Tag Archives: Philosophical

340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , Frances Barber, , Agnès Brulet

PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.

Still from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
  • Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
  • In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
  • Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
  • On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying  zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.


Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts

COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes Continue reading 340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE (1967)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)

“Before movies, memory unspooled differently in the mind, trailing off in dust-blasted fade-out rather than spliced-together flashback…”–Steve Erickson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Don Hertzfeldt (narration)

PLOT: In the first chapter, “Everything Will Be OK,” delusions and hallucinations caused by an unspecified mental disorder impede the progress of stick figure Bill’s everyday life and leave him in and out of the hospital. Bill begins chapter 2, “I Am So Proud of You,” with flashbacks to his childhood, although his memories of his equally insane relatives are so strange that they may also be hallucinations. In chapter 3, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Bill is again recuperating in the hospital, now with major memory loss, but with an impulse to visit an address he vaguely recalls.

Still from It's Such a Beautiful Day (2011)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The is movie is a continuous progression of images… most of them of black and white stick figures, although they are often grotesquely entertaining stick figures with monstrous fish heads growing out of their skulls. The most memorable effects mix Hertzfeldt’s line animation with real life photography. We picked one of Bill standing on a mesa gazing at a sunset, but you might prefer the scene of he and his stick girlfriend lying in the grass looking up at a canopy of leaves, or when he walks down the street and the pedestrians flicker back and forth between flesh and blood people and line figures. These sequences suggest inadequate fantasy wrestling with flawed perception, one of the movie’s major themes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy brain tumor; snake-necked cosmic stickman; immortal schizophrenic

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Humble stick figure animation mixes with advanced experimental film techniques in this chronicle of the life of a character suffering from an unspecified mental illness. It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘s juxtaposition of the mundane and the cosmic caused some critics to hail it as a less pretentious, less humorless answer to The Tree of Life. Don Hertzfeldt would continue to examine the themes introduced here—the prominence and arbitrariness of memory, the mixture of sadness and wonder that make up life—in his next piece, the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow. I believe Tomorrow goes down as Hertzfeldt’s masterpiece so far—at 41 years of age, he still has a long way to go—but It’s Such a Beautiful Day is nearly its equal, and is a better fit for this List due to its feature-length, surrealistic humor, and far-out hallucination scenes that suggest the final moments of 2001 reimagined by a team led by and Charles Schultz.


Trailer for It’s Such a Beautiful Day

COMMENTS: Although It’s Such a Beautiful Day is technically a compendium of three short films developed over a period of five years, it Continue reading 334. IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY (2011)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , Naoto Takenaka; Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Joey D’Auria (English dub)

PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.

COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.

As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.

Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “” status.

To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with , Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an anime made by Bergman or Tarkovsky… pure, wordless cinema, existing in a realm too deliciously mysterious to pull down.”–Sci-Fi Movie Page

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I hate the irrational. However, I believe that even the most flagrant irrationality must contain something of rational truth. There is nothing in this human world of ours that is not in some way right, however distorted it may be.”–William Reich

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Milena Dravic, Ivica Vidovic, Jackie Curtis

PLOT: After a disorienting “overture” hinting at themes to come, WR settles in as a documentary on the late work and life of William Reich, the controversial disciple of Sigmund Freud who came to believe in the therapeutic power of the orgasm and in a mystical energy called “orgone.” Gradually, other semi-documentary countercultue snippets intrude, including hippie Vietnam protesters, the confessions of a transsexual, and some fairly explicit erotic scenes (in one, a female sculptor casts a mold of a volunteer’s erect penis). Finally, a fictional narrative—the story of a sexually liberated Yugoslavian girl seducing a repressed Soviet dancer—begins to take precedence, leading to a suitably bizarre conclusion.

Still from WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Reich was a controversial figure in psychoanalysis; a highly respected disciple of Freud as a young man, his ideas grew more extreme and crankish as he aged. A reformed Marxist, he coined the phrase “sexual revolution” and devised an orgasm-based psychotherapy. His theorizing about “orgone energy” led to promotion of boxes called “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure disease and control the weather. This device got him into trouble with the Food and Drug Administration, and he was eventually persecuted for fraud, then imprisoned for contempt after refusing to stop selling his books and devices. He died in prison.
  • The hippie performance artist is Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs (Fugs songs also appear on the soundtrack).
  • The film’s transvestite is Jackie Curtis, the Superstar mentioned in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie was just speeding away…”
  • The segments with Josef Stalin come from the Soviet propaganda film The Vow (1946).
  • WR was banned in Yugoslavia until 1986. It was either banned (for obscenity West of the Iron Curtain, for politics to the East) or heavily cut in many other countries. The film ended Makavejev’s career as a director in Yugoslavia; all of his future features were produced in North America, Europe or Austraila.
  • WR was selected as one of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Yugoslavian sexpot doing her impression of the Brain that Wouldn’t Die, declaring “even now I’m not ashamed of my Communist past,” while her forensic pathologist stands above her holding the decapitation implement: an ice skate.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Penis molding; “Milena in the Pan”; hymn to a horse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A straight-up documentary of the clinically insane psychiatrist William Reich would necessarily have been a little bizarre, but that’s just the starting point for this crazy-quilt counterculture collage that alternates between Reichian sexual theories, demonstrations of New York decadence, and esoteric Marxist dialectic.


Short clip from WR: Mysteries of the Organism

COMMENTS: Sex is dangerous. It even gets WR‘s heroine, Milena, Continue reading 302. WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (1971)

CAPSULE: A GHOST STORY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: David Lowery

FEATURING: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his house and silently observing his wife’s grief.

Still from A Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond its guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.

COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.

The plot is so simple it’s almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another bedsheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician ) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for a release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.

A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Interrupted by death, a couple’s love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking… Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)