Tag Archives: Period piece

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

LIST CANDIDATE: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley

PLOT: During the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field while searching for an ale-house. In that field, they unearth (oddly literally) a fifth companion, who turns out to be a domineering alchemist. He manipulates the four deserters into hunting for a buried treasure, leading them on a journey of dubious magic, self-discovery, and psychedelia.

Still from A Field in England (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The last Ben Wheatley film I saw–Kill List–ended on a weird, brutally discordant note and it had its dark inexplicable moments, but I didn’t recommend it for the List because it felt too calculated and purposeful. A Field in England, on the other hand, is fully spontaneous, right up to the vaguely cyclical ending, and weirdness is its baseline. Those palatable touches of order and familiarity, like the vaguely heroic character arc and melodramatic villain, seem to spring wholesale out of the film’s twisted substrate; they serve, if anything, to orient and emphasize the weirdness, rather than undermining it. Because it is both random, and confident in its randomness, I submit A Field in England for consideration.

COMMENTS: A Field in England is a grimy, trippy gonzo costume adventure, one of the least heroic and most eccentric swashbuckler narratives I’ve been privy to. The story is so constrained, it’s almost cute: during the English Civil War, a small band of deserters wanders into a large, empty field where they are manipulated into hunting for a buried treasure. Matters of friendship, power, fear, life, and death ensue, and a loose, quirky hero’s story takes shape, though it’s driven more by suggestive leaps of happenstance than by fate or necessity.

Like Wheatley’s previous Kill List, A Field in England benefits from being a pastiche. It wears the heritage of historical adventure films on its sleeve, but it also has buddy-comedy and art-film elements, and it brings it disparate tones together admirably. One of its special accomplishments is to operate as an art-film while exhibiting a British comedy’s sense of humor. The dialogue and situational gags are dry and crass, and they serve to establish the five characters in a way that makes them genuinely endearing, even as we puzzle over what the hell is actually happening to them.

The five main characters have names, Wikipedia informs me, but I didn’t really pick up on them during the film. To me, they represented archetypes: the coward (Whitehead), the soldier (Jacob), the fool (Friend), the lackey (Cutler), and the evil mastermind (O’Neill). Of these five, Whitehead got all the most pivotal roles, and Field ends up being his story. His character arc provided a framework for all the other relationships and interactions, and though he didn’t have the funniest or most endearing moments, he drove all the key developments in the non sequiturish plot. Without Whitehead and his four boorish cohorts, the movie might have been almost unwatchable, but it actually went down pretty smooth.

As I said before, the reason this is an accomplishment is that the narrative logic of the film is genuinely random, driven by a sort of weird intuition with no respect for cause and effect. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the film’s hallucinogenic drug subtext, which led to some trippy, seizure-inducing sequences accompanying the major plot points. It only worked because the whole film had a foggy, disorienting quality, disconnected from its own reality, with an unstable relationship between dreamy detachment and visceral sensory amplification. The swing from one extreme to the other is epitomized in Whitehead’s psychedelic character climax, where he shifts from a sort of bleary, stupefied slow-motion degenerate into a potent force of nature, a raging hurricane-god rising up from the swaying of the wheat fields.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo… a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF PLEASURES (2011)

Souvenirs de la Maison Close; AKA L’Apollonide; House of Tolerance

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Bonello

FEATURING: Alice Barnole, , Iliana Zabeth, Noémie Lvovsky, Xavier Beauvois

PLOT: This drama follows the travails of a group of prostitutes in a belle epoque bordello.

Still from House of Pleasures (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: House of Pleasures sports a few stylistically odd and unreal scenes, including a stunner at the end that goes down as one of the strangest and saddest dream images ever committed to film. That single scene very nearly puts the movie into contention for the List, but despite its flirtations with surrealism Pleasures is ultimately more devoted to sorrow than weirdness. Still, it has enough strangeness and beauty in it to make it more than worth your while, if you can handle painfully pessimistic, slow-paced anti-erotic tragedies.

COMMENTS: House of Pleasures begins with a courtesan’s dream, a dream whose elements recur and form the boundaries of the story. The movie itself is dreamy, languid and unhurried, depicting a world where women in flowing gowns and elaborate underwear spend evening after evening lounging on chaises with gentleman callers, drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, and eventually visiting the upstairs chambers for kinky lovemaking sessions. Sex buyers and sellers alike drift hazily through the curtained corridors of the maison like the smoke rising off an opium pipe. For these women every day is the same as every other: a never-ending party where they must always serve as the accommodating hostess. They dress in the finest silks and drink champagne from crystal goblets, but for them pleasure is a business, a daily grind. They can only be happy in the brief moments when they are together, away from the clients, eating meals, playing cards, sharing a Sunday picnic by a river. We learn the rules of the Parisian bordello game fairly quickly: the ladies make money seeing their clients, but the madame charges them outrageous fees for room and board so that they always owe the house money. Their only realistic hope of escape is that a client will fall in love with them and agree to pay off their debts and marry them; it happens very rarely, but often enough to give them the spark of hope they need to keep going. The wealthy clients have other interests besides matrimony: making the women pretend to be dolls or geishas, or tying them to their beds for rough play. The authorities tolerate the brothels, but they won’t intervene if a landlord decides to charge usurious rent, or if a john decides to take a knife to one of the girls. The women’s daily existences would be rough enough, but writer/director Bonello ruthlessly piles on the tragedies: violence, disease, disfigurement. He’s particularly cruel to Madeleine, the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble piece, who is known variously as “the Jewess” and, in a nod to an Expressionist classic, “The Woman Who Laughs.” She is made to suffer betrayals and humiliations almost beyond imaging. Bonello’s occasionally surreal stylistic choices—the black panther who regularly visits the establishment with his master, a libertine freak orgy, the way that Madeleine’s dreams and memories replay over and over throughout the film, destroying the continuity of time—alienate some viewers. But whether these flights of fancy always succeed or not (I could have done without the anachronistic music, particularly a scene set to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”), they provide a necessary counterbalance to the otherwise unbearable reality of these women’s lives—much like the opium pipe one of the prostitutes favors in her downtime. It’s a sad dream gilded in glamor, and the tears it elicits are strange indeed.

House of Pleasures could be seen as a feminist “anti-prostitution” movie, but it is more complicated than that. As the house is facing closure, the madame realizes that the fin de siècle has arrived and the age of the elegant, tolerated bordello is passing: “love is out on the street, no one can stop that.” A bitter modern coda suggests that, as tragic as their circumstances were, the women in House of Pleasure may have been better off than their contemporary counterparts. The only uplifting element in these enslaved women’s lives was the friendship and the support system that came from living together communally; today’s streetwalkers suffer the same indignities as their forebears, but without the camaraderie. While deeply sympathizing with the plight of these women, Bonello also recognizes the inevitability of prostitution, perhaps suggesting indirectly that the proper solution to the problem is neither criminalization nor see-no-evil “tolerance,” but actual humane working conditions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strictly for art-house fans impervious to things bizarre, offensive and indulgent.”–Doris Toumarkine, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot,

PLOT:  A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged

Still from The Seventh Seal (1957)

by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt.  In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there.  As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points.  He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe.  That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB.   I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.

COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong.  In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard.  True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones.  The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy.  The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

PAUL LENI’S WAXWORKS (1924)

Kino International included ‘s 1924 Waxworks in its German Horror Classics collection.  While the usual Kino craftsmanship has gone into remastering and merchandising, the inclusion of Leni’s breakthrough film is a bit of a misclassification.  Waxworks is not a “horror” film.  It is representative of what may possibly be the most experimental period in the medium of film: German .  This style exploded with Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which turned out to be an even more influential film than D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).

Leni was among the apprentice filmmakers and artisans profoundly influenced by Caligari. That inspiration came to fruition in the anthology film Waxworks ( screenplay by Henrik Galeen, also responsible for Golem-1920 and Nosferatu-1922). Leni’s breakthrough film is no mere carbon copy of Caligari.  Indeed, Waxworks is something of a yardstick for what an anthology film should be.  William Dieterle (later an esteemed director whose credits include 1937’s Life of Emile Zola, the superior 1939 remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1940’s Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet) plays several characters, including the poet hired to write an article about wax figures of historical tyrants in a sideshow museum.  This framing sequence segues into a fantastic, carnivalesque omnibus.  In the first segment, Emil Jannings play Al-Raschid.  In this introductory Caliph vignette, Leni’s design work with Max Reinhardt is at its most impressive and expansive.  The ambiance is, paradoxically, both larger than life and remarkably introverted.  Fanciful, intricate roads wind and turn, leading to the Caliph’s aberrant belfry.  Gloom-laden canvases, crackling signs, and a towering wheel are remnants of a spidery, crepuscular  bacchanal.  Caligari‘s design is comparatively static next to this fluid, humorous, and transcendental Arabian tale.

Still from Waxworks (1924) gives a harrowing, anemic performance as Ivan the Terrible.  Angular and clammy, this segment is a paranoid fable which ends with a stark, memorable scene of the scourged despot forever turning the hour glass, convinced of his fate (death by poisoning).  Leni’s use of Eastern Orthodox iconography, inhabiting a shadowy world, is refreshingly and expressively idiosyncratic.  Helmar Lerski’s cinematography, which proved to be a considerable influence on Eistenstein, aggrandizes Ivan’s maniacal state.

The Jack the Ripper finale has been much discussed and is more a sketch than a climax. Werner Krauss plays the infamous Whitechapel serial killer who dominates the shadows, blade in hand, awaiting the poet and his lover.  This surreal whisper was originally intended to lead into a fourth narrative based off Vulpius’ “Rinaldo Rinaldini.”  Although the dreaded captain’s wax likeness can be seen in several scenes, budget restraints forced that narrative to be deleted.

After Waxworks, Hollywood beckoned.  Considering what was to follow in Hitler’s Germany, Leni’s departure from his homeland may have saved the Jewish artist, but, most cruelly, fate prematurely deprived him, and us, of his life and art.

CAPSULE: PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ben Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood

PLOT: An apprentice perfumer in pre-Revolutionary France sets out to make the perfect scent,

a task that requires him to murder thirteen beautiful virgins.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although its choice of protagonist—an orphaned serial killer with a superhuman sense of smell—certainly proves that Perfume is out of the ordinary, it’s mostly just a period drama punctuated by bursts of black humor, with most of its weirdness concentrated in the orgiastic finale.

COMMENTS: Adapted from Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer feels like a lavish epic as it traverses 18th century France, stopping to sniff out every scent (good or bad) along the way. German director Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) shows us the urban squalor of Paris, the expansive majesty of the countryside, and the perfume mecca of Grasse through the eyes and nose of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw), our amoral and barely verbal anti-hero.

With his unsurpassed olfactory prowess, Grenouille wonders at all the scents in the world, yet is perpetually enraged: he can’t capture them all, and he lacks a personal scent. As far as his nose is concerned, he’s a cipher, a nonentity. His response to these inner crises is to study the secret art of perfuming under the tutelage of the self-absorbed Baldini (Hoffman), then migrate to Grasse, where he hatches his elaborate, murderous master plan.

This plan forms the centerpiece of the film, as Grenouille kidnaps and kills Grasse’s young maidens one after another, distilling their scents through the technique of enfleurage. Perfume spares little sentiment for the victims, focusing instead on how their deaths contribute to Grenouille’s angelic-smelling magnum opus. The film even juxtaposes Grenouille’s reign of terror with the authorities’ botched investigation in a blackly comic montage, all the better to highlight its anti-hero’s messianic, above-the-law status.

Like any rogue with a rise-and-fall character arc, Grenouille eventually gets arrested and tortured.  But after his solemn march to the town square for crucifixion, Perfume loses all resemblance to other crime thrillers past or present and begins to look like an excerpt from Ken Russell‘s richest, most elegant fantasies. I won’t give away the climactic twist, except to say that it indulges all of the film’s wildest, most spectacular urges.  By the time a drop of perfume falls on a Paris street in the last shot, there’s little for the viewer to do but gape at Tykwer’s mad bravado.

The rest of Perfume isn’t quite so magnificently over-the-top, but Tykwer complements Grenouille’s obsessions by zeroing in on one sensuous piece of period detail after another, all in a futile but nonetheless impressive attempt to visually capture scent. And although Whishaw dominates much of the film, the supporting cast occasionally steals the show: Hoffman provides tragicomic relief as a desperate has-been; Rickman brings his laconic grace to the role of a Grasse nobleman and overprotective father; and John Hurt’s mordant narration frames the whole endeavor as a bleak fairy tale.

Perhaps the greatest irony about Perfume is that although it was a massive, expensive undertaking, it still feels cultish and off the beaten path. It’s so morbid, thorny, and perversely funny that it’s hard to believe it could ever have much mainstream appeal. But imagine sniffing the fumes that would rise if you blended a picaresque costume drama with a slasher movie, then heaped on a thick broth of style.  That, more or less, is Perfume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a tale whose off-the-charts screwiness obscures virtually all shortcomings.”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

*This is the first of a three part series on the films of Paul Leni.

Paul Leni’s credentials as an avant-garde painter and art director served him well.  A Jewish German refugee, he came to the United States in 1927 at the invitation of Universal Studios.  His first film for them was the old dark house melodrama, The Cat and the Canary (1927), a critical and box office hit.  Leni and Universal followed up with The Man Who Laughs (1928) and his final film, The Last Warning (1929), which was released shortly after his untimely death from blood poisoning at 44Due to his brief life and career, Leni remains the most enigmatic of the silent horror mavericks (at least, that’s the pedestrian label often attached to him).  Where his career might have gone is almost impossible to assess.  Universal desperately wanted a follow up to their immensely successful version of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and they thought they had it with Leni at the helm of Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.  Despite lavish production values and artistry, however, The Man Who Laughs was a disappointing box office failure, partly because it was released just as that new invention called “talkies” was taking hold.  Today, The Man Who Laughs is rightly seen as a landmark, influential film and vivid example of exported German Expressionism.

Still from The Man Who Laughs (1928)Set in 17th century England, Conrad Veidt (another Jewish German refugee) is Gwynplaine , the young son of a recently executed political revolutionary nobleman. Gwynplaine is kidnapped by gypsies and, as punishment for sins of the father, he is forever maimed when his kidnappers carve a hideous grin into his face and abandon him to the elements of a violent snow storm.  In a scene worthy of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), or William Beaudine’s grim Sparrows (1926), the child Gwynplaine comes upon the corpse of a frozen mother cradling her still Continue reading PAUL LENI’S THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965): EXISTENTIAL POTPOURRI

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) is a filmmakers’ film. , Martin Scorsese, , David Lynch, and my associate are among its impassioned devotees.  Has’ film is also a cult favorite, no doubt helped by Jerry Garcia’s advocacy.  Superlative artistry and bold originality would be reason enough for its elevated aesthetic standing, but The Saragossa Manuscript also begs description.

The methodical, brooding, short-lived Zbigniew Cybulski (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) heads a prodigious cast that remarkably fleshes out Count Jan Potocki’s 19th century, picaresque, magical realist novel.  After the discovery of the titular manuscript, The Unknown Soldier is transported in time and space joining Alfonso van Worden’s (Cybulski) on a phantasmagorical, anecdotal journey during the Napoleonic Wars.  Van Worden leads his uneasy party down a depraved path through the Spanish Mountains, temporarily settling at the infamous Sierra Morena.

Temptation comes in the form of incestuous, Wagnerian sisters who seduce the protagonist in the imaginative terrain.  Heresy is the sacrificial lamb, aflame in adroit eroticism. Van Worden’s journey commands relentless attention as Has masterfully weaves a Byzantine labyrinth of multi-layered tales which range from the epic to the intimate, from Gothic surrealism to frivolous exoticism. These vignettes are simultaneously romantic, satirical, parlous, buoyantly humorous, macabre, exotic, grandiose, enigmatic, heinous and sprinkled with erotic spirituality. Yet, the flow of the film is remarkably contained by Has’ surprisingly consistent, effervescent  handling of Potocki’s dizzying narrative.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)Inquisitors, spectral gallows, Tunisian princesses, and Nubian slaves are part of van Worden’s trial as he finds himself, repeatedly, in the paradoxical Magic Flute-like roles of steadfast hero (Tamino) and wayward prodigal (Papageno), which results in a boundlessly expansive pilgrimage.  Clues to van Worden’s riddle lie in recurring, treacherous symbols of hanging carcasses and discarded maps.  Much like Moses in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”, van Worden is impotent in expression, requiring his potential, charismatic savior Aron in the form of a second protagonist: Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek).  Velasquez’s grasp of poetry and mathematics far surpasses that of van Worden, and his rescue of van Worden from the Grand Inquisitor is as much a symbol of sight and salvation from van Worden’s blind impotency in all things physical, psychological and spiritual.

The texture of The Saragossa Manuscript often resembles a Max Ernst canvas.  The production design by Jerzy Skarzynski fleshes out van Worden’s visionary desert-scape, which becomes increasingly alien in its milieu. Paradoxically, the main characters are impressively three dimensional, which is no easy feat in surrealism.

The Saragossa Manuscript integrates the eclectic tenets of Phenomenology, Imagism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Absurdism, to name but a few.  Rationalism is, to quote Heidegger, delightfully out the door, making for an incomparable, existential potpourri of idiosyncratic weirdness.

CAPSULE: SEA OF DUST (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bunt

FEATURING: Troy Holland, Sarah Dauber, , Ingrid Pitt

PLOT: Prester John, a mythological crusader king, possesses the bodies of 19th century

Still from Sea of Dust

Germans to manifest his sadistic religious ideology in this world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSea of Dust is a tough case: it’s definitely weird, but at the same time it’s neither polished enough to be counted as one of the best weird movies of all time, nor bad enough to earn the so bad it’s weird designation that could get it on to the List through the back door.  The movie is worth a cautious recommendation for those who can overlook its ample flaws—bad acting, stilted dialogue, and an anti-religion message delivered with just a tad more subtlety than Religulous—and just want to soak in the b-movie weirdness of the “WTF?” third act.

COMMENTS:  Much of the time, Sea of Dust is like a Hammer Studios period movie acted by community theater thespians, with the addition of spurting gore effects supplied by exploding-head maestro Tom Savini.  As you watch the introduction where a rich landowner rejects a young medical student’s pleas for the hand of his daughter, your first thought will probably be “poorly acted and scripted.” That’s a shame, because the film gets better as the weirdness builds in later reels, and you may find yourself drawn into the movie if you can overlook the acting and dialogue and make it through the first half.  In the actors’ defense, it’s hard to sound convincing when you’re asked to deliver lines like “I really do apologize, I’ve never tried to kill someone before.  It’s very unlike me, I wouldn’t want you to think I behave like this all the time” just the way a 19th century German peasant girl who just been possessed by the spirit of a mythological crusader king would.  (An even more challenging line delivery comes when the hero is washed up unconscious on a beach and awakened by a fisherman who inserts a wicked hook attached to a staff through his chin and drags him a few feet through the surf: mildly perturbed, he whines, “Was that really necessary? You poked a hole in me!”)  If these descriptions make it sound like Sea of Dust is the work of incompetents, the look of the film belies that impression: the photography, lighting, costuming (lots of waistcoats and bodices), believable period sets, and editing are all strictly pro.  Even the special effects, while obviously cheap, are effective: there are multiple gore effects (an exploding head, a pitchfork through the head), and there’s a fluid sequence where a steadicam rushes through forests and into other dimensions where a beautiful siren awaits, and another one where the camera enters a maggot-ridden brain through a puncture wound in the head.  Even more importantly, for our purposes, there’s a lot of imaginative weirdness in the movie’s second half to recommend it.  We get multiple flagellations, two finger-sucking scenes, a crucified Tom Savini with dilated pupils, surgery on a hollow Ingrid Pitt, a cat-woman “harpy” in a black latex bodysuit who urinates on torture victims, and an ending that involves dreams inside of dreams and should leave the viewer well confused about who has triumphed.  At any rate, you have to give Sea of Dust credit: the film is overambitious, which is almost always a better thing than being underambitious.  A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp.

The film’s villain, Prester John, was a “real” legendary king during the Crusades; he was said to rule a Christian kingdom to the east of the Holy Land.  In writer/director Bunt’s vision he is a blatantly fictional creation of the kings of Europe during the crusades to lure volunteers into the wars.  In the film, people’s belief in Prester John causes him to take on a real existence, though he can only effect this world by possessing the souls of others.  Belief in Prester acts like a zombie virus in the affected villagers, but what’s unexplained is why the king would have a Sadean worldview, proclaiming pain is “the most delicious sensation” and perverting the Christian message into one that seeks to maximize suffering and therefore views inflicting cruelty as a holy act.  No orthodox Christians appear to oppose the evil; the good guys are rational Enlightenment scientists, men of medicine.  It’s not exactly what you would call a subtle or fair-minded allegory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s budgetary drawbacks and Bunt’s inexperience actually work in SEA OF DUST’s favor. The quick shifts in tone and occasional awkward transitions contribute to the movie’s dream-logic quality, adding a surface layer of Lovecraftian surrealism.”–Mike Watt, Fangoria (DVD)