Tag Archives: Reommended

162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa; Legend of the Surami Fortress (alternate translation)

“In Ron Holloway’s reverent documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem… an unbowed Paradjanov speaks nonchalantly of being accused of ‘surrealism,’ never pointing out the surreality of a government that views surrealism as a crime.”–Keith Phipps

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze

FEATURING: Leila Alibegashvilli, Sofiko Chiaureli, Zura Kipshidze, Dodo Abashidze, Veriko Andjaparidze

PLOT: On the desolate steppes of Central Asia, a Georgian prince has given slave Durmishkhan his freedom; although he promises to make his fortune and buy her freedom, his lover, Vardo, senses that he will never return. Indeed, in his travels Durmishkhan meets another woman and fathers a child with her, while a bereaved Vardo becomes a celibate fortune teller. Years later, with a Muslim invasion imminent, the czar seeks guidance from Vardo on how to stop the fortress of Suram from collapsing every time his men rebuild it.

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was Sergei Parajanov’s first film after spending 15 years in and out of Soviet prisons on charges ranging from homosexuality, rape, and pornography to bribery and trafficking in religious icons. Many view his persecution as politically motivated. Along with intellectuals and celebrities like , fellow filmmakers , François Truffaut, , , Michelangelo Antonioni, and  all agitated for his release.
  • Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of Parajanov’s major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolved around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) dealt with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress covered the mythology of his native Georgia. Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • Although the movie bears all of Parajanov’s stylistic trademarks, Dodo Abashidze (who also plays the role of Osman-Agha in the film) is credited as co-director, as he is also in Parajanov’s final completed film, Ashik Kerib. Abashidze has no solo directing credits but was a popular actor, and his influence is viewed as a major factor in getting Parajanov released from jail and allowed to return to filmmaking.
  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was based on Georgian folktales which had been turned into a novel by the writer Daniel Chonkadze in the 19th century. The story had been made into a silent film in 1922.
  • The Suram (or Surami) fortress still stands in Georgia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a hard choice indeed: The Legend of Suram Fortress is a work of visual poetry, and picking out a single frame is like picking out the single best line from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Each scene in Suram is a meticulous exercise in staging, pageantry, and costuming. For our representative moment, we’ll chose the ceremony where the peasants pray to St. George to protect them from the (metaphorical Muslim) dragon: costumed worshipers parade by in a line, led by a prancing white horse decorated with silvery tinsel, before a smoky field, while the Saint’s icon appears as a glittering ball of light. The scene is low-tech but beautiful, literally realized with smoke and mirrors. In a movie with such a rigorously realized formalism, almost any other choice of image would be equally indelible.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fans of will likely to groove to the vibe of Sergei Parajanov, recognizing the obsessively arranged compositions and the mysticism that hangs like thick clouds of incense over the film. Rather than taking a wide-angle, pan-theistic view like Jodorowsky, however, Parajanov focuses each of his films narrowly and intently on the legends of a single culture. In Suram Fortress he digs deep to uncover fragmentary narrative relics from ancient Georgia, telling of the legendary foundation of a nation in a confused era when Christianity, Islam and paganism all fought for the hearts of her people. Soaking in a bath of exotic medieval sounds and images, you emerge from the movie feeling Georgia in your bones, while at the same time realizing you know next to nothing about the culture Parajanov simultaneously illuminates and obscures. The visions crumble before your eyes as he builds them.


The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody discusses The Legend of Suram Fortress

COMMENTS: Although there is a (digressive and fractured) story, the essence of The Legend of Suram Fortress is in its astounding visual tableaux: Continue reading 162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Le Fantôme de la Liberté

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Adolfo Celi, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…

COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.

Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.

And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!

As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.

PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.

PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An uproarious summary of Luis Bunuel’s surrealistic concerns… a crazy, subversively funny film about convention-bound characters who have a hard time dealing with sexuality and freedom.”–Michael Scheinfeld, TV Guide

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

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Following the events of Evil Dead II, Ash finds himself flung backwards in time into a medieval land, where his failure to retrieve the Book of the Dead enables evil forces to muster a massive army of stop-motion animated skeletons.

Army of Darkness

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEvil Dead II struggled mightily to obtain its weird credentials, and just barely qualified for its weird badge thanks to the “cabin fever” sequence in the middle portion of the film.  In the third entry of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi distills what he thinks is the popular essence of Evil Dead II, emerging with a concentrated dose mixing ghoulish comedy with a stiff shot of badass working class hero Ash.  Weirdness was discarded as a waste product, although traces remain.

COMMENTS:  The beginning of Army of Darkness rewrites the tale of how Ash came to be recognized as the “Chosen One” at the end of Evil Dead II, but consistent storytelling (along with respect for the laws of physics) has never been a high priority in this series.   Since the  midpoint of the second film, Raimi’s Evil Dead emphasis for the trilogy has been comedy, and Army of Darkness is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish.  As an action/comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness pulls in too many directions to hang together as a story, much less integrate itself with the rest of the series, but the manic energy is a lot of fun, and the film does work on a scene-by-scene basis.  The flick dips into the Three Stooges tribute well even more than Evil Dead II did; in one funny scene, every orifice on Ash’s face is invaded by skeletal fingers from still buried corpses, despite his best defensive maneuvers (our hero never learned from Curly’s mistakes—don’t introduce your tongue as a new target by sticking it out in triumph after successfully blocking the dual finger eye poke).  Gags aside, the comic momentum overwhelming comes from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who has transformed from a much abused punching-bag for macabre forces into an arrogant, wisecracking hero.  Campbell adopts just the right campy, parodic tone when reprising hit action catchphrases like “Groovy” or fresh favorites like “Just me, baby.”   Ash’s overweening, usually unjustified bravado is the comic binding that keeps the scattershot script from blowing away in the wind.  For fans of weirdness, the best bits are the hallucinatory scenes after Ash takes refuge from a shakycam assault inside a windmill: for unexplained reasons, he ends up by menaced by a gang of tiny Ashes in a “Gulliver’s Travels” parody, then sprouts an Evil Ash from his shoulder.  These scenes take place at approximately the same stage in the movie as the “cabin fever” sequences did in Evil Dead II, and may have been intended as one of the many, many nods to the previous film.  Another high point is the army of stop motion animated skeletons (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen).  Each member of the bony horde is brilliantly individualized and detailed; particularly striking is the martial band, beating drums made from skulls and playing flutes fashioned from arm bones.   Overall, Army of Darkness is a worthy, if commodified and popularized, sequel, and a solid roller coaster for fans of fantastic film who aren’t hung up on logic.

Army of Darkness was the transitional film for Raimi between campy experimental films like Crimewave and Evil Dead II and purely commercial fare such as the Spider-Man series.  The large scale battle and professional action scenes in Army seem almost like audition reels for making a Major Motion Picture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy, hyperventilated send-up of horror films and medieval warfare, so action-packed it sometimes seems less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)