Tag Archives: Painterly

CAPSULE: THE PAINTING (2011)

Le Tableau

DIRECTED BY: Jean-François Laguionie

FEATURING: Voices of Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande

PLOT: Figures leave the painting in which they reside and go searching for the Painter to find out why he left some of them incomplete.

Still from The Painting [Le Tableau] (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s visually imaginative and ambitious, with a few hallucinatory moments, but the morally naïve allegory adds a kitschy feel that’s incompatible with the high art graphics. If the story had been sketched out with as much loving detail as the beautiful Impressionist-styled artwork, this might have been a masterpiece, rather than something that’s just nice to look at.

COMMENTS: True to its post-Impressionist inspirations, The Painting is visually stunning. Taking its cues from early Picasso, Gauguin, and (especially) the crazy geometries and color schemes of Matisse, this movie always looks like a canvas come to life. Standout scenes include a dreamlike sequence of a magical flower observing a captive figure with its glowing eye-like stigma, a raucous animated romp across the bridges of Venice during Carnivale, and moments where the characters push through the permeable burlap canvas to emerge in the “real” world. Storywise, however, there isn’t much to The Painting. There are three classes of painted figures in the movie; the fully colored-in Allduns (who consider themselves superior and oppress the “lesser” figures), the incomplete Halfies (who may be lacking nothing more than a corner of the hem of a dress to be complete), and the Sketchies (black and white figures whose shape has only been suggested). A forbidden Romeo n’ Juliet relationship between an aristocratic Alldun and a Halfie leads the characters to leave the painting in search of answers (and hopefully a dye job) from the Painter; they move across other canvases and eventually into the Painter’s studio (where animation mixes with live action). The plot is basic, with the scarcely developing characters simply moving from one CG environment to another. Allegorically, however, The Painting has grand ambitions. It wants to be both an existentialist take on the search for the Creator and a class parable about bigotry and oppression (it also reserves a few minutes to declare its basic anti-war sentiments). By tackling two huge themes, however, director Laguionie ensures that each only gets half-sketched. The idea of the creations searching for God is an appealing conceit, but ultimately the movie has nothing to say about that ultimate reality beyond “be responsible for your own fulfillment.” We’re not convinced that the Almighty Creator is very much like a mortal painter, and so the analogy can’t satisfy our own sense of the mystery of existence. As far as the class parable goes, it’s never clear what the divisions are supposed to represent. Are the differences between the Allduns, Halfies and Sketchies racial, economic, or cognitive? Maybe the Sketchies represent the physically or mentally handicapped, who are, in some offensive sense, “incomplete” creations? At any rate, the movie’s position that the Halfies and Sketchies should “complete” themselves strikes many commentators as ironic and unsatisfactory. Shouldn’t the Allduns learn, or be forced, to tolerate those who are different, rather than the inferior classes accepting that they are defective, and figuring out how to fix themselves? These questions won’t bother youngsters, who will absorb the valuable (if insipid) lessons about tolerance and self-reliance well enough. But the movie’s failure to complete the grand philosophical goals it sets for itself makes it much like a partially unfinished artwork. Still, the part that is painted looks awfully good, and that’s enough to make it worth looking at, if not thinking about.

The French animation studio Blue Spirit produces mostly children’s television programming, but they also worked on the brilliant The Secret of Kells.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting.”–Caroline McKenzie, Slant (contemporaneous)

140. PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991)

“This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.”–Alonso, “The Tempest” [V,I]

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: Prospero, a magician trapped on an island with his daughter and native spirits, conjures a tempest to wreck a king’s ship on his shores. Once the monarch and his party are in the wizard’s power, he puts into place an intricate plan to restore himself to his former position. The text of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is followed faithfully, but is supplemented with peeks at twenty-four lavishly illustrated volumes in Prospero’s magical library.Prospero's Books (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Prospero’s books are mentioned only a couple of times by Shakespeare in “The Tempest.” In the first act of the play, Prospero says that before being shipwrecked on the island he salvaged certain volumes from his library “that I prize above my dukedom.” (The implication in the scene is that Prospero was so concerned with his studies that he neglected courtly politics and fell victim to a conspiracy to oust him). Later, Caliban speculates that Prospero’s magical powers come from his books. In the play’s final scene, Prospero throws a book(presumably his collection of magic spells)  into the ocean.
  • John Gielgud, who played Prospero in four major theatrical productions, had a lifelong dream of starring in a film adaptation of “The Tempest.” Over the years he approached Alain Resnais, , Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing the project, but all of the plans fell through for various reasons.
  • Prospero’s Books was shot entirely on videotape rather than film so that Greenaway could digitally manipulate the images, making it one of the very first digitally produced films.
  • The movie was filmed entirely in a studio in Amsterdam and contains only interior shots.
  • Greenaway made a 23-minute short for British television, “A Walk Through Prospero’s Library,” commenting on the film’s opening three and a half minutes, in which he explains the one hundred (!) mythological references in the parade that occurs as the opening credits roll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Prospero’s Books contains dozens, if not hundreds, of lush, luscious, baroquely structured, interlaced images, and yet it’s the acres and acres of nude flesh that you remember most. Still, the most shocking image illustrates Prospero’s volume called “An Anatomy of Birth”: a pregnant woman peels back a flap of skin from her torso to reveal the gooey fetus, and beating organs, within. According to the narrator’s description of the tome, “…the pages move, and throb, and bleed. It is a banned book.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s an (almost) all nude adaptation of “The Tempest”; that should be enough for you. If it’s not, then consider the fact that a narrator constantly interrupts the story to describe the contents of Prospero’s magical books, including such tomes as “An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus” (“when the atlas is opened, the maps bubble with pitch”) and “A Book of Travellers’ Tales” (illustrated with “bearded women, a rain of frogs, cities of purple ice, singing camels, Siamese twins”); Greenaway shows us the contents of each book in a transparent overlay or a window that opens on top of the main action. If that’s still not enough for you, recall that the fairy slave Ariel is played by three separate actors, the youngest of whom urinates nonstop, and that a team of white horses suddenly wanders onto the set during Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship scene. Your high school English teacher would not approve. This is acid Shakespeare.

Short clip from Prospero’s Books

COMMENTS: In 1979,  produced an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that featured a naked adult Caliban Continue reading

GLASS LIPS (2007)

Lech Majewski’s Glass Lips (2007) debuted as an instillation piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s original title was Blood of a Poet, paying homage to Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film. Surreal, kaleidoscopic, and predominantly silent, Glass Lips feels like a series of interrelated shorts literally forming a “motion picture.”

Sebastien (Patrick Czajka) is the poet in question in this painterly film, which begins with his birth atop a towering rock. The sound of the infant wailing, his umbilical cord dangling, is the only one we hear from his lips. This image later connects to a waterlogged dream of his mother (Joanna Litwin) giving birth to a bloodied rock.

Maternal inertia is the dominant pigment used in painting Sebastien as the scourged poet. One striking image calls to mind early photographs of artist Andres Serrano (when Serrano actually counted). The sensual, nude mother, clothed only in pathos, glides by row after row of slaughtered hogs. The Serrano image, so striking and, for some reason, long unavailable, showed the image of Christ (a young, blonde woman, dressed in a short, black nightclub dress) before the swine (the hog’s bloodied torso hanging from a hook in the ceiling). Paradoxically, iconoclastic and liturgical metaphors repetitively intertwine in Majewski’s parochial bedlam.

The suffering mother is forced to witness her only son’s humiliation by a severe, unyielding father (Grzegorz Przybyl). The mother seeks to both nurture and be nurtured. She is not milked and can no longer can provide milk. Therefore, she baptizes her naked body, as Sebastien witnesses. For the father, mother is not fully human. She is merely a hole for his convenience. She is, at first, replaced by a blow-up doll.

Eventually, the death of his wife resonates and the father peels away layer after layer, to discover his own folly. But, neither is Sebastien guiltless. His romanticized nihilism might be something akin to dysfunctional stained glass windows that simultaneously mythologize, canonize and eroticize his projected experiences.

Alpo as the Eucharist; erotic playtime between Ma and Pa as Sebastien, bound and adorned in first communion dress, stands in for the host in this poetic reenactment of transubstantiation.

Still from Glass Lips (2007)The homoerotic frescoes of St. Sebastien are re-imaged with a Marian sheen. Mother repeatedly replaces son in martyrdom. Rows of the maternal tree, reduced to an orifice by exploring patriarchal hands.

There is also resurrection. Nothing is permanent, possible because the martyr also co-created his passion, painted his pathos, and unraveled the rope which ties him to the cliches and traditions of the doomed poet.

Majewski himself composed the impressive score, creating  a lush language to supplant impotent words. Glass Lips not only inspires the viewer to labor in his or her voyeurism, but the film also demands some sweat from those who write about it.

CAPSULE: THE TALE OF THE FLOATING WORLD (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Escalle

FEATURING: Yûko Nakamura, Ryôya Kobayashi, Kakuya Ohashi

PLOT: A surrealistic montage set in motion by a tidal wave and incorporating a samurai battle.

Still from The Tale of the Floating World (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Simply put, length. Floating World is a tidal wave of creativity, but at a little less 1/3 the running time it would need to be at least three times as notable or weird to take a slot on the List away from a full-fledged feature film.

COMMENTS: Although organized around the concept of a remembrances of Japan’s past as dreamed by a survivor of Hirsohima (we gathered this from the director’s notes, and presume it’s explained by the narrator’s brief untranslated comments that start the film), Floating World works on a vaguer level as a surreal tribute to European Japanophilia. Nipponese iconography—cranes, geishas, samurai—suffuses the film like sunlight through a rice paper print. A scene of a robed woman stumbling through a snowbound forest looks like a visual quotation from Kwaidan. Plenty of strangeness accompanies us in our journey though this dream of the Rising Sun: calligraphic characters turn into ants and crawls off the page during an eclipse, ashen nude zombies dance, and a samurai duel with flashing blades in a watercolor blur. The circa 2001 CGI is cheap and clunky looking: the aqua tsunami looks painted on the film, for example, and a sinking Buddha head is obviously superimposed on a separate shot of brackish water. Given the context you could hardly say the unreality of the imagery counts as a negative, however; the shots work exquisitely as a series of stills. Floating World works both as a demo reel for director Escalle’s visual effects skills and as an art installation of its own. Cécile Le Prado’s ornamental Oriental score contributes to the stony feeling of smoking opium while staring at a Japanese woodcutting hung on the wall.

The title refers to the Japanese concept of the “Floating World”—a hedonistic, secular world of fleeting pleasures and beauty for its own sake exemplified by geishas and kabuki theater—which flourished in the classical Edo period. “Ukiyo-e” or “pictures of the floating world” were a genre of woodcuttings depicting scenes of Edo-era Japan. The 18th century novelist Asai Ryō wrote a work entitled “Tales of the Floating World” about a Buddhist monk who finds enlightenment through debauchery. Dating back to Impressionism, French artists have had such a longstanding infatuation with Ukiyo-e that it’s given birth to a subgenre of painting known as “Japonisme.”

CONTENT WARNING: The Tale of the Floating World contains (tastefully presented) sex and nudity, and parts would not be considered “safe for work.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

No reviews located.

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who cited the film’s synopsis: “An evocative and surrealistic view of Japan and the atomic bomb. An imaginary story, both cruel and childlike.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Vincent Ward

FEATURING: , Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max von Sydow

PLOT: A pediatrician dies and goes to paradise, but he’s willing to throw away an eternity of

Still from What Dreams May Come (1998)

bliss to find his wife, who’s trapped in a far less pleasant afterlife.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Majestic visuals make Dreams worth a gander for most, but due to high levels of sugary sentiment it’s contraindicated for diabetic cinephiles.  While it has some unusual moments (and a cool eyeblink cameo from weird icon Werner Herzog as a tormented head), its weirdness isn’t much higher than any other Hollywood-approved fantasy.

COMMENTS:  The romantic afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come flopped at the box office, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  When pediatrician Chris (Robin Williams) dies and goes to heaven, the afterlife manifests as one of his wife’s oil paintings.  Williams (joined by spiritual guide Cuba Gooding Jr.) wanders around inside an incredibly detailed landscape that looks like it was literally created out of paint; when his shoe slips on the mud, it exposes an undercoat of iridescent green and orange. It’s a miraculous mise-en-scène that, by itself, makes the movie worth catching.  Other visuals pack quite a punch as well, especially when the action moves from a prismatic heaven to a gray hell: we watch a horde of swimming dead menacing Chris’s boat, and see him carefully transverse a field where the faces of the damned grow like heads of lettuce.  Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production can’t keep up to the standard set by the visuals, and a vein of sappiness undermines the whole endeavor.   What Dreams was made during the period when Robin Williams was still transitioning from a wacky motormouthed comedian to a “serious” dramatic actor, and he received some praise for this performance at the time; looking back, however, it seems too restrained, as if he’s trying to keep his massive personality in check.  Gooding Jr. tries to compensate for Williams’ surprising lack of energy, and goes over the top a couple of times (I half expected him to shout out, “show me the salvation!”). Annabella Sciorra comes off best, but she needed a Continue reading

88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)

“I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature.  I have had the good fortune to enjoy them both equally.”–Sei Shōnagon, “The Pillow Book,” Section 172.

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida

PLOT:  Every birthday, Nagiko’s father draws calligraphic figures on her face while ritualistically reciting the story of creation.  Nagiko grows into a beautiful young fashion model obsessed with the intersection of calligraphy and sex, seeking lovers who will use her naked body as a canvas on which to write.  She meets and falls in love with a bisexual British translator who convinces her to write on others’ bodies, and together they conspire for revenge against the publisher who wronged her father.

Still from The Pillow Book (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • The “Pillow Book” from which the movie takes its title is “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” the diaristic collection of anecdotes, observations, poetry and lists by a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako of Japan in the Heian era (the book was composed around 1000 AD).  Shōnagon’s work, though probably never intended for others’ eyes, became one of the classics of Japanese literature and a tremendous source of historical data about the Japanese imperial court.  Greenaway was inspired by “The Pillow Book,” but the film is not an adaptation of Shōnagon.  In an interview he explains: “I took some of [the book's] sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shōnagon said, ‘Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?’ And the movie’s just about that.”
  • Occasionally, the spoken Japanese dialogue is not translated into subtitles. This is deliberate.
  • Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny had shot Greenaway’s previous six feature films and had previously worked with Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), Buñuel (Belle de Jour) and Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Crowns of the Sailor), among other notable (and weird) directors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are a bewildering number of nominees to choose from, especially since Greenaway frequently places two or three images on the screen at once, picture-in-picture style.  The overwhelming repeated image is that of writing inked on nude bodies, however, and so the shot of glowing letters cast on Vivian Wu’s darkened, reclining body as she writes in her diary in bed best captures The Pillow Book‘s visual fetish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Pillow Book is a movie about a fetishistic, eccentric, obsessed


Trailer for The Pillow Book

character, brought to us by an auteur with firsthand knowledge of those qualities.  Greenaway splashes the screen with visual extravagances, with pictures framed inside of other pictures, and images layered on top of one another, melding one into the next.  Full of obscure musings about the nature of art and sex, The Pillow Book tells a story of lust and revenge, but subjugates the text to the image, the narrative to the cinematic.  The result is visually hypnotic, frequently frustrating, and all Greenaway.

COMMENTS: A man and woman make love.  The entwining limbs are spectral, as their Continue reading

77. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR [Sånger från andra våningen] (2000)

“Beloved be those who sit down.”
–César Vallejo

“People have wondered how to classify my film.  Absurdism or surrealism?  What the hell is it?… This film introduces a style that I’d like to call  ‘trivialism.’  Life is portrayed as a series of trivial components.  My intention is to touch on bigger, more philosophical issues at the same time.”–Roy Andersson, DVD commentary to Songs from the Second Floor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson

PLOT:  Set at the dawn of the millennium in a nameless city that seems to be undergoing an apocalyptic panic—traffic is at a standstill as people try to leave all at once, parades of flagellants march down the street, and the Church considers returning to human sacrifice—Songs unfolds as a series of brief, seemingly unrelated, vaguely surreal scenes.  Eventually a main thread emerges involving a family: the father’s furniture business has just burnt down, one son has gone insane from writing poetry, and the other son is a melancholy cab driver.  The father enters the retail crucifix business and begins seeing ghosts.

Still from Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was inspired by the verse of the relatively obscure avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938), whose poem “Stumble between to stars” is quoted in the film.  Anyone who thinks Andersson is obscure would do well to avoid Vallejo, whose work—with its invented words and grammar and difficult symbolism—recalls James Joyce at his most impenetrable.
  • Songs  from the Second Floor was Andersson’s third feature film, and his first since 1975’s Giliap.  He spent most of the intervening time directing commercials, although he did complete two highly regarded short films.
  • Andersson discovered Lars Nordh shopping for furniture at an IKEA.
  • Many of the exterior shots were actually shot inside Andersson’s studio with trompe l’oeil paintings or three-dimensional models as backgrounds .
  • All scenes are completed in one take.  The camera only moves once (a calm tracking shot in the railway station).
  • At the time of the film’s release reviewers consistently marveled that none of the scenes had been scripted or storyboarded beforehand.  The method here shouldn’t suggest that Andersson simply made up the film as he went along, however, as unused footage shows that each scene was meticulously rehearsed and refined dozens of times, often on incomplete sets with stand-ins for the actors, over what must have been a period of weeks or months.  Andersson says they sometimes shot twenty to twenty five takes per scene to achieve the perfect performance.
  • The film took four years to complete.
  • Songs from the Second Floor tied for the jury prize at Cannes in 2000 (the jury prize is the third most prestigious award after the Palme D’Or and the Grand Prix).
  • Andersson followed up Songs with You, the Living [Du Levande] (2007) (also Certified Weird).  The two movies are extremely similar both thematically (the comically apocalyptic mood) and stylistically (made up of intricately composed, brief vignettes).  Andersson has said he intends to create a trilogy; however, he has suggested that the third film may not follow the same style as the first two.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fat Kalle standing at a deserted crossroads by the pile of discarded crucifixes, gazing at the figures approaching on the horizon, is an image worthy of European arthouse greats like Buñuel or Fellini.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  There are a few moments of magical realism in Songs from


Scene from Songs from the Second Floor

the Second Floor, involving subway commuters bursting into classical verse and the matter-of-fact appearance of ghosts, but even if these interludes hadn’t been included, the movie would feel strange because of the high artificiality of Andersson’s style: the static camera, the constant crowds of expressionless figurants gazing dispassionately at the action in the foreground, the carefully controlled compositions filled with background detail.  Adding deadpan absurd black humor, bleak existentialism, and a sense of looming catastrophe into the mix produces a singular concoction, one that captured Sweden’s—and the West’s—mood of anxious despair as the new millennium dawned.

COMMENTS: Songs from the Second Floor uses deep focus—the photographic technique Continue reading

LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA [2009]

DIRECTED BY: Pipilotti Rist

FEATURING: Ewelina Guzik, Sven Pippig, Sabine Timoteo, Elisabeth Orth
Still from Pepperminta (2009)

PLOT: A whimsical young woman brimming with optimism moves breezily through her hometown in Switzerland, picking up new friends Werwen (Sven Pippig)—a sickly momma’s boy—and Edna (Sabine Timoteo)—a cross-dressing gardener—along the way.  The trio’s mission is to teach others to live without fear through experimental color hypnosis.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Pepperminta is a creative, experimental, singular film that defies standard classification.  It is at once funny, thought-provoking, insightful, fanciful, sexual, and wistful; it contains memorable visuals, bizarre characters, impromptu musical numbers, and flashes of complete fantasy.  It’s wonderfully weird, to be sure, but its sentimentality and naive perspective can be cloying and alienating for some audiences.

COMMENTS: Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist is known for saturated colors and themes of harmony and sensuality in her short works.  Pepperminta marks her first foray into feature-length narrative film, allowing her to expand upon these concepts in a more accessible manner.  Inspired by Pippi Longstocking, the story is a fantastical urban adventure set in a magical realist universe that’s open to Utopian ideas, and the central character is unflappable in her quest to bring joy, beauty, and strength to everyone she meets.  Pepperminta transforms the souls of those she chooses to be a part of her mission, healing them with flowers, touch, music, and contagious confidence.  She believes that through certain combinations of color a person’s outlook can be altered, and demonstrates this in several wacky encounters.

Pepperminta is primarily driven by its mysterious but likable characters.  The title character is quick-to-smile, red-haired, freckled, and feels completely at ease in her own body.  She wins others over to her side with unshakable kindness, even if her weirdness confuses most people at first.  Werwen is shy,  middle-aged, and allergic to everything; he easily falls in love with Pepperminta, most likely because she’s the first girl with whom he’s interacted.  With her help he conquers his fear of the outside world bred by his overprotective mother.  Edna is taciturn and serious-minded, slowly released from her hard outer shell as she opens herself up to her new friends, even tapping into the magical aspects of Pepperminta’s personality. Continue reading

61. KWAIDAN (1964)

AKA Kaidan; Ghost Stories

“A hundred thoughts suggested by the book might be written down, but most of them would begin and end with this fact of strangeness… many of the stories are about women and children,–the lovely materials from which the best fairy tales of the world have been woven. They too are strange, these Japanese maidens and wives and keen-eyed, dark-haired girls and boys; they are like us and yet not like us; and the sky and the hills and the flowers are all different from ours… in these delicate, transparent, ghostly sketches of a world unreal to us, there is a haunting sense of spiritual reality.”–from the original introduction to the folk tale collection “Kwaidan”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Masaki Kobayashi

FEATURING: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tetsurô Tanba, Kan’emon Nakamura

PLOT: An anthology film telling four Japanese folk tales centered around ghosts or nature spirits.  An ambitious samurai leaves his faithful but poor wife for a rich new one, and finds himself haunted by regret over his desertion.  A winter spirit spares the life of a young woodcutter, on one condition.  A clan of ghosts demand a blind minstrel play the tale of their tragedy for them night after night.  The final story tells of a guard who sees an apparition in a bowl of water.

Still from Kwaidan (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The four episodes were adapted from Lafciado Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales (the two middle pieces are from his 1903 volume entitled “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”).  Hearn was born Greek, educated in Ireland, and spent time as a journalist in the United States (causing a scandal by marrying a black woman in Cincinnati, which was a crime at the time).  He later became a foreign correspondent in Japan and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.
  • Hearn offered “Weird Tales” as one possible translation of the Japanese word Kwaidan.
  • Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (at that time, the second most prestigious prize after the Palme D’Or).  It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but lost to the Czech war drama The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze].
  • The episode “The Woman of the Snow” was (unwisely) trimmed from the original American theatrical release in order to cut the runtime from three hours to just over two hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s hard to top the image of the minstrel Hoichi covered (almost) from head to toe in holy Buddhist characters or the ghostly court of samurai, it’s the expressionistic set of “The Woman in the Snow”—with it’s constellations of warped watching eyeballs set in a deep blue sky—that makes the eeriest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kwaidan illustrates the rule that, the better the movie, the less


Original Trailer for Kwaidan

weird it has to be to make the List. Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.

COMMENTS: In Kwaidan‘s opening credits black, blue, red and purple inks swirl around in Continue reading

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:  Guillermo del Toro

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity.  We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill.  With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects.  He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno.  Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit.  If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley.  It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006.  With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of the rule that


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.  On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird.  The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot.  The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not.  The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films.  Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.

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