Tag Archives: Non-narrative

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

L’Année Dernière à Marienbad

Must SeeWeirdest!

“Who knows what true loneliness is, not the conventional word—but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory, or some illusion.”–Joseph Conrad,  Under Western Eyes

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff

PLOT: In the confines of the corridors, salons, and gardens of an outlandishly extravagant spa hotel, one man attempts to persuade a female guest that they met a year prior and had planned to run off together. At first she resists his suggestions, but as he repeats his reminiscences, her denial becomes more and more strained. As they flit about the hotel, other guests fade in and out of focus, and the young woman’s male companion looms ever more ominously.

Still from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • Last Year at Marienbad was born of a collaboration between , who had achieved fame for his revolutionary non-narrative novels (dubbed nouveau roman), and Alain Resnais, who had recently completed Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the opening credits, Robbe-Grillet is billed before Resnais. Afterwards, Robbe-Grillet was inspired to become a (defiantly strange) director himself, eventually notching two Certified Weird films (L’Immortelle and Eden and After) under his own leadership.
  • Cannes had refused to accept the movie as an entry, officially citing the fact that the lead actor was not French, but according to rumor because of Resnais’ public stance against the Algerian War.
  • Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 forced the distributors to rethink their strategy of a very limited release.
  • In hopes of recreating a “silent movie” feel for Marienbad, Resnais requested some old-fashioned film stock from Eastman Kodak. Unfortunately, they were unable to provide it.
  • (The Tin Drum) apprenticed on this film as second assistant director.
  • Included in both Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) and Steven Shneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The movie divided contemporary critics and audiences, as well.
  • The alternately somber and jarring score (performed mostly on solo organ) was written by Francis Seyrig, the lead actress’ brother.
  • Robbe-Grillet was nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar (losing to Divorce Italian Style).
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Talk about being spoiled for a choice! Any given scene in Marienbad is a showcase of divinely arranged formalist beauty. What sets the tone (and stands out the most), however, is the alternately freezing and unfreezing of the actors immediately following the play performance that begins the film’s “action” (so to speak). The camera gracefully slinks around the the hotel’s inhabitants as the characters’ action and chatter stop dead, only to start anew a few moments after being silenced.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Living freeze-frames; “I always win”; shadowless trees

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Narratively speaking, Marienbad is about as bare-boned as a film can be without slipping into the realm of incomprehensible. A man and a woman met, or possibly didn’t meet, a year ago, and now the man wants the woman to run away with him. Alain Resnais brings Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dreamy script to geometric life with time fluxes, repetitions, and stylized acting by stylized hotel patrons. The black and white cinematography and challenging edits heighten the sense of shattered narrative that, much like the vicissitudes of human memory, can’t fully coalesce.


Original Trailer for Last Year at Marienbad

COMMENTS: As an art form, film exceeds its competition in manipulation: manipulation of emotions, of perceptions, and of ambiguity. Continue reading 304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

“One thing I knew for sure (from my own dreaming) was that what one dreams just before waking structures the following day. That dream material is gathered from the previous day, and therefore is a gathering of all previous days, ergo contains the structure of all history, of all Man… I wanted PRELUDE to be a created dream for the work that follows rather than Surrealism which takes its inspiration from dream; I stayed close to practical usage of dream material, in terms of learning and studying, for a while before editing. At this time I left strict myth considerations out of my study process as much as possible..”–Stan Brakhage speaking on Dog Star Man in “Metaphors on Vision

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Stan Brakhage, Jane Brakhage

PLOT: This silent non-narrative film is presented in four parts: a 20-minute “Prelude” introduces many of the visual motifs that will show up in later installments, followed by “Part One,” which focuses on a man  climbing a mountain with his dog. The man continues his climb in the seven-minute “Part Two,” but the picture now focuses on a baby boy, with abstract figures superimposed directly on the film. “Part Three” is a “sexual daydream” of a nude woman, with even more layered images, and “Part Four” is an even more abstract culmination of all that has come before.

Still from Dog Star Man (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage completed almost 400 films during his life (some of which run for less than a minute).
  • Dog Star Man is the final compilation of five short films Brakhage produced between 1961 and 1964. They are almost never screened separately, although the Prelude could stand alone.
  • While making Dog Star Man, Brakhage was unemployed and living with his wife and her parents in their Colorado cabin; to earn his keep, he chopped wood for the family.
  • Brakhage named his movie after a pulp novel he picked up as a boy, because he thought it a shame that such a great title would be forever wasted on a tawdry paperback.
  • The film is structured with increasing visual complexity. Brakhage shot one layer of film for part one, two for part 2 (and also for the prelude), three for part 3, and four for part 4. The layers of film were then superimposed on top of each other.
  • Brakhage later produced a four-and-a-half hour cut of this material called The Art of Vision, which rearranged every layer of film Brakhage shot for the project into every possible combination of superimpositions (within each part).
  • Chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most of the amazing visual effects Brakhage achieves with his complex superimpositions fly by too quickly for us to consciously register—some can be seen for only a single frame or two. The most important repeated symbol in the film, however, may be the most mundane: the woodcutter struggling up the snowy mountain with his axe, stumbling and falling, while his dog happily bounds at his side.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Phosphenes on film; baby with snowflakes; sex and beating hearts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Meticulous and intentionally unentertaining, Dog Star Man is a masterwork of consciously constructed dream cinema.


Excerpt from Dog Star Man (Prelude)

COMMENTS: When ordinary people think about experimental Continue reading 296. DOG STAR MAN (1964)

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)

263. ROMA (1972)

AKA Fellini’s Roma

“Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.”–Anatole Broyard

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Gonzales Falcon

PLOT: Roma is a series of vignettes, some relatively realistic and some fantastic, about the city of Rome. The closest thing to a plot are the scenes involving Fellini himself, who dreams about the city as a young man, comes there as a teen, and then is seen making a movie about the city as an adult. Other segments involve a bawdy street meal, a vaudeville show during World War II, modern hippies drifting through Rome, a pair of brothels, and the infamous ecclesiastical fashion show.

Still from Roma (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Fellini came to Rome from Rimini as an 18-year old to go to law school, although he quickly abandoned that pretense to pursue an artistic career path. Although it seems clear that Fellini means for the young provincial boy who dreams of Rome and the young man who steps off the train and into a Roman pensione to be his stand-ins, the director never makes this explicit. United Artists asked for voiceover narration to make this identification clear in the version that played in the U.S.
  • The film was shortened by nine minutes (to a running time of two hours) for its international release, and some changes were made for different markets. Slightly different cuts have circulated for years, and there is no restored print of the original Italian version, although the extra footage survives in workprints. Among the deleted scenes was one where appeared as himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The star image here could not be something other than an offering from the ecclesiastical fashion show. Candidates include the bishops’ uniforms with blinking stained glass patterns and a shrouded skeletal “memento mori” carriage that carries up the end of the procession. We’ll select the grand finale, the appearance of a glowing, flying Pope cast as a pagan sun god, with electronic sunbeams streaming behind his beatifically beaming countenance.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Horse on the highway; fading frescoes; light-up miter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The speedy editing of the U.S. release trailer misleadingly emphasizes the decadent aspects of Fellini’s Roma, making it look like a trippy sequel to Satyricon for the pot-smoking college midnight movie crowd. In truth, while Roma is experimental and disorientingly non-linear, it’s greatly restrained compared to its psychedelic predecessor. Most of the sequences are only subtly strange, pitched in the almost-realistic register of Fellini’s next film, Amarcord. Or at least, that’s the case up until the fashion show, when Fellini ignites the film with a surreal, blasphemous brand. This grand vaudeville sequence, which lasts over 15 minutes, catapults the film from a borderline curiosity from an innovative master to an acknowledged staple of the weird canon.


American release trailer for Roma

COMMENTS: Rome is the eternal city, once the seat of Europe’s Continue reading 263. ROMA (1972)

238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

AKA Sayat Nova

“Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein… cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates, not counting the generally unaccepted language of the Andalusian Dog by Buñuel.”–Mikhail Vartanov

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sofiko Chiaureli, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, M. Alekyan, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze

PLOT: The Color of Pomegranates is essentially impressionistic and plotless, although the tableaux roughly follow the chronology of the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova. We first see the poet as a child in a village, introduced to the images that will follow him throughout his life: the lute, the iconographic texts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, farm animals. As he grows, he marries, becomes a widower and then a priest, leaves his monastic calling to travel the countryside as a bard, and is finally killed by Persians.

Still from The Color of Pomegrenates (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sayat Nova (the name translates as “King of Song”) was an 18th century Armenian priest, poet and ashik (a wandering troubadour who played a “saz,” a Central Asian lute). Nova was killed by Iranian invaders for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Sergei Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of his major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolves around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) deals with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) covers the mythology of his native Georgia. His final movie, Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • First titled Sayat Nova, Parajanov’s film was immediately banned by the Soviet censors, then five minutes of religious imagery were removed and the film was briefly released under the title The Color of Pomegranates. The missing footage was restored in 1992.
  • Parajanov’s difficulty with USSR censors stemmed both from his rejection of the official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism and from concerns that his films would revive nationalist sentiments in formerly independent states (Ukraine and Armenia). Parajanov, who was bisexual, was jailed from 1973-1977 on what are widely considered fabricated charges of homosexual rape, and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.
  • Actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Since actress Sofiko Chiaureli serves as Parajanov’s muse for this poetic odyssey, playing multiple roles (both male and female), it is only right that it is her face, reconfigured in dozens of guises, that we associate with the film. For our still, we selected her final appearance as the statuesque, granite-faced “Angel of Resurrection”—with a rooster perching on her shoulder.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Floating spinning lutes; Church of Sheep; shiny Mongol shoots a fresco

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all. Every carefully composed image in Pomegranates is coded to a meaning, but the key to interpreting them is missing. If you are a time-traveling Armenian from 1969 you will understand more of what is going on in Parajanov’s vast visual poem than the average viewer—but not a lot more. Don’t fight the movie, just allow yourself to drown in the mystery of its images.


Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

COMMENTS: One of the earliest scenes in The Color of Pomegranates Continue reading 238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nigel Terry occasionally narrates. There are no characters or speaking parts, and no actor can be said to be “featured” in this film; a pre-fame  appears prominently in it, however.

PLOT: An abstract, impressionistic view of Britain in the late 1980s, contrasted with nostalgic memories of simpler times.

Still from The Last of England (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A mysteriously personal and poetic meditation on themes of decay, The Last of England is too restlessly strange to ignore. If anything, its biggest challenge to earning a spot on a list of weird movies may be that it actually strays too far from reality. By abandoning narrative entirely and mucking up the image until it becomes impossible to tell what we’re looking at, Jarman’s film becomes almost completely abstract, the movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

COMMENTS: Among other odd offerings, The Last of England features men having sex on the Union Jack, terrorists in black ski masks rounding up prisoners, and a wedding where the bridesmaids have full beards. Each of these images has been manipulated three times: the color correction has been toned down to monochrome or amped up to day-glo, the footage has been sped up or slowed down, and the camera’s conventional stability has been abandoned for a deliberately jittery style that is indifferent to conventional framing. As if the welter of abstract scenarios wasn’t disorienting enough, Jarman edits back and forth between two scenes—say, a naked hobo eating cauliflower in a junkyard and a man in a neck brace pouring corn over his head—according to peculiar rhythms, as if he’s alternating rhymed lines of verse. Naturally, the soundscape is an equally convoluted collage, consisting of snippets of poetry combined with Jarman’s own prose ruminations about the decline of England and “found” sounds (football fans, jet fighters, soldiers accepting medals from the Queen). Although the visuals never let up, at times flickering back and forth too fast for the eye or mind to properly process, an eclectic selection of musical recordings occasionally provides some aural respite. The movie even turns into a music video sometimes, as when naked pagans dance in front of a bonfire while highly synthetic club dance music pulses in the background; there are also classical music selections, acoustic guitar interludes, and songs from Barry Adamson, Marianne Faithfull, and the terrifying wailing of Diamanda Galas. Although it makes no disciplined case (juxtaposing clips of English drill instructors with Hitler’s speeches is not a political argument), the movie does have a generically strident leftist political tone. The film’s provocative progressive politics—come on, it’s got two guys doing the nasty on the British flag—contrasts with its elegiac tone. With its bitter disillusionment and nostalgia for a mythically idyllic pre-World War II England—Jarman includes happy home movie footage of his childhood and describes the bombing of London as if it ignited a series of firestorms that were still raging in 1988—England is reminiscent of a more intellectual (if even less coherent) version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and one suspects that the loss of innocence Derek Jarman bemoans belongs more to Derek Jarman than it does to England. Obviously, this obscure and often frustrating farrago is not for everyone, but those willing to patiently pick through the visual rubble will find scraps and relics of sublime beauty. Jarman’s intellect and passion come across on film so powerfully that you leave feeling more impressed than entertained or enlightened. And, at eighty-seven rambling minutes, the movie can become a chore to watch; The Last of England‘s lasting impact may be to remind us why the short format has become the preferred vehicle for non-narrative experimental films.

In conjunction with the film Jarman also published a (now long out-of-print) book entitled “The Last of England“; reportedly, it dealt mainly with the director’s relationship with his father, who Derek believed was scarred by his experiences as an airman in World War II.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher’s England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.”–Jaime N. Christley, Slant (DVD)