Tag Archives: Paranoia

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

This is Part 3 of a 3 part survey of “The Prisoner.” Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 is here.

“A Change Of Mind,” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking,  in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.

“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.

On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly.  When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.

Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.

Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.

The Prisoner, "Living in Harmony"“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.

The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART ONE

The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by , is the model for cult television. It is an indirect sequel to a previous series, “Secret Agent” (AKA “Danger Man,” 1960-1962), which also starred McGoohan. By general consensus, “The Prisoner” ranks as one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction as a television genre. The consensus, for once, is probably accurate, because “The Prisoner” is far more than science fiction, dispensing with genre expectations. We could also describe it as being psychological, surreal, allegorical, existential, countercultural, satirical, Kafkaesque, psychedelic, nightmarish, absurdist, comic bookish, supernatural, born from the spy genre (in a far more interesting breed than 007), and enigmatic. It’s still enigmatic today, with enthusiasts and critics compelled to attempt to express its mystification in the absence of creator McGoohan, who steadfastly refused to ever explain it. Even its reputation is aptly enigmatic; it’s heard about more than actually seen. “The Prisoner” often causes polemical arguments among many who have seen it and debate the chronological order of its seventeen episodes. It was created smartly and contrary to our priorities and agendas regarding television. To many of us, the series should be ongoing. In its blueprint stage, the goal of “The Prisoner” was always to end, and yet in its (for us) brief run, McGoohan crafts a saga that feels narratively and aesthetically accomplished. Comparatively, many series, after being cancelled prematurely, will feel unfinished, cheating its dangling audience. At the other end of the spectrum, many ongoing series have trekked on well past the point of what should have been a well-developed beginning, middle, and satisfying climax. “The Prisoner” was originally intended to be even briefer, but was extended in order to ensure an American market. In hindsight, “The Prisoner” might even be seen as an advance metaphorical commentary on that puerile abomination known as reality television: elastically taunting and playing with our concepts of reality, daily humdrum, juxtapositional narrative, and cryptic completion.

What we do know is the idea for “The Prisoner” sprang from McGoohan’s exhaustive workload on “Secret Agent.” In “The Arrival” (directed by Don Chaffey), its unnamed protagonist (McGoohan) quits the British Secret Service with no reason cited; but as we know, departing an intelligence position is hardly a done deal. Drugged and abducted by arcane forces, he  awakens …

Where Am I?

In the Village.

What Do You Want?

Information.

Still from The Prisoner (1967-1968)Whose Side Are You On?

That Would Be Telling. We Want Information.

You Won’t Get It.

By Hook, or By Crook, We Will.

Who Are You?

The New No. 2.

Who Is No. 1?

Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART ONE

CAPSULE: SAFE (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: , Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman

PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”

Still from Safe (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”

COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.

At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a  health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.

Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow, ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

Recommended

“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
  • According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
  • Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

LIST CANDIDATE: CUBE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint,

PLOT: Seven strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.

Still from Cube (1997)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: Cube is classic cult sci-fi/horror.  It’s intriguing, captivating, and smart, but follows a linear narrative and has characters with logical motivations. Some serious weirdness can be found in its ugly, recycled visuals (only two cubical rooms were built and used for the set design) and brooding  ambient soundtrack, but it’s all coherent enough to stand as a firmly established vision of the bleakness of modern life. It has “weird” ambitions, but ultimately finds itself in the category of intense sci-fi, not transcendental strangeness.

COMMENTS: Cube, much to its own advantage, is quite minimalist.  The setting of the film is a series of cubical rooms with distinctively ugly color palettes. Decorated with different kinds of high-tech architectural patterns and shapes, the rooms evoke conceptual mathematics, serving as a sort of pastiche of NASA blueprints or military designs. The characters are dressed identically, have no memory of how they got in the cube, and each possesses some kind of useful skill. There is a math student, a cop, a medical professional, an escape artist, an exterior designer, and an autistic young man with a penchant for solving complicated arithmetic problems in his head. The opening scene shows a nameless character who steps into a room only to meet his ill fate with a swift slice and dice, painting the floor in symmetrical pieces of his bloody corpse before we see the film’s title shot over a background of blinding white light.

The danger lurking ahead is now obvious and imminent: some of the rooms have traps, and others do not. The suspense is heightened by the ignorance of the characters; we only know as much as they do, almost nothing at all. Apparently kidnapped and held against their will, they all work together to escape the cube, only to find that their biggest threat to one another is each other. One would probably wonder how such a simple idea could ever look so cool, but the atmosphere of the movie drives it forward, forcing us to develop our own ideas about what the cube is and why it was made.

An attempt at something of an explanation starts to develop around the mid-point, and here frustration rears its ugly head. (It may also have been slightly irresponsible to cast Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin, seeing that he is the only actor in the movie that is black and he is shown to be significantly more violent and unhinged than the others). Political and personal gripes aside, the delight in watching these characters hopelessly delve into their own survival emulates from the paranoia that comes from their ignorance. Plus, the gory deaths don’t hamper the entertainment value one bit. Face melting acid traps, wires that cut through skin and bone, sound-activated blades—this particular trap is the movie’s riveting and suspenseful center piece—and an anger-prone cop (a relevant touch in lieu of recent national tragedies) provide ample intensity, violence, and a sinister atmosphere that make Cube a force to be reckoned with. Its near immediate elevation to cult status was no surprise, as DVD sales and rentals (remember rentals?) were much higher than usual for a low budget Canadian movie with a cast of unknowns.

Aside from the suspense rooted in escaping bloody doom, there is a plethora of mind candy along the way, most of it rooted in mathematics and philosophy. Rooms are numbered in sequenced patterns of exponents of prime numbers, and while the math wizard works toward finding a way past the traps, she makes chicken scratches in the shiny metal doors of the cubes using buttons off her shirt. It’s here when the audience is treated to a creepy musical palette of hushed whispers and echoing warped synthesizers, as they fall further down into a bleak realm of chaotic peril. Whenever they make progress towards finding a way out, new problems arise, whether it is a miscalculation or anger and frustration stemming from the ever-growing exhaustion of the subjects. Cube twists and turns through suspicions and possible explanations. Did aliens build the cube, or was it the government? Is there a way out or are they all supposed to die? All of it is punctuated by violent gore, a catharsis for life’s impending ambiguities.

Symbolically, life inside the Cube is no different than life outside of it, full of unanswered questions, meaningless death, and a kind of endless striving towards a future that might not ever happen. Some of its more generic ideas stem from the dangers of a military-industrial complex, human purpose, and the endless grind of working towards nothing/death. There is nihilism, hope, confusion, betrayal and even compassion to be found inside of the cube, evidenced by the varying attitudes and behaviors of the poor souls who are trapped inside.  One particularly powerful component of the intended symbolic gesture comes from the character Worth (David Hewlett) when he is reluctant to leave the cube. “What is out there?” inquires Leaven (Nicole de Boer). There is an intense close up of a whiteout, the apparent exit, as he replies: “Boundless human stupidity.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential.”–Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tona,” who said it was “weird for the ambiguity, the paranoic atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Crispian Mills, Chris Hopewell

FEATURING: Simon Pegg, Alan Drake, Amara Karan, Paul Freeman

PLOT: A neurotic writer researching a book on serial killers develops a fear of everything (but especially of laundrettes); when he has an important meeting he decides to face his fear and wash his socks.

Still fro, A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a bit weird, sure, but in a random, disjointed way, as if the co-directors weren’t sure what to do with the material and kept spinning the film off in a new direction, hoping this next one would lead somewhere.

COMMENTS: As we begin Everything, Jack (the redoubtable Simon Pegg) is a shaggy-headed shut-in who carries a butcher knife everywhere with him to defend against imaginary murderers. A former children’s author, Jack decided to stretch his talents by writing a teleplay about Victorian serial killers; his obsessive research into the insidious poisoning techniques of the Hendon Ogre and his ilk shattered his naturally sensitive temperament and sent him into a seething pit of paranoia. If this sounds like tough subject matter to milk for comedy to you, you’d be right; although, utilizing a combination of superglue and dirty socks, the offbeat script does manage to dredge up some farce from the pit of despair. Two lip-sync dance numbers—a gangsta rap performed by Pegg and an ironic boombox version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”—cut through the depressive gloom with welcome wackiness, but in general the movie struggles to find a comic tone. Although Pegg’s performance hits the right notes of hysteria, his Jack is so riddled by anxieties that it’s hard to laugh at him. Pegg also spends about a third of the movie in filthy underwear, which is more pathetic and upsetting than funny. Fortunately, there is a lot of extraneous stuff going on to distract us from the movie’s nerve-wracking protagonist—eyeball hallucinations, self-aware Psycho references, paper doll reenactments of famous murders, creepy anthropomorphic stop-animated children’s stories, guided meditation with a pirate psychologist—and thus Everything manages to remain watchable by keeping itself busy.

Everything writer/director Crispian Mills is better known as a musician; he brought in music video specialist and animator Chris Hopewell to help out as a co-director. The uncommonly literary script (full of self-deprecating jokes about the foibles of writers and their similarity to serial killers) is an adaptation of a novella. Pegg seems to have been drawn into the project as part of a push by Pinewood studios to promote low-budget British filmmaking. The hodge-podge of talents and influences here never really coheres, nor is it incoherent in a particularly fascinating way. The movie gets by on bursts of creativity, but never develops the consistently crazy energy it needs. Simon Pegg’s personal draw aside, Everything isn’t much of anything: it’s too strange to be a mainstream success, but not eccentric enough to work as a weird film. It’s a misfit even among would-be cult films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a singularly bizarre new horror comedy, both exhilarating and frustrating: it allows for Pegg to stretch as an actor, going to some pretty whacked out places, but the film itself ultimately stalls out, leaving a great performance at the heart of a movie most won’t particularly care for.”–Drew Taylor, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Blair Erickson

FEATURING: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian

PLOT: An investigative journalist searches for a friend who disappeared after taking an experimental hallucinogenic drug.

Still from The Banshee Chapter (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has the a solid collection of paranoid/paranormal/psychedelic elements, but it doesn’t push them far enough, ending up as little more than Jacob’s Ladder lite.

COMMENTS: With a plot hinging on the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments and bits of fringe lore about the endogenous hallucinogen DMT, “numbers stations,” and references thrown in for seasoning, The Banshee Chapter might have been scripted by paranoid paranormal AM radio host Art Bell. The movie’s style is as all-over-the-place as the conspiratorial plot; journalist Anne Roland (Winter) begins narrating the story as a documentary, and the movie incorporates (sometimes out-of-context) actual newsreels together with scripted “found footage” scenes of James Hirsch (McMilian) experimenting with the rare drug at the center of the story. As the tale progresses the documentary conceit is ditched in favor of a typical third-person omniscient view of proceedings (although the shaky handheld camera continues to remind us of the movie’s supposed vérité origins). This lack of consistency isn’t a huge issue; if you like the movie, you might think that it contributes to its ragtag, homemade charm. The bigger problem is that, despite having so much going on, Banshee Chapter frequently lapses in talkiness and confusion. Without much of a budget for effects or locations, plot points are often given through speculative dialogue. And even when things happen, it’s not always made clear why Anne is following up certain clues: I couldn’t figure out exactly what led her to follow up on the shortwave radio broadcasts, for example, or what her plan was once she finally tracked down a source of the drug. Further, the horror of the story comes more from sudden screams and pale faces popping into frame than creeping dread and paranoia: the main effect of the experimental drug seems to be to induce jump scares, and the movie’s climax is a sprint through a spookhouse. The one really good idea that the screenplay implements is the inclusion of -inspired novelist Thomas Blackburn (Levine) as a key character. Levine plays Thompson/Blackburn with laid-back, boozy seediness, as opposed to the amped-up comic caricatures and adopted in portraying the cult novelist. It’s a lot of fun to see this character out of his comfort zone, tromping through the dark desert in an “X-Files” scenario. If you have a passion either for paranormal culture or for anything Thompson-related, Banshee Chapter may be worthwhile; for those without a particular interest in these subject, however, it’s not a wild enough ride to justify buying a ticket.

Banshee Chapter is the first feature from director/co-writer Blair Erickson. Alt-Spock Zachary Quinto counts among the film’s numerous producers. After a small but critically successful festival run, the film was released on VOD in December of 2013, and will see a limited theatrical release in January 2014.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works

CAPSULE: FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1993)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A tormented Franz Kafka struggles to complete the first line of his story “The Metamorphosis,” and the constant interruptions by wandering vendors and loud neighbors don’t help.

Still from Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, as promised, a legitimately Kafkaesque story, but with a cheesy Frank Capra twist at the end that is horrifying because of its complete tonal incompatibility. This beautifully written, acted and shot comic nightmare would be a shoo-in for a list of the greatest short weird films of all time. It’s perfect at a compact 22-minutes: could Peter Capaldi carry off this grimly hilarious mood through feature length, or would it become repetitive and oppressive? On the other hand, at one-fourth the length of an average Certified Weird movie, shouldn’t it be required to be four times as weird to qualify for the List?

COMMENTS: Writers find writer’s block to be the most horrific condition they can conceive of (see also Barton Fink), and although readers may not be able to directly identify with the existential dread emanating off a blank page, writers attack the notion with such fervor that they convince the viewer of the existential torment of white space. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds at conveying the clammy pallor of the nervous artist’s soul through bitter comedy, both subtle and obvious. In the “obvious” bin goes Kafka’s rejected imaginary scenarios about what gigantic forms his fictional protagonist, Gregor Samsa, might be transformed into (e.g., a kangaroo). At other times, however, the atmosphere of anxiety Kafka finds himself breathing is so thick and melodramatic, with shadowy blue lighting and an ominous orchestra and strangers with intense stares and precise enunciation, that the paranoia plays as a parody. And even as we giggle uneasily, we wonder if the danger to Kafka is serious and real: a creepy door-to-door vendor fencing knives and scissors keeps hanging around his door, looking for his “little friend” who has disappeared…  The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction

The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction are so confident and forceful that it makes you queasy to think of the many wonderful films he never directed. There’s a deliberately slanted Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quality to Kafka’s apartment block, and shots and scenes naturally evoke The Trial. Although the short could have been structured as nothing more than a series of insane gags, the script makes it flow from one incident to the next, with characters weaving in and out of the short tale and everything connecting by the end. This mini-masterpiece of alienation carefully walks that same line between fantasy and reality, dream and nightmare, that its namesake trod, but with an added dash of dry British wit.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life tied for the 1995 Best Live Action Short Film Oscar with Peggy Rajski’s Trevor—the Academy just couldn’t let a weird film have the spotlight to itself. It’s available on a Vanguard DVD entitled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life… and Other Strange Tales together with three other comic shorts. None of the others are exceptionally strange. Seven Gates features two squabbling brothers returning to their elderly parents home for Christmas, while Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder is a Southern Gothic period piece (shot in sepia) about a field hand and his albino girlfriend. The best of the rest is The Deal, written by standup comic Lewis Black, which satirizes the macho posturing of capitalism’s movers and shakers, who begin by plotting world domination but end up admiring each others’ designer testicles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has all the dreamlike menace of Kafka’s writing, while the story-line sends it up shamelessly… [a] midget gem of post-modern cinema.”–Alison Dalzell, Edinburgh University Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who called it “a wonderful short Kafkian movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)