Tag Archives: Parable

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SHAME (1968)

I only vaguely recall 1968. What I do vividly remember was both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy being assassinated within the space of a few months. Even the majority of the bigots at mother’s church (not all, by any means) were horrified, and during those moments, at least, practiced an extremely rare shut-mouth spirituality. It was surreal as hell. Things only became more nightmarish in the years immediately following, with the escalation of Vietnam and Watergate.

A continent or so away, produced what most of us felt: Shame. Bergman was normally not an outright political filmmaker. The extremists certainly sniffed out the moderate artist within him. Not that they would watch his films anyway, being put off by subtitles (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my lower lip after hearing camo-clad bumpkins proudly proclaim that they didn’t want to read a movie).

The focus of Bergman’s anger is war, but reeling from the criticisms he had received from utilizing the infamous footage of a Vietnamese monk’s immolation in 1966’s Persona, Bergman is more ambiguous here. He doesn’t state that his subject is Vietnam per se, which is why Shame is not as well-known as that previous film. Bergman’s ambiguity in a way neuters his own work, preventing it from becoming an equivalent to Picasso’s “Guernica,” which still provokes war-minded leaders (George W. Bush’s lackeys had a replica of  that famous painting covered up with a black curtain at the United Nations). We could see Shame one way: like , Bergman is a consummate artist lacking the courage of his ethical and social convictions (which were hinted at in Persona, although that film did not overtly subscribe to any specific ideology). In the case of both artists, their aesthetics are undermined by fear of being labeled political. In the case of Keaton, it took an artist of more elementary aesthetics (Charles Chaplin) to call out racism, sexism, and eventually Fascism. Likewise, Bergman’s Shame is rendered less impactful compared to his earlier opus and to the wave of anti-Vietnam films to come. Bergman plays it safe, indirectly shifting blame to a God in the sky instead of any persons or factions. Of course, we could also look at Shame as a desolate parable that transcends a specific time and place. It’s not an either/or assessment as much as it’s both/and.

In his later 1990 biography, “My Life in Films,” Bergman writes that he had previously been very proud of Shame, feeling that it exposed the personal violence of war, but added that he had come to be disappointed in it after realizing the his intentions were self-defeating.

Regardless of one’s view, Shame is aptly not a comfortable experience. The story centers around a musical couple, Jan () and Eva () Rosenberg. Although loving, they are tormented by Eva’s barrenness, poverty, and the civil war surrounding their dilapidated home on an unnamed island.

Despite its enigmatic qualities, Shame is still superlative Bergman and startling. Having fled larger society, the Rosenbergs have become recluses, but their imperfect and monotonous  tranquility is consumed by warfare.

The killing of a parachuter, arriving militias, arrests, incarceration, and torture are not typical Bergman themes, yet all are prevalent here. Smartly, Bergman’s focus is indeed a personal one.  When Jan witnesses his wife flirting with another man, he is aroused; probably for the first time in a long time. Later, after she has sex with an interrogator, Jan becomes jealous and exacts revenge. In the beginning of the film, it is he who is weak. However, after being engulfed in despair from the barbarism that has engulfed them, he mantles fierceness. In contrast, Eva, once the romantic, is utterly crushed.

There are no battlefield scenes typically associated with war films, and that’s refreshing. The path of Shame is highly idiosyncratic; paradoxically pragmatic in its psychology and yet, pensive.

By the time we become desultory refugees with the Roenbergs, we are as drained as they are. Although Shame avoids direct political commentary of the era, it oddly become more poignant today because the one pointed portrayal of Bergman’s that is relevant today lies in that of the shameless authoritarian and his knee-bound sycophants, along with the effect of that demagoguery on ordinary lives.

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada,

PLOT: A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Woman in the Dunes was promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Read the Certified Weird entry.

Reader Recommendation by Fredrik Allenmark

DIRECTED BY: Hiroshi Teshigahara

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: An entomologist ends up trapped together with a woman in a house at the bottom of a sand pit in the desert, where they are forced to spend their nights shoveling sand.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Freud introduced the concept of the uncanny (“Unheimlich” in German) for the particular, often uncomfortable, Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in Continue reading 138. DOGVILLE (2003)

115. A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS (1966)

O slavnosti a hostech

“When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.”–Jan Nemec

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ivan Vyskocil,

PLOT: Seven people are pleasantly picnicking by a stream when they see a festive bridal party in the distance; they wonder if they can join in the celebration. Later, walking through the woods, a gang of men accosts them and takes them to a clearing where the leader interrogates them without explaining why. The bully’s adoptive father shows up, apologizes for the son’s crude behavior, and invites the party to the outdoor bridal banquet; the older man becomes upset, however, when one of the invitees decides to leave the party and strike off on his own…

Still from A Report on the Party and Guests (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Even under the relatively liberal 1967 Czechoslovakian regime, The Party and Guests was banned (at the same time as ‘s Daisies) because it had “nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideas of Communism.” The movie was briefly exhibited during the Prague spring of 1968 then banned again after the Soviet invasion. In the second round of censorship, hardline President Antonín Novotný honored Party and Guests by naming it one of four films that were “banned forever” in the dictatorship.
  • The movie was filmed quietly and quickly in five weeks because director Jan Nemec was afraid that authorities would shut down the production.
  • Party and Guests was accepted in competition for the 1968 Cannes film festival, but the festival was cancelled that tumultuous year out of solidarity with striking French workers and students.
  • The common English translation of the title O Slavnosti a Hostech adds a pun on “party” (both a celebration and a political association) that wasn’t present in the original Czech. The American title also adds the word “report” (the British released it as simply The Party and the Guests).
  • None of the cast were professional actors; most were artists and intellectuals who held “counter-revolutionary” political views. Jan Klusák (who makes quite an impression as the bullying Rudolph) was a composer who scored many of the Czech New Wave movies (including Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), and later made music to accompany Jan Svankmajer shorts. Director Evald Schorm (“House of Joy“) plays the guest who decides to leave the party. This bit of casting suggested to the authorities that the film was a protest of their decision to ban one of Schrom’s previous films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The idea of a functionary sitting behind a desk, your fate in his hands and an enigmatic grin on his face, is the preeminent vision of bureaucratic totalitarianism from the 20th century. The incongruous twist A Report on the Party and Guests puts on this disquieting picture is to set up that desk in the middle of an open forest glade, with birds chirping merrily in the background.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When discussing A Report on the Party and Guests, every critic is required to use two words: “allegorical” and “Kafkaesque.” The second descriptor explains why this quietly disturbing examination of senseless conformity earns its place on the List of the best weird movies ever made. After watching this quietly absurd totalitarian nightmare, I can pretty much guarantee you will scratch Report on the Party and Guests off your list of possible wedding themes.


Short clip from A Report on the Party and Guests

COMMENTS: Understated to the point of madness, A Report on the Party and Guests slips Continue reading 115. A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS (1966)

98. IDIOTS AND ANGELS (2008)

“The look of the film is very Eastern European – something like what Jan Svankmayer might make, or David Lynch if he made animation – very dark and surreal.”–Bill Plympton, Idiots and Angels Director’s Statement

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Bill Plympton

PLOT:  A loathsome man spends his days in a dingy, depressing bar where he lusts after the blonde barmaid, who is also the bartender/owner’s wife.  One day he discovers he is growing wings on his back; initially, he’s thrilled to be able to fly, but comes to hate them when they develop a mind of their own and force him to do charitable acts.  Other, equally venal, men plot to steal the wings to use them for their own selfish purposes.

Still from Idiots and Angels (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Bill Plympton has been nominated for Oscars twice for his animated short films.
  • Plympton made Idiots and Angels independently with a small team of four assistant artists for an estimated $125,000.
  • Per Plympton, the film consists of 30,000 drawings.
  • Per Plympton, the film was rejected by thirty distributors.  The animator is self-distributing the movie.
  • Idiots and Angels won the Best Film award at the Fantasporto festival in 2009 (previous Fantasporto winners that were Certified Weird are Toto the Hero and Pan’s Labyrinth).
  • Idiots and Angels is “presented by” Terry Gilliam.
  • The amazing soundtrack, featuring Pink Martini, Nicole Renaud, Tom Waits and others is not available for purchase at this time—and due to licensing issues probably never will be.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The obvious choice would have something to do with wings: maybe a manacled butterfly, or a fat stripper showing off her wingspan to a crowd of leering males, or an angel mooning a passing airliner.  More shocking and unforgettable, however, is the moment near the film’s climax when a full-grown man, wrapped in a placenta, emerges from another man’s navel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Plympton sets his pitch-black parable about a wicked man who grows angel wings in a dialogue-free barroom Purgatory.  Fantastic daydreams mix with increasingly surreal realities to paint a wordless portrait of the eternal, internal struggle between good and evil.  A hip, hypnotic art-pop soundtrack helps sweep the viewer away into Idiots and Angels‘ weird world of bitter cocktails and unexplained appendages.


Scene from Idiots and Angels

COMMENTS: The unnamed antihero of Idiots and Angels (the official plot synopsis calls him Continue reading 98. IDIOTS AND ANGELS (2008)