FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Marion Cotillard, Helene de Fougerolles
PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.
Director Hadzihalilovic is the wife (and former editor/producer) of Gaspar Noé, to whom the film is dedicated. (Hadzihalilovic also collaborated with Noé on the screenplay to the Certified Weird Enter the Void).
In 2015 Hadzihalilovic completed Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.
FEATURING: ” Mubia Abul-Jama,” Heather Murphy, Martin Boone
PLOT: A Black Panther, executed for the “rape and brutal murders of fifteen Caucasian women,” finds his soul transported into a ventriloquist’s dummy; he then resumes his evil ways.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not need to get into a deep discussion here: Black Devil Doll is simply too silly, spoofy and self-aware to count as weird.
COMMENTS: First things first: Black Devil Doll isn’t an homage to the charmingly naive Black Devil Doll from Hell so much as it is an afro-remake of Child’s Play, with added interracial rape. Basically what we have here is a trashy soft porn feature starring zaftig strippers acting opposite a racial stereotype puppet: cheap, offensive trash, and proud of it. Anyone who’s not tolerant of gleeful overuse of the n-word, boundary-pushing racial humor or blatant misogyny will want to steer clear of this movie—it’s trying to trigger you. Among its bad taste stunts are X-rated cartoons, puppet sex scenes, copious puppet semen, lesbian Twister, an emasculated wigger, Bill Cosby seduction techniques, rape and killing (not necessarily in the order), vomiting, caustic diarrhea… you know, “can’t we all just get along?” kind of stuff. It ends with the strippers-cum-actresses giving the puppet a lap dance over the credits, and a post-credits sequence (by another director) and with the devil doll killing a delivery guy from “Oakland Fried Chicken,” the only fast food outlet with a genuine Sambo on the label. The actresses have names like “Natasha Talonz” and “Precious Cox,” and it was naturally “rated X by an all white jury.” It’s real woke.
Black Devil Doll comes awfully close to earning a “Beware” rating, but has enough virtues to just barely skate by. The James Bond-esque opening credits, with voluptuous silhouetted ladies undulating across a landscape of fire and blood, are actually rather amazing, looking far more expensive than the rest of the movie. They are credited to cinematographer/editor John Osteen, who also inserts a couple of hip-hop montages during the doll’s, er, climaxes, which feature blazing fires, morphing effects and flashes of scenes from the civil rights movement (!) Osteen is more talented than anyone else on the cast and crew, although like the rest he was never heard from again. The funky vintage waka-waka instrumentals aren’t bad, either, although the sexy car wash rap is atrocious (deliberately so). Finally, there are just enough guilty-pleasure politically incorrect chuckles to counteract the painfully insulting ones: “Of course I love you, you dumb-ass ho!,” references to a “half-puppet mulatto baby,” and the classic feminist one-liner, “I’ll buy a dildo.” The final point in the movie’s favor is its brevity and brisk pacing: it has the good sense to keep its provocations to just over an hour, although probably for budgetary reasons rather than out of an abundance of good sense.
Black Devil Doll was made by a black director, because no white director could get away with it. The rest of the cast is all-white (although there may be some mixed blood in there), and the entire thing seems to be a side project of the “Boone brothers,” a pair of Confederate crackers who ran their own straight-to-video mini-empire of catfighting comedy videos called “Brawlin’ Broads” (directed by Osteen). The fact that this comedy about a stereotypical black rapist preying on topless white women seems to have been made by white producers aiming at a white trash audience makes it all the more uncomfortable. At any rate, director Lewis won’t be winning any Image Awards anytime soon.
The DVD contains a surprising number of special features, including two commentaries (one in-character by the devil doll, the other by the cast, neither very amusing or enlightening) and an audience reaction track from the premiere. There are also trailers, behind-the-scenes videos from the premiere and a convention appearance, a videotaped interview, and three (in)decent animations from Rich Moyer.
FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes
PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.
COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in Nazisploitation films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.
Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.
The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.
Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.
FEATURING: The inmates and staff of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane
PLOT: A documentary chronicling the operations of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility and the lives and treatment of its inmates.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:Titicut Follies is shocking, disturbing, disheartening. It helped usher in cinema verité with a direct approach to documentary filmmaking that had rarely been seen before. But it’s only weird to the extent that man’s inhumanity to man is considered weird. In fact, the most bizarre thing about the film may be that, in half a century, things have changed very little.
COMMENTS: It’s remarkable that Titicut Follies exists at all. The subject matter is not typical fare, even for a documentary, with no protagonist to follow and no banner to carry. The presentation is stark and straightforward, showing routine events with no context or explanation, and refusing to allow uncomfortable moments to end through the artificial escape of cutting away. Watching it fifty years after it was shot, in a society where everyone is painfully aware of the need to manage situations to minimize liability and risk, it is astounding to see how open and guileless the staff is in their attitudes and actions toward their charges. The obvious question is, how did anyone let this get on film?
Credit is due first and foremost to director/producer/editor Frederick Wiseman, who is rightfully famous for his blunt approach to his subjects. Eschewing talking heads, narration, captions, non-diegetic music, or anything that would comment upon the images captured by his camera, Wiseman immerses himself in his chosen setting, fading into the background until the subjects forget the camera is even there. This fly-on-the-wall approach allows him to capture moments of extraordinary intimacy, because the participants fail to notice that they never went off public view. Trained as a lawyer, Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film as a director, but it cemented both his style and his subject matter, a warts-and-all look at how people function within institutions. (A recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, none of Wiseman’s films has ever even been nominated for a competitive award).
Some of the responsibility has to be placed at the feet of his willing subjects. Clearly, no one at Bridgewater had any worries about how their methods would be viewed. There can be no doubt that many of these inmates are afflicted with severe mental disease. Some are victim to uncontrollable body spasms, others spew endless paranoid monologues that name-check the president and the pope among their tormentors. Even a quiet, composed patient reveals his true nature as he describes his horrible crimes in a flat, detached tone. Without a doubt, keeping control over hundreds of unpredictable, dangerous men requires an approach that would be frowned on in polite society.
Those methods, though, are delivered in such a cold, unfeeling manner that it is ultimately impossible to view them as anything but torturous. Footage of a man named Jim, who is chided for fouling his cell, is peppered with what initially feels like friendly banter from the guards tasked with cleaning him up. However, as the scene goes on, the suggestion that he try harder morphs into bullying, and their repetition of his name is so condescending and insistent that Jim’s eventual outbursts feel utterly justified. The final shock comes with Jim’s revelation that he used to be a teacher; in this place, no honorable past will protect you from the hellish present.
Which points to one more explanation as to how Titicut Follies slipped through the cracks: there’s no empathy left at the institution to trigger embarrassment. No one thinks twice about the decency or appropriateness of what they are doing any more. Concern for humanity has long since left Bridgewater. In the film’s most notorious scene, an inmate is force-fed via a tube through his nose by doctors who openly smoke and discuss his condition in infantile terms. The delivery of nourishment by decidedly non-nurturing means is the film’s greatest oxymoron, and Wiseman magnifies the horror of the moment by crosscutting with footage of the same patient’s funeral, in which he appears to receive far greater care and affection than he did in life.
The movie is framed by scenes from an amateur variety show put on by the prison, with the awkward-looking patients singing standards in stiff white shirts and milkmen’s bow-ties. They are frequently joined by the warden, who, absurdly, views himself as a delightful showman, telling off-color jokes, breaking into song (he does this offstage as well, while walking through the hospital), and lusting after applause from the audience. Those moments feel strange in counterpoint with the daily horrors of life at Bridgewater. Yet, they’re actually a perfect extension of the interplay between inmates and staff throughout the film. Both groups are trapped in Titicut Follies, some by mental illness, some by the apathy and cruelty brought on by years of detached power. However, one of those groups doesn’t realize it’s trapped. But it soon will…
TRIVIA: …and how. Once they got a look at Wiseman’s film, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections sued to block the movie and managed to get Titicut Follies banned for over two decades, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the inmates. A title card added at the end of the movie curtly throws shade on the true impact of the Department’s efforts.
“It is LOVE that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.”–from the program to L’Age D’Or
PLOT: It begins as a documentary on scorpions. “Some hours later,” reads an intertitle, and suddenly we are on a rocky beach where a peasant spies four chanting bishops perched on a rocky outcropping. Later, on the same beach, a man and a woman are discovered locked in an embrace; they spend the rest of the movie attempting to consummate their love, as the action shifts to “Imperial Rome” and a private concert at a wealthy bourgeois garden party.
The bohemian aristocrat Vicomte Charles de Noailles commissioned this film as a birthday present for his wife (a poet and a descendant of the Marquis de Sade). Because of the scandalized reaction to the film’s blasphemous content, the Vicomte was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, and quickly withdrew the film from circulation.
The film’s original title was to be Un Bête Andalou.
As with Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel originally planned to co-write and co-direct with Salvador Dalí, but the two had a falling out before the film was completed. Dalí is credited as co-writer, but disowned the film later, and what remains of his contributions is a matter of conjecture.
Painter Max Ernst had a large role in the film; other less-famous members of the Surrealist circle appear in smaller parts.
The opening is footage from a 1912 documentary. The ending is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom.”
Along with official members of the Surrealist movement, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gertrude Stein were among those in attendance at a private screening hosted by the Vicomte.
Buñuel had hoped that Un Chien Andalou would incite riots and was disappointed when it was a huge popular success. L’Age D’Or did inspire violence. Members of the Fascist-leaning “League of Patriots” threw ink and the screen and destroyed paintings by Dalí and other Surrealists that were being exhibited in conjunction with one screening. The French authorities banned the film within a year of its release “to preserve public order.”
Because the de Noailles family removed L’Age D’Or from distribution, the film was not legally screened in the United States until 1979.
At the urging of the Spanish Communists, who considered Surrealism bourgeois, Buñuel later re-cut L’Age D’Or into a 20-minute short to make it less difficult and more accessible to proletariat viewers. This version of the film did not survive.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For its poster image, distributor Kino Lorber takes the scene where Lya Lys, frustrated that her finger-sucking foreplay with Gaston Madot has been temporarily interrupted, satisfies her desires by fellating the toe of a nearby statue. But we find the moment where she walks into her boudoir to see a cow lounging on her bed to be funnier, and less expected. (Footnote one: one source reports that this scene is a pun, since the word for “cow” [“vache”] was then-current French slang for “cop.” If so, the fact that this meaning is lost on contemporary audiences makes the image even more surreal. Footnote two: a still that frequently accompanies reviews of the movie shows a man crouched down next to the cattle-infested bed; this shot does not appear in Kino’s cut of the film, and may be from a promotional still).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shoo cow; stone toe sucking; Jesus leaves the orgy
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Skeletal bishops on the beach, cows in the bedroom, and Jesus at a murder orgy: the scandalous L’Age D’Or was too hot and weird for 1930, and still carries the power to shock today. Watch it for its historical importance, but also as a profane prayer—an unapologetic hymn in praise of unfettered individual desire.
“And a curious use of side-stepping metaphor and associative poetry is involved and embraced – all of which I came later to understand as characteristics of montage, the cinema of comparison – film by association – an ‘only-connect’ – cinema, cinema at long last not a slave of prosaic narrative but hopping and skipping about with serious purpose to run like the human imagination runs, making everything associative till everything past, present and future, old and new, both sides of the wall – like Cubism – which so influenced the contemporary Russian avant-garde in painting – though Malevich said that Eisenstein could never join the Russian avant-garde, he was ‘too real’. Amazing! I had found my first cinema hero.”–Peter Greenaway on Sergei Eisenstein (from director’s notes to Eisenstein in Guanajuato)
PLOT: In 1931, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potempkin) is in Mexico, gathering material for a new movie. While there, Eisenstein, a closeted homosexual, falls in love with his Mexican guide. He becomes more interested in the romance than the movie, but when his American financiers back out and Stalin calls him home, the director must abandon his first true love.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato begins from a real life episode. In the 1920s Sergei Eisenstein made three film in Russia—Strike, Battleship Potempkin, and October [AKA Ten Days That Shook the World]—that were globally regarded as classics, especially for their revolutionary kinetic editing. In 1928, Eisenstein was allowed to leave the Soviet Union as a sort of artistic goodwill ambassador. He toured Europe and North America, lecturing on Soviet film while learning the techniques used in other countries (specifically, the new technology of synchronizing sound to film). While abroad, the writer Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary agreed to fund Eisenstein with $25,000 to make a film in Mexico. Stalin worried that Eisenstein might defect and called him home, while the director simultaneously quarreled with his American backers over his extravagant expenses. The feature film, which would have been titled ¡Que viva México!, was never completed, although the Sinclairs edited some of the reported 250 miles (!) of film Eisenstein shot into three shorts. Eisenstein was never able to obtain the footage to edit himself.
Based on diary entries and homoerotic sketches he made, Eisenstein is widely believed to have been gay, and his marriage to Pera Atasheva a platonic one. There is no hard evidence he ever acted on these inclinations—although of course if he did he would have taken pains to hide the evidence, since under Stalin homosexual activity was punishable by five to ten years of hard labor in a prison camp.
Peter Greenaway originally planned the film as a documentary.
Try as he might, Greenaway could not find a Russian actor of the right age and appearance who was able to speak English and Spanish convincingly and was willing to appear nude in a gay sex scene. Elmer Bäck is a Finnish actor previously seen only on Finnish television.
Greenaway has announced a prequel, Eisenstein in Hollywood, intended to be completed by 2017.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, the image that sticks in your mind will come from the sex scene centerpiece—one of the most explicit gay romps in a mainstream film, and one in which the lovers discuss colonialism and syphilis as Eisenstein is anally deflowered. We don’t want to ruin the, er, unusual climax where Palomino storms Eisenstein’s Winter Palace for you, however.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Looming desperadoes; shower phone; animated angel porn
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This lurid and delirious biopic of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein plays like Peter Greenaway was possessed by the gay ghost of Ken Russell, desperate to come out and obsessed with a postmortem affection for split screens.
FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard, Lea Bridarolli
PLOT: A young girl of about 6 wakes up inside a coffin and finds herself in a strange girl’s boarding school, planted in a forested park walled off from the outside world.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful metaphor for childhood. The pacing, however, makes Picnic at Hanging Rock feel like a nonstop thrill ride.
COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s film is an odd one, a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two teachers guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they meet the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.
Butterflies are used as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to function as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries are allowed to linger without elucidation. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It doesn’t feel essential, but it is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.
Innocence barely received any distribution in the United States, and has only been released on a region-free French DVD (with English subtitles for the film, though not for the extras). Part of the reason for its poor exposure may be the minor controversy revolving around some topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the perceived fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affects mainly over-sensitive Americans. While concerns over child sexualization are valid, I suspect most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.
FEATURING: Ryan Hunter, Melanie Denholme, Rudy Barrow
PLOT: When Karl inadvertently invites a burglar inside his home, he has to rely on his ex, Pauline, to help him worm his way out from his rapidly escalating and increasingly dangerous predicament.
COMMENTS: So, here’s the thing: I thought this film (80 minutes overall in duration) was complete garbage by the time the stereotypical hoodlum barges into Karl’s house and begins a tedious exercise in post-Tarantino crisis-scenario filmmaking. Or maybe the movie is a specially designed weapon manufactured to induce an existential crisis in the audience?
I found the casual racism explicit in not only the characterization of the burglar, but in the sheer lameness in how the film rehashes the hostage trope and depicts the hapless bourgeoisie family—which I found not only extremely offensive, but just plain uninspired and contrived. I might have been able to appreciate the dialogue and the professional lighting and idiosyncratic camera angling if the main ingredients didn’t taste so poor.
Maybe I would of been less repelled by the clever-for-clever’s-sake approach to depicting the burglar if the satire didn’t feel so disingenuous. Or maybe I would of been less aggravated by the situational dynamic if Karl wasn’t just another white domestic victim, minding his own business.
Perhaps there might be a cultural misinterpretation in the way I am viewing this. But, as an American, I’ve seen what media depictions of racial hysteria can do to fuel tension this past year. And seriously, the last thing we need right now is someone who thinks they’re being edgy and cool when handling sensitive, potentially incendiary material.
Here’s a full-breakdown of the paper-thin plot (a whitewashed retread of the home invasion trope with obnoxious post-Tarantino stylization):
A man of ebony hue bursts in the door and casually lays out the plan for Karl. This being a Tarantino clone, strained attempts at edgy banter ensue. Karl whines in a obnoxious tone. Since this is a British Tarantino clone, we are treated to pointless quips trying to underline the absurdity of the mundane elements of a domestic invasion scenario. Har-har. So we get some stupid jokes about the length of rope, and other pitiful exchanges so we, the audience, are constantly reminded just how clever and absent of responsibility the creators are for any of the content displayed. The film goes on like this for the rest of the film and just never lets up. Talking and empty threats ad nauseum ahead.
I would go so far to not only deem this film racist and misogynistic, but dangerously boring and stupid. If it was edited down to maybe 5-10 minutes, I would of been like, “eh.” But at its current length, it is unbearable to watch, and possibly a public mental health risk. If there is any stylistic contemporary to this film that I can think of, it is yet another film that I absolutely loathe: The Boondock Saints. Without further elucidating my particular distaste for that film, it made me realize something: Tarantino is dead. The sooner the independent movie scene throws off his shadow, the better. So if the filmmakers intended to offend me, then congratulations. I would just state that in light of what has actually been achieved by this short film, that it is a hollow and meaningless victory.
DIRECTED BY: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi
FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian
PLOT: A pair of modern day Italian filmmakers visit the antebellum American south to make a documentary on 19th century slavery.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians Jacopetti and Prosperi partly to address accusations of racism in their previous movie Africa Addio (Goodbye Africa), is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity.
COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their helicopter over the cotton fields as slaves and their white overseers wave at them, Goodbye Uncle Tom is one unusual movie. Much of the dialogue spoken is taken from actual pro- (and anti-) slavery texts, including the works of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, pseudoscientific and pseudoreligious justifications for racism, and an economist who criticizes the “peculiar institution” as inefficient. What is more memorable, however, are the parade of degrading scenes (that are based on real historical practices) depicting the harsh realities of the slave trade: teeth being knocked out for force-feeding, mass enemas, and castration. There are acres of naked brown flesh on display, as human chattel is herded from place to place; especially unforgettable is a scene of hundreds of nude extras, newly arrived from Africa, battling each other to eat slop from a trough. These scenes feature nudity on an epic scale that’s rarely been achieved in the movies.
The parade of atrocities is hard to watch and hard to stomach, but the case can be made that the filmmakers are simply recreating history in its full horror. What calls the high-mindedness of the project into question, however, are the unhealthy number of sequences devoted to the prurient sexual practices of the antebellum South. Uncle Tom depicts the plantation as a giant brothel. There are multiple rape scenes (scored to searing acid rock music that sounds uncomfortably triumphant), scenes of slaves and mulattos of both sexes used as prostitutes, and breeding scenes where “virile” slaves are kept like animals and put out to stud with terrified pre-teen females. The most disturbing bit involves a girl, introduced as thirteen years old, seductively begging a white man to take her virginity (and offering him a whip) so she will be spared losing it to a well-endowed slave. This is a pure sick male fantasy rendered in pornographic detail, and it’s far too direct to work as satire. Jacopetti and Prosperi were capable of getting their point about the sexual politics of slavery across with subtlety and wit—there is a brilliantly ironic scene where oblivious Southern belles discuss the unthinkable prospect of miscegenation, while the camera dwells on the impassive faces of house servants who clearly have partially Caucasian features—which only highlights the gratuitous sleaze of the pure titillation scenes. Like Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi’s bloody previous documentary on post-colonial political turmoil in Africa, Uncle Tom somehow manages to be condescending and progressive, cynical and humanistic, all at the same time. One scene may cause a Klansman in the audience to stand up and clap, while the next minute it’s a Black Panther who’s cheering. The documentary as a whole arrives about 150 years too late to expose the evils of slavery, but there is a brave and surreal coda in which a modern black man reads passages from “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and imagines the bloody massacre of a white suburban family.
This review is based on the original theatrical release of Goodbye Uncle Tom (known on DVD as the “English language version”). The version of Uncle Tom reviewed here was taken from Blue Underground’s “Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature Set,” where the disc sits alongside Africa Blood and Guts (Africa Addio) and the Jacopetti/Prosperi documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. The Uncle Tom disc includes about 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by cameraman Giampaolo Lomi. There is also a “Director’s Cut” of the film that takes a more obvious contemporary political stance. This alternate edit of the film cuts out about 30 minutes of plantation scenes, such as the bizarre sequence with a swaddled veterinarian examining newly arrived slaves, and replaces them with then-contemporary footage of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., including footage of black comedian Dick Gregory’s 1968 presidential run. Some consider this to be a more politically relevant, less exploitative presentation of the film. To our knowledge it’s only available in the 8-disc “Mondo Cane Collection” set from Blue Underground (buy), which includes both cuts of Uncle Tom along with Mondo Cane and Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, two different versions of Africa Addio, and The Godfathers of Mondo.
“‘Demonstration as theater,’ because then you got the headlines, and then you made your point. And there was a lot of competition for those headlines then [the 1960s]. So, it was theater as protest, certainly, which is something that, until the Seattle riots recently, kids don’t even know about… They know ‘I have a dream,’ they know Martin Luther King, they know Malcolm X, but they don’t know all that weird stuff… this is like a radical movement against cinema, which there hasn’t ever been one, but [laughs]…”–John Waters, Pink Flamingos commentary
PLOT: Divine, winner of a contest to determine the “filthiest person in the world,” has gone into hiding at a trailer park with her egg-obsessed mother, randy son Crackers, and “traveling companion” Cotton. The Marbles, a couple who make a living by kidnapping women, impregnating them, then selling the babies to lesbian couples for adoption, are jealous of Divine’s title, believing they are filthier specimens of humanity. An escalating war of outrageously foul pranks between the two camps eventually results in arson, murder, and consumption of doggie-doo.
According to John Waters, neither his own parents (who financed Pink Flamingos), nor Divine’s mother, ever saw the movie; in fact, they were “forbidden” to see it.
The film’s budget was $12,000 (about $68,000 in 2014 dollars). It made a reported $6,000,000 in its original run and perhaps an additional $12,000,000 in subsequent video rentals.
The movie is dedicated to Sadie, Katie and Les, the Manson Family names of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten. During the film you can also see graffiti (painted by the crew) reading “free Tex Watson.” Waters says that the Manson Family and their recent trials were a big influence in this “anti-hippie movie for hippies.”
The chicken that was killed during the sex scene between Crackers and Cookie had been bought from a man who was selling them as food, and was cooked and served to the cast afterwards.
Waters wrote a sequel to Pink Flamingos called Flamingos Forever; plans to film it were scrapped due to the reluctance of Divine to reprise the role in middle age and the 1984 death of Edith Massey.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh my. There is a phrase that was coined for images like those in Pink Flamingos: “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” A naked woman covered in fresh chicken blood, a rectal closeup of a curious proctological case study, and of course the film’s grand finale (and reason to exist)—300 pound transvestite Divine using her gullet as a pooper scooper, gagging down dog dirt with a grin—are all candidates. If we want to chose something less nauseating to remember, we can consider the vision of Divine herself (himself? itself?) as the takeaway image, since this is the movie that introduced the iconic drag queen—a character who looks like Elizabeth Taylor during the “Big Mac” years, if her makeup had been designed by a grateful but seriously stoned Ronald McDonald—to the wider world.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About a 300 pound woman (played by a man) living in a trailer who is harassed by a couple of “jealous perverts” because she is anointed “the filthiest person in the world,” Pink Flamingos is a parade of hard-to-swallow, tongue-in-cheek perversities played out in an unreal subculture where society’s values have been turned on their head. It’s the ultimate stoned, amoral underground atrocity, an obscenity shouted at the normal world by angry freaks.