Tag Archives: Self-Indulgent

CAPSULE: GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (2014)

Adieu au Language; Goodbye to Language 3D

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Héloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli

PLOT: A squabbling couple who speak in philosophical fragments adopt a stray dog.

Still from Goodbye to Language (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Godard might as well have called this one Film Socialisme 2: This Time, It’s Even More Inscrutably Personal. After a 55 year filmmaking career, Godard has earned the right to amuse himself with indulgent experiments. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

COMMENTS: Random quotes. Snatches of flamenco tunes or classical music. Audio channels switching from side to side, turning on and off. Sudden explosions of abrasive noise. Clips of classic Hollywood movies. Brief slice-of-life episodes from a couple’s love life. Contextless voiceovers declaiming on historical, political and philosophical topics. Clips from the Tour de France in supersaturated color. A dog exploring the woods. Intertitles with words like “language,” “oh” or “la metaphore” flashing onscreen. Mary Shelley composing “Frankenstein” in real time, with an ink pen. No overarching plot, discernible conceit, or visible structure. Godard approaches Adieu au Language like a senior thesis film student, breaking narrative and cinematic rules with the glee of a budding avant-gardist who believes he’s taking cinema into bold new territories no one has yet imagined. But of course, someone has already created the radically fragmented anti-cinema Adieu strives to discover: Godard himself!

Godard’s dog is the third most prominent being (you could not call them “characters”) in the film. I wonder if perhaps Adieu isn’t Godard’s attempt to view the world the way he imagines his dog sees it: a non-linguistic reality where words are just part of the bewildering barrage of nearly incomprehensible sensory information, and the non-food bits are wholly uninteresting.

I should add a caveat: Goodbye to Language was originally released in 3D. Most of us will have to imagine whether viewing the film in pop-out format would have improved it. Since I don’t find this film visually spectacular—and I have never seen any film in my entire life, with the possible exception of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that was improved by the gimmick—I doubt the extra dimension would have made a huge difference to my recommendation.

A former film critic himself, Godard has always deliberately aimed over the heads of ordinary people, making emotionless intellectual art for the theorist elites. I believe that Godard made this movie (at least partially) with the intent to annoy. I’m not sure I am part of the core audience he intends to annoy, but he hits the mark with me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the everyday world is made vivid and strange, rendered in a series of sketches and compositions by an artist with an eccentric and unerring eye.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JAKE SQUARED (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Howard Goldberg

FEATURING: Elias Koteas, Mike Vogel, Kevin Railsback, , , Jane Seymour

PLOT: A director makes a self-indulgent autobiographical movie about his failed love life, and, “Twilight Zone”-style, versions of himself in his teens, thirties and forties show up in unwanted cameos.

Still from Jake Squared (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jake Squared is like 8 1/2 done as a romantic comedy by a Hollywood phony. It’s a little weird, sure, but mostly you just feel embarrassed for the screenwriter.

COMMENTS: 50-year old, semi-successful indie film director Jake Klein is a helpless romantic, as he himself announces to the viewer minutes before kicking out his lead actor so he can perform the hot tub scene with the three bikini-clad bimbos himself. Later, he bemoans the fact that “some people want to deny the poorest children health care and nutrition so the richest people won’t have to pay a few thousand in extra taxes” while doing his morning breaststroke in his backyard pool. It hardly seems possible, for a movie that boasts about its self-awareness and meta-conceits, but Jake Squared doesn’t really seem conscious of these ironies. It expects us to honestly sympathize with the internal struggle of its wealthy, balding, chick-magnet protagonist, this achingly wounded Lothario, while reserving its scorn for humbler targets, like the airheaded aspiring starlet who wants to convert to Judaism to further her show business career.

Jake admits his autobiographical film project is self-indulgent, expecting us to forgive him his self-indulgence because he’s up front about it. But it doesn’t work that way. When is self-indulgent we forgive him not because he’s candid about it, but because the self he is indulging is so fascinating. Jake, on the other hand, is more like a second generation, not-as-funny cross between and Larry David (boasting the same incomprehensible sex appeal with which these writers endow their surrogates). Elias Koteas does a reasonable job as most of the Jakes (unless we were supposed to like the character, in which case even his workmanlike job can’t overcome the script). The acting in general is a high point; landing the trio of Jason Leigh, Madsen and Seymour as potential paramours was a coup, though again, why these women would be fascinated rather than fed-up with Jake’s agonized narcissism is unclear.

Weirdness is not an issue. The opening introduces us to the primary Jake, the dashing twenty-something actor he’s hired to play Jake, and several of his earlier selves wandering around a party, and then switches to new scenes from Jake’s life (being acted by the hunky stand-in) which he views on his cell phone. For further confusion’s sake, the young actor in the cellphone scenes can also see himself in the party scenes. It gets so convoluted that fifteen minutes in, a new character comes in and explains the premise directly to the camera. The problem is that this is a romantic comedy with an unlikable protagonist, no clear love interest (besides himself), and almost no laughs. It was 45 minutes in before I registered my first chuckle, and that was at a visible boom mic (to be fair, it was visible on purpose). Jake Klein isn’t a terrible person, but we should be paid the same rate as a therapist would to listen to him go on and on about his struggles with commitment; we shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Given Jake’s lack of notability, raising him to an exponential power was probably not a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If only Federico Fellini had lived long enough to direct Hot Tub Time Machine, he might have made something like this self-indulgent but agreeably ambitious anti-romcom.”–Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Fosse

FEATURING: Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, ,

PLOT: A pill-popping, womanizing, workaholic choreographer’s hard living leads to a heart attack.

all_that_jazz
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from camp spectacles like Rocky Horror Picture Show, there aren’t many weird musicals. The musical is an inherently square art form. There are, however, frequently surreal dance sequences in musicals (see ), and All That Jazz finishes up with some of the weirdest; it’s not enough to put the movie on the List of the weirdest movies in history, but it’s worth a watch if you swing that way.

COMMENTS: Joe Gideon, the stand-in for director/choreographer Bob Fosse, begins every day with the same routine: a drop of Visine, a shot of Alka-Seltzer, a cigarette smoked in the shower, a Dexie, and finally he’s ready to look in the mirror and announce, “it’s showtime!” The director, who’s in the early stages of planning a major (and scandalously erotic) Broadway musical while simultaneously cutting a movie about a stand-up comic (based on Fosse’s own Lenny Bruce biopic), also finds time to sleep with as many aspiring dancers as possible, down a few Scotches at night, and candidly chat about his life with his only confidant, a hot gauzy angel (the radiant Jessica Lange).

With its confessional premise of a womanizing artist painting a roguish self-portrait with the aid of fantasy, All That Jazz cannot escape comparisons to the iconic artist autobiopic, 8 1/2. Compared to , Bob Fosse is all sheen and surface. Jazz suggests none of the depths of the Italian’s conflicted Catholicism or his weary existentialism. For Fosse, life is just work, sex, speed, repeat. The two films suggest the difference between an obsessive artist, and an obsessive craftsman. On the cool scale, Roy Scheider is no , so it’s difficult to buy the film’s premise that everyone is in his life is charmed into submission by this smug, glib, self-appointed genius, beyond his unquestioned ability to advance their careers. It’s no surprise that Fosse isn’t as interesting as Fellini (how many people who have ever lived are?), but still, as embodied by Scheider and his arrogant Van Dyke, Gideon’s naughty hedonism manages to keep our interest through a somewhat repetitive first two-thirds.

Although the early reels provide entertainment enough to carry us through, Jazz doesn’t really start high-kicking until the heart attack strikes and Gideon’s anesthesia-induced musical fantasies kick in. The finale builds weight from the context of the character building that’s gone before; when the choreographer’s preteen daughter—dressed provocatively in an evening gown with a cigarette holder and fur stole—vamps “you’ll miss me daddy, if you go away,” the effect is touching and ironic, rather than creepy. The fantasy numbers are produced by a chain-smoking Gideon doppelganger who appears beside the bedridden director: “you don’t have any lines here,” he mocks as the invalid tries to mumble through his gas mask to the loved ones passing before his mind’s eye. It arrives at a show-stopping, heart-stopping finale set to the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” (with altered lyrics). A smarmy Ben Vereen, acting like a telethon host, croons and hoofs his way alongside Schneider  in a disco-age Vegas netherworld complete with flashing colored lights, horrible automaton heads in the audience, and dancers dressed like Slim Goodbody. The number is stretched out for ten minutes, with a couple of false climaxes, but it never drags; it may not be the summation of a life’s work, but it is a masterpiece of its type. Emphasisizing seduction and drug abuse over tap dancing and top hats, All That Jazz is a musical that can appeal to people who hate musicals, which is a valuable service for many of us.

In 2014 the Criterion Collection pried the rights to All That Jazz away from 20th Century Fox, turning what was already a pretty good DVD release into a superlative DVD/Blu-ray package.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an uproarious display of brilliance, nerve, dance, maudlin confessions, inside jokes and, especially, ego. It’s a little bit as if Mr. Fosse had invited us to attend his funeral — the wildest show-business sendoff a fellow ever designed for himself — and then appeared at the door to sell tickets and count the house; after all, funerals are only wasted on the dead.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who noted, “It’s pretty weird at times, but I actually don’t know if that is a weirdness inherent to the genre of musicals, or if that film is truly one of a kind.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

181. THE DANCE OF REALITY (2013)

La Danza de Realidad

“I want to make cinema that loses money, cinema that forces me to look for work in other mediums. Filmaking for me is sacred. Films should have a purpose, to open our consciousness.”–Alejandro Jodorowsky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits, Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: Alejandro Jodorowsky is born to Jewish Ukrainian parents in Tocopilla, Chile; his Communist father Jaime models his appearance on his idol Josef Stalin, and his mother Sara only communicates through operatic singing. Jaime decides he must assassinate Ibanez, the fascist dictator of Chile, and eventually becomes the tyrant’s trusted groomsman. Meanwhile, Sara teaches Alejandro religion and how to cope with being a Jewish outcast in a Latin nation with fascist sympathies, while Jaime is captured, tortured, and has a religious conversion before returning to his wife and family.

Still from the Dance of Reality (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • Though clearly fantastical, many of the elements of The Dance of Reality are autobiographical. The film was shot in Tocopilla, Jodorowsky’s childhood home.
  • This was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature film since 1990’s (relatively mainstream) flop The Rainbow Thief. He was 84 years old when Reality was completed.
  • The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune was indirectly responsible for Dance of Reality being made, because it put Jodorowsky in contact with his former producer Michael Seydoux, who put up a million dollars to get the project started.
  • Brontis Jodorowsky is Alejandro’s son; he plays the director’s father in Dance of Reality. (In 1970’s El Topo, Brontis played the son of the mystical gunfighter played by Alejandro). Another of Jodorowsky’s sons, Adan, scored the music, and his wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, did the costumes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Choosing a most memorable image from an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie is like choosing the most important note in a Beethoven symphony. We went with the image (from the film’s finale) that was also selected for the movie’s poster: young Alejandro, dressed in his bright red fireman’s uniform, strides across a dock lined with life-sized black and white cardboard cutouts of Tocapilla’s oddball inhabitants: a fat prostitute, an armless beggar, the tattooed Theosophist. Always one to acknowledge his own artifice, Jodorowsky makes sure that the stagehands are partially visible behind their character shields.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If given his own way, Alejandro Jodorowsky will never make a normal or predictable movie. He certainly does not in this psychosurreal autobiography that features an ocean’s worth of sardines raining on Tocapilla’s shore, a fireman’s emblem that comes to life to suffocate its wearer, and a woman who cures her husband of the plague through her holy urine.


Original trailer for The Dance of Reality

COMMENTS: Mystical moviemaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has always held that cinema is sacred, and weirdophiles and midnight movie cultists have Continue reading 181. THE DANCE OF REALITY (2013)

CAPSULE: THE ROOM (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Tommy Wiseau

FEATURING: Tommy Wiseau, Juliette Danielle, Greg Sestero

PLOT: A trusting banker’s fiancée cheats on him with his best friend.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Room is certainly… um, unusual (actually, more like delusional). While it’s a qualified “must-see” for seekers of the offbeat, it’s more on-the-surface-stupid than deeply, derangedly weird.

Still from The Room (2003)
COMMENTS: When The Room begins it seems like a normal movie. There is a professional-looking spinning “W” logo for Wiseau-Films, competent establishing shots of the Golden Gate bridge and other Frisco landmarks, and an overture that is not conspicuously awful. Then, in the very first scene Tommy Wiseau strides through the door with his long, stringy black hair framing a face that looks like a cadaver shot up with Botox. “Hai babe,” he says in an unplaceable, lilting mutt-Eurotrash accent that seems vaguely French, vaguely Polish. “I haf sumfink for yoo-ooo.” What follows is a soapy melodrama in which universally-beloved paragon-of-benevolence Johnny (Wiseau) is relentlessly betrayed by manipulative, ungrateful fiancée Lisa. That may seem like a pretty slender storyline to try to hang a ninety-minute feature on, and it is. Wiseau the writer is aware of this fact, and so he stuffs the script full of subplots (not to mention three gauzy slow-jam sex scenes in the first half hour alone, complete with a tasteful shot of Wiseau’s bum for the ladies). Lisa’s mother has breast cancer. Lisa accuses Johnny of beating her. Denny, a teenage orphan Johnny is putting through college, has the hots for Lisa. A couple of friends of the unhappy couple break into their apartment to make out, and are discovered by Lisa and her mother. Denny owes money to a drug dealer named Chris-R. Johnny and his friends put on tuxedos and throw around the football until one of them trips and they call the game off. Lisa lies about being pregnant. The problem with these subplots is that they almost all exist only within the scene their introduced in, and are either completely forgotten or never affect the story in any significant way again.

Still, all of this nonsensicality would have resulted in a forgettably awful movie if not for the odd screen presence of Wiseau, whose incongruous anti-charisma adds a layer of perverse fascination. Wiseau looks two decades older than the twenty-something actors who are supposed to be his friends and contemporaries. His miscellaneous accent and his inability to keep his eyes open past half mast already mark him as an odd leading man, but he is also one of the single worst thespians ever to appear onscreen. While the rest of the cast shows soap opera-level acting skills most of the time—except when whipped into histrionics by the discovery that Denny is involved with drugs—Wiseau struggles to match his facial expression and tone of voice to the situation at hand. He laughs at tragic stories, and barely shows any emotion when he’s fuming mad. When he does manage to overreact—as in his infamous “Lisa, you’re tearing me apart!” line—it’s actually surprising that he has somehow nailed the correct emotion, even if he’s failed to convey it believably.

Wiseau scripted himself as a character with no flaws, except for loving too much. The story is obviously based on post-breakup delusions of victimhood, combined with “she’d be sorry if…” passive/aggressive fantasies. Although I hate to play amateur psychologist, Wiseau appears to suffer from a benign form of narcissistic personality disorder, combined with a touch of high-functioning autism. He portrays himself as a lovable victim, but watching The Room, I only felt embarrassed on his behalf (that is, when not breaking up in peals of laughter at his unintentionally inappropriate reactions). Wiseau’s cluelessness seems sad to me, not endearing like lovable naive auteur like . Perhaps this is merely because Wiseau is still with us, and I’ll be fonder of him once he’s passed on.

Co-star Juliette Danielle was only twenty years old and almost literally right off the bus from Texas when she was cast as Wiseau’s conniving love interest. Wide-eyed and excited to be making a movie, the young girl was so humiliated after the film’s disastrous debut and the subsequent jokes made at her expense that she not only retired from acting, but virtually went into hiding for nine years (she’s only recently emerged as a stand-up comic and actress, finally embracing her notoriety). Making a bad movie is all fun and games, until somebody’s career gets ruined.

On a happier note, co-star Greg Sestero wrote a memoir describing the making of The Room and his relationship with Wiseau (much of whose past, including his nationality and the source of the six million dollars he allegedly spent from his own pocket to produce his trashterpiece, remain cloaked in mystery). Rights to the book, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made,” have been purchased by a Hollywood group that includes comedian Seth Rogen and 2014 Weirdcademy Award winner James Franco (who may play Wiseau in the film adaptation).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[Wiseau is] a narcissist nonpareil whose movie makes Vincent Gallo’s ‘The Brown Bunny’ seem the apotheosis of cinematic self-restraint.”–Scott Foundas, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by BLAMbert, who rhapsodized that it was “a disastrous train wreck combining a boring story, ridiculous sets, terrible performances, gratuitous sex scenes, unlikable characters, unresolved subplots, and generally incompetent film-making into a confounding and gooey glob of strange.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DON PEYOTE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Fogler, Michael Canzoniero

FEATURING: Dan Fogler, Kelly Hutchinson, Yang Miller

PLOT: An unemployed pot-smoking graphic novelist takes psychedelic drugs, becomes involved with conspiracy theorists, has a psychotic breakdown, ends up in a mental hospital, and eventually becomes a homeless prophet.

Still from Don Peyote (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST
: Don Peyote is an unapologetic, full-out drug trip movie—and while it’s hard to make a drug trip movie that’s totally boring, it’s even harder to make one that can sustain interest for a full 90 minutes. Psychonauts may be pleased that someone’s finally telling a story from their perspective, but Don Peyote is too chaotic and not entertaining enough to crossover from that demographic.

COMMENTS: A comedy solidly aimed at those who know their ayahuasca from a hole in the ground, Don Peyote is the rare film (nowadays, at least) that’s unabashedly psychedelic; a movie full of characters for whom chugging down a few buttons of hallucinogenic cactus and touring the universe from the comfort of their own skull constitutes a typical boring Friday night at home. If it’s sheer trippiness you’re after, Peyote delivers, with visions of aquatic goddesses, spontaneous folk-rock dance numbers, and guys in demonic bunny suits waiting around every bend. If it’s structured trippiness and insight into life’s great questions you seek, however, go somewhere else, because the all-over-the-cosmos plot has the attention span of an adult-onset ADD patient who has noshed on too many shrooms. If you don’t like what’s happening in Don Peyote, just wait five minutes and soon it will be doing something completely unrelated: hero Warren goes from planning a wedding to conspiracy theorizing to embarking on a vision quest, all while tripping on various esoteric drugs and suffering from spontaneous hallucinations that just might result from underlying schizophrenia. Although almost a decade has supposedly passed by the end of the story, I think the theory that the whole movie is just Warren’s hallucination from smoking a joint laced with wolfsbane he’s handed in the film’s first ten minutes is still in play when the closing credits roll.

Lack of focus is one of the film’s main issues; the other its wishy-washy infatuation with its unappealing central character. Warren is, frankly, what most people would consider a loser, a burnout, but the script doesn’t see him as an object of ridicule. A satire about an aging druggie struggling with the demands of adulthood could have supplied some great laughs, but we are asked to look at this character instead as an everyman (his last name is even “Allman”) in a world gone mad. But how are we supposed to buy, for example, that this perpetually-high career loafer has an attractive, financially-secure fiancée who’s anxious to start a family with him? I mean, I understand that there are some desperate women in Manhattan, but this is a chubby, unemployed grungoid in his 30s who sponges off her, constantly smokes pot out of an apple, and breaks into a rant about the shadow government during pre-marital counseling. Yet we are encouraged to root for Warren, not laugh at him. In the original “Don Quixote,” Cervantes made merciless cruel fun of his deluded title character, but this story treats its main character too gently, more like the Man of la Munchies.

The running subplot about Warren making a documentary about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse draws a link between psychedelic drugs and conspiracy theorism as alternate (if complementary) methods of avoiding reality. The connection between drug-taking and far-out mind-control weirdness also featured in the recent indie thriller The Banshee Chapter, so the conspiracy/psychedelic alliance may be something that’s brewing in the fringe zeitgeist at the moment.

In a nod to the great psychedelic ensemble movies of the late 1960s, like Casino Royale or The Magic Christian (where a Christopher Lee or a Raquel Welch might pop up in a tiny cameo), Don Peyote features a modest parade of hip bit-players: Jay Baruchel as a pot dealer, Topher Grace in an amusing meta-movie role as headliner Fogler’s two-faced agent, Wallace “My Dinner with Andre” Shawn as a cookie-eating psychiatrist, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara driving a cab, cult philosopher delivering a gonzo monologue, and, in the biggest coup, Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway as an I.R.S. agent with full Illuminati intelligence clearance.

Stoners who are already salivating over the trippy trailer will likely find Don Peyote hits the psychedelic sweet spot, especially when employing their favorite substance as a booster. The sober-minded are not as likely to be amused by the light-on-laughs, high-on-goofiness script, but may find some curiosity value in the casting and general rambunctiousness.

Don Peyote debuts May 9 on video-on-demand and starts a limited theatrical run the following week.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…feels like a scholarly acid trip mixed with every paranoid druggie’s worst nightmare, but plays like a story your local weed dealer stumbles through helplessly while you try and force him out of your house.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contemporaneous)

KLAUS KINSKI’S PAGANINI (1989)

Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by . Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film on Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit  to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself . The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.

To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s film is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.

The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.

Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Eucharist to the awaiting, open mouths of nubile catechumens. The composer’s young son (played by Kinski’s own son, Nanhoi) greets the priests and, upon learning their intent of attempting to solicit repentance from the dying composer, Jr. sends them packing. Like Kinski, Paganini obsessively dotes on his son (Nanhoi repaid the affection in 1991, being the only person who attended Klaus’ funeral). Kinski’s Niccolò Paganini has almost no dialogue in the film but he does supply a judicious bit of voice-over: “I am neither young nor handsome. I’m sick and ugly. But when women hear the voice of my violin, they do not hesitate to betray their husbands with me.” To drive that point home, the rest of the film is, essentially, a series of montages: Paganini plays his violin with searing intensity, women masturbate to him, Paganini plays, horses have sex, Paganini plays, crowds throng to him, Paganini plays, upper class society types deem him the devil, Paganini plays, women succumb to orgasmic heights, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in carriages, Paganini plays, underage girls dance, Paganini walks through the streets-alone, silent, internally determined, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in a field of flowers, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex on an actual bed, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini has more uninhibited sex, Paganini composes, Paganini plays, Paganini has even more sex, Paganini helps aspiring young musicians, clerics deem Paganini a rapist of underage girls, Paganini gives to the poor, the ill Paganini comes to increasingly depend on his son, Paganini gets sick and dies. The End.

Still from Paganini (1989)Kinski’s cut of the film is excessively graphic (bordering on pornographic), contemplative, and rapturous. The film itself, like both Paganini and Kinski, is deranged, coarse, impassioned, libidinous, and artfully arresting. Unfortunately, Mya Communications’ very good transfer work is solely reserved for the theatrical cut. Kinski’s versione originale is merely an extra, and that print remains unretouched, leaving the darkly lit interior scenes almost unwatchable. Pier Luigi Santi’s lush cinematography compliments the film’s excellent score of Paganini caprices. In addition to cutting the graphic sex scenes, the theatrical version omits the entire opening sequence with the priests, making an already disjointed film feel even more fragmentary. The dubbing is poor in both versions.The extras are a mixed bag. There is an indispensable, hour-long making of the film documentary, deleted scenes (from both cuts), the original trailer, and a bizarre Cannes press conference. Unfortunately, the cost of the set may require a second mortgage.

It was the theatrical version I saw in a dingy theater upon its release. I was one of ten patrons present. By the time the credits rolled, there were only two of us remaining. I was not sure whether the film was an adventurous masterpiece and/or an “unfilmable mess,” but I do think that any film that inspires eight out of ten people to walk out has to have something going for it.

CAPSULE: TWO TONS OF TURQUOISE TO TAOS TONIGHT (1975)

AKA Moment to Moment; Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos; Jive

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elsie Downey

PLOT: None, although certain strands (such as the idea that someone has been hired to convey

Still from Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975)

two tons of turquoise to Taos tonight) recur throughout this series of brief sketches.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s actually too far out, man; it’s almost an hour of nonsense, but too randomly assembled to be any fun. The individual sketches aren’t carefully composed beforehand and they aren’t allowed to play out to their full potential, resulting in comedy that’s juvenile and ridiculous rather than cleverly absurd.

COMMENTS: If Robert Downey Sr. were James Joyce, then Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight would be his Finnegan’s Wake; the point where he took what had been fertile boundary-pushing experimentation beyond the limits of the audience’s tolerance, and ended up producing something so obscure and esoteric that it was of interest only to the author himself. It’s clear enough what he intended to do: make a movie with no beginning or end, one that existed only “moment to moment” (the film’s original title). The problem is that the individual moments aren’t very good and don’t link up to anything universal; there are too many sections of the film that are just montages of Elsie Downey wearing different outfits, or Downey family home movies that have been spliced into the film at random points. As for the individual bits, there are far too many moments when the actors look like they’re improvising while high as a kite, working without a plan and assuming everything they’re doing is hilarious. An example is the frankfurter scene, where a man and woman are sleeping on a park bench and the fella asks her to fetch him a frankfurter. He repeats the request over and over until she finally leaves the bench, then a couple of youngsters walk over—one of whom can’t say anything but “ri-ight…”—and strike up a nonsense conversation with the bum. The woman comes back sans hot dog and the man asks where his food is; the woman answers, “you’re lucky I got up at all.” Hilarious, right? Well, if you don’t like that one, at least there will be another gag in thirty seconds; the problem is it’s not likely to be any more amusing or interesting than the last bit. There are a few brief moments that shine through the general avant-garde dreck: a game of baseball played by men on horseback, a woman who donates her panties to a hungry man, and conventionally funny exchanges like the man who proclaims “I have a brain tumor,” to which his companion responds “It’s all in your head.” But, after watching a scene where a woman with an eyepatch and a cowboy snort cocaine and giggle inanely at each other’s babbling monologues, you might assume that large parts of this mess are just too autobiographical for comfort. Downey Sr.’s best work came when he had a clearly stated central theme (advertising in Putney Swope, religion in Greaser’s Palace) which he could play off of with his improvisatory absurdist riffs. Set him loose without any sort of structure and he’s like a bebop musician who just assumes that if he ignores the melody he can play the greatest, most out-there free jazz you ever heard. The result may be beautiful to his ears, but most folks will only hear a noise that sounds like a cat with a kazoo taped over his mouth and his tail caught in a blender.

Some of the dozens of investors who put up money to fund Downey’s mad vision and may have later regretted it included Hal Ashby, Norman Lear and Jack Nicholson. Taos was, essentially, Downey’s last experimental film venture; in the 1980s and 90s he would sell out, only to direct some horrible Hollywood flops (like the Mad magazine financed fiasco Up the Academy). Despite the fact that his wife Elsie Downey is featured in almost every scene, and the film basically plays like a love letter to her, the couple divorced the year this was released. Taos was screened at underground venues but understandably never got any real distribution; Downey has continued to tinker with the editing through the years. The version offered on Eclipse’s “Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.” disc is a recent re-edit that cuts 20 minutes off the running time (it’s still too long).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…taps the same welcomed vein of indulgent weirdo gags found in Soderbergh’s ‘Schizopolis’ or Rafelson’s ‘Head’…”–Aaron Hillis, IFC (DVD)

110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

AKA Satyricon; The Degenerates

“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli

PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
  • The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
  • Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
  • Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
  •  was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming.  No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside  the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.


John Landis on the trailer for Fellini Satyricon

COMMENTS: The surviving text of the Satyricon begins with randy bisexual student Encolpio in Continue reading 110. FELLINI SATYRICON (1969)

CAPSULE: FILM SOCIALISME (2010)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Marine Battaggia, Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Gulliver Hecq, Eye Haidara, Élisabeth Vitali

PLOT: Snippets of scenes involving passengers on a cruise ship are followed by a long segment exploring a rural French family who run a gas station; it’s topped off with impressionistic travelogues to Egypt, Palestine, and other locales.

Still from Film Socialisme (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s weird—by way of being random and impenetrable—but it’s also boring.  Really boring.  Had Jean-Luc Godard’s name not been attached, this movie would remain happily unseen by all but a handful of unlucky film festival attendees.

COMMENTS: Jean-Luc Godard has been telling French magazines that “cinema is dead” (though he would say “le cinéma est mort” and translate it as “film    dead.”)  Film Socialisme is the work of an auteur who truly believes that sentiment: it’s a dispassionate, bloodless dissection of moving images.  It offers us actors but no characters, situations but no drama, incidents but no story, ideas but no argument, and challenges but no rewards.  Deliberately obtuse, Film Socialisme sets out to frustrate: the first thing English speakers will notice is that Godard chooses not to fully translate the French dialogue, opting instead to tell the story through what he calls “Navajo English.”  Large portions of the French dialogue are left untranslated, and when the viewer does see subtitles he reads only snatches like “watch    notell    time” and “itshim    wariswar.”  Sometimes the language will switch from French to English or German or Russian, sometimes in the middle of a conversation; one presumes that this provides brief  opportunities for Francophones to enjoy “Navajo French.”  Structurally, Film Socialisme is divided into three chapters.  The first, titled “Des choses comme ça,” takes place aboard a cruise liner and explores fragments of stories from various travelers that don’t appear to add up to anything: a woman is trying to learn to speak cat by watching kitties on her laptop, a couple have a conversation about the Allied landing in North Africa while ignoring an apparently drunk woman Continue reading CAPSULE: FILM SOCIALISME (2010)