Tag Archives: Poetic

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.)

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)

CAPSULE: KAILI BLUES (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi

FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen

PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.

Still Kaili Blues (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.

COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.

Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s like with less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).

Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

AKA Sayat Nova

“Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein… cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates, not counting the generally unaccepted language of the Andalusian Dog by Buñuel.”–Mikhail Vartanov

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sofiko Chiaureli, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, M. Alekyan, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze

PLOT: The Color of Pomegranates is essentially impressionistic and plotless, although the tableaux roughly follow the chronology of the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova. We first see the poet as a child in a village, introduced to the images that will follow him throughout his life: the lute, the iconographic texts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, farm animals. As he grows, he marries, becomes a widower and then a priest, leaves his monastic calling to travel the countryside as a bard, and is finally killed by Persians.

Still from The Color of Pomegrenates (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sayat Nova (the name translates as “King of Song”) was an 18th century Armenian priest, poet and ashik (a wandering troubadour who played a “saz,” a Central Asian lute). Nova was killed by Iranian invaders for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Sergei Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of his major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolves around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) deals with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) covers the mythology of his native Georgia. His final movie, Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • First titled Sayat Nova, Parajanov’s film was immediately banned by the Soviet censors, then five minutes of religious imagery were removed and the film was briefly released under the title The Color of Pomegranates. The missing footage was restored in 1992.
  • Parajanov’s difficulty with USSR censors stemmed both from his rejection of the official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism and from concerns that his films would revive nationalist sentiments in formerly independent states (Ukraine and Armenia). Parajanov, who was bisexual, was jailed from 1973-1977 on what are widely considered fabricated charges of homosexual rape, and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.
  • Actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Since actress Sofiko Chiaureli serves as Parajanov’s muse for this poetic odyssey, playing multiple roles (both male and female), it is only right that it is her face, reconfigured in dozens of guises, that we associate with the film. For our still, we selected her final appearance as the statuesque, granite-faced “Angel of Resurrection”—with a rooster perching on her shoulder.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Floating spinning lutes; Church of Sheep; shiny Mongol shoots a fresco

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all. Every carefully composed image in Pomegranates is coded to a meaning, but the key to interpreting them is missing. If you are a time-traveling Armenian from 1969 you will understand more of what is going on in Parajanov’s vast visual poem than the average viewer—but not a lot more. Don’t fight the movie, just allow yourself to drown in the mystery of its images.


Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

COMMENTS: One of the earliest scenes in The Color of Pomegranates Continue reading 238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

CAPSULE: THE PROPHET (2014)

AKA Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet

DIRECTED BY: Roger Allers (supervising); Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, , , , , Michal Socha (segments).

FEATURING: Voices of , , , Alfred Molina, , , John Rhys-Davies, John Kassir

PLOT: Based on the book of poems of the same name by Kahlil Gibran. A foreign poet, Mustafa, has been held under house arrest for several years. With the arrival of a ship, he is set free to return to his home country. Escorted to the ship by a couple of soldiers, he converses with them and with the townspeople; but circumstances change along the way.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of the segments illustrating Mustafa’s sayings/writings are appropriately abstract, taken as a whole together with the framing story, The Prophet is extremely ambitious, but not weird.

COMMENTS: The Prophet has long been a passion project of Salma Hayek-Pinault; thankfully, she had enough experience and intelligence to realize that animation was the best medium to adapt Gibran’s book, a prose poem in long form that would be a challenge to fashion into a conventional narrative.

Enlisting Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, was a good decision, since both tales are essentially illustrated journeys of messianic figures. Allers takes the basic framing device of the title character heading to a ship that’s taking him home and expands upon it, adding new characters Kamila (Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and her daughter Almitra (Wallis), who has become a mute troublemaker since her father’s death. These two are the characters for the audience to identify and sympathize with. The film adds a political dimension—Mustafa has been under house arrest for several years, and the journey to the ship may not be quite as innocent as presented—and the ending is different than in the book, although it is spiritually consistent.

Another smart decision was the idea to have different animators bring to life the various sermons by Mustafa, eight of which have been chosen: “On Freedom” (Socha), “On Children” (Paley), “On Marriage” (Sfar), “On Work” (Gratz), “On Eating & Drinking” (Plympton), “On Love” (Moore), “On Good and Evil” (Harib) and “On Death” (the Brizzi’s). Along with giving each story its own personality, the method also retains the metaphorical qualities of the sermons—if it were done in live-action, most of the visualization would’ve probably been literalized and not worked as well.

It’s a refreshing change to have animation appropriate for both adults and children that doesn’t involve talking animals or pop culture one-liners, and is an adaptation of an acclaimed literary work, to boot. G-Kids acquired the movie for theatrical release in the U.S. and home video. The DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes about the movie, one with interviews of Hayek and Allers, the second concentrating more on the technical aspects (although none of the segment animators are featured). There’s also an animatic used in the making of the film.

PROPHETTHE-KAMILA

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Half-baked animated fantasy Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a kids film for anyone who mistakenly thinks that the one thing that would improve animated masterpiece Fantasia is an overwhelming number of pretentious aphorisms.”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

231. ORPHEUS (1950)

Orphée

“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , María Casares, François Périer, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe

PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.

Still from Orpheus (1950)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
  • Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
  • The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
  • Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
  • The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.


Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus

COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)

CAPSULE: MEMPHIS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Sutton

FEATURING: Willis Earl Beal

PLOT: An R&B singer wanders through Memphis, Tennessee, struggling to find inspiration to complete a second album after a successful debut.

Still from Memphis (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only slightly weird, and while there are moments of unquestionable beauty, its vast empty spaces make it a real wristwatch checker.

COMMENTS: Although anyone who’s ever worked in any creative medium can identify with its torments, writer’s (or musician’s) block is a hard thing to convey to an audience in a fascinating way. Although the cinematography here is sublime, and Willis Earl Beal has a weird funky charisma, Memphis is not up to the challenge of engaging us with this artist’s disengagement. What Memphis is best at is depicting the African American communities of it’s title city as a throwback to the ancient world of the blues, a place where men still wear felt hats and play dominoes and drink out of paper bags (I know men still play dominoes and drink out of paper bags, but not while wearing porkpie hats). With tree boughs hanging over the boulevards and weed-choked lots separating the bars from the churches, these neighborhoods look simultaneously urban and rural, like postcards from a pre-smart phone era.

Beale is a man out of time, too; he fits in better with the grizzled old men sitting on their porches than he does with folk his own age. As the movie progresses—to whatever degree such a deliberately static work can be said to progress—it becomes increasingly unclear whether the singer might actually be suffering from some form of mental illness. When he says in the opening scenes that he’s a wizard who conjures his own reality, it sounds like a metaphor for artistic creation, but the more he rambles about envying the trees or copulating with the dirt, the more you consider the frailty of the line between genius and madness. There are parallels between his alienation from his own creativity and alienation from God (and thus from his own church-centered culture). He refuses to sing at Sunday revival, and an old man’s midnight advice to him is chilling: “Using your talent is what God wants you to do. He gave it to you for a reason… I’d hate to be in your shoes, where you owe God.”

There are some very good shots in this sprawling, strange and obscure movie. Beale composes in a strange polygonal room with neural ductwork. He slow dances with his sweetie in a neon nightclub, continuing in a trance even when she withdraws. These are moment of poetry that will reward a certain breed of contemplative cinemagoer. Typical audiences are going to find this affair far too slow and inconclusive, however. Beale’s musical talent is only glimpsed in frustrating snatches. The movie is only seventy-five minutes long, but scenes of the melancholy protagonist walking around whistling or practicing his stick-fighting moves with a broom seem interminable. Memphis‘ non-story could have been conveyed with as much impact at a third of the length.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…Sutton at least keeps the running time trim. Perhaps he knew that the strange magic he and Beal occasionally conjured was destined to have a short shelf life. Better to leave the few audience members plugging into this cryptic oddity wanting more.”–Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)

 considered I Walked With A Zombie (1943) his best work. It is an assessment many critics agree with. It is, perhaps, the most apt of Halloween entries. Horror is not at its ripest in 7 foot tall hatchet-welding slashers, brain-eating zombies, or slickly produced libidinous teen-age vampires. Rather, it flourishes in the everyday. Horror is in the droves of people flocking to Wal-Mart to purchase torture porn dressed up as religious dogma, or in the self-made blinders we wear. Producer and director Jacques Tourneur knew this, and delivered a fascinating horror despite being handed one of the most idiotic film titles in cinema history (clearly inspired by pulp sources).

Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, has taken a position on the island of St. Sebastian. Betsy’s blinders prevent her from hearing. When a black driver transports her to the Holland plantation, he tells her how slaves were acquired and brought here: “Well, they certainly brought you to a pretty island,” is all she can muster. When she meets her employer, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), he pierces her illusions: “There is no beauty here, the water’s illumination comes from death.” Conway, with his sensual, rich voice, narrates in such a way that Betsy’s love for this tragic figure seems reasonable.

Betsy is to care for Holland’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is the title’s alleged zombie (the opening voice over plays humorously with the title the studio saddled the producers with). Paul’s alcoholic brother Wesley (James Ellison) evades his own guilt and harbors a grudge for imagined ills. The plot is loosely based off a literary source: “Jane Eyre,” with Paul Holland substituting for Rochester. Surprisingly, Hollywood hack Curt Siodmak assisted Ardel Wray in writing the screenplay. The film feels more in line with Wray’s other credits (which include Lewton’s 1943 Leopard Man and 1945 Isle of the Dead).

Still I Walked with a Zombie (1943)Even the film’s phantasmagoric qualities are filtered through the poetry of concrete reality. The symbology of the sacrificial St. Sebastian manifests in Betsy. Betsy falls hook line and sinker to the local voodoo lore, fed to her by Jessica’s maid, Alma (Teresa Harris). Although Betsy loves Paul, she is willing to sacrifice her love when she takes his wife Jessica to a voodoo priest for a cure. The ceremony itself is filmed kinetically. The natives are as naïve as Betsy and Wesley, having inherited the misogynistic framework of colonial society and transposed it onto the perennial Eve, Jessica. A frequent theme with Lewton is his refusal to see death solely as a negative. The ambiguous watery catacomb is more gifted relief as opposed to undesired finale.

Tourneur and Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie is a poetic philter, far removed from Romero’s fantasy apocalypses. And that makes for a refreshing All Hallow’s Eve.

Next week: Tourneur’s Leopard Man (1943).

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nigel Terry occasionally narrates. There are no characters or speaking parts, and no actor can be said to be “featured” in this film; a pre-fame  appears prominently in it, however.

PLOT: An abstract, impressionistic view of Britain in the late 1980s, contrasted with nostalgic memories of simpler times.

Still from The Last of England (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A mysteriously personal and poetic meditation on themes of decay, The Last of England is too restlessly strange to ignore. If anything, its biggest challenge to earning a spot on a list of weird movies may be that it actually strays too far from reality. By abandoning narrative entirely and mucking up the image until it becomes impossible to tell what we’re looking at, Jarman’s film becomes almost completely abstract, the movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

COMMENTS: Among other odd offerings, The Last of England features men having sex on the Union Jack, terrorists in black ski masks rounding up prisoners, and a wedding where the bridesmaids have full beards. Each of these images has been manipulated three times: the color correction has been toned down to monochrome or amped up to day-glo, the footage has been sped up or slowed down, and the camera’s conventional stability has been abandoned for a deliberately jittery style that is indifferent to conventional framing. As if the welter of abstract scenarios wasn’t disorienting enough, Jarman edits back and forth between two scenes—say, a naked hobo eating cauliflower in a junkyard and a man in a neck brace pouring corn over his head—according to peculiar rhythms, as if he’s alternating rhymed lines of verse. Naturally, the soundscape is an equally convoluted collage, consisting of snippets of poetry combined with Jarman’s own prose ruminations about the decline of England and “found” sounds (football fans, jet fighters, soldiers accepting medals from the Queen). Although the visuals never let up, at times flickering back and forth too fast for the eye or mind to properly process, an eclectic selection of musical recordings occasionally provides some aural respite. The movie even turns into a music video sometimes, as when naked pagans dance in front of a bonfire while highly synthetic club dance music pulses in the background; there are also classical music selections, acoustic guitar interludes, and songs from Barry Adamson, Marianne Faithfull, and the terrifying wailing of Diamanda Galas. Although it makes no disciplined case (juxtaposing clips of English drill instructors with Hitler’s speeches is not a political argument), the movie does have a generically strident leftist political tone. The film’s provocative progressive politics—come on, it’s got two guys doing the nasty on the British flag—contrasts with its elegiac tone. With its bitter disillusionment and nostalgia for a mythically idyllic pre-World War II England—Jarman includes happy home movie footage of his childhood and describes the bombing of London as if it ignited a series of firestorms that were still raging in 1988—England is reminiscent of a more intellectual (if even less coherent) version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and one suspects that the loss of innocence Derek Jarman bemoans belongs more to Derek Jarman than it does to England. Obviously, this obscure and often frustrating farrago is not for everyone, but those willing to patiently pick through the visual rubble will find scraps and relics of sublime beauty. Jarman’s intellect and passion come across on film so powerfully that you leave feeling more impressed than entertained or enlightened. And, at eighty-seven rambling minutes, the movie can become a chore to watch; The Last of England‘s lasting impact may be to remind us why the short format has become the preferred vehicle for non-narrative experimental films.

In conjunction with the film Jarman also published a (now long out-of-print) book entitled “The Last of England“; reportedly, it dealt mainly with the director’s relationship with his father, who Derek believed was scarred by his experiences as an airman in World War II.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher’s England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.”–Jaime N. Christley, Slant (DVD)