Tag Archives: Naive Surrealism

JUDEX (1916)

Not only is Judex (1916) one of cinema’s earliest serials, but it’s also one of the earliest superhero films, if not the first. (1913’s Fantomas, to be reviewed next week, also featured the first celluloid supervillain.) It’s also considerably better than anything that came out of the superhero serial craze of the 1940s. The difference is , who directs with enthusiasm and creativity. He may have had something to prove; the director had come under intense criticism for glorifying crime in both Fantomas and 1915’s Les Vampires. With its cloaked avenger (René Cresté), Judex (translated as “justice”) is an enjoyable penance. Viewers unfamiliar with the character and film will immediately notice Judex is a precursor to the Shadow, and especially to Batman, as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939. Judex is a caped vigilante with a secret identity and something like a Batcave for a lair. He is also unfathomably wealthy, which gifts him access to unlimited crime-fighting gadgetry. As enjoyable as it is, there is also an interesting Freudian undercurrent in the making of Judex, one of which Feuillade was most likely unconscious. In his act of contrition for making the sinful life glamorous, Feuillade’s instinct is to take , the exotic female lead of Les Vampires, and transform her into a secondary villainess. The 1915 mindset inherently equated the feminine with sin. More even than in the previous serials, Judex finds Feuillade in full myth-making mode and mythological deities are, to the bourgeoisie, masculine. We’ve sure a come long way in 103 years.

As entertaining as Judex is, it is the least of Feulliade’s serials. Like Les Vampires, at 5 hours, it is not intended to be watched in a single sitting. (In 1963, made a superior 100-minute remake, which is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray). While the lightening of the violence and eroticism from Les Vampires is a loss, Judex has plenty going for it. It confirms that cinema’s first major serialist was its sole master.

One improvement is more natural, less silent-film-stylized acting. It is divided into 12 chapters, and, like its predecessors, it does not end on cliffhangers per se, but nonetheless will inevitably lure the viewer back. Another plus is cinematography that, while still stationary, is a notch above previous efforts.

Still from Judex (1916)The plot is simple, but concrete: a reworking of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Advanced character development, rare for the period, transcends the plot. The influential and corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) robs the Judex family of much dyed green paper. In retaliation, Judex dons a disguise and threatens Favraux with destruction (just as in “Don Giovanni” or “Carmen”) at the stroke of midnight, unless he repents and give the money to charity. Being the superhero he is, Judex is weighed down by his conscience, but that doesn’t stop him from cruising the Paris suburbs with his pack of canines, who actually do most of the fighting for him.

Naturally, there are complications: a succubus villain Diana Monti (Musidora, who still gets a scene in black undies), a delightfully bumbling detective (Marcel Levesque, who seems a model for Inspector Clouseau), a sidekick named the Licorice Kid (Bout-de-Zan), and Favraux’s widowed daughter Jacqueline Aubry (Yvette Andreyor) who wants to right daddy’s wrongs, and manages to win our hero’s heart.

For all his villainy, Favraux has redeeming qualities. Jacqueline has complex feelings regarding Judex as vigilante, and she is no easy conquest. While Cresté is a squared jaw superhero prototype, he is less assured than Bruce Wayne in the ladies’ department and, unlike the mysterious protagonist of the Franjou remake, has a tragic backstory that grounds him in a moral dilemma (complicated even more by his falling in love with his enemy’s daughter, which inspires a belief in the redemption of villains). The doomed Musidora is pure evil (so adept at it that we hope against hope that she’ll slaughter her nemesis), but we do not see enough of her. As primitive as it is (with mawkish, melodramatic scenes and awkward pacing), Judex is also paradoxically contemporary in its pulp innovation. Although lacking the deadpan proto-Surrealism of Fantomas and Les Vampires, Judex is still an agile and charismatic serial, wrapped in an impressively glamorous WWI era package that is equal parts action, mystery, hypnosis, and comedy, with enough double-crosses, twists, and daring escapes for genre junkies.

Released on home video by Flicker Alley, Judex has been restored with a superb musical score by Robert Israel, and a valuable making-of documentary and  informative booklet by  historian Jan-Christopher Horak.

LES VAMPIRES (1915)

Andre Breton was among the Surrealists who considered Louis Feuillade as one of their own. The silent serial filmmaker probably never heard of the term (he died in 1925, as the movement was in its infancy), and likely would have disavowed it and continued cranking out his serials, oblivious to just how weird they are. Feuillade directed 700 films. Of course, most of these are shorts, and are lost. Although his work ranged from comedies to Bible dramas, Feuillade’s reputation today rests on three pulpy silent serials: Fantomas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

A few years ago, Les Vampires, the most famous of the three, was found (after being considered lost for years), restored and rediscovered. Kino’s Blu-ray edition is exemplary, as usual, and the way to go.

A bit about Feuillade: his parents sent him to seminary in hopes he that he would become a priest. That didn’t happen, but that Catholic experience is credited with his late Gothic style. He showed an early interest in literature and drama, worked in vaudeville, married, struggled before success making films for the Gaumont studios, lived in the suburbs, and was a workaholic. In other words, he was unremarkable—except for his trilogy of serials, which influenced both and . The phenomenal success of Fantomas took both Feuillade and the studio by surprise. It is amusing that while that film is considered his first masterpiece, Feuillade himself wasn’t aware of it, and quickly set to work on the followup Les Vampires for one reason—money.

Still from Les Vampires (1915)When Les Vampires was released on home video, many horror fans were disappointed, thinking it was going to be about bloodsuckers. Rather, it’s a crime melodrama about a crepuscular criminal gang, dubbed “the Vampires,” led by femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidore, the stage name of actress Jeanne Roques, who also starred in Judex). With large black eyes, skin-tight black leotards, and a sinister bewitching charisma, Musidore easily steals the film as a batwoman/catwoman/ succubus. The fact that the protagonists are all dullards makes it  easier for Musidore to stand out. Les Vampires upset the censors at the time, who briefly banned it for glamorizing crime (thankfully, it’s guilty as hell of the charges).

Naturally, Vampires is also paced like the serials that followed it. Although they do not end in cliffhangers per se, each episode is designed to bring the viewer back to the plot. Feuillade’s serials weren’t shown weekly, but were released irregularly (Les Vampires appeared over a six-month period). For all of their primitive flaws, Feuillade’s trilogy of serials are probably the best of that genre cinema has produced. Most people cite The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), with its amiable lead (Tom Tyler) and tongue-in-cheek approach, as the best serial of the genre’s 1940s heyday. It undoubtedly is, but it’s not saying much, and can’t compare to the Feuillade;s work in the 1910s. It’s the archaic, Gothic, otherworldly quality that sets Les Vampires apart from the watered down serial genre as we came to know it. Feuillade is an essential antidote for the weird movie fan who think he/she has seen everything.

Les Vampires is divided into ten episodes, beginning with “The Severed Hand.” Reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) vows to track down the Vampire ring. We never once root for him, or even his comic sidekick reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe). Feuillade deftly balances pulpy luridness, surreal slapstick, and gritty realism (the serial was shot in the back alleys of Paris). Although the early episodes are too much Mathe and not enough Musidora, she still has a marvelously compelling balletic sequence in episode two. Les Vampires is undeniably bogged down, with nearly all the co-stars living up to the hyper-styilzed silent film acting cliches, but Musidora is the engaging exception, and her cult status is easily cemented.

It is with Episode 5, “Dead Man’s Escape,” that Les Vampires kicks in and lives up to its reputation as a carnal cinematic comic book. One of the key appeals in the film’s aesthetic is the fact that a considerable amount of it was improvised, which gives it an “anything goes” atmosphere and brings a consistent element of genuine surprise, which no later serial managed.

Like most serials, Les Vampires is primarily a chase spectacle, but the streets of WWI-ravaged France imbue every frame, every action, with a sense of dread. Torture, secret passages, secret identities, hidden tunnels, portable cannons, poison gas, shootouts, theft, invisible ink, on-stage murders, hideouts, rooftop escapes, slyly named antagonists (e.g. “Satanas”), decapitations, hypnosis, rival gangs, bombings, alchemy, and anarchy set the stage for an entire genre; but Les Vampires is far more violent and—with Musidora—more erotic than the male-oriented superhero-styled serials of the talkies. It took a female lead, and a naive surrealist silent filmmaker, to show everyone else how to to do it right. Les Vampires is a tad too long, and shouldn’t be watched in a single setting. Nor, as one of the silent era’s certified masterpieces, should it be missed. You may never want reality from a film again.

RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE FILM: IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971)

‘s 1971 If Footman Tire You, What Will Horses Do? is likely to inspire the hackneyed question, “What Would Jesus Do?” The answer is that, if the old boy was actually forced to see it, is he would most assuredly become a militant atheist.

This first collaboration between recently saved exploitation hack Ron Ormond and Rev. Estus W. Pirkle is the accidental masterpiece of s, and of course it could only have been produced by Baptists ( knew of what he spoke when he cried, “These Baptists are stupid, stupid, stupid!”) It’s the only CINO denomination that can give Pentecostals a run for the money (and boy, do they run for the money). Like Ormond and Pirkle’s 1974 followup, The Burning Hell, Footman was one of the few times the two denominations put aside theological differences. I doubt a single soul within either camp is overly familiar with the word theology: one of mother dear’s visiting evangelists referred to the field as “soundin’ like some kinda bug ya might catch.” Being subjected to a viewing of Footman went hand-in-hand with all the apocalyptic sermons we were force-fed, because deep into the Cold War, Commies made the top ten list of demonic demographics (along with gays, Catholics—especially of the Mexican variety, because they were trying to invade, Jews, civil rights activists, gun control advocates, women’s libbers, Democrats, rock and roll musicians, and TV shows such as “Bewitched” and “Superman“) that inspired frenzied tongue-speaking outbreaks.

Even before Ronald Reagan (whom the fundies were initially suspicious of since the name RONALD WILSON REAGAN added up to 666, and he met with old Charlie Pope!), the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Over half the sermons focused on exactly what was gonna happen to Bible-believin’ Christians once the Russkies invaded and gotta hold of ’em. Modeling myself after the prodigal and leaving mother dear’s church in the early eighties, I’m not sure what they focused on after the Soviet Union’s fall, but Jack Chick sure was forced to go back and change a helluva lot of his tracts (Harry Potter became a noteworthy focus, but it just doesn’t register quite like the Red Army).

Being born again didn’t include any miraculous upgrade in regards to Ormond’s (cough) filmmaking skills. He’s just as inept as he was directing monster T&A films, trading in cleavage for the Republican Jesus. That is to our benefit, because a pre-glory walk Ron Ormond would probably be a mere footnote in the book of Z-budget exploitation filmmakers (with the exception of his opus Mesa of Lost Women). However, under the auspices of Jesus, Ormond evolved into the undisputed Protestant prophet of Christsploitation.

Still from If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?Footman springs from the Cold War climate of fear, and is a hodgepodge of dressed up as a Christian scare film. It opens with the stoic Pirkle sermonizing to his extremely well-fed Baptist zombie flock (several keep nodding off in the pew), who go out of their way to live Continue reading RON ORMOND’S CHRISTIAN SCARE FILM: IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO? (1971)

170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

“Some argue that this kind of thing puts Ed Wood into the company of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Should we buy this argument? Pull the string!”–IMDB Glen or Glenda FAQ

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ed Wood, Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell,

PLOT: A transvestite is found dead, a suicide. Seeking to understand more about this phenomenon, a police inspector visits a psychiatrist who explains transvestism to him using the example of Glen, a heterosexual man who is tormented by the question of whether he should reveal his passion for cross-dressing to his fiancée. Meanwhile, a sinister, omniscient “scientist” (played by Bela Lugosi) occasionally appears to cryptically comment on the action (“pull the string!”)

Still from Glen or Glenda? (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Producer George Weiss wanted to make a film to exploit the then-current case of Christine Jorgensen (born George William Jorgensen), one of the first men to have successful sex-reassignment surgery. According to legend, Ed Wood convinced Weiss that he was the right man to direct the picture because he was a transvestite in his private life and understood gender confusion. The resulting film, shot in just four days, ended up being more about transvestism than sex-change surgery.
  • Against Wood’s wishes, Weiss inserted bondage-themed imagery into the dream sequence to give the film a dash more sex.
  • Wood himself plays the transvestite Glen (and Glenda) under the pseudonym Daniel Davis.
  • In his own life, Wood did not take the advice he gave his character in Glen or Glenda to honestly discuss his desire to wear women’s clothes with his betrothed. Wood’s first wife had their marriage annulled in 1955, after Ed surprised her by wearing ladies’ undergarments to their honeymoon.
  • This is the first of three collaborations between Wood and then down-on-his-luck and opiate-addicted Bela Lugosi. Three of Lugosi’s final four credits were Wood films.
  • Some reviews of Glen or Glenda refer to Lugosi’s character as “the Spirit” rather than “the Scientist”; were there two separate sets of credits, each with a different name for the character?
  • Wood’s 1963 novel “Killer in Drag” features a transvestite character named Glen whose alter-ego is named Glenda.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Such a wealth of possibilities! What about the hairy Satan who inexplicably shows up at Glen and Barbara’s dream wedding? And who can forget Bela Lugosi, yelling nonsense at the viewer while his angry face is superimposed over a herd of stampeding buffalo? The iconic image, however, is Wood’s intended emotional climax: in a ridiculously touching gesture of unconditional acceptance, Glen’s girlfriend Barbara strips off her angora sweater and hands it to the wide-eyed transvestite.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A narratively-knotted 1950s pro-transvestite pseudo-documentary, told in naively earnest rhetoric via a wandering structure that includes flashbacks inside of flashbacks, would have made for a worthwhile oddity in itself. But throw in Bela Lugosi as a one-man Greek chorus reciting fractured fairy tales, and include a fourteen-minute dream sequence mixing Freudian symbolism, bargain-basement Expressionism, bondage, and a guest appearance by the Devil and you achieve incomparable weirdness, the way only Ed Wood could serve it up—on a bed of angora.


Clip from Glen or Glenda

COMMENTS: Ed Wood had a secret, and it’s not just that he liked the feel of silk panties under his rough trousers. Transvestism, in a way, was the Continue reading 170. GLEN OR GLENDA (1953)

CAPSULE: THE ACT OF KILLING (2012)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

FEATURING: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry

PLOT: A Western documentarian encourages leaders of Indonesian death squads, now grandfathers and respected elders of paramilitary groups, to make a movie proudly re-enacting the massacres they committed as young gangsters, on condition that he can film them behind-the-scenes as they work.

Still from The Act of Killing (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though gut-wrenching, the movie itself is not really weird—although the outtakes of the film the gangsters produce (particularly the musical numbers) reveal something authentically surreal (in a heartbreakingly ironic mode).

COMMENTS: The Act of Killing may be the most moral prank ever pulled. Retired Indonesian gangsters responsible for killing thousands of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese, especially those who failed to come up with protection money, believe they will be creating an epic film to celebrate their heroically homicidal contributions to the current dictatorship; instead, they are the unwitting stars of a psychodrama that is one of the most frightening and nuanced testaments to the banality of evil ever made. Asked to recreate their greatest massacres, the men come up with amateur productions that would be hilarious, if the real life backstory wasn’t so monumentally tragic. Pink-clad dancing girls (“eye candy,” explains one director) emerge swaying from the mouth of a giant concrete goldfish. In a sagebrush-inspired scene, a woman is gang raped—but she’s played by the heaviest of the killers, in drag. In front of a waterfall, ghosts of the dead hang medals around their executioners’ necks, while “Born Free” plays. Insulated in a cocoon of propaganda that treats them as national heroes, it never occurs to these retired killers to feel shame, and their lack of comprehension of the way outsiders view them manifests itself in bizarrely unselfconscious narratives. The Act of Killing could be seen as a psychological survey of the various ways killers cope with the dried blood on their hands. Some of the gangsters, such as the buffoonish Herman (who is oddly eager to dress up like  for the camera—there is a strange undercurrent of homoeroticism running through all of the gangsters’ friendships), come off as completely clueless. Others, like the bloodcurdling Adi, embrace their evil, arguing that the winners make the rules. He takes pride in his ability to own his own cruelty, seeing it as a sign of mental strength. Then, there is Anwar. Anwar has nightmares about the innocent people he’s killed, but he complains of them in the matter-of-fact way a fishing buddy might complain he has a touch of arthritis in his knee. As the movie goes on, it focuses its lens more and more on Anwar, on his smile that curiously fades as he watches the daily rushes; he seems to be the only one of the major players with the capacity to feel remorse. Is it possible to feel sympathy for someone who bluntly admits he’s strangled more than 1,000 people? Or, is Anwar’s budding conscience just another act for the camera—has he intuited what his director needs from him? Regardless, Anwar is the greatest and most complex character you’ll see on screen this year—his naïve dialogue would be almost impossible for a writer to convincingly script, his curiously opaque facial reactions almost impossible for an actor to convincingly perform. The Act of Killing far transcends a simple political event, however tragic, and becomes a movie about the intersections of human perception and reality: about our blind spots, about how we create and recreate our identities, about the strategies we adopt to justify the unthinkable. It’s movies inside of movies, arising from guilty subconsciouses. Kill a man and you go to prison. Kill a thousand men, and you celebrate the feat by making a movie where dancing girls in pink chiffon strut out of a giant goldfish’s mouth.

The Act of Killing also contains some of the most chillingly bizarre credits you’ll ever see: about three fourths of the entries read “Anonymous.” Two of the greatest living documentarians, and , were so impressed by an early cut of The Act of Killing that they signed on as executive producers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…we spend the next two hours in the company of laughing, joking mass-murderers, blithely revisiting their blood-drenched past in a manner that is at once insanely surreal and distressingly domestic… even in his most hallucinogenic moments, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself could not have dreamed up images to match such eeriness.”–Mark Kermode, The Observer (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY MORNING WITH SID AND MARTY KROFFT

Some may count the 1980s as the last great decade of pop culture. I disagree. The first half of the 80s was undoubtedly influential, but it was a continuation of the individuality of the previous decade. Around the halfway mark, the 80s gave way to the lack of personality blandness that saturated the 1990s (and beyond, to today). Rather, the 1970s was the last decade of pop heaven, and Saturday Morning With Sid and Marty Kroft serves well as the Calgon to take us away to that Neverland time capsule.

This Rhino DVD collection of pilot episodes will probably be best enjoyed with a bowl of Quisp cereal and some full blown Vitamin D milk. None of that wimpy 2 % or skim crap (you might also enjoy a bowl of Quake, if you can find it). Now, slip into a plaid robe, a pair of fuzzy house slippers, kick all those boring hyper-realists out of the house. Then, turn on the TV and hit play. DO NOT fall into the temptation of using the remote control (yes, it’s a DVD, but let’s try to get as close to the genuine experience as we can). Throw the pillows on the shag rug carpet and let the cartoons begin.

The pilots assembled here make for a grand psychedelic starter kit, but some are surprisingly subdued; the series would reach higher planes of inspired lunacy later. No matter. Sid and Marty Krofft stuck to their idiosyncratic formula, which was characterized by prepubescent heroes and heroines, puppet comedy relief, knee-tapping kitsch songs and (badly) canned laughs from the laugh track. It is extremely doubtful that the Krofft Brothers were insightful or perceptive enough to realize just how surreal their macrocosm was. Yes, for me, Sid and Marty Krofft are big bold, dopey examples of . It is no accident that the 1970s animated programs of Sid and Marty Krofft proved to be among the all-important aesthetic diving boards for many later and contemporary surrealists artists, such as Paul Ruebens, , and many more.

Still from H.R. PufnstufThe Krofft Brothers’ first three series shared much in common, and only a single season was filmed for each (although reruns kept them in syndication for an additional year or more). H.R. Pufnstuff is the first and most famous. The pilot premiered in 1969 and began as a series heavily influenced by The Wizard of Oz (1939) with a dash of “The Magic Flute.” The Oz theme of a child being transported to an otherworldly dimension would serve as the primary ingredient in the Krofft recipe.

Jimmy (Jack Wild) and his magic flute, Freddy, are shipwrecked on Living Island. Little do they Continue reading SATURDAY MORNING WITH SID AND MARTY KROFFT

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!

*This is the first testament in our Ed Wood Gospel. The second, New Testament, will cover Wood’s late films, including his collaborations with A.C. Stephens.

This month, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) sees its Blu-ray release; posthumously, Ed is thoroughly enjoying his last laugh. He can thank those smug, condescending, hopelessly unimaginative thugs posing as establishment critics, the Medveds, for resurrecting him from the dead and catapulting him into a cult Valhalla. As everyone knows by now, the Medveds infamously awarded Wood the honor of  “Worst Director of All Time” in their infamous Golden Turkey Awards. Today, of course, we know that award could go to someone far more deserving, such as Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, or Mark Steven Johnson. Why pick on the genuine tranny auteur of outsider art?  But, thank , the Medveds saw fit to bestow their award on Ed! There is a sense of divine justice after all, because we have rightly canonized him.

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (colorized)Plan 9 was already colorized for DVD a few years ago, and there wasn’t a single complaint about a legendary film being subjected to this much-maligned process. Probably because we all realized Ed simply would have loved the extra attention it gave his magnum opus. According to his biographer, Ed Wood said that while Glen or Glenda? (1953) was his most personal film, Plan 9 was his proudest accomplishment!

Wood’s appeal and fame continues unabated. Yes, he was a trash filmmaker, but he was a trash filmmaker delightfully of his time, simultaneously encased in and fighting against the naiveté of the 1950s. Naturally, that phenomenon is something that cannot be repeated, despite the countless attempts to do so by Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!