serve as a target for her unleashed rage. With no clear wants or needs, nothing that marks her as an individual, your guess as to what drives her descent into madness is as good as anyone else’s; she’s a tabula rasa protagonist. Even the elegant black-and-white photography saps any color from Darling’s existence.

With that void at the center, all that’s left is the scare factor. We know that shock value is the movie’s raison d’etre right from the title card, which abruptly jumps from gentle piano music to a horror-saturated, Herrmann-esque stabbing cue that slams into the film like a speeding truck. From this point forward, Darling (and, accordingly, the audience) is assaulted by shock jump cuts, sudden surprising noises, and disturbing images. And to be fair, they work just about every time. But they’re a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference between the shock of a bomb going off versus the suspense of waiting on that bomb. There’s no suspense in Darling. The main character’s fate is clear from the outset, and we’re just waiting for it to arrive.

The screenplay plays lip service to the idea of an explanation. A crumb of backstory about past occurrences in the house, a piece of jewelry in a blasphemous setting, and most notoriously a hint of sexual assault in our heroine’s past: these are the clues we have to help us answer the question of whether Darling is driven mad by her surroundings or brings the crazy with her. Carter throws herself into the role, walking the line between victim and aggressor, but ultimately, we can’t know what motivates her because the film doesn’t care. The scares are all that matters. It’s not so much a story as it is a haunted house.

Mickey Keating is a gifted filmmaker. He likes to use Kubrick framing, and plays with long takes, slow pans, and implied violence as much as explicit. He spices things up with jump cuts, inserts, blackouts, and every sound trick in the book. He even manages to extract shock value from moments that should be free of surprise, such as when a policeman inspects a bag whose contents are well-known to us. But he happens to be working with Keating the screenwriter, who has crafted a scare-delivery system rather than a story. That’s why the memory of Repulsion proves so damaging to any assessment of Darling: when you can get the same tale told with greater depth, adding more “gotcha” moments feels like a poor trade-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“More experimental than mainstream horror viewers will be expecting, ‘Darling’ works best as an alluring, hallucinogenic mood piece that makes its way under the skin. It feels classy even when blood is being shed in a monochromatic frame.”–Jeremy Kibler, The Artful Critic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.

Still from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.

COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).

The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.

Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.

For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[Weerasethakul’a] movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird.”–Matt Prigge, Metro

CAPSULE: THE TRIBE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi

FEATURING: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova

PLOT: Upon arriving at a school for the deaf, a teenage boy is quickly recruited into a vicious gang that conducts petty crimes, including prostituting two female students.

Still from The Tribe (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a Ukrainian juvenile delinquent movie told entirely in untranslated sign language is far off the average person’s radar, the straightforward subject matter isn’t weird enough for the List. The Tribe is more of a formal novelty than anything.

COMMENTS: First there was Deafula, and now The Tribe. That’s where sign language cinema begins and ends. The Tribe is not made for deaf audiences, however—Ukrainian sign language is not completely intelligible to signers of other nationalities—nor is it about the experience of being deaf. Being able to read sign language would frustrate the intentional alienation effect and impede the film’s experiment in non-verbal storytelling.  With patience, you can follow everything that happens in this archetypal gangster rise-and-fall tale: our (essentially) nameless protagonist (the credits call him Sergey) is forcibly recruited into the local syndicate, proves his worth in a series of trials, rises on the ladder, and comes into conflict with his superiors. The details of what the deaf characters are actually saying to each other, and the few narrative mysteries that pop up, are cleverly divulged through context or cleaned up by later revelations, no differently than they would be in a spoken language feature. The complete removal of dialogue takes silent film one step further, and enforces a dogmatic minimalism on the picture. Language, you realize, only provides detail, and here the details have been stripped away. The rest of the film’s style—bleak sets, absence of music, extremely long takes—reinforce the starkness.

The long takes, although well-executed, are the film’s biggest drawback, in that Slaboshpytskyi habitually keeps the camera running far longer than necessary—sometimes on scenes that are themselves unnecessary. Sergey’s introduction to the school includes a long ceremonial ritual where students give flowers to their teachers and several minutes of unintelligible (to us) lecturing (in one of only two scenes set in the classroom); this far more than satisfies our need to orient ourselves in a school setting. Finding a room for that first night is a similarly drawn out process, as sleeping arrangements seem to be unassigned, then later there are scenes of two girls getting passport photos and waiting in line to see a government functionary…. Although the length of each of these scenes reinforces the movie’s ponderous rhythm, by the end, the 130-minute running time becomes problematic. It’s axiomatic in writing that you include nothing unnecessary in the finished work, and there are entire scenes here that could have been easily cut. I’m not including the scenes of brutal violence and cruelty (which are justified by the milieu), of near-explicit sex (less justified), or of a real-time back alley medical procedure, in that assessment. These “strong” scenes provide a nihilistic artsploitation sensibility that will turn off many, but supply the film’s primary appeal for some.

Even though understanding precisely what’s being said in sign language is not necessary to follow the plot, constantly seeing the characters communicating on the screen without knowing what they’re saying creates a level of frustration and anxiety in the viewer. It’s an inversion of the deaf person’s experience in the speaking world (although that fact is more of a footnote than the film’s raison d’être). The fact that the story can be followed at all—much less that it is at times gripping—is a testament to the director’s skill. It’s an artful gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, and The Tribe is more of a great achievement than a great movie. Days later, I was still wrestling with whether I liked it or not, and whether (and to whom) I could recommend it—which is a sort of tribute, I think. Letterboxd user Brian Koukol nailed The Tribe‘s position in film history when he described it as “a merit badge for a cinephiles.” I’m not sure if the reward here is commensurate to the challenge involved, but you won’t forget the experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the use of sign language, deafness and silence itself adds several heady new ingredients to the base material, alchemically creating something rich, strange and very original.”–Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: HORSE MONEY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pedro Costa

FEATURING: Ventura, Vitalina Varela

PLOT: A retired bricklayer from Cape Verde with a military background wanders through rooms and corridors in some kind of institution, taking visits from people from his past and mixing up flashbacks with present day reality.

Still from Horse Money (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The artistic value is high, but the story is so vague, insular and shadowy that, unless you’re an expatriate Cape Verdean intellectual or a careful follower of director Pedro Costa’s career, there’s not much to latch on to.

COMMENTS: After a slideshow of vintage stills of impoverished New Yorkers, Horse Money opens with Ventura (a non-actor playing a version of himself, who previously played what may be the same character in director Pedro Costa’s 2006 semi-documentary Colossal Youth) wandering, in red underwear, through dungeonlike stone corridors, which eventually turn into the blank industrial hallways of a nameless institution. The stone passages may be the crumbling pathways of his mind; Ventura may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or he may be dead and lost in a kind of purgatory. A doctor, or some other official, asks him his name and age; his answers are not always correct, or even responsive. He answers the question “Do you sleep well?” with “A big black bird came up on my roof.” In the hospital (if that’s what it is) he is visited by, or stumbles upon, people he has known throughout his life; some of whom may be dead. A woman from his past speaks only in a whisper and reads off records of births, deaths and marriages from a notary’s register; another visitor is revealed as an ex-friend with whom he got into a knife fight years ago. The climax (if such a word may be used for a film this quiet and subdued) is a long dialogue in an elevator between Ventura and a soldier in metallic green paint who stands statue-still and never moves his lips.

You will be confused. The confusion is purposeful; it enforces an atmosphere of dementia. The cinematography is dark, with shadows dominating nearly every frame, faces carefully lit so that their personalities emerge from a general murk. The anachronistic, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio induces a quiet claustrophobia. The movie’s overall feeling is resignation, and a sense of a character coming to grips with the fact that a hard, laborious life is slipping away. Ventura, whose hand shakes uncontrollably, is perfectly authentic in the role. He’s playing himself, mostly, but he’s also an everyman for his community of poor, working class immigrants, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

Horse Money is beautifully shot and dignifies its subject. It strives to be hypnotic, although too often it drifts from the merely dreamy towards deep, oblivious slumber. If the film makes it to DVD (not a home run proposition) fans of graceful, atmospheric minimalism will want to take a look; but even among weirdophiles, this is not a general interest movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of formidable discontinuity that takes the form of a dream.“–Jonathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JAUJA (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Lisandro Alonso

FEATURING: Viilbjørk Malling Agger

PLOT: A Danish surveyor tracks his missing daughter into the wilderness.

Still from Jauja (2104)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This slow-paced movie turns weird by the end, but strangeness doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance until the last twenty minutes.

COMMENTS: While Jauja is set in a specific time and place, no one in the movie ever says what that time and place is; they simply inhabit it as their reality. The film’s “meaning,” similarly, is left vague. An explanation for the film’s title, on the other hand, is given in a text prologue: “Jauja” is a mythical paradise, the equivalent of El Dorado, a place ambitious explorers seek and never find. This, along with the colonial dress and a campfire tale about a soldier who was wandered into the wilderness and went mad, immediately brings to mind similar themes from Aguirre, the Wrath of God; although ultimately Alonso’s movie is more oblique and far more restrained than ‘s Amazonian fever dream classic.

Although never specified, Jauja was actually shot in Argentina, and the film could serve as an advertisement for the Pampas Tourist Board. In its ability to capture the country’s strange landscapes— the standing pools of water flanked by mossy rocks, the fields of boulders, the mighty horizons—the film is an undisputed triumph. Jauja is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen, with the corners quaintly rounded so that the screen recalls a picture frame. The natural color schemes, particularly the blue midnights and glowing dawns, look brilliantly unreal. Jauja may be too small and peculiar to compete for any major awards, but I doubt we will see superior cinematography in any film this year.

As desolate as Jauja‘s landscapes can be, for most of the running time the film’s plot is even more so. A scene that kicks off the movie’s second act illustrates how unnaturally deliberate the pacing is. Viggo Mortensen’s Danish captain discovers that his teenage daughter is  missing from her tent; instead of immediately rushing off after her, he returns to his own tent and spends several minutes calmly examining his weapons and dressing in his formal military uniform. Although not much time is actually lost in the formal procedure, the scene conveys the exact opposite of urgency. In the movie’s middle section, minute after minute goes by with no words spoken; we simply watch Mortensen stumble across the craggy landscape, growing increasingly weaker. (We also watch him sleep). Eventually, he encounters a shaggy dog and follows it back to a cave where he has a very strange encounter with an old woman (which I will not spoil). Things get even weirder for the ending epilogue, a time-bending journey to another world where the film’s earlier motifs—dogs, a toy solider—are recast in a dreamlike fashion.

Many critics compare Alonso’s latest film to the work of  , for obvious reasons. Although Jauja shares Tarkovsky’s meticulous use of time and strangeness, the Russian master’s films always win out because they end on profound emotional resonances; the Stalker weeping in despair, Kris Kelvin’s decision to play along with Solaris’ delusion. As well-made and thoughtful as it is, Jauga‘s heart is simple—the love of a father for his daughter—and does not approach the emotional intricacies of Tarkovsky. Of course, few do; but Jauja shows you what Tarkovsky may have looked like without his complex understanding of the human soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this hallucinatory head-trip Western remains unmistakably Alonso’s film from first frame to last — a metaphysical road movie in which origin and destination are markedly less important than the journey itself…  Alonso saves his most dazzling trick for last: a sudden plunge down a Lynchian rabbit hole that should, by all means, rupture the film’s hypnotizing atmosphere, but instead pulls the viewer in even deeper.“–Scott Foundas, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, , Lea Bridarolli

PLOT: A young girl of about 6 wakes up inside a coffin and finds herself in a strange girl’s boarding school, planted in a forested park walled off from the outside world.

Still from Innocence (2004)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful metaphor for childhood. The pacing, however, makes Picnic at Hanging Rock feel like a nonstop thrill ride.

COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s debut film as an odd one, a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two teachers guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they meet the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.

Butterflies are used as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to function as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries are allowed to linger without elucidation. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It doesn’t feel essential, but it is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.

Innocence barely received any distribution in the United States, and has only been released on a region-free French DVD (with English subtitles for the film, though not for the extras). Part of the reason for its poor exposure may be the minor controversy revolving around some topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the perceived fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affects mainly over-sensitive Americans. While concerns over child sexualization are valid, I suspect most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…weird picture of very young girls trained for ambiguous future roles at a woodsy community… genuinely odd and unsettling…”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as a “dreamy, beautifully filmed tale set in an isolated girl’s school .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

198. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

“I love popcorn movies just as much as I love bizarre art films. And my mother, she was an experimental abstract sculptor and there were these haunted pieces of sculpture [around the house] that I always really connected with. I always felt like my filmmaking sensibility is a weird hybrid of both of them.”–Panos Cosmatos

DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos

FEATURING: Michael Rodgers, Eva Allen, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Nory

PLOT: Dr. Barry Nyle conducts experiments on Elena, a woman with telepathic powers who spends most of her time in a near-comatose daze, at the sparsely appointed “Arboria Institute” in 1983. A psychedelic flashback suggests that a bizarre ritual performed at Elena’s birth is responsible for her current condition. Elena decides to escape from the Institute, pursued by a transformed Nyle.

Still from Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)BACKGROUND:

  • This was Panos Cosmatos’ first (and as of 2015, still only) feature film. He is the son of George P. Cosmatos, the director of Hollywood blockbusters Rambo (1985), Cobra (1986), and Tombstone (1993).
  • Cosmatos said the two main inspirations for Beyond the Black Rainbow were “hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons.” He also said that as a child he would look at the covers of horror movies at the video store which he was not allowed to rent, and that the movie is his grown-up realization of the kinds of stories he imagined were contained inside those boxes.
  • Beyond the Black Rainbow proudly admits to being a pastiche of the midnight movies that would be roughly contemporaneous to its 1983 setting. George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), ‘s Dark Star (1974), Suspiria (1977), and Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) are some of the moviess Cosmatos and others who worked on the project cited as visual and spiritual influences. The high-contrast black and white of the flashback sequence was explicitly modeled on Begotten (1990).
  • Beyond the Black Rainbow beat out 63 competitors in a reader’s poll to be officially named to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s far from the most stunning image in a movie filled with unforgettable visions, in some ways the bit that sticks with me most from Beyond the Black Rainbow is the slow low-angle pan down the Arboria Institute’s fluorescent corridor. The shot is replayed many times: with blood red tinting as Dr. Nyle first marches to interview Elena, a ghostly pan across the glowing white panels that slowly fade to industrial blue, a shot tracking the Sentionaut as he walks towards the sleeping Elena. Although this mysterious motif recurs often enough to be noteworthy, for an indelible image we’ll go instead with the fearsome appearance of “appliance-free”Dr. Nyle: bald, eyes permanently dilated, clad in skintight black leather fetish gear, and clutching his fang-shaped ceremonial dagger.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Shamelessly allusive, sinfully trippy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a love letter to midnight movies of decades past, a hazy conjuration overseen by the guiding spirits of , , and a thousand doped-up sci-fi dreamers that somehow manifests its own unique vision. It’s the kind of movie most of us here would make if we were handed a big bag of residuals from Tombstone and told we could do whatever we wanted with it.


Festival trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow

COMMENTS: The very title Beyond the Black Rainbow invokes an Continue reading 198. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

196. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

“Can someone tell me what the hell this is all about?”–Rock Hudson, walking out of the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey early

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick

FEATURING: Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice)

PLOT: On the primordial savannah, early hominids discover a strange black monolith; immediately afterwards, they learn to use simple weapons to hunt and to fight rival ape tribes for scarce resources. Millions of years later, a lunar explorer discovers an identical artifact buried on the Moon.  Following a signal being beamed out by the lunar monolith, a manned spacecraft is dispatched to Jupiter, but a malfunctioning artificial intelligence unit threatens the mission’s success.

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke collaborated on the screenplay, an expansion of Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.” Clarke’s full-length novel treatment of 2001 was written at the same time as he was working on the script.
  • The movie was released on April 2, 1968 at the height of the Space Race. One year later, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Humanity has not returned to the Moon since 1972.
  • MGM wanted Alex North to supply original music; Kubrick wanted to use specific classical pieces. North dutifully composed a score, but Kubrick eventually won out. North reworked the themes which eventually appeared in Shanks, among other films.
  • More music trivia: almost everyone can hum the iconic opening melody from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” mainly due to its prominent use in 2001 as the “monolith theme.” But when the movie was made Decca was afraid that association with 2001 would cheapen the music, and only allowed Kubrick to use Herbert von Karajan’s Vienna Philharmonic recording if the conductor and orchestra were not listed in the credits. After the movie became a massive hit, Decca re-released von Karajan’s recording with a sticker reading “as heard in 2001!” The version of “Zarathustra” appearing on the official soundtrack album was recorded by a different orchestra than the performance heard in the film.
  • The rumor that the name of the computer HAL was derived by displacing the letters of IBM by one letter persists to this day, despite both Kubrick and Clarke’s insistence the name was derived from a contraction of “Heuristic ALgorithmic Computer.”
  • 2001 won an Academy Award for Special Effects. Kurbick was nominated for Best Director (losing to Carol Reed for Best Picture winner Oliver!) and the screenplay scored the movie’s other Oscar nomination. 2001 was not nominated for Best Picture.
  • Ranked as the 6th greatest movie of all time on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll (2nd in the director’s poll).
  • A 1984 sequel, 2010, was directed by Peter Hyams from Clarke’s novel and script. Clarke wrote two more sequels, set in 2061 and 3001.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Monolith or star child? After much internal debate we went with the star child, gazing down at earth from his celestial amniotic sac, as Kubrick’s best, most outrageous, and final bit of millennial iconography,

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: To many average moviegoers, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a plodding, baffling exercise in obfuscation. Devotees of this site, on the other hand, will find it one of the more straightforward and easily comprehensible films we cover–which is not at all to imply that this masterpiece lacks depth or mystery. 2001 is singular in its unconventional narrative structure, in its blend of arthouse reflection and big-budget spectacle, and in its use of avant-garde techniques to inform a classical allegory. It is, simply put, unique, unmissable, and necessary for anyone who loves movies, weird or otherwise.


2014 re-release trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey

COMMENTS: Arthur C. Clarke said that Stanley Kubrick’s instructions in crafting 2001: A Space Odyssey were to create not merely a Continue reading 196. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

CAPSULE: MEMPHIS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Sutton

FEATURING: Willis Earl Beal

PLOT: An R&B singer wanders through Memphis, Tennessee, struggling to find inspiration to complete a second album after a successful debut.

Still from Memphis (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only slightly weird, and while there are moments of unquestionable beauty, its vast empty spaces make it a real wristwatch checker.

COMMENTS: Although anyone who’s ever worked in any creative medium can identify with its torments, writer’s (or musician’s) block is a hard thing to convey to an audience in a fascinating way. Although the cinematography here is sublime, and Willis Earl Beal has a weird funky charisma, Memphis is not up to the challenge of engaging us with this artist’s disengagement. What Memphis is best at is depicting the African American communities of it’s title city as a throwback to the ancient world of the blues, a place where men still wear felt hats and play dominoes and drink out of paper bags (I know men still play dominoes and drink out of paper bags, but not while wearing porkpie hats). With tree boughs hanging over the boulevards and weed-choked lots separating the bars from the churches, these neighborhoods look simultaneously urban and rural, like postcards from a pre-smart phone era.

Beale is a man out of time, too; he fits in better with the grizzled old men sitting on their porches than he does with folk his own age. As the movie progresses—to whatever degree such a deliberately static work can be said to progress—it becomes increasingly unclear whether the singer might actually be suffering from some form of mental illness. When he says in the opening scenes that he’s a wizard who conjures his own reality, it sounds like a metaphor for artistic creation, but the more he rambles about envying the trees or copulating with the dirt, the more you consider the frailty of the line between genius and madness. There are parallels between his alienation from his own creativity and alienation from God (and thus from his own church-centered culture). He refuses to sing at Sunday revival, and an old man’s midnight advice to him is chilling: “Using your talent is what God wants you to do. He gave it to you for a reason… I’d hate to be in your shoes, where you owe God.”

There are some very good shots in this sprawling, strange and obscure movie. Beale composes in a strange polygonal room with neural ductwork. He slow dances with his sweetie in a neon nightclub, continuing in a trance even when she withdraws. These are moment of poetry that will reward a certain breed of contemplative cinemagoer. Typical audiences are going to find this affair far too slow and inconclusive, however. Beale’s musical talent is only glimpsed in frustrating snatches. The movie is only seventy-five minutes long, but scenes of the melancholy protagonist walking around whistling or practicing his stick-fighting moves with a broom seem interminable. Memphis‘ non-story could have been conveyed with as much impact at a third of the length.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…Sutton at least keeps the running time trim. Perhaps he knew that the strange magic he and Beal occasionally conjured was destined to have a short shelf life. Better to leave the few audience members plugging into this cryptic oddity wanting more.”–Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Andre Gregory

PLOT: Struggling playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with his old friend, theater director Andre Gregory, who describes the mystical experiences he’s had visiting experimental theater workshops and communes around the world.

Still from My Dinner with Andre (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. The concept of a movie that is almost entirely a single dinner conversation is successfully experimental, and some of Gregory’s theories approach the bizarre, but Louis Malle has a couple of better candidates for the List of the weirdest movies of all time out there.

COMMENTS: Based on the description—there’s no plot per se, just two intellectuals sitting down for dinner at a swank restaurant having a conversation–you probably have no interest in seeing My Dinner with Andre, no matter how many times cinephiles tell you it’s a classic. I admit, the synopsis held no great attraction for me; I like Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle, but I never would have sought this movie out on my own, and I approached the prospect of viewing it more with trepidation than anticipation. Frankly, I was hoping it would not be as boring as it sounds—I mean, I like a good chat about life when I’m a participant, but I don’t see talking as a spectator sport. I needn’t have worried; although My Dinner with Andre assumes that you are reasonably intelligent and have a basic liberal education, it’s more accessible than it sounds. And, if you engage with it, it’s also more dramatic than it sounds.

The movie stars playwright/actor Wallace Shawn as a struggling playwright/actor, and avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory as an avant-garde theater director. The conversation is scripted, but it is based on actual discussions between the two men, who play exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves. The story begins with a dissatisfied Shawn complaining about his life: his career as a playwright isn’t putting food on the table and all he ever thinks about are his money problems. He is going to dinner with Andre, the theater director who produced his first play but who had recently dropped out of the New York theater scene to travel around the world, returning with strange tales of his adventures. Wally has heard Andre has been acting erratic and is nervous to meet him again. The first part of the dinner is almost a monologue by Gregory, who details his adventures in an experimental theater group in Poland where he directed a group of women who did not speak English; tells tales about his time in the Sahara with a Japanese monk who could balance on his fingertips; and relates a story about a ceremony where he was ritually killed and resurrected. Andre explains that he has been searching for experiences that allow him to be truly human, because he believes that modern man is fatally disconnected from reality. He also explains that, during this period in his life, he would spontaneously hallucinate, seeing birds flying out of his mouth when he looked in the rear-view mirror and a blue minotaur with flowers growing out of its body at midnight Mass. Although Andre is charasmatic, enthusiastic and lucid, these confessions cast him in a strange light. Is he really a mystic? Or does he have a touch of madness? Or is he just a man with an amazing imagination?

Wally listens with increasing interest as Andre relates his exploits, until, in the second half of the conversation, he starts to raise objections and fire back at Andre, whose vision of life he finds intoxicating but impractical. Wally says Andre’s lifestyle is too elitist: not everyone can have these experiences, and there is meaning to be found in reading good books and enjoying a cup of coffee. Neither Wally nor Andre gets the upper hand. Ultimately, Andre doesn’t convince Wally that it’s necessary to take extreme measures to find meaning in life. Yet, Wally still has a sense of epiphany. As he’s leaving dinner, he thinks with wonder of ordinary experiences he’s had: buying a suit, eating an ice cream… Wally comes away from dinner invigorated, not because Andre convinces him to change his life and start “really living,” but because he’s refreshed himself by an encounter with another mind, with another way of thinking about life. The reason My Dinner with Andre works is not because we take sides with either Wally or Andre, but because it reminds us of discussions we’ve had with our own dear friends, where we lose track of time and talk deep into the night. It recalls those treasured times we shared our deepest thoughts, and someone else thought enough of them to challenge us. It’s the conversation that matters, not the words spoken.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.”–Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who simply called it “an amazing film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)