Tag Archives: Satire

BORDERLINE WEIRD: VISITOR Q [Bijitâ Q] (2001)

Due to popular demand, Visitor Q has been re-evaluated and certified weird, and the review has been updated to a full entry. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.

DIRECTED BY: Takashi Miike

FEATURING: Ken’ichi Endô, Shungiku Uchida, Kazushi Watanabe, Jun Mutô, Fujiko

PLOT: A bizarrely dysfunctional Japanese family—dad is a TV reporter on haitus after

Still from Visitor Q (2001)

being sodomized by interviewees on camera, mom is a heroin addict and part-time hooker, son is bullied at school and beats his mother at home—becomes even stranger and more antisocial after a mysterious stranger shows up in their home.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It’s bizarre indeed, but Visitor Q is more interested in grossing out its viewers than it is in weirding them out.  It’s more a shock movie that’s incidentally weird than a weird movie that happens to be shocking.  The film doesn’t lack for surreality, or its own peculiar kind of quality within its type, but it seems to fit more comfortably into the shock genre than the weird genre.

COMMENTS:  Watching Visitor Q, I found myself wishing Miike had the courage to make the hardcore porn fetish movie that he really wanted to make, instead of pulling his punches by wrapping the psychological nudity in gauzily transparent strips of art and satire.  After all, the movie’s prime showpieces are father-daughter for-pay incest, sodomy by microphone, insanely copious lactation, rape, and necrophilia, all shown with as pornographic a level of explicitness as Miike could get away with (there is genital fogging, though unfortunately in a key scene there is no anal fogging).  In a virtually unshockable age, it would have been truly audacious for the bad-boy director to make an out-and-out porn film without artistic pretensions; as it is, by sprinkling his fetish video with a little redeeming surrealism, all Miike risked with the project was being hailed as the Japanese Passolini.

Visitor Q doesn’t lack either for weirdness or technical quality.  Starting with the latter, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: VISITOR Q [Bijitâ Q] (2001)

CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

DIRECTED BYJames Felix McKenney

FEATURING: Don Wood, Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, Debbie Rochon, Michael Berryman, Larry Fessenden

PLOT: In this re-imagining of the “Christ-sploitation” films shown in churches and

Still from Satan Hates You (2009)

probably a few Southern gynecologists’ offices of the 60s and 70s, we follow a young man and woman who make all the wrong choices in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and rock music while unknowingly under the influence of two demonic imps.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Satan Hates You, while initially very jarring in its lack of self-explanation, is a satisfying experience in terms of its Troma-esque shock horror and its acute satirical edge.  But its freaky imagery leans too often on a bland naturalistic style that mars its individuality and chokes the weirdness out of the movie.

COMMENTS: Satan Hates You is a very hard film to place.  Being a satire, a dark comedy, and a horror film is no ordinary pedigree, and Satan Hates You maniacally shifts from one of these genres to the next every few minutes.  It is a wicked send-up of those fear-mongering Christian PSA films that pop into existence every generation about the dangers of doing ungodly things like having abortions and doing drugs.  But it honestly doesn’t hit you that way when you watch it if you don’t do your research.  The first time watching it, I felt this to just be a dark, meandering horror-comedy about two idiots who make a lot of bad choices.  Director James Felix McKenney doesn’t really go out of his way to make this idea pop out at the audience with staples of the “Christ-sploitation” genre, like cheesy acting, an oversimplification of right and wrong, and loads of self-righteous condemnation.  We are instead tossed quite objectively into these people’s lives, full of sex, murder, and self-sabotage, and don’t get dropped many hints that we’re supposed to be in on a joke.

Once one understands the idea, everything falls into place a little more, and it does Continue reading CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

44. GREASER’S PALACE (1972)

Recommended

SEAWEEDHEAD GREASER: Coo Coo.  I wish I could put my arms around each and every one of them, and let them know that everything is going to be okay.

COO COO: Why don’t you, Sea?

SEAWEEDHEAD GREASER: I’m not bizarre enough.

COO COO: Who is?

–dialogue from Greaser’s Palace

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alan Arbus, Albert Henderson, Michael Sullivan,

PLOT: Perpetually constipated Seaweedhead Greaser and his gang of hired guns run a small Western village in the middle of the desert. One day Jessy, a mild-mannered hispter in a zoot suit, parachutes into the nearby countryside. Jessy, who is traveling to Jerusalem to become an actor/singer, stops in town to walk on water, repeatedly resurrect Greaser’s son Lamy Homo after Greaser has him killed, and do a boogie-woogie song and dance number before winding up crucified.

Still from Greaser's Palace (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • Director Robert Downey began his filmmaking career in the early 1960s with a series of low-budget, absurdist short films that gained him a devoted following. His 1969 advertising/race relations satire Putney Swope brought him the adoration of the hippie counterculture. Greaser’s Palace is his only big-budget production, made with $1,000,000 invested by an independently wealthy Broadway producer.
  • Downey’s son is the now-famous actor Robert Downey Jr.; the younger Downey appears, uncredited, as a child in this movie.
  • The credits to this film begin to scroll before the movie starts instead of afterward, and many of them are illegible.
  • The topless, mute Indian girl is none other than Toni Basil, who later went on to fame with her gratingly catchy 1982 pop single “Mickey.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jessy, still in his striped suit and white gloves and shoes, crucified, with his pink and lavender hat perched atop the cross.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Set in a barren town in the old West, Greaser’s Palace is a series of bizarre sketches which run a gamut from arid comedy to hints of disturbing perversion. These absurd anecdotes hang off a storyline that loosely and enigmatically follows the outline of the New Testament. In a movie where the Holy Ghost appears as a cigar-smoking man wearing a bedsheet with eyeholes cut in it and a black stetson, whether the movie is weird or not is the last question you’re likely to be asking yourself.

Clip from Greaser’s Palace

COMMENTS: A man leaning on a crutch waits for the “messiah” to come and heal him. Continue reading 44. GREASER’S PALACE (1972)

CAPSULE: MR. SADMAN (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Patrick Epino

FEATURING: Al No’mani, Scott McNairy, Rudy Ramos

PLOT: When he’s scarred in an assassination attempt on the eve of the Kuwait invasion, a mute Saddam Hussein body double with no skills or interests beyond impersonating the Iraqi dictator loses his job and moves to Los Angeles to start his life over.

Still from Mr. Sadman (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  More quirky than weird.  There are some offbeat montages, including a nutty but oddly appropriate music video stuck into the middle of the film, but not enough to elevate it to true weirdness.

COMMENTS: No doubt about it, it’s Al No’mani’s airy and amiable performance as Saddam Hussein impersonator Mounir that keeps Mr. Sadman, a low-key indie comedy with an inventive premise but not quite enough laughs or plot, afloat. No’mani is the requisite dead-ringer for the fascist dictator. But more importantly, with his arsenal of friendly, vulnerable, quizzical, and despondent expressions, Iraqi-born No’mani (who died soon after filming was complete) invests his silent character with a surprising amount of humanity, turning him into something like an unhinged but harmless and sweet uncle for whom the audience roots. It was a gamble to make Mounir mute, but it pays off; the handicap gives the character an unexpected everyman aura that makes his sparse backstory irrelevant. The film features some mild satirizing of the subculture of struggling L.A. actors and technicians trying to break into the Hollywood film industry; there’s a deeper warning about the absurdity of forging our own identities by emulating celebrities, but there’s no preaching. The message is implicit in the plot. The script scores occasional chuckles, particularly with a pair of pot-smoking Hollywood wannabes whose minds get blown when Mounir walks past them at a party as they’re watching Saddam on CNN, and a scene where the middle-aged Iraqi plays basketball with some homeboys. There are also a few groaners: Mounir’s antagonists are FBI Agents Wang and Johnson (a couple of dicks, get it?) True to the title, there is an undercurrent of melancholy, and Sadman is indebted as much to the classic alienation films of the late 1960s and early 1970s as it is to contemporary quirky indies. There’s an explicit citation to Taxi Driver, an obvious tribute to The Graduate, and scenes of a man-child in a ridiculous costume strolling down city streets oblivious to urban reactions can’t help but bring to mind Midnight Cowboy. The spirits of light comedy and despairing loneliness  sometimes mix uneasily—and the laughs are largely jettisoned by the finale—but for the most part, it works okay. The cinematography, music and editing are all professional. The script requires some leaps of faith: for example, I wasn’t convinced Mounir’s new-found Hollywood buddies would risk jail time to protect him from the FBI. With the exception of No’mani and Rudy Ramos as a hotel operator, the performances are spotty. But the Iraqi’s expressive facial acting lifts the film to something that, while uneven, is often touching.

As appears to be increasingly the case in a movie business convinced its customers are demanding fewer alternatives to repetitive Hollywood fare, Mr. Sadman has not found a distributor. The director is currently self-promoting the picture, and it can be downloaded for $8 from the Mr. Sadman site. The picture quality of the download is good, and I had no problem burning it to a standard DVD+RW for viewing on my television screen (individual results may vary).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fair warning: watching Mr. Sadman does require the viewer to suspend one’s disbelief entirely… [but] Ultimately, Mr. Sadman delivers what it promises: presenting a dark comedy about the face of evil who just wants to be loved.”–Jaimie Mendoza, Asia Pacific Arts (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST (1979)

DIRECTED BY: Rod Hardy

FEATURING: Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Max Phipps, Henry Silva, Rod Mullinar

PLOT: A direct descendant of Elizabeth Bathory is kidnapped by vampires who want to make her one of their own.

Still from Thirst (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Thirst has an offbeat plot for a vampire movie, it doesn’t go that extra mile to make itself stick out from the bloodsucking crowd.

COMMENTS: All that charming and wealthy Kate Davis (Contouri) wants to do is live happily ever after with her handsome boyfriend.  Unfortunately, unbeknown to her, she is a direct lineal descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  You remember Liz, she was that Hungarian rich chick who drank and bathed in 600 or more gallons of blood from 600 or more beautiful young women in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.

I might mention that Liz Bathory also sodomized the comely maidens first, then partially ate some of them alive, before torturing and murdering them and drinking, bathing, and masturbating in their blood.  But then gee golly gosh, what’s a bored aristocratic gal supposed to do for fun in the darned old dark and dusty 1500’s anyway?

So it turns out that there are 70,000 well networked, politically powerful vampires in the modern world, and some of them come from equally distinguished aristocratic families.  Unfortunately for poor Kate, a member of one wants to marry her, and probably do a few other things to her that we won’t go into here; suffice it to say that the hapless and desirable Kate is snatched away to a vampire “resort.” While there, she will become indoctrinated into vampire culture, get hitched, and.. and well, I suspect “get” other things as well, seeing as how her vamp suitor has been watching surreptitiously-filmed home movies of Kate getting her groove worked over by her boyfriend.

The resort also happens to be a human blood farm.  Kidnapped, tranquilized mortals are put out to pasture and herded in a couple of times a week to be “milked” for, you guessed it, rich, red, raw human blood!  They are referred to as “blood cows,” and they are drained of a pint or so each time via the latest technology in a huge row of sanitary stalls.  They don’t appear to be very happy about it either, but then that’s a good incentive to unionize.

The vampires hook a “direct-to-line vacuum pulsator” (dairy speak for the milking machine hose terminal that is supposed to fit around a cow’s udder) right into the helpless humans’ jugulars.  They then suck, pump, filter, pasteurize, homogenize, inspect and certify the blood as safe, just like at a real dairy (hey, vampires have a right to protect themselves from hepatitis too, you know).

Then, presto. They distribute the human Clamato juice world-wide in conventional milk cartons.  Makes you thirsty just thinking about it, huh?  It turns out that the facility gives consumer tours and everything.  It also has some nice amenities such as swimming pools, racket ball courts, and booze kiosks (vamps only!)  Unfortunately for Kate, since she’s on a special diet, the program for her consists of involuntary drug-induced hallucinations, coercive brainwashing and blood force-feeding, just to get her in the mood for her wedding night.

It works!  Well, sort of.  The problem is that the plan, like most in these hemoglobin flicks, doesn’t go very smoothly.  In fact after some initial difficulties, then apparent success, it blows up right in everyone’s faces with gruesome and disturbing results.  This is a solid Australian film and one of the best vampire movies from the 1970’s that I have seen so far.  If you like odd and twisted cinema, or hot and heavy bloodsucking action, I give it four and half stakes through the heart out of five.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the quirkier horror films in recent history… The movie comes off as one long dream sequence (which it is, as Kate goes through a long programming session) — it’s mood music for the eyes, and bloody music at that.”–Christopher Null, AMC Film Critic (DVD)

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes

FEATURING: , Dina Korzun, David Strathairn

PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…

Still from Cold Souls (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City.  It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it.  It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.

COMMENTSCold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay.  It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.

Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.

Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at leastCold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.

Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: VISIONEERS (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jared Drake

FEATURING: Zach Galifianakis, , Mía Maestro, Missi Pyle, Chris Coppola

PLOT: Repressed corporate employees the world over are literally bursting apart from frustration. Innocuous worker George Winsterhammerman must deal with his huge corporate employer’s misguided and demeaning attempts to remedy the malady. But could the source of the problem be the perpetual brain-numbing proselytizing of the very corporations themselves?

Still from Visioneers (2008)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Visioneers is an unconventional metaphor about the illogic of artificial business and social constructs.

COMMENTS: Set in the not so distant future, Visioneers is a satirical black comedy about the absurdity of corporate culture, futile optimism, and the ridiculous nature of self-help schemes. George Washington Winsterhammerman works for the fictitious Jeffers Corporation, a giant corporate bureaucracy. His mid-level workaday job is mundane and unfulfilling. The PA system bombards him hourly with optimistic corporate pep talk encouraging productivity.

Everything is business as usual until George and his personal office staff are made aware that around the world, people are spontaneously exploding—literally. The root of the problem stems from lives of quiet desperation and repression. It seems that everywhere, people are being forced to pay lip service to falsely optimistic corporate culture and to suppress human emotion and rational thought.

The constant denial of emotions, the enforced phony business visages, and the frustration of coping with senseless bureaucracies takes its toll. The pent-up stress and officially-enforced anal-retentiveness is causing employees everywhere to literally burst apart into a spray of atomized blood and body parts as surely as if a fuse had been lit to a rectally embedded stick of dynamite. The Jeffers Corporation frantically imposes an endless series of misguided remedies, accompanying them with futile reassurances and encouragement not to explode.

Meanwhile, George has his own worries to deal with. He and his wife are unhappy, he struggles with impotence, his ex-convict, whackjob brother founds a freedom-of-expression movement in George’s backyard, and George worries that he too will explode under all of the confusion and pressure. His employer and physician instruct him to relieve stress via a cascade of absurd quack remedies and bizarre devices, such as a “happiness hat” that comes equipped with a mobile of the solar system. Try as he might, George cannot make any of these remedies reduce his anxiety.  Finally, George has to confront the question of whether or not a lifestyle of mindless productivity, absurd Orwellian bureaucracy, and smiley-faced denial actually provides a positive, substantially meaningful conduit to reality and the human condition.

In the way it addresses the effect of irrational propaganda on the human psyche, Visioneers is reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” with human explosions stemming from modern workplace dogma replacing rhino metamorphosis from political indoctrination.

Visioneers furnishes an effective metaphor for the artificial constructs of the modern world. The film is very funny until it misses its chance to top its premise near the end, when it changes into a personal triumph of self-actualization for the protagonist. With great irony, Visioneers becomes the very thing that it condemns and satirizes; a sort of inspirational icon, akin to the posters on your bosses’ walls with the motivational messages printed at the bottom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…gently absurdist… quirky satire wears its influences on its dystopian sleeve, but an amiable cast and some surprising poignancy add up to Orwell that ends well.”–Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

“The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what’s most important, on a dreamlike psychological-symbolic level.”–Stanley Kubrick

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee

PLOT:  Alex is the leader of a small gang of violent, thrill-seeking youths in England sometime in the indefinite near future.  After a home invasion goes bad, his “droogs” betray him and his victim dies, and he is sent to prison.  The government selects him to undergo experimental Pavlovian conditioning that makes him violently ill when he becomes aggressive, then releases him onto the streets as a “reformed” criminal, only to find he is helpless to defend himself when he encounters his vengeful former victims.

Still from A Clockwork Orange (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Clockwork Orange is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess.  Burgess was ultimately unhappy with this treatment of his novel, because in his intended ending for the story, Alex voluntarily reformed.  This final chapter of redemption had been excluded from American prints of the novel—the version Kubrick worked worked from—at the request of the American publisher.  Kubrick’s version ends with evil triumphant.  Although Kubrick had not read the final chapter of the novel before beginning the film, he later stated in interviews that he would not have included the happy ending anyway because he thought it rang false.
  • The title—which is not explained in the movie, only glimpsed briefly as a line of text on a typewritten page—comes from an expression Burgess overheard in a bar, “as queer as a clockwork orange.”
  • Burgess created the elaborate fictional jargon Alex uses by mixing elements of Russian and Slavic languages with Cockney slang.  Much of his original dialogue found its way into the movie.
  • A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s next project after his previous weird masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It was also young star Malcolm McDowell’s first feature role after starring in a 1968 weird film, Lindsay Anderson’s If…
  • A Clockwork Orange was the first movie to use Dolby sound.
  • The movie was released in the United States with an “X” rating, and was later cut slightly and re-released in 1973 with an “R” rating.
  • The film was blamed for several copycat crimes in Britain and Europe, notably, a gang rape in which the rapists sang “Singin’ in the Rain” during the assualt.  Kubrick, an American who lived in the United Kingdom, was also reportedly stalked by some deranged fans of the film.  For these reasons, Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from distribution in Britain, both from live screenings and on video.  The self-imposed ban lasted until Kubrick’s death.

INDELIBLE IMAGEA Clockwork Orange filled with as many iconic images as any film of the last fifty years.  Scenes like the one where Alex and his costumed droogs walk cockily through a deserted city in slow motion have consciously or unconsciously been copied many times (compare the similar slo-mo shot of the uniformed gangsters emerging from their breakfast meeting in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs).  Probably the most instantly recognizable image is the opening closeup of Alex’s sneering face, wearing a huge false eyelash one one eye only.  I selected another memorable Malcolm McDowell closeup, the one of Alex as he’s undergoing the Ludovico technique, with wires and transistors attached to his head and metal clamps forcibly holding his eyes open so he cannot look away from the violent images on the screen, because it works as a perfect ironic metaphor for a film we cannot tear our eyes away from.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although the plot is simple, and realistic in its own speculative

Original trailer for A Clockwork Orange

way, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is so hyper-stylized with its bizarre poetic language, sets, costumes, music, broadly exaggerated performances, and the improbable karmic symmetry of the plot that it seems to take place in a dream world or a subconscious realm.  The action, which takes the form of an ambiguous moral fable, occurs in an urban landscape that’s familiar, but fabulously twisted just beyond our expectations.

COMMENTSA Clockwork Orange did not have to be weird.  The story could have been Continue reading 30. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)

AKA It Happened in Your Neighborhood

DIRECTED BY: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde

FEATURING: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux

PLOT:  A documentary crew follows a serial killer around on his daily rounds, becoming more and more complicit in his crimes as he slowly charms them, and eventually finances completion of the film with the money he steals from his victims.

man_bites_dog

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTMan Bites Dog starts with an absurd premise, that a camera crew would follow a serial killer around nonjudgmentally documenting his crimes, and follows that bizarre idea to its illogical conclusion. Once the concept is established, however, the film goes about its business with a stark realism that only rarely strays into absurd territory. The movie’s black humor and ironic celebration of violence don’t set out to give us a weird feeling; they are an intellectual attempt to disturb us, morally.

COMMENTS: Even though Man Bites Dog ultimately misses its satirical target, there is a lot to admire in the craft behind this experimental expedition from three Belgian student filmmakers.  Chief among them is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer (also named Benoît). Poelvoorde inhabits the role with a cocky, credible naturalism that suggests he is playing himself, if only he made his living by killing old ladies and postmen for a handful of francs at a time.  As the subject of the documentary, the character of Benoît is fascinating, even when he’s not pumping bullets into a body.  He has the soul of a bad poet; a would be philosopher, he takes time to notice and pontificate on the finer things in life.   He’s capable of pausing in the middle of stalking a victim to notice some amorous doves, and discourse to the camera in hushed but knowledgeable tones about avian mating habits before resuming his hunt.  He’s also casually racist and homophobic, kind to his parents and girlfriend, constantly aware of the camera’s location and visibly anxious to make sure that it is always pointed in his direction.  He’s shamelessly unafraid to be captured on film, either killing or vomiting up a mix of wine and bad mussels, so long as he’s the center of attention.  Without such a strong, guiltily charming characterization centering the film, the extreme violence and cruelty of  Benoît’s rape and killing sprees would be unpardonable.

The film, ostensibly a black comedy, also has some very funny moments: Benoît is ambushed by a rival killer, only to find, after he dispatches him in a shootout, that his latest victim also had a camera crew following him around.  The juxtaposition between Benoît’s amiable public personality, exemplified in a conversation with his grandpa about the time the old man sold a sucker a department store-bought pair of panties claiming they belonged to Brigitte Bardot, and scenes where he discourses in a drolly businesslike manner about the various ballast ratios needed to sink bodies of adults, children and midgets, also provides an undercurrent of fun.  But unfortunately, although there are a few gems, most of the way the gags fail badly to find the correct balance between darkness and comedy, leaning much too far towards the former.  Most people find the child snuffing and gang rape/murder scene particularly, and needlessly, vile, but the Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)