Tag Archives: Recommended

136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

Valerie a Týden Divu

“…one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget.”–Tanya Krzywinska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Helena Anyzova, Jiri Prymek, 

PLOT: Young Valerie lives in a farmhouse on the edge of a small town with her Granny. She flirts with “Eagle,” a boy about her age who is either a neighbor or her brother, and they both fear a pale-faced bogeyman they call “the Weasel.” On the day she becomes a woman (symbolized by blood drops appearing on a daisy), Valerie’s life suddenly becomes a strange dream involving family betrayals, lusty priests, constantly shifting identities, and a vampire infestation.

Still from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Vítězslav Nezval, which was written in 1935 but not published until 1945. Nezval was a co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group (one of the first Surrealist groups organized outside of France).
  • This is considered one of the last works in what was known as the , although that term more commonly refers to Czech movies made or released just before or during the Prague spring of 1968. In contrast to most of the New Wave canon, Valerie was released after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a hardline government who redoubled censorship efforts. Despite the fact that it’s a Surrealist work, equally offensive to the official aesthetic of Socialist Realism as a banned New Wave movie like 1967’s Daisies, Valerie appears to have evoked little objection from the censors. This may be because the film’s heavily anticlerical tone meshed with the Communist Party’s official stance on the Church.
  • A Philadelphia “freak folk” supergroup dubbed “The Valerie Project” wrote an alternate soundtrack to the film, and toured across the U.S. from 2006-2008 performing the score while the film screened as a silent movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Drops of blood on white daisy petals.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is often, and accurately, described as a Freudian version of Alice in Wonderland, with the confusion of new hormones surging through the young heroine’s body coloring her encounters with a dark and fearful tinge: Valerie faces vampires and rapist priests instead of Alice’s White Rabbits and Cheshire Cats. The plot makes no literal sense, because characters keep changing into different characters, the way they might in a dream; but overall Valerie’s welter of wonders hangs together as a mosaic of a girl’s anxieties about impending adutlhood and the enticing but scary world of sex.

Clip from Peter Hames Criterion Collection commentary Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

COMMENTS: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders opens with images of pretty young Valerie drinking from a waterspout, petting a dove, sniffing Continue reading 136. VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)

135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“…[a] spontaneous creation without thought to logic, reason or consequences.”–Richard Elfman on Forbidden Zone

DIRECTED BY: Richard Elfman

FEATURING: , , Marie-Pascale Elfman, Phil Gordon, Matthew Bright (as “Toshiro Baloney”), Viva, Danny Elfman

PLOT: A curious girl wanders into the surreal “Sixth Dimension” located behind a door in her basement. There she encounters all manner of strange creatures and characters, including a lascivious dwarf king and his jealous wife, while her family members and a hapless schoolmate search for her. Numerous silly musical numbers are dispersed through their adventures.

Still from Forbidden Zone (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Forbidden Zone was initially developed as a short film project for the cabaret performance troupe Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which included brothers Richard and Danny Elfman. They wanted to capture the essence of their live performances at their most grandiose; afterwards, their musical style and stage show moved toward a smaller-scale, New Wave sound (at which point they shortened their name to just Oingo Boingo and became especially popular on 80’s comedy soundtracks, but that’s another story).
  • Composer and singer Danny Elfman, who also appears as the Devil, eventually went on to become a highly successful film composer, known especially for his collaborations with .
  • Several of the songs are reworkings of jazz and swing tunes from the 1920’s and 30’s, including songs by Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.
  • Marie-Pascale Elfman, who stars as Frenchy, was married to director Richard Elfman at the time, and also designed the playful sets and backdrops.
  • The violent, rowdy school scenes are inspired by Richard Elfman’s Los Angeles high school, which is located in the same neighborhood where Boyz n the Hood later takes place.
  • Warhol superstar Viva was convinced to play the small role of the Ex-Queen because she was able to write her own lines, which mostly consist of a drawn-out monologue about her imprisonment.
  • Hervé Villechaize was once roommates with co-writer Matthew Bright (who plays siblings Squeezit and René) and had dated his co-star Susan Tyrrell. He helped fund the film through its constant financial woes, and in fact most of the actors fed their paychecks back into the production.
  • The film was met with controversy upon release due to its use of blackface and Jewish stereotypes, but eventually it gained cult status.
  • Richard Elfman has mentioned working on Forbidden Zone 2 since 2005, but nothing concrete has materialized—yet.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A lot of scenes stand out in my mind, especially the musical numbers. While Danny Elfman’s “Squeezit the Moocher” sequence is a personal favorite, Susan Tyrrell’s solo song, “Witch’s Egg,” exemplifies a lot of the film’s visual ingenuity, sexual abandon, and lyrical fun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Between the puzzling storyline, psychedelic sets and animated sequences, frequent gender-bending, old-timey jazz/new wave fusion musical numbers, lighthearted sado-masochism, laughably terrible acting, and strange creatures, it’d be more of a challenge to discuss what’s NOT weird about Forbidden Zone. Its cartoonish visuals, eclectic cast, and memorable musical sequences make for a compelling experience, peppered with utterly bizarre additives throughout.

Short clip from Forbidden Zone

COMMENTS: Opening on a lopsided two-dimensional house, Forbidden Zone‘s prologue explains in text-format that a dealer who stashed his drugs Continue reading 135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry

131. DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! (2012)

“We’ve always had a thing with how people treat little people at Everything Is Terrible!, like it’s really weird and creepy… I think it’s the same thing with humans and dogs. They’re weirdly sexualized, they’re weirdly turned into little kids at the same time. When they’re your best friend it turns into this weird, gross, furry pile where you can’t tell where the lines are between human and dog, master and slave, and sex, and it’s just ugh. In that way it turned out to be perfect, because when you watch The Holy Mountain you’re so confused about the world and you feel icky, but at the same time it’s beautiful. It felt perfect when it was coming together because it was gross but then you put 15 layers of dogs together and be like, ‘I think that’s kind of beautiful.'”–Commodore Gilgamesh on Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Commodore Gilgamesh, Ghoul Skool

FEATURING: None (some recognizable actors and celebrities can be glimpsed in movie clips)

PLOT: This movie is 55 minutes of clips of strange and funny dog clips from movies and videotapes, arranged into a pop-absurdist montage that loosely follows the plot of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s The Holy Mountain. Appropriated scenes range from major motion pictures like Beethoven to direct-to-video instructional manuals on dog massage, with the snippets arranged thematically (dog grooming, dog sex, talking dogs making terrible puns, etc). The editing crew also takes the canine footage and manipulates it into original psychedelic collages to further strengthen the connection to the mystical Mountain.

Still from Doogiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

BACKGROUND:

  • Everything is Terrible! is a consortium that collects strange and funny found footage clips from how-to videos, amateur Christian puppet shows, infomercials, and other video detritus of the past, often transforming the results with simple editing techniques to make it even weirder. Their website has been active since 2007. The members post under pseudonyms and only appear in public wearing fuzzy monster masks (although at Doggiewoggiez live screenings, they appeared in dog masks instead).
  • Everything is Terrible! released two previous full-length compilations of found-footage clips—Everything is Terrible! The Movie and 2Everything2Terrible2: Tokyo Drift—but Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez! was their first themed release and their most conceptually ambitious project.
  • The movie’s extremely modest $2,000 budget was successfully funded via the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter.
  • One source reports the film contains 1500 cuts (which would work out to about one scene every 2 seconds). It took a little over a year to assemble the footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “The Dog Molecule” segment, where we see a puppy puffing on a tiny pipe version of its own head, and the camera pulls back to reveal an identical third pooch puffing on that canine.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Constructing a remake of the flamboyant Surrealist epic The Holy Mountain would be a fool’s errand; there would be no way to out-weird the original. Unless, of course, you remade the self-indulgent spiritual odyssey as a comedy, illustrating the key scenes using found footage from crappy dog videos. Then, you’d be creating a parallel universe of weirdness.

Teaser for Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

COMMENTS: A startling indictment of the indignities desperate Hollywood producers will inflict upon man’s best friend in the name of cheap Continue reading 131. DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! (2012)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF PLEASURES (2011)

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

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Bonello

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

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

Still from House of Pleasures (2011)

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: CHICKEN WITH PLUMS [POULET AUX PRUNES] (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

FEATURING: , , Edouard Baer, Golshifteh Farahani, 

PLOT: A master musician loses the will to live after his prized violin is destroyed, and retires to his deathbed where his story is told through flashbacks mingled with fantasy sequences.

Still from Chicken with Plums [Poulet aux Prunes] (2011)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a movie made up mostly of deathbed hallucinations that includes visits with Socrates, the Angel of Death, and a giant version of Sophia Loren; that’s enough to get it on the weird map. The fact that it’s visually spectacular and delightfully artificial hurts not a bit.

COMMENTS: In the 1950s all doomed, elegant heroes and heroines in the movies smoked, and smoke is a key visual element of Chicken with Plums. Early in the film, master violinist Nasser-Ali reluctantly smokes opium at the insistence of an antiques dealer; later, his dead mother’s soul is so thick that it’s visible as a cloud of smoke hovering over her grave. Stylistically, the film is itself like smoke, wispy and constantly changing. Dream sequences, flashbacks and flash-forwards explore an expansive visual palette, ranging from figures isolated in Expressionist shadows to popup storybook animations. Everything is deliberately stagebound so that even in the “realistic” scenes, the skies are a hand-painted pink and lavender. The most jarring experiment is a moment where the movie suddenly turns into an American-style sitcom, complete with a laugh track; if you can handle that side trip, you’ll be in for the whole ride. Death-seeking Nasser-Ali, played with frowny melancholia by mustachioed Mathieu Amalric, is a selfish character, to be sure, but the more we learn about his backstory the more forgiving we become. We’re never able to absolve him entirely of his decision to abandon life (and his wife and children), but we do feel the weight he bears through his life, and can appreciate his decision as tragedy. Our hearts break the moment his does. Nasser-Ali’s apparently shrewish wife Faringuisse (de Medeiros) stars in an equally tragic subplot, and one of their two children is given an epilogue that generates further despair. It’s all very romantic, but the old, sentimental “love is worth dying for” theme plays believably only in the unreal movie past the film evokes: the formal world of yesteryear where gentlemen always wear ties, ladies wear hats, and everyone blows smoke directly at the camera. Chicken with Plums‘ 1930s-1950s time frame conjures up a comforting antique nostalgia, and the Iranian setting adds exotic spice. Delightfully strange moments include when the hallucinating musician is smothered in giant cleavage, a visitation from a ragged gravesite prophet, and the chilling appearance of the Angel of Death, who drops by not to claim Nasser-Ali’s soul but just to chat a bit and to tell a morbidly ironic story-within-the-story. Like a solo adagio played on an antique instrument, Nasser-Ali’s tale is beautiful and sad. Unabashedly artificial, unashamed to moon over lost loves, and a little aware of the absurdity of its own romanticism, Chicken with Plums hits a unique note: despondent whimsy.

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s first film collaboration was the award-winning animated Persepolis (2007), adapted by Satrapi from her own autobiographical graphic novel. Chicken with Plums is also from a Satrapi comic, and supposedly tells the (obviously embellished) story of a relative of hers. On an unrelated note, this movie reunites and , last seen together in the Certified Weird The Saddest Music in the World.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The many surreal flourishes, like the film’s giant breasts and petals floating through a pink-tinged sky, are supposed to be absolved of cringing obviousness because they’re, you know, poetic and exotic.”–Farran Smith Nehme, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

FEATURING: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, , Karl-Heinz Vosgerau

PLOT: A computer programmer assigned to run a virtual reality world after his superior goes insane finds himself paranoid about the motives of his government bosses, and wonders if someone else might ultimately be behind the project.
Still from World on a Wire (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: World on a Wire is hard science fiction, but with a seriously disorienting edge. On the surface it’s ultra-rational, but it peers into a disintegrating world existing underneath ours, undermining our sense of reality.

COMMENTS: The plot twist of World on a Wire won’t shock modern audiences, but that hardly matters. The movie’s sanity-questioning themes may have been shopworn even in 1973, but rarely have they been delivered with such depth and artistry. Besides, the “big revelation” happens at the end of Part I, the midpoint of this three and a half hour epic, leaving us with another entire movie to develop the consequences. Wire‘s double length provides ample time to explore and flesh out an expansive cast of characters, including two separate love interests for our paranoid protagonist: Eva, the daughter of his deceased superior, and Gloria, his statuesque, almost impossibly blond and voluptuous secretary. The plot sets up computer scientist Fred Stiller as a Socrates figure, running about the virtual agora questioning the nature of reality, raising uncomfortable doubts that are no more welcome in the world of World on a Wire than they were in ancient Athens. The powers that be would like to assure that Stiller meets the same fate as the Greek gadfly, but the scientist isn’t willing to go quietly. The film is visually advanced for television, with arty angles and elaborate 360 degree tracking shots. The wide lapels on plaid sports jackets belie the film’s 1970s origins, but the sets have a gleaming metallic modernism that makes them timeless. Mirrors and distorting lenses are everywhere to reinforce the sense of doubling and reflected realities. Sonically, the movie challenges the audience with abrasive, distressing music queues suggesting a rupturing synthetic reality: sometimes, it sounds like Fassbinder’s recorded a classical orchestra soldiering on while being attacked by an ever-growing swarm of electronic bees, and at other times like he’s scraping a theremin across a chalkboard. Although the visual and audio techniques here express the ontological ambiguity of Stiller’s predicament, a number of subtle and not-so-subtle surreal touches bring across the point as effectively. Most of the performances have a detached and stilted quality, with minor characters found staring out into space blankly when not engaged in direct dialogue. The entertainment venues in this world are genuinely peculiar, including a party at an indoor pool with aquatic male gymnasts, a bar where topless Africans dance to fado ballads, and a shadow-theater cabaret with waiters in whiteface and shirtless chefs. Of course, none of those sequences are as odd as the moment when Stiller asks a woman on the street for a light, and a load of bricks suddenly falls from the sky and buries her. That early sequence, a weirdly blasé tragedy, rates as World‘s strangest scene, but at the time Stiller is too immersed in his own reality to recognize how bizarre it is. He still has another two hours of movie to develop his slow-dawning epiphany about just how weird the world around him has become. It takes time to fully explore this World on a Wire, but the trip down this rabbit hole is well worth it.

World on a Wire was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” which was also adapted by Hollywood in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor. Wire was only broadcast on German television twice and never released theatrically during Fassbinder’s lifetime. The Fassbinder Foundation saved the movie from its undeserved obscurity, restoring the lost classic and releasing it to film festivals in 2010. The Criterion Collection followed with a DVD/Blu-ray release in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The full feature runs close the three and a half hours and is fraught with bizarre formal elements. What separates it from the aforementioned high-concept movies is the utter weirdness that is imbued throughout.”–Zachary Goldbaum, “Brightest Young Things” (theatrical re-release)